Friends, as Americans we all know the words and the tune to our National Anthem, but what do we really know about the context in which it was written? Here’s a bit of insight. The War of 1812 was raging on our eastern seaboard and in June of 1814 the British had already burned the Capitol, the Treasury Building and the White House, not to mention dozens of other unspeakable atrocities. The situation was dire, and the outcome of the war could have gone either way - and then something marvelous happened.
Both the British and the Americans had seized prisoners of war at this time and an American lawyer, Francis Scott Key, was able to negotiate a one-for-one prisoner exchange with the British naval commander for the release of six American soldiers. There was one catch, though; the American prisoners would be released on the condition that Key would remain on the British ship – mainly because he knew too much about the British operations at that time.
The deal was made, and Key went down into the holds of the British ship to let them know how the battle was going. The men all wanted to know if the flag was still flying at Fort McHenry and Key reassured them over and over that it was. Every time a shell hit close to the flag it was illuminated in red, giving reassurance to all the prisoners on the ship. All the while the British naval commander dismissed the arrangement at folly because, in his opinion, the battle had already been won. By this point the British warships were sending a sustained downpour of shells and rockets onto Fort McHenry for 25 hours. “It seemed as though mother earth had opened and was vomiting shot and shell in a sheet of fire and brimstone,” Key wrote later. Fort McHenry was not even a major military stronghold. It was home to mostly women and children. In fact, all they had to do was to lower the American Flag and the shelling would stop. The British would then take over the fort, raise the Union Jack, and claim that spot of land as British territory. But that’s not what happened. As the battle dragged on the American flag was in worsening shape and it appeared to be at a strange angle. What caused this anomaly is nothing short of heroic. When the flag started to fall, the remaining men at the fort held it up for all to see even when the shells came screaming in towards them. Those men died performing their duty and another group would take over, only to meet the same fate. When dawn broke Francis Scott Key was able to tour the rubble of Fort McHenry and he saw the bodies of the men who held that flag in place knowing that they would be nothing but targets, but he called them Patriots to whom we owe a great debt of gratitude. “O! 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 watch’d, were so gall antly streaming? And the Rockets’ red glare, the Bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night that our Flag was still there; O! say does that star-spangled Banner yet wave, O’er the Land of the free and the home of the brave?”
Perhaps the next time you hear those iconic lyrics you will think about how they came to be. You’ll be glad you did.
The column represents the thoughts and opinions of Alan Shoalmire. Opinion columns are NOT the opinion of the Navasota Examiner.
Alan Shoalmire is a resident in Grimes County and the owner of Grill Sergeant Hotdogs and submits a column to the Navasota Examiner every other week.