If you are my age or older, you know the story of how the Star Spangled Banner came to be because you had teachers who told you that it is impossible to enter the gates of Heaven without that knowledge, God love ‘em. If you are younger, you may not know because you probably did not have those same blessed teachers.
Either way, there is absolutely no possibility that I will be able to make you understand just how it feels to visit Fort McHenry in Baltimore and to see first-hand just what it was that caused Francis Scott Key to pen those words that we sing today, “Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light…” words that we often take too lightly, words that to many simply mean, “Play Ball!”
On the morning of September 14, 1814, with the War of 1812 still raging, those same words meant something much, much different. They meant freedom, and victory, hope, and the lack of tyranny. They also quite simply meant America.
You have to understand where we were in September of 1814…
The Royal Navy arrived in the Chesapeake Bay early in 1813, immediately becoming the bully whose size allowed him to raid and plunder at will. For the next year and a half, things did not go particularly well for the Americans. Then, on August 24, 1814, the British defeated the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg from whence they turned and marched the fifty or so miles to Washington DC.
After occupying the city, troops set fire to many public buildings, including the Capitol and the White House. I assume the smell of victory was in their British nostrils at this point in the war. With Washington in flames, the Brits turned their attention to the city of Baltimore, believing that a major victory there would give them the war.
And then it was September 12, 1814, and the first battle for Baltimore, the Battle of North Point, was on. It was a victory for the British…but it did buy a few hours for the city of Baltimore.
“On a rainy September 13, 1814, British warships sent a downpour of shells and rockets onto Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor, relentlessly pounding the American fort for 25 hours.
“A week earlier, Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old American lawyer, had boarded the flagship of the British fleet on the Chesapeake Bay in hopes of persuading the British to release a friend who had recently been arrested…Because he and his companions had gained knowledge of the impending attack on Baltimore, the British did not let them go…Under their scrutiny, Key watched on September 13 as the barrage of Fort McHenry began eight miles away.”
According to Francis Scott Key, it looked as though the earth was vomiting fire and brimstone, made even more terrifying as it continued through the night. After an unbelievably long day and night of constant bombardment by the British, Key held his breath as he picked up his spy glass and turned it toward the fort, never dreaming that he would find the stars and bars waving there.
And yet…..that is exactly what the patriot saw as the fort came into focus, causing a shout that continued to reverberate across the harbor for decades to come. America belonged to the Americans!
Today, by Presidential Proclamation, a flag flies over Fort McHenry 24 hours of every day. On a clear day with the right amount of wind, an exact replica (the actual flag is in the Smithsonian) of the star spangled banner (30 x 42 feet) with 15 stars and stripes flies above the old fort. On other days, a smaller replica is flown, and on rainy days, a modern day flag is flown.
On our last visit to Baltimore, Ric and I were fortunate enough to meet historian and author, Burton K. Kummerow. If you are an avid reader with an interest in history, I would suggest his work. If not, or even if you are a reader, I would also suggest that you call the fort at 410-962-4290 to purchase the video shown below. It is one of the best that I have seen…and believe me, as a history buff, I have seen a LOT!