Friday, May 22, 2009

In Defense of Fort McHenry

In 1814, British forces captured Washington D.C. and set fire to much of the city, including the Capitol building and the White House. President James Madison was forced to flee.

The British then advanced to Baltimore, knowing that the loss of both Washington D.C. and Baltimore would be a demoralizing blow to American troops.

In September, a young lawyer named Francis Scott Key sailed out to meet the British commanders to negotiate an exchange of prisoners. Although the negotiations were successful, Key was not immediately allowed to return to land because of the imminent British attack, and he was forced to spend the next several days on a ship behind the British fleet.

At 7:00 a.m. on the morning of September 13, the British attacked Ft. McHenry from both land and sea. The battle raged all day and throughout most of the night, and Key was a witness to it all.

Early in the morning, the bombardment suddenly stopped; the battle was over. But who had won? In the darkness, Key could see nothing, and for the next few hours he waited with anxiety to see which flag would be flying above the fort when the sun arose.

Key was so moved by the experience that he wrote the poem which we know today as the American National Anthem. However, the lyrics we sing are only the first of four stanzas to his original poem, and though we sing those words with boldness, pride, and conviction, it becomes very clear in the context of the entire poem that they are actually words filled with the anxiety and fear that Key felt during the hours of darkness following the battle.

Although I had 12 years of public education and served 8 years in the U.S. Navy, I had never read the original poem in it’s entirety until about 3 years ago (shame on me). In fact, I never even knew there was more to it than what we sang as our National Anthem (shame on them).

It has haunted me ever since, and I still have a hard time reading it without my eyes welling with tears.

Happy Memorial Day.

“In Defense of Ft. McHenry”
By Francis Scott Key

Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

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