Francis Scott Key wasn’t kidding when he used the words “broad stripes” to describe the flag he spotted one morning in Baltimore Harbor. Standing before that same flag in the Smithsonian Museum of American History, I stared at stripes that are two feet wide. This banner is big and it was even bigger — 30 by 42 feet — before people started snipping off souvenirs.
Okay, man sees flag, man writes lyrics. But I still didn’t understand why an unsingable song about a now-obscure battle in an incomprehensible war became so important. So while visiting Baltimore, MD, where all this happened, I decided to solve the mystery of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
In Your Bucket Because…
- You’ve been singing this song since you were in knickers.
- You still can’t make sense of the “bombs bursting in air” business.
- It’s time you did make sense of it: the three-year Bicentennial of the War of 1812 is upon us. That’s when the U.S. flag finally acquired symbolic meaning and gained its anthem, its motto, and, for a second time, its independence.
- Good for history buffs and lovers of Americana.
The brick home of Mary Pickersgill, who made the flag Key saw is now part of Baltimore’s Star-Spangled Banner Flag House. There, an orientation film with egregiously miscast actors depicts how, one year after the War of 1812 broke out, the commander of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor commissioned Pickersgill to make a garrison flag and a smaller storm flag. When the garrison flag was finished, it got shlepped to the fort in a duffel bag. Modest beginnings for a future national symbol.
A guide in the 1793 house explained that Mary P. actually made the flag in a nearby brewery because her own rooms were too tiny. Oh, is that why? In any case, I was fascinated by the 200-year-old furnishings: her blue-and-white china, her desk-shaped fortepiano. But I still didn’t grasp why all this became such a big deal.
The Battle of Baltimore
My visit to Fort McHenry also started with a film, one that depicted how Britain had been interfering with American ships, so in 1812 this puppy nation declared war on the English bulldog. A ranger later reminded me that a secondary reason to declare war was that some Americans hoped to conquer a little place called Canada. Bad idea: U.S. troops couldn’t even stop British soldiers from marching into Washington, D.C., in 1814 and torching the White House and Capital. Baltimore was next on Britain’s hit list, and if it fell, the United States might have lost its new-found independence.
But Baltimore didn’t fall. Despite a 25-hour bombardment by British warships — now called the Battle of Baltimore — Fort McHenry’s militiamen repelled the invaders. When Key, a lawyer detained on a British vessel, saw that the flag was still there, he dashed off four verses about how the stars and stripes – which had often played second fiddle to state flags – symbolizes this country’s survival. This was an entirely new concept.
The movie screen rolled up to reveal a window through which we could see the actual brick ramparts of Fort McHenry a few hundred feet away. There, I now realized, this young country had, essentially, won its independence a second time. The view and the whole concept mesmerized me until a park ranger exclaimed, “You didn’t stand up when they played our national anthem!”
Chastened, I walked a winding path to the 220-year-old fort. It was a sunny day, radically different from the rainy, bomb-blasted night Key had endured. Inside the fort I stepped into a large courtyard where a ranger was helping some kids raise the flag while another ranger played “Yankee Doodle” on a piccolo. A silly tune, but were it not for Key, you might be singing it before baseball games.
Red-Hots and Wax Chicken
Ranger Scott Sheads led some visitors to the ramparts above the courtyard, where he asked us to imagine British ships firing 200-pound rockets, the bombs bursting in air. The fort’s defenders responded by shooting red-hot cannonballs across the surface of the water and into the sides of British battleships. This was the hellish scene Key stayed up all night to witness. Then, proving that today’s slackers did not invent irony, he set his lyrics to a drinking song. As Sheads pointed out, an English drinking song.
I circumnavigated the courtyard, ducking into buildings that line the fort’s inner walls. I saw a table set for dinner in the officers’ quarters (wax roast chicken du jour), touched bunk beds with straw-filled mattresses in the barracks, explored dungeon-like rooms used for Civil War prisoners, and ducked into the storage space for gunpowder – wisely set in an underground chamber outside the fort. I returned to the ramparts, stood by a cannon with my back to Baltimore’s glinting highrises, and conjured up a fleet of warships. Here, 1,000 amateurs turned back the Royal British Navy.
Key’s Edited Song
Later, at the Maryland Historical Society, I admired paintings of race-worthy schooners used by American privateers – aka pirates – against British merchant ships, and portraits of key figures, including Key himself wearing a complacent, to-the-manner-born expression. But the most meaningful object there was Key’s hand-written lyrics for “The Defence of Fort McHenry,” only later renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Key had edited himself. For starters, the word “through” is crossed out, so “O say can you see by the dawn’s early light” was initially “O say can you see through the dawn’s early light.” I could live with the original, but Key couldn’t.
Most Americans only know the first verse, but Key wrote four. Most tellingly, the fourth verse posits a connection between the United States and God, coining the future United States motto, “In God we trust.” Now, it wasn’t until 1931 that Congress named Key’s song the national anthem, and “In God we trust” had to wait until 1956. Still, I realized that for this insomniac attorney to have turned the American flag into the national symbol and composed both the national anthem and motto in one hastily written song is extraordinary.
Key and his wife are buried at the entrance to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, MD, a time-capsule town west of Baltimore. I visited the cemetery with Frederick County Tourism Director John Fieseler who told me that although Alexander Doyle is credited as the designer of Key’s memorial, an associate, Pompeo Coppini, “really did the work.”
A heroic bronze of Key stands atop the 40-foot memorial. Key points toward something with one hand and, with the other, waves a manuscript. Pretty grand, but I was puzzled by the inscription, which names 1780 as Key’s year of birth. Fieseler grinned. “Key was born in 1779. His son-in-law got the date wrong.”
On the back of the monument I found all four stanzas of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which I read again, word by word. Free of input by Key’s son-in-law, Coppini, an immigrant who could barely speak English, got every word right
- This is not an expensive quest. Admission to the Smithsonian and Mount Olivet Cemetery are free; the MarylandHistorical Society, Flag House, and Fort McHenry charge less than $10 for adults.
- Best bet for kids: Fort McHenry, where every room, artifact, cannon, and bunk bed arouses their curiosity.
- Surprises: The Flag House is closed on Sundays, Fort McHenry is as busy weekdays as weekends, and Frederick, MD, is as rich in Civil War attractions as it is in Key lore.