I must admit, they sat breathless as I spun the tale about two young men aboard the ship HMS Minden, traveling from Baltimore under a flag of truce to see if they could free their friend Dr. William Beanes from British imprisonment. I did my best, hoping these middle-schoolers would relate to the excitement of the endeavor. Francis Scott Key and John Stuart Skinner also did pretty well with the whole rescue thing, boarding the British flagship HMS Tonnant and pleading their case. President James Madison had approved their efforts, and the ever-polite British Crown officers Major General Robert Ross and Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane even invited the young heroes to dinner.
Mostly being invited to dinner is good, but not so much this time. It was the evening ofSeptember 7, 1814, and dinner included a discussion of British war plans. As guests, Key and Skinner were privy to these plans, and therein lay the problem. The men now had to join their friend Dr. Beanes in prison for a few days–first aboard the HMS Surprise and later back on the Minden. The imprisonment was only to last until after the bombardment of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry was over, and then the Brits promised that everyone would be on his way back home.
The Battle of Baltimore (September 12-15, 1814) was a bit more than the British Navy expected. American forces repulsed sea and land invasions off the busy port city of Baltimore and killed the commander of the invading British forces. Though the Americans eventually retreated, the battle was a successful delaying action that inflicted heavy casualties on the British, halted their advance and allowed the defenders at Baltimore to properly prepare for an attack. The resistance of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry during the bombardment by the Royal Navy inspired Francis Scott Key to compose the poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry”, which later became the lyrics for “The Star-Spangled Banner”, the eventual national anthem of the United States of America.
Fast forward to April 12-13, 1861. Rockets glared red, bombs burst in air, and Old Glory, that had waved proudly in some version over U.S. installations since June 1777, was finally pulled down and handed to Major Robert Anderson as he and his small band of federal soldiers left Fort Sumter in South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor.
Poet Oliver Wendell Holmes was not happy with this outcome, and he did what poets do–he wrote a new verse for an old song. “The Star Spangled Banner” was not yet America’s national anthem, but it was pretty popular, and no one can deny its imagery of an intense land-sea battle, much like the one that had recently occurred in Charleston. Holmes’s fifth stanza, which began to appear in songbooks and sheet music if the era, is as follows:
When our land is illumined with Liberty’s smile,
If a foe from within strike a blow at her glory,
Down, down with the traitor that dares to defile
The flag of her stars and the page of her story!
By the millions unchained who our birthright have gained,
We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained!
And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave
While the land of the free is the home of the brave.
The Confederacy countered this effort with those of its own: during the war, songs such as “Farewell to the Star-Spangled Banner” and “Adieu to the Star-Spangled Banner Forever,” clearly referencing Key’s song, were published within the southern states.
It was not until March 3, 1931, after a group of band leaders led by John Phillip Sousa tinkered a bit with the notes, that President Herbert Hoover signed legislation creating a national anthem for the United States of America. Francis Scott Key’s poem, set to the music of John Stafford Smith and embellished by John Phillips Sousa, became the official anthem of the United States. Sousa wrote, “It is the soul-stirring words and the spirit of the music that inspires.” Today we remember those who have given their lives so that this flag shall continue to wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
I hope that message made sense to my middle schoolers.