The War of 1812 is sort of the nineteenth-century equivalent of our wars in Korea or Vietnam. It did not end well. It created national divisions. It gave no one any particularly good reason to want to remember it.
For years the British had interfered with American trade to the extent of boarding American merchant vessels to seize sailors and force them to join the British navy. It was illegal and an affront to national pride.
That in itself may not have led to war if it hadn’t been for a rising sense of national pride, which culminated in the congressional elections of 1810.
Southern and western states (in other words, the ones who had suffered the least from British disrespect for American trade) sent a large number of highly nationalistic freshmen representatives. They had a different grievance against the British.
They wanted the new nation to expand its territory, but met fierce resistance from the Native American population. British troops stationed in western Canada actively supported the Indian resistance. A war against Britain to drive them out of Canada entirely would add not only territory but, supposedly, a large English-speaking population that would welcome American freedoms.
The US won a couple of important naval battles early on and a stunning land battle after the peace treaty was signed. Otherwise, it was an embarrassing disaster that failed to accomplish any of its objectives. New England states threatened to secede from the Union.
The British marched on Washington in August 1814 and burned the White House, the Capitol, and other public buildings. The American defense rested in the hands of a local militia, which fled. President and Mrs. James Madison barely escaped with their lives.
Except for a few bright spots, then, the War of 1812 would have been a complete national humiliation except for one important factor. The United States had fought to a draw against the leading military power in the world. In the eventual peace treaty, the British made no concessions and did not stop their interference with trade. The 6000 Americans killed in the war were still dead. Otherwise, the war might as well not have happened at all for what little effect it had.
The flagWhen Major George Armistead took command of Fort McHenry near Baltimore in June 1813, he commissioned a local flag maker, Mary Pickersgill, to sew two flags: a storm flag (17′ x 25′) and a much larger garrison flag (30′ x 42′). Each of 15 stripes on the garrison flag is about two feet wide. Each of the 15 stars is about two feet in diameter. That is the flag now known as the Star-Spangled Banner. (The storm flag has since been lost.)
Why 15 stars and stripes? Vermont and Kentucky had joined the original 13 states. The Flag Act then in effect prescribed one star and one stripe for each state. In 1818 Congress passed a new flag act that mandated 13 stripes in honor of the original colonies and one star for each state. The wisdom of that move became apparent long before we became 50 states!
To put the immense size of the garrison flag into perspective, modern garrison flags are standardized at 20′ x 38′. Fort McHenry’s garrison flag was about a quarter the size of of a basketball court and intended to fly on a 90′ flag pole.
Pickersgill and her helpers spent about two months on the flags and delivered them to Fort McHenry on August 19, 1813. They sewed the stripes and the blue fields from English wool bunting, dyed red, white and blue, and the stars from white cotton.
After the war, Armistead kept the flag. He died in 1818, and his widow in 1861. She left the flag to her daughter who, in 1878, passed it on to her son. By that time, Armistead’s grandson recognized that the Star-Spangled Banner was as much a national treasure as family heirloom. In 1907 he lent it to the Smithsonian Institution and in 1912 offered it as a gift.
Unfortunately, while the historic flag was still in family hands, the Armisteads had received many requests for pieces of the flag. They gave away enough snippets–and one of the stars–to military veterans, government officials, and other VIPs that the flag is now 200 square feet smaller than when it flew over Fort McHenry. Recipients of the fragments treasured them, framed them, and displayed them in their homes. Many are now in museum collections, including 13 at the Smithsonian.
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After they had destroyed Washington, the British army marched on nearby Baltimore intending to capture it in a joint operation with the navy. On September 12, 1814, the American vanguard managed to kill the British general. In response, the British set up camp, intending to attack Baltimore after dark. Early the next morning, the navy began a bombardment that lasted 25 hours.
Major Armistead and his 1000 troops refused to surrender and held off attacks. At first, the naval vessels were outside the range of their guns. But as the British admiral ordered his ships to advance that afternoon, American fire from the fort inflicted considerable damage. By the next morning, both the British army and navy determined that they could not take Baltimore and withdrew. Three months later, the two nations signed the peace treaty that ended the war.
