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When We Learned to Love the Flag- The Fort McHenry Story

Posted by on June 14, 2012 at 3:50 PM

People living today cannot imagine what residents of Washington DC witnessed on August 24 and 25th 1814. Barely 14 years old, the new Capitol of the United States was ablaze. Furthermore, the Presidents House, as the White House was then called, was still on fire. The State Building and the War Department building were smoldering and to the south the Navy Shipbuilding Yard, along with the hulls of two new warships being built were still brightly alight. The Treasury building was gutted with just wisps of dark gray smoke emanating from its shell. In a little over 24 hours, British troops under Rear Admiral George Cockburn had entered Washington almost without resistance and found the city largely deserted. President James Madison and his wife Dolley had departed for nearby Bladensburg, Maryland, but not before Dolley heroically had the painting of George Washington that hung in the White House removed from its frame and protected (We may still enjoy that painting today, because of her courage and foresight). Now as quickly as he entered, Cockburn and his troops left and headed for Baltimore. Although Washington DC was the named capital of the still infant United States, Baltimore was truly its lifeblood. Located almost centrally between the commerce of New York and Boston and the southern shipping wealth of Charleston and Savannah, Baltimore in 1814 was the third largest city in America with over 45,000 residents. Its shipping and wealthy waterfront made it a perfect next fruit to pluck for Admiral Cockburn and the British Navy that lay in Chesapeake Bay. Out beyond the waterfront, Fort McHenry was the only real defense that Baltimore had from the menacing British navy that surrounded the Chesapeake Bay. Fort McHenry, named for James McHenry, Secretary of War under President John Adams, was rebuild from the remains of Fort Whetstone, the Revolutionary War era fort that defended Baltimore. During the period of the British invasion of Baltimore, the fort and city was defended by Major General Samuel Smith. Smith had Major George Armistad defend the fort, which was crucial for the British to disable if they were to have full access to the riches of the waterfront merchants. Having heard about the almost unopposed sacking of Washington, Smith was prepared to provide more opposition to the British. He had as his disposal 12,000 militia and 400 sailors to provide blockage in the shallow inner harbor of the city. On September 13,1814, a flotilla of 16 warships begin a long distance barrage of Fort McHenry. Armistad, commanded that the fort return fire, but to their disappointment found that their shells fell far short of the line of warships, whereas the British bombs with over a 1000 yard range, were finding there mark regularly. This attack would go on for over 24 hours. Meanwhile, no story about the inspiring story of Fort McHenry would be complete without the other main character, the young Washington DC lawyer Francis Scott Key. Key, 36 years old at the time of the Battle of Fort McHenry, was in the midst of the British warships at the behest of the friends and family of a Doctor William Beanes, who had been arrested by the British for supposedly breaking an oath of allegiance to the English. From September 7th to the 13th, Key was shuttled from one British ship to another, meeting with the Admiral Cochrane and finally after providing proof of humanitarian treatment of British prisoners by American soldiers, were allowed to procure the freedom of Dr. Beanes. However, by the time this occurred around September 12th, the British felt it was a security concern to release them until after they had conquered Baltimore. Key, Dr. Beanes and an American agent John Skinner were released to their American flagged ship which had brought them to Chesapeake Bay and it is from there that they watched the 26 hour bombardment of Fort McHenry. Key, a religious man was wide-eyed and anxious watching bomb after bomb fly over the bay and into the fort. Throughout the night of the 13th and into the morning of the 14th, heavy smoke and what had to be unbelievable noise prevented the small party from discerning the progress of the battle. With the superior firepower of the British, it was widely assumed that the morning would dawn with the British flag flying over the fort. It is estimated by Major Armisted that between 1500 and 1800 bombs were hurled at the fort with over 400 of them landing inside the works. Amazingly, with such tremendous force directed at them, only 4 of the 1000 men defending the fort were killed and only 24 injured. As the smoke cleared on the early morning of September 14th, Key and his partners were amazed and overjoyed to see the huge American flag still waving over the fort, although greatly reduced from its original 42 by 30 foot size by gunfire. As Key put it “ Then in that hour of deliverance and joyful triumph, my heart spoke and “Does not such a country and such defenders of that country deserve a song?” was its question. With it came an inspiration not to be resisted.” Key quickly put the first verse to paper and upon return to a Baltimore hotel, finished his poem originally titled “ The Defense of Fort McHenry”. So inspired was Key, that his poem first appeared in print less than two days after the occurrence. The story of what was to be renamed The Star Spangled Banner is an entire blog itself. Throughout the 1800‘s it was as popular as Hail Columbia during celebrations of the countries independence and special events. It was set to the tune ironically of an old English song “ To Anacreon in Heaven”and finally, after years of debate was named our National Anthem by act of Congress in 1931. Such a song, written as a celebration of victory against incredible odds is an amazing American inspiration. Written less than a month after the young nation’s capital had been burned down, and with little but hope and determination holding together the young republic, the words inspire, even today. Too few people know the true story behind the song, and I hope after reading this, a little more clarity will allow you to sing this song with pride. For further research, visit Baltimore, where today you can visit, Fort McHenry, gloriously reconstructed in its 1814 version. Visit The Star Spangled Banner House where the story of Mary Pickersgill, the maker of the gigantic flag is told. These experiences give you the “You are there” feeling of the moment. However, the most touching and profound visiting experience is at the National History Museum in Washington DC, where after years of preservation and state of the art techniques, the original flag that Francis Scott Key awoke to on the morning of September 14, 1814 can be seen in its tattered glory, every scar a tribute to the men and women who have fought for our freedom over the last 200 plus years.

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