Thursday, September 13, 2012

History: "O'er the Land of the Free..."

On a chill fall afternoon, September 13, 1814, a 35 year old lawyer boarded HMS Tonnant, a man-of-war anchored bellow the ramparts of Baltimore's Fort McHenry.

Francis Scott Key and his companion, Colonel John Skinner, were aboard Tonnant to retrieve prisoners of war from the British. A like exchange had been accomplished at the Fort earlier in the day and Key and Skinner, who was the U.S. Prisoner Exchange Agent for the area, had no reason to suspect that they wouldn't be home safe in their beds that same night.

The British, however, had other plans.

Greeted with all civility aboard Tonnant by an impressive array of Royal Navy officers, the Americans were probably a bit stymied when they were asked to dine with their hosts. These included Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, who was in command of the Jamaica station and, as an aside, the uncle of Triple P's favorite Royal Navy officer, Thomas Cochrane. Army Major General Robert Ross and Rear Admiral  George Cockburn rounded out the impressive line-up. Key and Skinner could hardly decline the invitation and sat down to a sumptuous feast in Tonnant's great cabin somewhere around 2:00 PM.

At approximately 4:00 PM, after the cloth had been drawn and the port brought out, Skinner asked to see the prisoners and afterward escort them ashore. Cochrane, the senior officer, doubtless was the one to deliver the unfortunate news that no American would be leaving Tonnant that night. Instead, Key and Skinner would wait out the British surprise attack on Fort McHenry below decks with the other prisoners.

There was no reason to protest; the British were armed while the American's were not. Key and Skinner joined their comrades near sunset. Shortly thereafter, the bombardment of Fort McHenry began.

The Americans watched through the night as the bombardment continued. One U.S. flag flew resolutely, illuminated by the British rockets as it rippled in the breeze off the ocean. When the sun peaked over the Atlantic, that flag was still there. And Key, who was released along with his fellows on September 14th, managed to pen an homage to the stalwart flag before leaving HMS Tonnant a free man.

Key's "Defence of Fort McHenry" was published in the Baltimore Patriot on September 20th to great acclaim. Though Key had intended the poem to become a song, it never quite caught on. The American victory at the Battle of New Orleans four months later meant that Key's rousing verse was shelved, perhaps never to be heard from again.

The poem was rediscovered, so to say, in the early 20th century. President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed it America's National Anthem in 1916 and, under its new guise as "The Star Spangled Banner", the anthem was approved by congress in a resolution signed by President Herbert Hoover in 1931.

Much disparaged today as a jingoistic battle cry, such muck raking over the U.S.'s National Anthem displays a complete ignorance of history that is unfortunately not uncommon in America. "The Star Spangled Banner," far from encouraging the madness of war, celebrates a young country defending herself against an invading super power. The now popular "America the Beautiful" cannot hold a candle to Key's anthem in power or resonance. As long as the U.S. has a flag to wave, may "The Star Spangled Banner" celebrate her.

Header: Fort McHenry today, looking toward the spot where HMS Tonnant would have been anchored via Wikipedia


Timmy! said...

I could not agree more, Pauline! Excellent post! As appropriate then as it is now...

Pauline said...

Thankee, indeed. I am actually quite fond of this song. Thanks, Francis Scott Key (fun fact: he - and not our founding fathers - is the source of that "In God We Trust" stuff. You'll find the source in the fourth verse of the "National Anthem."

Rick said...

National Anthems should be soul-stirring, bombastic, jingoistic and a bit of an anachronism - in fact the older it sounds, the better I think! The national anthem of any country is designed to get all the people of the country to 'rally to the flag' as it were. The American national anthem does it very well (even if it's a British tune, lol!!).

Pauline said...

I agree. Rick. And yes, the "Star Spangled Banner" is set to an old English tune. Rather like the U.S. Navy was modeled on the Royal Navy I guess :)