Doug Barton

The Star-Spangled Banner

Copyright © 2015 Douglas Barton,, All rights reserved.

I was thinking about what I wanted to post today, on America's Independence Day. My friends know that I am an unabashed patriot. I love this country, and what she stands for. It's not a blind love, but our story is an amazing one, and truly unique in the world.

Last night I was reading my Facebook groups, and one of my favorites is, "I Support the Disneyland Flag Retreat Ceremony." For those that don't know, Disneyland retires the colors every day. They do patriotic songs, honor the veterans who are present, and conduct a formal flag ceremony. It is very moving, and something I highly recommend if you get a chance. They were talking about the 4th last night of course, and one of the posts talked about "The Star-Spangled Banner." That reminded me of the trip I took to Fort McHenry in 1991, and ever since then the thoughts have been running through my head. So this is long, but I think it's an amazing story. I hope you will too. :)

The Battle of Baltimore was one of the key battles in the War of 1812. Essentially, the British pride was wounded after what they referred to as "The Colonial Rebellion," and they were not respecting our national sovereignty. Fort McHenry (known as "The Star Fort" due to its unusual design) protected Baltimore Harbor, and the city. The British wanted to land forces there so that they could join up with and reinforce the troops they already had on the ground.

Coincidentally, Francis Scott Key was on a mission of mercy, attempting to get a doctor freed who was being held as a prisoner of war. He was carrying letters of testimony from British troops who had been treated by that doctor, recommending his release. He had the bad luck of being stuck on the truce ship overnight, watching the bombardment of the fort. As most American school kids know, what he saw that night, and the following morning, inspired him to write a poem on the backs of the envelopes he had in his pocket. It was originally titled "Defence of Fort McHenry," and was published in pamphlet form all over Baltimore shortly after the battle. Eventually it was noticed that the meter of the poem fit well with a popular song of the day, and the two were published together as "The Star-Spangled Banner."

When I was at Fort McHenry they had a self-guided tour that took you around the fort, and explained a lot about it, its history, etc. The part that I found overwhelmingly moving was where they went through the lines of the song, and explained how they related to the battle, and highlighted the places in the fort that were specifically referred to in the song. So I have tried to reproduce as much of that as I can remember below because for me it really drove home the spirit of America ... the determination to succeed against impossible odds, and how true it is that "Freedom isn't free."

"Oh say can you see by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,"

The fort had two main flags that they flew, depending on the weather, and of course battle conditions. The smaller "Storm Flag" which was flying during the evening was 17 feet by 25 feet, definitely visible to the ships in the harbor which were bombarding the fort.

"Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?"

The "ramparts" mentioned were of course the exterior walls of the fort, which were raised. The main living and working areas of the fort were much lower relative to the ramparts, so Key was literally watching for the flag to appear over them.

For me the most moving part of the whole tour was also the simplest. I stood on the ramparts overlooking the harbor. They had set up a plexiglass display that you could look through and see where the British ships were positioned, who was firing what, etc. The Americans had heavy cannon which was common during the period, but they were heavily out-gunned by the British, who had more modern weapons. In addition to the mortars (bombs) they carried, they had the relatively new Congreve rockets. Both had greater range than the cannon, so the British strategy was to withdraw past the range of the American guns and bombard them throughout the evening, weakening their defenses for a dawn assault by the infantry.

I kept looking back and forth between the harbor and the fort, and the replica of the Storm Flag that they had flying over it, imagining what for Key must have been a truly horrific scene: The Americans desperately firing their cannon, with mortars and rockets exploding all around them.

However, the Americans had a bit of luck on their side. The British fleet commander was not willing to risk his ships (and troops) inside the American gun range, so he withdrew so far that he was outside of the effective range of his own weapons. They were horribly inaccurate at that distance, and while a few shells did land ...

"And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;"

These lines were a dig at the British, because while their bombardment looked apocalyptic, "the bombs bursting in air," meaning they completely missed their target, served only to illuminate the flag which was still flying proudly.

There is some dispute about whether the British expended all of their munitions, or whether they simply realized that their bombardment was totally ineffective. Either way, they stopped, and at dawn the Americans raised the "Garrison Flag," which was much larger, at 30 feet by 42 feet, to signal their victory. The troops raised the Garrison Flag every morning at reveille, and personally I enjoyed imagining the look on the British commander's face when they briefly lowered the Storm Flag. Perhaps he was thinking that they were going to surrender after all, only to have that large flag replaced by one that was even larger!

Finally, Key asks a question that I think is still pertinent today:

"O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?"

God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.