Saturday, September 13, 2014

Francis Scott Key and the Star Spangled Banner: The Rest of the Story

Tonight’s the night! The British shelling of Fort McHenry began at 7:00am two hundred years ago. Tonight's the night Baltimore celebrates the bicentennial of the American victory. Fireworks will be exploding in the sky. Francis Scott Key, a Washington and Maryland lawyer, was on a British warship watching the shelling through the night. He saw the large American flag, 30’ by 42’, flying over the Fort the next morning. The British fleet retreated in defeat. Key proceeded to pen a poem, the “Defense of Fort McHenry,” which became known as the Star Spangled banner. The poem was set to the music of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a popular song. The Star Spangled Banner soared in popularity, and became the National Anthem on March 3, 1931. There’s much more to the story, “The Rest of the Story,” as Paul Harvey would say. The War of 1812 is rarely taught in American history. It’s viewed as a tie or draw with the status quo prevailing when the war ended. It was viewed as an unnecessary, unwanted war, especially in New England. That view is a gross mischaracterization. In spite of the individual victories of America’s frigates over their British counterparts, the British Navy controlled Chesapeake Bay for two years, mounting periodic raids against American towns and cities. The defeat of Napoleon provided the British the opportunity to dispatch their seasoned veterans to the American conflict. They routed an American force on August 24, 1814 in the Battle of Bladensburg, allowing the British to seize Washington, D. C. The British razed the public buildings, including the White House, purportedly in retaliation for the American’s torching of York (Toronto). The Redcoats then set their sights on Baltimore, which they despised because it was the center of the privateers preying on British merchant ships. The goal was to torch the city, all the city – both public and private. The city was protected by Fort McHenry, a five star shaped fortress situated on a spit, or point, sticking into the harbor. The Fort’s cannons had an effective range of 1½ miles. The Americans also chained 22 sunken ships into the passageway, further blocking the British fleet’s approach into the harbor. The British drew up a two pronged attack plan. The army, that defeated the Americans at Bladensburg, would approach by land under Major General Robert Ross, while the fleet under Vice Admiral Alexander Cochran would attack by sea. Major General Samuel Smith of the Maryland Militia was in charge of the Americans. He devised a defense in depth, establishing two defensive lines. 3,000 soldiers were sent to the outer line at North Point with orders to hold back the British as long as possible, and then orderly withdraw to the inner line. There would be no panicked retreat, unlike Bladensburg. The plan worked. The 4,500 exhausted British troops finally attacked the inner line, where over 10,000 Americans mowed them down. General Ross was killed at North Point. His successor lacked leadership ability. The defense of Baltimore was a precursor to General Andrew Jackson’s rout of the British at New Orleans four months later in January 1815. The British Navy’s attack similarly failed. Major George Armistead commanded about 1,000 soldiers and sailors at the Fort. The British sent thousands of bombs and rockets at Fort McHenry from 2 miles out. They were highly inaccurate, although one landed on a munitions bunker, but failed to explode. The names of General Smith and Major Armistead have been lost to popular history, whereas Francis Scott Key, a non-combatant, is known to all. Betsy Ross of The Revolutionary War is known to all for her flag, but Mary Pickersgill, who sewed the Fort McHenry flag, is known only in Baltimore. Francis Scott Key is an enigma. He was a highly successful, esteemed lawyer, but a lousy poet. He wrote doggerel all his life. Indeed, as we learnt as students at Francis Scott Key Elementary School in San Francisco, the Star Spangled banner has 4 stanzas. Only the first stanza is sung, for good reason. The fifth and sixth lines of the third stanza read: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.” His uncle and mentor was an officer in the British Army. Francis Scott key was a slave owner who, as United States Attorney in Washington, D.C. from 1833-1841, prosecuted abolitionists. Yet he represented slaves and free blacks in his private practice, often for free. He frequently sought judgments to free the clients. He was also one of the strongest advocates of letting freed slaves immigrate to “Liberia” in Africa. His grandson was interred in Fort McHenry during the Civil War as a southern sympathizer. His brother-in-law and close friend was Roger Taney, appointed Chief Justice by President Jackson. Chief Justice Roger Taney is immortalized in history as the author of the Dred Scott decision. Francis Scott Key’s second cousin, three generations removed, was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, better known as F. Scott Fitzgerald. The War of 1812 should be viewed as a major victory for America. No land changed hands, but it was not a draw. The fragile American Republic proved itself to the world. No longer would the British, French, or Spanish covet the lands of the United States. The American people needed the help of the French to win the Revolutionary War. The American people beat the British Navy, and especially the British Army, on their own in the War of 1812. The Americans defeated the greatest military in the world. British intervention might have helped the South during the Civil War, but the British remained neutral despite their sympathy with the South. Great Britain focused its empire building on India. Canada and the United States have maintained a peaceful border for 200 years. The American people began their 3,000 mile, manifest destiny expansion to the Pacific. They began by opening up the Midwest. They soon acquired Florida. The American people won the War of 1812.

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