Meanwhile, the British had arrested Dr. William Beanes and imprisoned him on a warship. He was charged with arresting British deserters and stragglers during the attack on Washington. John S. Skinner, a government agent, and Francis Scott Key, a local lawyer, went to the ship and successfully negotiated Beanes’ release. But to prevent them from divulging any information about the plans to capture Baltimore, the British detained them on a truce ship until the battle was over.
All through the night of September 13, then, the three Americans had a front row seat to watch the naval bombardment. Wherever a rocket landed, it burst into flame. The British also launched 10″ and 13″ bombshells filled with shrapnel, which exploded overhead and rained down fire. If the British had prevailed, Key would have seen the Union Jack flying over Fort McHenry in the morning. But Mrs. Pickersgill’s handiwork still caught the breeze atop the flag pole.
Key immediately began to write a poem about what he had seen. Soon, he had it printed as a broadside with the title “The Defence of Fort McHenry.” It had the further instruction to sing it to the tune “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a popular British song that went through Key’s mind as he wrote his poem:
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 watched, were so gallantly 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? On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep, Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes, What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep, As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses? Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam, In full glory reflected now shines in the stream: ’Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave. And where is that band who so vauntingly swore That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion, A home and a country, should leave us no more? Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution. No refuge could save the hireling and slave From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave: And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave. 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!
Generations of people have regretted Key’s choice of the nearly unsingable “To Anacreon in Heaven.” It has a range of an octave and a half. Most people can either sing the first phrase comfortably or the line about “the rocket’s red glare,” but not both. Still, fitting new words to a well known tune was a common practice in the days long before music had any copyright protection.
Anacreon was an ancient Greek poet (6th century BC) who wrote a lot of poems about women and wine. He was much better known and admired in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries than he appears to be now. In the mid 1770s, some British gentlemen established the Anacreontic Society. It was a social club dedicated to “wit, harmony, and the god of wine.” More than that, however, it was a group of amateur musicians who presented regular public concerts.
One of the club’s founders, Ralph Tomlinson, wrote the poem “To Anacreon in Heaven” in 1776. Instead of fitting them to an existing tune, Tomlinson apparently commissioned John Stafford Smith to compose a new one. The text and tune were first published in about 1779 and quickly became popular.
Actually, there have been many Anacreontic Societies. I’m not sure if the one in London was even the first by that name. “Anacreontic” literature existed both in France and England in the mid-sixteenth century. In this country, an Anacreontic Society founded in New York in 1799 likewise gave popular concerts. At about the same time, New York had Columbian, Euterpean, and Philharmonic societies that offered concerts. The current New York Philharmonic Orchestra could have just as easily recycled one of those other names.
More to the point, an Anacreontic Society was founded in Baltimore in 1807. Minute books no longer exist that far back, but it seems reasonable to suppose that it owed more than a little bit to the London society mentioned earlier, and that the song by Tomlinson and Smith was likewise its “anthem.” In any case, the tune was well known in the United States. Dozens of new texts had been set to it before Key used it.
At the outset of the Civil War, a self-appointed National Hymn Committee sought a song suitable to be the national anthem. They dismissed “Yankee Doodle” as childish, “Hail Columbia” as pretentious, and “The Star-Spangled Banner” almost useless because it’s so hard to sing. They sponsored a contest and invited the composition of something new.
Nothing came of it. “The Star-Spangled Banner” remained popular in the north throughout the Civil War. By the 1890s all branches of the military played it for ceremonial purposes, including the raising and lowering of the colors. By 1917, the military referred to it as the national anthem, although officially the nation didn’t yet have one.
Patriotic organizations began to pressure Congress to do something about it. Finally, in 1931, Congress passed, and President Hoover signed, a bill that made “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official national anthem of the United States. I’m not sure when other people started pressing Congress to replace it with something people can actually sing, but the rumblings have been going on as long as I can remember.
Regardless of whether that effort ever succeeds, one of America’s most forgettable wars gave us a cherished flag, a well-loved first verse of a poem, and a wonderfully stirring band piece that everyone sings to the best of their ability.
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Star-Spangled Banner and the War of 1812
Was the “Star-Spangled Banner” really an old drinking song?
Anacreontic Society of Baltimore, Minute Book, 1820-1826. Maryland Historical Society
Photos, from the Smithsonian Institution, are public domain.