He awoke from his slumber in a startle, angry he had succumbed. A few hours before fatigue had finally claimed his vigil on deck of the ship. Before he knew it he had coiled up next to a stack of ropes and faded away. The sound of the bombs exploding near him had slowly drifted away like distant thunder. Quickly he jumped up, wiped the night’s sleep from his tired eyes and staggered to the front of the ship. He gazed outward squinting from the rising sun. At first he could see nothing for all the smoke still hanging in the air. The night had been a hellish bombardment of continuous shelling. The sun began to disperse the thick blue-grey smoke that gave the sea a haunting scene like fog rising from a cemetery. Had the fort held? If only he had a looking glass. Turning towards the captain’s quarters he thought about asking for one but after-all he was virtually a prisoner. Looking back towards the shore in the distant haze he could barely make out colors from atop the fort. This was the moment of truth. His whole body tightened and he balled up his fist cursing the smoke. Whose flag was it? If only the smoke would clear. He whispered under his breath. “Move now! I must see!” Suddenly as if obeying his command a sea breeze removed the ghost like obstacle and there it was a miracle, the fort had held. Crumpling to the deck the young man began to cry with relieved joy.
The story continued with the young man taking out an old letter from his pocket and composing a poem on the back. It began, “Oh say can you see by the dawns early light…” Francis Scott Key later wrote five copies of this poem that would become our national anthem. Four of those copies have been found but one is still missing.
The task before him seemed daunting. He scratched his gray hair as he walked through a maze of stacked papers and relics donated by anonymous persons. Starting a veteran’s museum in Laurel was his passion but he knew it would require a lot of time and work but he was up for the task. Taking his seat by a stack of old newspapers he began to rummage through each one looking for pieces of history to display in the future museum. His eyes scrolled through each headline. Many read, “Pearl Harbor Bombed.” Others told of the surrender of the Nazis and of V-J Day. It was all good stuff but he was looking for something unique. While unfolding another newspaper to inspect, an old letter fell from its worn pages. As it floated to the floor he knew there was something different about this piece of paper. It was older than the others around him and as he picked it up he felt the brittleness of the stationary. He carefully placed it on the table in front of him as if putting a baby into its crib. Leaning over it, he squinted at the faded scribbled writing. Needing more light he placed a desk lamp directly over the letter. An exhilaration ran through his whole body as he read the first line, “OH say can you see by the dawn’s early light…” His eyes quickly ran to the bottom of the page that bore the signature of its author, F. Scott Key.
Our country’s national anthem was birthed during the War of 1812 probably one of the least known of all American wars but perhaps the most important. It was this war that proved the mettle of our nation and gave it military legitimacy. But perhaps the biggest impact of that war was the patriotic fever it created bringing a divided America together again to fight a “second war of independence.” The causes of that war are convoluted and somewhat confusing. British ships were stopping American sailors on the high seas and impressing them into service. Other problems had existed between England and the young United States for some time. Great Britain was blamed for stirring up Native Americans against settlers on the western frontier. Tensions between these countries festered over these and other issues until finally on June 18, 1812 the first shots were fired between British troops and America militia. During the early days of the war America enjoyed many victories but that would change when England’s war with France’s Napoleon ended and the British put all their energy into taking back the American colonies taken from them in 1781. The War of 1812 is filled with interesting historical tidbits and birthed some American icons the most famous being Andrew Jackson. He’s remembered for rallying the troops at New Orleans to whip the British one last time. When the fighting was over the Red Coats had lost one thousand soldiers the Americans only sixty. That battle inspired another song “The Battle of New Orleans” made famous by Johnny Horton in 19??. Interestingly Jackson’s victory over the British at New Orleans happened after the war was over. A treaty had just been signed between the warring nations a few weeks before the battle. Nineteenth century communications would not allow the news of the treaty to reach New Orleans in time.
The U.S. had its proud moments during the War of 1812 some during the darkest days of the conflict. One was the burning of Washington D.C. on August 14, 1814. From this story we learn of the brave Dolly Madison, wife of President James Madison, who risked her life saving an early portrait of George Washington and other relics from the White House before British troops burned it to the ground. The Red Coats were literally marching down Penn. Ave. when the first lady barely escaped with the precious items. Her bravery and decorum under such pressure revealed the fighting spirit of many American women. Also remembered is the miraculous thunder storm that doused the flames that burned the nation’s capital that horrible night. The storm was so bad it put the British on the run forcing them to retreat from the smoldering city the next day. It seemed the hand of God had intervened on behalf of the United States. The Red Coats next target was Baltimore, Maryland and here our national anthem would be written.
Fort McHenry was built upon a small peninsula that jutted out into Baltimore Harbor. This fort was built after the American Revolution and was constructed in a star shape with a deep moat built around it. It was built as a bastion to protect the important Port of Baltimore. The morning of September 13, 1814 would be the great test for this fort as British ships in the Chesapeake Bay began a twenty-five hour bombardment of its defenses. Out in the bay on a ship was the lawyer and poet Francis Scott Key who the day before had negotiated for the release of a civilian prisoner. While having dinner with the captain the evening before, Scott heard about the plans to bomb Fort McHenry and was detained on a truce ship until the next morning. It was from that ship that Key would see the huge American flag waving triumphantly over the fort the next day. The flag that inspired Key’s poem was sown by a Baltimore flag maker named Mary Pickersgill. She was paid by the U.S. government to sow two flags totaling $574.44. With hired help, it took six weeks to sow the flags. The smaller one known as a storm flag was the actual flag that flew over the fort that night. The next morning they raised the big one, the garrison flag. It measured about one fourth the size of a basketball court and could be seen at great distances. The commander of the fort, Major George Armistead, wanted the British to know that they had survived the night’s hellish bombardment. Later the whole country would know after Key’s poem was published and copies made for everyone to read.
June 13, 2011
Mr. Jimmy Bass directed me towards the glass case that held the document. I was excited to be one of the few to get a close up view of such an important piece of paper. He slide the door open from the back of the glass case and brought it out with a gleam in his eye. “If this proves to be the one our finical problems at this museum are over.” I took out my camera and asked if I could take some pictures Mr. Bass gave his consent and I excitedly began clicking away with my camera.
This column will be continued in next week’s Review. To see this document and other interesting artifacts, visit the Veteran’s War Museum on Hillcrest Drive in Laurel.