Americans don’t know their own anthem


When I hear the Star Spangled Banner played, like many of you I stand, respectfully silent, with right hand over my heart, foregoing the option to salute.

I would not consider for a second the televised disrespect on display earlier this year by some athletes while our anthem played. They childishly used that occasion to grind the ax of their favorite grievance, whether real or imagined, though I would bet their small minds missed the fact they were insulting the country that gave them the blessings of freedom, wealth and fame just for playing their favorite game. Stupid is the only word that satisfies.

Don’t get me wrong. America always has and always will have glaring imperfections. But the anthem about our flag calls for my respect as a citizen, even though I have my own issues with the song.

The melody came from an 18th century English gentlemen’s club official drinking song called “To Anacreon in Heaven,” referring to an ancient Greek lyricist named Anacreon known for writing songs about drinking and chasing women. That part doesn’t bother me at all.

The song’s range is uncomfortable to sing. I don’t care about that, either, and I promise not to sing to you.

I have two irritants about “The Star Spangled Banner.” First, far too many vocalists add their own twists to show off, making the performance about themselves and not the song.

Second, most singers don’t understand what they are singing, and most Americans don’t realize what they are hearing. They don’t know the history, and they don’t connect the dots of the song’s words. We all should.

The War of 1812 could have ended very badly for us.

For 10 years British ships were capturing American commercial vessels and impressing American sailors to crew their British ships. With a navy of a mere six ships, Congress declared war on the mightiest power on the seas. Fortunately for us, Britain was rather busy with their war against Napoleon.

After they defeated Napoleon in 1814, the British gathered forces to attack Washington, D.C. They burned the White House, House and Senate, Library of Congress, U.S. Treasury and many other buildings.

Some say the flames could be seen all the way from Baltimore, which is ironic because that city was the next target of the British. But before the British fleet could enter the harbor to take Baltimore, they had to take Fort McHenry, which guarded the harbor with a number of cannon, not to speak of 22 old ships that had been sunk to make navigating the harbor entrance more difficult.

So the British fleet of 19 ships stood just outside the 1.75 mile range of Ft. McHenry’s old cannon and prepared to pound the fort into submission using new weapons with a longer range of two miles: rockets and mortar cannonballs that fired in a high arc and detonated in air bursts to rain deadly shrapnel down on their enemy below.

Aboard one of the British ships was Dr. William Beanes, an American taken prisoner after he had arrested some British drunken troops stealing from American civilians. His friend, an attorney named Francis Scott Key, who was also an amateur poet, was determined to win his release.

President Madison ordered a government sloop to take Key under a flag of truce to the flagship of British Gen. Ross, before the battle began, to negotiate Beanes’ release. Key persuaded Gen. Ross to release Beanes, but both Beanes and Key were sent to another British ship, where they had to remain on board now that the battle was imminent. They would not be released until it was over.

The bombardment began at 6 a.m. on Sept. 13 and lasted 25 hours. All eyes were on the embattled fort, two miles away.

Beanes and Key could clearly see an American flag flying over Ft. McHenry, but they did not know the flag they saw was the fort’s smaller “storm flag,” used during rainy weather like this day of battle. There was another magnificent flag stored away at Ft. McHenry, a huge flag 30 feet tall and 42 feet wide, each stripe and each star two feet high. This huge flag had been commissioned to be made a year earlier by local flag-maker Mary Pickersgill to fly atop a 90-foot flagpole at Ft. McHenry, so ships’ crews could see it far away in the Chesapeake Bay.

As day turned to night and the one-sided battle lit up the sky with rockets and mortar rounds raining on the fort, imagine our two Americans, Beanes and Key, standing at the rail of the ship, wondering whether the fort would hold through the day and the night.

If the fort surrendered, surely Baltimore would fall the next day. Did that mean our new and weak country was doomed? Was this fledgling experiment in a democratic republic to end so soon? The rockets and bombs rained down through the day then lit up the night sky and illuminated our flag, their booms delayed and muffled by distance.

Imagine Beanes and Key standing at the rail again after a little fitful sleep, in the early dark hours of morning, struggling to see more than dark shapes, asking each other how the fort fared through the night.

Finally, after about 1,800 rounds had been fired at the fort, the explosions suddenly stopped. The cloudy morning was dark and quiet, revealing nothing. The silence weighed heavy. Did the fort surrender? Did the bombardment fail? And then as night gave way to the first hint of faint morning light, Beanes and Key tried harder to see the flag over the fort. Was it our flag or the British Union Jack?

Francis Scott Key was inspired that morning to write a poem on the back of a letter. The first stanza asks whether the flag they saw last night in the light of explosions might still be flying this morning, a question posed in desperate hope:

“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, through 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 thro’ 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?”

How many singers, and how many listeners, even the ones standing respectfully and silent with right hand over their heart, know when that first stanza finishes with the normal flamboyant flourish that it has only asked the question: was our flag still there?

Imagine Beanes and Key at the ship’s rail straining in morning’s faint light to see which nation’s flag flew over the fort. With slowly gathering light they could see the outline of a very large flag moving in the breeze, and finally they could make out faint stars and stripes.

The flag was ours!

They didn’t know our American men in the fort had lowered the smaller storm flag in the night and raised the huge flag as they did every morning at reveille – the bugle call to wake troops at sunrise.

Key’s second stanza is about recognizing our flag.

“On the shore, dimly seen thro’ the mist 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 on 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!”

That huge flag also seemed to signify with attitude that the fort remained in American hands, and Baltimore Harbor was still guarded by the cannon of Ft. McHenry. The British ships sailed out of the bay, into the Atlantic and onward toward New Orleans. Baltimore was spared.

Key’s poem reflects the tension and relief of our nation struggling to survive while it was still barely born. The outcome of that war was far from certain, and after Andrew Jackson’s outnumbered troops defeated the British at New Orleans, a treaty was ratified ending hostilities. America survived.

Francis Scott Key’s poem was quickly published in newspapers and became quite popular to the tune of that old English drinking song, but it took a century to become officially our national anthem. There are a third and fourth stanza, but I will let you discover them on your own.

Our national anthem is hard to sing, the words are stilted and performing the entire song – or poem – would severely test the patience of a crowd waiting for a kickoff or first pitch.

Nevertheless, it would be a welcome change for singers to perform the first stanza without turning themselves into a “look at me” spectacle. I suppose in this modern age of constant entertainment, it is too much to expect our citizens to know the history. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, that they know what they are singing and hearing?

The original Ft. McHenry flag, 30 feet tall and 42 feet wide and with shrapnel wounds, is on display on the climate-controlled second floor of the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., where it has been conserved so it will be there for your grandchildren to see. Maybe most Americans don’t care.

Many of us do.

[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen.]