Guest Column: Star-Spangled Banner celebrates its Bicentennial

by Sharon Myers Published:

As we enter 2014, let us remember that this year marks yet another Bicentennial -- that being "The Star-Spangled Banner," our national anthem, which was written during the Battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore by Francis Scott Key during the last year of the War of 1812.

British troops had attacked Washington, D.C., setting fire to many important government buildings, including the White House and the U.S. Capital in late August 1814 and marched toward Baltimore, the third largest city in the U.S. and the center for shipping and boat building. If the British took Baltimore, they could destroy American ships and without ships, the U.S. would have little hope of winning the war.

The British raided American farms and houses and broke into the home of Dr. William Beanes looking for food and drink and valuables. Beane and his friends were able to round up the thieves and place them under arrest. One soldier escaped and reached British General Robert Ross and told him what had happened. Ross sent the troops to arrest Dr. Beanes, who was then jailed in Ross's warship the Tonnant.

Although Beanes was an American, his captors thought he was British, charged him with treason and threatened to hang him. Francis Scott Key, a well-respected lawyer, heard about his friend's capture and got permission from President Madison to negotiate with the British on Beane's behalf. Key arranged to have an American agent for prisoner exchange accompany him. They found and boarded the Tonnant.

Key and Skinner pleaded their case to General Ross showing him letters from British soldiers who had been wounded and Dr. Beanes had treated the men with kindness. After conferring with the British, they relented but would not release the doctor or Key immediately because they had seen and heard too much of the preparations for the attack on Baltimore. They were placed under guard and were forced to wait out the battle behind the British fleet.

On Sept. 13, 1814, the British attacked Baltimore's Fort McHenry. British warships continuously bombarded the fort for 25 hours. 1,500 shells were used. They ceased fire due to a lack of ammunition.

Prior to this, Maj. George Armistead, Commander of Fort McHenry, asked seamstress Mary Pickersgill to create a flag to fly over Fort McHenry prior to the battle. This flag was to be so large that the British troops would easily identify Armistead's position from afar. Pickersgill spent six weeks making the 30- foot by 42-foot flag.

Key watched the bombs bursting in air as the British attacked the fort throughout the night. Unknown to Key, the battle was actually going badly for the British. They had underestimated the American forces. American officers had sunk more than 20 ships in Baltimore Harbor before the battle which created an underwater wall that kept the British ships too far away to seriously damage the fort.

The next morning by the dawn's early light Key saw the broad stripes and bright stars of the U.S. flag still waving in the distance over Fort McHenry, sending a big message: the United States had not surrendered. Key wrote a patriotic poem called "The Defense of Fort McHenry."

True to their word, the British freed Key, Skinner and Beanes after the battle. Copies of Key's poem were given to soldiers and in November it was set to music by publisher Thomas Carr. The United States has used it as the national song since the 1880s. It was made the official national anthem by Congress in 1931 under President Herbert Hoover, replacing Hail Columbia.

The flag remained in the possession of Major Armistead for some time. Pieces of it were given to the fort's soldiers or their wives. It is now 8 feet shorter than it was originally. It has been permanently housed at the Smithsonian since 1912 and has undergone multiple restoration efforts.

The flag had 15 stripes, not 13. The stars are 2 feet by 2 feet tip to tip. The flag will not unfurl in winds less than 5 mph. At least 3 to 5 people are required to raise and lower the flag as it weighs 45 pounds.

The Bicentennial of the War of 1812 has brought much enthusiasm and interest in this forgotten war and many researchers have delved deeper to discover answers to some of the controversies that have lived on through the past 200 years. One of these controversies that occurred right here in Summit County has been solved! I am speaking of the controversy of the three gunboats that were built here on the Cuyahoga River. We have discovered that they were, indeed, built here and ordered by the Army and not the Navy. They were used in the Battle of the Thames which was just a few weeks after the Battle of Lake Erie. They were indeed gunboats and not Schenectady boats as some have speculated. There is evidence that the Schenectady boats (flat boats similar to barges) were built in Cleveland and not Summit County. And yes, the Cuyahoga River was a navigable river and deemed so by the Federal Government during the early 1800s.

Contact Sharon Myers, President, William Wetmore Chapter Daughters of 1812 330-794-5099.

Editor's note: Myers will present a program entitled "O Say Can You See? The National Anthem Bicentennial 2014" to the Tallmadge Historical Society Jan. 14 at 7 p.m. at the Olde Town Hall on Tallmadge Circle.

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