In honor of the Fourth of July, I thought I would spend a little quality time with our national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner. Because it began life as a poem, and because of the time in which it was written, it can be almost as hard to understand as it is to sing. So let me set the mood a bit, then break it down so it can really be appreciated.
Imagine you are on a boat near the coastline, just as the sun is rising. Beginning the day before, and continuing all night, the British navy has shelled Fort McHenry, which guards the entrance into Baltimore’s harbor.
The British have already sacked Washington D.C. and set it ablaze. The First Lady, Dolly Madison, just barely managed to cram the presidential portraits—including that of George Washington—into her carriage and flee before the British arrived to destroy the White House.
Now, the Redcoats are poised to take Baltimore—one of the largest cities in America, and possibly its most important port. The loss of Baltimore will be catastrophic not just for morale and for the inhabitants who will lose everything they can’t carry out, but the loss of the port will make it difficult to resupply the American army and move troops.
All you can do is keep a helpless watch from a distance as the bombardment lasts all day and into the night.
You don’t trust your eyesight—the light is dim, as the sun is just beginning to lighten the horizon, and the air is still thick with the smoke from black powder—so you ask the man standing beside you, hey, can you see…
What so proudly we hailed
At the twilight’s last gleaming?
The night before, as darkness fell, the last thing everyone saw was a huge American flag flying above the walls of the fort, defiantly proclaiming it to be in American hands. Now the question is: does the flag still fly? Is the fort still in American hands, or has it fallen, in the night, to the British?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars,
Through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched,
Were so gallantly streaming.
The fort’s commander, George Armistead, had commissioned the enormous flag as a show of defiance, saying that he wanted “a flag so large, the British would have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.” And it was towards the flag that the Brits aimed their long guns, trying to shell the fort into submission and cause the flag to be hauled down in surrender.
And the rockets’ red glare,
The bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night
That our flag was still there.
As the day turned to night, the fighting raged on. The British ships sent up red flares, trying to give their gunners enough light to see what they were doing and where their target was. And the light from those flares, and the exploding shells which rained down on the fort, provided little bursts of light, like flashes of lightning, showing that the flag was still yet flying over the fort.
Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free
And the home of the brave?
Does the flag still fly? Does the fort still hold? Have the British been kept out of Baltimore? The freedom of the young nation may well depend on that single fort.
There are actually three more verses to the song, although I’ve never heard anyone sing them, never learned them in school, and don’t know anyone who knows them.
The second verse (which you can find on Wikipedia) conveys the triumph of seeing the flag still flying over the fort. (The British, running low on ammunition and having accomplished nothing because their guns performed so poorly at that distance, would soon withdraw; the bombardment had lasted twenty-five hours.)
The third verse celebrates the victory and mocks the invaders who thought they could easily win.
The final verse is a great one (although it sounds horrible when sung; give it a try):
O thus be it ever,
when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home
and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace,
may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made
and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must,
when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto:
“In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free
and the home of the brave!
Have a happy Fourth of July!