THE BLOG
09/15/2014 07:58 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In Celebration of Our National Anthem's Bicentennial

Vstock LLC via Getty Images

This past Saturday and Sunday marked the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore, which occurred toward the end of the War of 1812. Tomorrow will be the bicentennial of Francis Scott Key completing the now-immortal lyrics he titled: "The Defence Of Fort M'Henry" -- later more famously known as America's national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner."

The War of 1812 was one of (if not the) most pointless wars America has ever entered. American schoolchildren, of course, are not taught this; instead they are taught about the few American victories in the war -- most notably, the Battle of Baltimore (or the "Battle of Fort McHenry") and the Battle of New Orleans. Left mostly untaught are the disastrous campaigns to conquer Canada and the biggest wartime occupation of American territory in any war we've ever found ourselves in. Also unmentioned is the fact that the treaty which ended the war (the Treaty of Ghent) gave neither side much of anything, and in fact returned both the United States and Great Britain to the status quo ante bellum (or, for non-Latin speakers: "right back where we started from").

The War of 1812 was more significant for the domestic fallout and aftermath than for any actual military or diplomatic victories. The war essentially killed off one of the first American political parties -- George Washington's "Federalists." Two of the biggest military victories on land gave us two future presidents -- Andrew Jackson, who won the Battle of New Orleans, and William Henry Harrison. The war did also convince American politicians of the need for an actual United States Navy, which had never really previously existed (due to the fact that it cost a lot of actual money). And, of course, it did gain us our national song.

 

The United States declares war for the first time

The declaration of war -- the first in United States history -- was an incredibly contentious partisan issue. The two parties at the time were the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists (also variously called Democrats, Republicans, or Democratic-Republicans -- American partisan labels were in their infancy, it should be noted). The Federalists had dominated the new American government in the 1790s, under George Washington and John Adams. The election of 1800, which Anti-Federalist Thomas Jefferson won, was one of the most bitter and contentious in all our history (it is even called by historians the "Revolution of 1800"). Jefferson's Anti-Federalists continued their control of American politics with the election of James Madison in 1808, who became the first president to declare war. As in modern times, the parties' dominance broke down on largely geographic lines -- New England was strongly Federalist, while the South and what was called the West at the time (now called the Midwest) were much more Anti-Federalist. The vote on the war resolution in June of 1812 was the closest congressional vote on going to war in American history, (until the Iraq War authorization of 1991, which wasn't an actual declaration of war). It was bitterly opposed by New England merchants, who made a lot of their money through trade with Britain. Toward the end of the war, New England became the first region of the United States to ever openly consider seceding (to strike a separate peace with Britain), five decades before the Civil War, when the Federalists met in the "Hartford Convention."

Feelings in Baltimore ran high, and mostly pro-war. Alexander Contee Hanson, newspaper publisher of the Federal Republican, ran a scathingly anti-war editorial immediately after war was declared, which including the following:

[O]ur rulers have promulged a war, against the clear and decided sentiments of a vast majority of the nation....We mean to represent in as strong colors as we are capable, that it is unnecessary, inexpedient, and entered into from partial, personal, and as we believe, motives bearing upon their front marks of undisguised foreign influence, which cannot be mistaken.... We detest and abhor the endeavours of faction to create a civil contest through the pretext of the foreign war, it has rashly and premeditetely commenced, and we shall be ready cheerfully to hazard every thing most dear, to frustrate any usurpation leading to the prostration of civil rights, and the establishment of a system of terror and proscription, announced in the government paper at Washington, as the inevitable consequence of the decisive measure now proclaimed. We shall cling to the rights of a freeman, both in act and opinion, till we sink with the liberty of our country, or sink alone....We are avowedly hostile to the presidency of James Madison, and we never will breath[e] under the dominion direct or derivative of Bonaparte.

This was the equivalent (in today's terms) of stating that President Obama is now starting a war for purely partisan reasons, that the president is being used as a tool by foreign powers, that the war is a desperate attempt to throw the upcoming elections to the Democrats, that it will directly lead to tyranny in Washington, and that Obama is nothing more than patsy of Assad and the Syrian government. In other words, pretty strong language. This editorial went on to taunt (there is no other word for it) the pro-war citizens of Baltimore, since Hanson had already been threatened for his editorial stance (and since the offices of a newspaper further south had already been destroyed by a mob). Hanson called the Baltimore Anti-Federalists "an insignificant few, whose ignorance and want of reflection are upon a par with their malignity," and ended with the fighting words: "Those who should dare to disturb public order would be the only and certain victims of the attempt." Go ahead, make my day (to put it another way).

Two days after this was printed, a mob obliterated the newspaper's offices. For an astounding two months afterwards, the mob ruled the streets of Baltimore at night, provoked race riots, and terrorized the populace of the city. Federalists fled in fear. Hanson continued publishing his paper from outside Baltimore, and then after a few weeks went by, returned to the city (to a building he had rented). A mob of two thousand responded, and besieged the building. A rival newspaper publisher was heard urging the mob to use a cannon they had pointed at the front door.

