Tuesday, September 14, 2010

O! Say can you see

The war of 1812 was well into its second year, and things did not look promising for the 16 United States of America. Despite the repeated violation of American ships that precipitated the war, it was not a popular conflict. Many Americans referred to it disdainfully as "Madison's War", Attorney Key among them. As it had dragged on the people of the United States tired of the conflict and opposition to the war had grown. Then, on August 25, 1814 it became personal. General Robert Ross and 4,000 combat veterans of the British Army had marched almost unopposed into the Nation's 14 year old capitol city of Washington, D.C. When they left the following day the city was ruined, every Federal building burning or in ashes, the President and his wife hiding in nearby Virginia after narrowly escaping capture.

After destroying the Capitol and heady with their easy victory, the British headed north into Maryland. With them they took an elderly and well respected American physician, Dr. William Beanes. Dr. Beanes was accused of spying, and was taken as a prisoner aboard the British Flag ship Tonnant anchored in Baltimore harbor. The remaining population of Washington, D.C. feared that the beloved doctor would be hanged and appealed to attorney Francis Scott Key to intervene. On August 27th President Madison slipped back into what remained of the Capitol and gave Mr. Key an official sanction. On September 3rd Key and Colonel Skinner, who was experienced in negotiating prisoner exchanges, sailed for Baltimore. They reached the Tonnant under a flag of truce on the morning of the 7th and had been held as prisoners themselves ever since. The release was secured on September 13th, but Key was detained on ship overnight during the shelling of Fort McHenry, one of the forts defending Baltimore.

On September 14, 1814, U.S. soldiers at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry raised a huge American flag to celebrate a crucial victory over British forces during the War of 1812. The sight of those “broad stripes and bright stars” inspired Francis Scott Key to write a song that eventually became the United States national anthem.

Colonel Armistead, commander of Fort McHernry, commissioned Mary Youngs Pickersgill, a local seamstress and flag maker to make two flags for Fort McHenry in 1813 - a large flag and a smaller one to fly in bad weather. She was paid $500 for both flags, the large one being 30 x 42 feet, so it could be seen from a great distance. She was asked to sew a flag with 15 stars and 15 stripes, the number of states then in the Union. Armistead anticipating an attack on Fort McHenry by the British during the War of 1812, asked that the flag be made extra large so that it would be plainly visible to the English Fleet. He had also hoped the large flag would lift the spirits of the Baltimoreans, allowing them to see this flag fly in defiance of the British.

United States Code, 36 U.S.C. § 301, states that during a rendition of the national anthem, when the flag is displayed, all present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart; Members of the Armed Forces and veterans who are present and not in uniform may render the military salute; men not in uniform should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold the headdress at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart; and individuals in uniform should give the military salute at the first note of the anthem and maintain that position until the last note; and when the flag is not displayed, all present should face toward the music and act in the same manner they would if the flag were displayed. The national anthem is also played on U.S. military installations at the beginning of the duty day (0600) and at the end of duty day (1700). Military law requires all vehicles on the installation to stop when the song is played and all individuals outside to stand at attention and face the direction of the music and either salute, in uniform, or place the right hand over the heart, if out of uniform. Recently enacted law in 2008 allows military veterans to salute out of uniform, as well.

The song itself is difficult to sing. It has been totally messed up by amateurs and professionals, but mostly at ball games where celebrities try to turn it into a stage act.

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