Most people at work walk by the small flag flying atop my cubicle wall with nary a second glance. Occasionally, though, someone will do a little double-take. There's something...different.
It doesn't take them long to spot that the flag only has fifteen stars. I usually have to point out that it also has fifteen stripes. It's a reminder of the days when new states got a stripe as well as a star.
It's also a reminder of one of the darkest...as well as brightest...days of the young United States. It's the flag that flew above Fort McHenry through the long night of the 13th of September, 1814.
Everyone knows the story. But there's more to it than most folks realize.
The month prior to September 13th had been pure disaster for the United States. British troops had landed, marched inland, and captured Washington, DC. The President and his cabinet were on the run. English officers had lunch in the White House, then burned it and other public buildings. The records of the young republic were destroyed, the government seemed to be irretrievably scattered. By the standards of the day, the United States had been defeated.
But the British weren't done. They brushed aside a pitifully weak combination of regular army and skittish militia and marched on Baltimore. The warehouses of Baltimore bulged ripe for the taking. Its harbor lay crammed with the American privateering vessels that had captured over five hundred British merchant ships. The 24-ship British fleet sent towards Baltimore was just a fraction of the total might of the Royal Navy. Even this small flotila included several ships with twice of guns of the largest American ship.
Standing in the way: A few determined troops, and the batteries of Fort McHenry. It had to be forced to surrender...or wiped off the map.
Admiral Cochrane of the Royal Navy had the perfect solution: Bomb vessels and rocket ships. Bomb vessels carried two massive mortars, each firing an exploding shell containing two hundred pounds of black powder. Each bomb vessel could fire 45 times an hour...and there were five of them.
The mortars lobbed their shells high, dropping them over the walls of the fort. The thick parapet of the fort was no protection. Plus, Fort McHenry had a fatal weakness: The roof of the powder magazine wasn't armored. One shell in the wrong spot would destroy the entire fort.
The rockets were a new weapon, almost untried. But they were terrifying to troops who hadn't been subjected to them before. The British rocket artillerymen were eager to test their aim against a real target.
The bomb vessels and rocket ships anchored two miles away. With a massive roar, they began the bombardment.
One of the criticisms occasionally flung at "The Star Spangled Banner" is that the song is so "warlike"...all those rockets and bombs. What is forgotten is that American soldiers and sailors were the targets of those bombs and rockets.
The British ships had anchored beyond the range of the American cannon. The men in the fort had no way to strike back. All the American defenders could do was crouch by their guns and take it. One later said their situation was "like pigeons tied by the leg to be shot at." A haze of dust arose, punctuated by the roar of the rockets, the crash of the mortars, and the screams of the wounded.
It went on all night.
Francis Scott Key's concern about whether "our flag was still there" the next dawn were quite legitimate. Oddly enough, Key was against what he called "an abominable war." But whether he agreed with the war or not, he loved his country. His joy at seeing Fort McHenry still holding firm is obvious in "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Our National Anthem isn't just a celebration of a long-ago victory. It is a reminder that the preservation of freedom is seldom easy; that it requires equal portions of sacrifice, pain, and courage.
There's something the enemies of this country should know: our National Anthem has four verses. The third verse seems most appropriate to these times, speaking directly about those who would threaten our nation. Let's end with it:
"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 footstep's 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!"
[Note: I am in NO way comparing the actions of our then-enemies with those of Bin Laden and his thugs. The British fought the War of 1812 in accordance with the laws of war. When Washington was burned, strict orders were given to not damage privately-held property. Even the burning itself was in retaliation to our troops' burning of a Canadian town.
Every American is grateful for the British stance in the current crisis. We may have fought with our "cousins" in the long-ago past, but are proud they are standing with us now.]
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