The militia showed up, and took Hanson and his defenders to jail, for their own safety. The mob then promptly broke into the jail and dragged them all out. They killed one -- a veteran general from the American Revolution -- and tortured the others, including another Revolutionary War hero, General "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, father of Robert E. Lee. The mob pitched the bodies down a staircase in front of the jail, where they:

...lay in a heap nearly three hours. During this whole time the Mob continued to torture their mangled bodies, by beating first one and then the other; sticking penknives into their faces and hands, and opening their eyes and dropping hot candle grease into them, &c.

The other eight, including Hanson, survived by playing dead. I recount this story to show how war feelings ran awfully high in Baltimore at the time.

 

Washington burns

By 1814, the war was going badly for the Americans. Repeated attempts to invade and conquer Canada had been resoundingly defeated (sometimes embarrassingly so) by the Canadians and the British. British troops had invaded and occupied parts of the New England coastline. But the biggest military disgrace was the sacking and burning of Washington, the new capital city of the nation, by British troops who had met only laughable resistance in the fiasco known as the Battle of Bladensburg.

The British navy controlled the Chesapeake Bay, and they launched raids all over the Maryland coastline. Francis Scott Key, a Maryland lawyer (and amateur poet), was sent by President Madison under a flag of truce to where the British had set up their naval headquarters to discuss a prisoner exchange following the sacking and burning of Washington. While on this mission, however, Key overheard British plans for an imminent major attack on Baltimore, so he was not allowed to leave the custody of the British until after the battle. This is why he saw the Battle of Fort McHenry from the British side (on a boat, in the midst of the fleet attacking the fort).

Baltimore was not going to be a repeat of the easy victory Washington had been, however. The geography was very different, for one, which meant it was easier to defend militarily. Fort McHenry guarded a very narrow approach to Baltimore's harbor, so it was impossible for the British navy to attack the town without first defeating the fort. The British launched a simultaneous land invasion, but the Baltimore militia (and the city's citizens) were a lot more prepared than the American forces who ran away at Bladensburg. The Baltimore forces engaged the British early on, and then fell back to previously prepared earthworks where they had dug in their artillery. The British did make some advances, but eventually were forced to withdraw because the opposition's defenses were so formidable.

 

The rockets' red glare

The land battle is now largely overlooked, though, because the song focuses solely on the naval bombardment. At the time, in military history, the brand-new and terrifying weapon the British deployed were "Congreve rockets" (as in their "red glare") -- essentially unguided rocket bombs that killed few but frightened many on the battlefield.

The British fleet numbered around twenty ships, and they were able to anchor just out of range of the cannons at Fort McHenry -- which still left the fort within the British cannons' range. This superiority of weapons allowed the British to rain down fire upon the fort while risking no danger to their ships. Which, beginning September 13, 1814, they did -- for more than 24 frightening hours.

Americans had never seen Congreve rockets before this war, it should be noted. Francis Scott Key himself had witnessed the Battle of Bladensburg, so he was fully aware of their psychological impact. In modern terms, the use of such weapons created a "shock and awe" effect. Together with the rockets, over 1,500 cannonballs were fired at Fort McHenry in an unceasing barrage.

A few points are worth making here. Francis Scott Key had originally been against the War of 1812, but later (when the British began terrorizing Maryland by raiding from the water) joined the military himself. Being on a ship during the battle meant he had no way of knowing what was going on with the land battle the British had simultaneously launched. And finally, the flag created for the fort was a bit provocative (intentionally, one assumes) due to its incredible size -- 30 feet by 42 feet. The commander of the fort would raise this enormous flag every morning -- which was visible from as far off as humanly possible -- to proclaim his continued control of the fort.

 

Say, can you see...?

Key had spent a tense night, from his front-row seat to the naval battle. He had no way of knowing what the next morning would bring. Had the British taken Baltimore by land? Had the bombardment succeeded in destroying the American forces at the fort? Was this to be a repeat of Bladensburg and the burning of Washington? He watched the ceaseless barrage all night, and waited for a sign "by dawn's early light."

Our national anthem's first verse (there are actually four) is composed as a question. Stripped of its poetry, it asks whether the American flag still flew over the fort, as it did yesterday and throughout the fight. But it goes beyond just spotting a flag -- the real question was whether Baltimore had fallen to the British, and whether the war was going to continue to be a series of embarrassing military defeats for the Americans, while the British rampaged up and down our coastlines. Things had not been going well, and the battle was going to be crucial for the entire war effort -- it had military importance far beyond Maryland's shores.

The battle was "won" by a well-constructed fort. The soldiers in the fort did not sink any British ships (they were anchored too far away), and their biggest claim to victory is that -- incredibly -- only four of them died from all those rockets and cannonballs fired. The victory was one of defense, not of offense.

