Mark L. Hopkins: This Flag Day, remember the riveting history of the National Anthem
June 14 each year is set aside as Flag Day in the United States. There are many stories written about our flag, but none could rival the drama of Francis Scott Key’s writing of the poem that became our National Anthem. It was about the battle for Ft. McHenry in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812. Our flag played a prominent role in the story he told.
Key was a young lawyer living in Georgetown just outside of Washington, D.C., during that fateful time when the War of 1812 began. Earlier that year the British had sailed up the Potomac River, captured Washington and burned the Capitol and the White House. President Madison and his cabinet barely escaped to a safer location.
After the capture of Washington, the British focused their attacks on the neighboring city of Baltimore. Word reached Francis Scott Key that a much-loved physician, Dr. William Beanes, had been carried off by the British. They were holding him on the British flagship Tonnant, and there was great fear that the British would hang the elder doctor. The townspeople asked the young attorney for his help in negotiating Dr. Beanes’ release.
Key and a friend, John Skinner, went to the Tonnant under a flag of truce and secured the release of the beloved doctor. However, the British, then engaged in an attack on Ft. McHenry, forced them to stay on board the British ship while the battle raged through the night.
The attack on the fort continued for 25 hours. The night sky seemed ablaze with rockets flying through the air and bombs bursting in the distance across the walls of the fort. Key and Skinner knew that as long as the night sky was lit up and the sounds of explosions filled the air, the fort had not surrendered.
Being an amateur poet, Key began to write. With the motivation of the battle raging in the distance and the growing anxiety about the fate of the fort and the soldiers inside, the verses poured out of him. Finally, in the predawn darkness, the rockets stopped. The silence could mean only one thing — the battle was over. But,did the fort fall to the British or was it still standing?
Key and Skinner stood at the ships rail and strained in the darkness to see across the ramparts if the flag of their fledgling country was still flying. Finally, as dawn began to break, they could make out the movement of the flag with the stars and stripes waving in the wind.
Key’s poetic inspiration continued as a boat took the three, Key, Skinner and Dr. Beane, back to shore. He finished his last line in a hotel later in the day, and the rest is history. Key’s poem, titled “The Defense of Fort McHenry,” appeared in newspapers as far away as Georgia and New Hampshire. Not long after the poem was first published, Ferdinand Durang, a stage actor in Baltimore, applied the tune of a song of the time titled “Anacreon in Heaven” to the poem. In its first public presentation as a song he gave it the name “The Star Spangled Banner.”
The song was a favorite for civic and military occasions for a hundred years until, in 1931, it was adopted by Congress as our National Anthem. Francis Scott Key’s original poem had eight sections each with four lines. We won’t reprint all of it here, but the last section is worthy of note when one considers the United States of America in 2015.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
and this be our motto: “In God is our trust”
and the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
The next time you sing the words to that hallowed anthem remember its context and see if the words have new meaning for you.
Dr. Mark L. Hopkins writes for More Content Now and Scripps Newspapers. He is past president of colleges and universities in four states and currently serves as executive director of a higher-education consulting service. You will find Hopkins’ latest book, “Journey to Gettysburg,” on Amazon.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.