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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Happy Birthday, Banner!

Old Glory
Well, it's not actually our American Flag that's 200 years old this weekend. It's the song, The Star Spangled Banner, which has survived 200 years of being sung on high o'r the land of the free and the home of the brave, and along with it, a tough little piece of cloth, that managed to make it through one particularly difficult fight in Maryland, during The War of 1812.

Somewhere along the way, that song about the flag, and its adventure flying over the battle of Fort McHenry, became our national anthem. It actually didn't get popular as a song at all until the Civil War (1861 to 1865), at a time when the flag became a symbol of loyalty to the Union.

In case you aren't familiar with how things went down back in 1812, let us help clear the fog of war. On June 18, 1812, America declared war on Great Britain after a series of trade disagreements. (Yes, this was another war with Great Britian, not more than 50 years after the first one) By August, 1814 (2 years into the war), British troops had invaded Washington, D.C., and burned the White House, Capitol Building and Library of Congress. Their next target was Baltimore, and Fort McHenry was taking a beating.

On this day, in 1814, a lawyer, and an amateur poet, named Francis Scott Key, made his way out onto a British ship in Baltimore's Inner Harbor to help free a prisoner. Turns out, one of Key's friends, Dr. William Beanes, had been taken by the British and was being kept onboard, so Key made his way to Baltimore from Virginia, then out to meet with the captors, and began to negotiate with the Royal Navy for the doctor's release. That night Key managed to do more than haggle Beanes away from the British and back to his family, he also jotted down a little poem, as he watched the fight back on shore, and that poem, once set to music, would later become our national anthem.

You see, despite the fact that Key was able to get Beanes released as a prisoner, the two men weren't allowed to leave the deck of the British ship until after the British bombardment of Fort McHenry. Key watched the bombing campaign unfold from about eight miles away, helpless. After three days of fighting, it was determined that the British would be unable to destroy the fort, and Key, who was relieved to see the American flag still flying over Fort McHenry, quickly penned those now famous lines in tribute to what he had witnessed, the sight of a lone U.S. flag still flying over Fort McHenry, through the night, through to the next day.
"And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there."
He was talking about Bmore.

Francis Scott Key was later appointed U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, and it wasn't until 1931 that the diddy becomes America's national anthem. The poem was printed in newspapers and eventually set to the music of a popular English drinking tune called "To Anacreon in Heaven" by composer John Stafford Smith. People began referring to the song as "The Star-Spangled Banner," and in 1916 President Woodrow Wilson announced that it should be played at all official events. It was adopted as the national anthem on March 3, 1931.

Today, the flag that flew over Fort McHenry in 1914 is housed at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. And this weekend, we celebrate that image.

American history and American myth are often inexorably intertwined, making it difficult to tell where one begins, and the other takes off. Myths, after all, are meant to simplify and inspire; while history is left with the business of recording events faithfully, faithfully enough for the victors and tale writers, no doubt.

For instance, the flag housed at the Smithsonian, apparently, is one that was actually raised after the battle ended, and wasn't the one flying all night. A fierce storm was raging during much of the bombardment the night Key watched from afar, and the wet garrison flag would have been so heavy that it would probably have snapped the flagpole. Analysis by Smithsonian conservators has also shown no evidence that holes in the flag at the museum were a result of battle damage. But this bigger flag still deserves its revered status. It was the one raised over Fort McHenry after the bombardment ended on the morning of Sept. 14, 1814, a sight that galled the British, thrilled Francis Scott Key, and inspired every other American who saw it.

star spanled banner book cover
Author: Lonn Taylor
More than just the tale of one flag and one song, The Star-Spangled Banner is the story of how Americans—often in times of crisis—have expressed their patriotism and defined their identity through the "broad stripes and bright stars" of our preeminent national symbol, a tradition that still thrives today.

The dramatic story of this flag, and of the Smithsonian's effort to save it for posterity, are the subject of Lonn Taylor's book that explores the broader meaning of the flag in American life.

Formerly a curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Lonn Taylor served as historian for the Star-Spangled Banner Preservation Project. Today, Kathleen M. Kendrick and Jeffery L. Brodie are co-curators of a new exhibition about the reinstalled Star-Spangled Banner at the Smithsonian.

The original flag that inspired Francis Scott Key "by the dawn's early light" has been cared for by the Smithsonian since 1907. Unfortunately, not long after the huge 30-foot by 42-foot flag inspired the poem by Key, its caretakers began snipping off pieces. Seriously. The first documented clipping was taken in 1818 at the request of a widow, to be buried with her husband who fought at the battle. By the 1880s, about 20% of the McHenry flag had been lost.

"It was such a monumental moment in time that people felt they wanted to hold a piece of that history," said Jennifer Jones, one of the curators who oversees the flag at the Smithsonian. Today, the Smithsonian has recovered 17 missing pieces from the flag, displaying the reconstructed icon with care under low lights.

Much of America's history has been obscured, or removed from history books, but the poem, the song, and the flag are tent poles of our identity, generally accepted as fact, and no matter how you parse it, the United States flag, and its National Anthem, can still fill a patriot with pride.

Americans this weekend will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the poem that became the nation's national anthem.
Americans this weekend will celebrate the 200th anniversary
 of the poem that became the nation's national anthem.

Happy Birthday, Star Spangled Banner! And Many More!!

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