Nonetheless, it did indeed prove to be a turning point in the war. The British navy, convinced that Baltimore was impregnable, withdrew completely from the Chesapeake and sailed for New Orleans -- where they would face a real defeat at the hands of Andrew Jackson. If Baltimore had fallen, the war might have dragged on for a lot longer, and the outcome may have been very different.

Both the New Orleans victory and the defense of Baltimore allowed the American citizens to end the war feeling a whole lot better about it then they really had any right to. Again, the treaty which ended the war did not address a single one of the American complaints. The war was launched by America in large part as a war of conquest, because certain politicians and military men were convinced they could conquer Canada with no trouble at all, and by doing so kick the Brits off the continent once and for all. This, obviously, did not come to pass. This is why historians today call the War of 1812 one of the most pointless and ill-conceived wars America has ever fought.

On the bright side, we had stood up to Britain and had some surprising naval successes against what was unquestionably the dominant military force on the planet at the time. Some called it the "Second American Revolution," and it helped cement feelings of being a true nation on the world's stage, when the United States was no more than a bit player, previously. As mentioned, the military victories gave us two future presidents, for better or worse.

 

Remembering Key

Francis Scott Key, were he alive today, would likely be astonished at what he is now remembered for. He would likely have expected to be remembered for being a leading legal mind of his generation, arguing important cases of the day. His poetry was always more of a rather insignificant hobby. He had previously written new words for the tune that became our national anthem, for various occasions and reasons (one of which may have been that publishing sheet music back then was a very expensive undertaking, whereas publishing new lyrics for a song that everyone already knew how to sing was a whole lot cheaper and also didn't have to involve any musical ability).

Key's "Defence of Fort M'Henry" quickly became popular, and was soon reprinted under the title we know today: "The Star-Spangled Banner." Eventually, through the efforts of some musical superstars (like John Philip Sousa) and some very committed Marylanders, Congress officially proclaimed it our national anthem -- but it took them until 1931 to do so. Also eventually, the flag itself (or, more properly, "what remained of it after a lot of it was hacked off and handed out as souvenirs") was donated to the public, where it can be seen today in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. Key's original manuscript, written on the back of a letter, can be seen today at the Maryland Historical Society.

The War of 1812 didn't gain America much, as a country. It didn't address the complaints that led the Americans to declare war in the first place. We didn't conquer Canada. The British still saw us as a minor and rebellious country, whose "American experiment" in government was likely still doomed to failure in the near future. America suffered greater military defeats (relatively) in this war than in any other conflict we have fought. The enemy occupied American states and territories during the conflict to a degree which has (thankfully) never been repeated. The seat of our new national government, in all its neo-classical majesty, was burned and sacked -- which was just as big a psychological defeat back then as it would be today.

But we did have one smashing military success to end the war. In many places in America, news of the Treaty of Ghent and the Battle of New Orleans arrived almost simultaneously, leading many to falsely conclude that Jackson's victory had forced the British to end the war -- when in fact the treaty was signed weeks before a shot was ever fired in New Orleans. And we did gain a certain amount of what can be called our "national identity" after the war. Right at the heart of this was a new patriotic (and popular) song, which later became our national anthem. Francis Scott Key likely had no idea that any of this would follow. He had a rather unique viewpoint to a battle that turned the tide of the war for the Americans, but when he wrote the song he had no way of knowing what the future would bring.

So, at the next ballgame you watch, pause for a moment and give this Maryland lawyer and amateur poet his due. Because he was in the right place at the right time, he was able to pen an inspiring and glorious song which now encompasses what it means to be an American. We were not defeated during that long, dark night 200 years ago. Through all the terrifying bombardment, we did not cut and run. The people of Baltimore held the line. In the morning, all of this was obvious to everyone when that gigantic flag appeared in the dawn's early light. So join me in wishing a very happy 200th birthday to Francis Scott Key's now-immortal war reporting.

 

[Citations Note:]

The first quoted passage above was from an editorial titled only (headlines had yet to really become common): "Baltimore, Saturday, June 20," which ran in the June 20, 1812 edition of the Baltimore Federal Republican, written by Alexander Contee Hanson. The second passage is from a pamphlet Hanson published afterwards on September 1, 1812, with the concise (!) title:

An Exact and Authentic Narrative, of the Events Which Took Place in Baltimore, on the 27th and 28th of July Last. Carefully Collected From Some of the Sufferers and Eye-Witnesses. To Which is Added a Narrative of Mr. John Thomson, One of the Unfortunate Sufferers, &c. "The direful Mob was heard to shout / We'll drink their blood! we'll root them out!"

Publishing data for this pamphlet is sketchy, at best, but it was likely printed somewhere either in or near Baltimore.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

Become a fan of Chris on The Huffington Post