September 13, 2007

The Forgotten War

Americans on the whole barely remember the War of 1812, and often when they think of it, if at all, it's to wonder exactly why it requires an overture all its own. The seeming lack of significance of this war in U.S. history belies the tremendous impact that this conflict had on our nation.

This second war with Britain, occurring just a few decades after our revolution, put the survival of United States at stake. Anything less than a stalemate, and the terms for peace with Britain would have undoubtedly included renouncing our recent independence and returning to British rule. Though it wasn't a popular or particularly rousing conflict, we were fighting for our continuing independence and the right to conduct the affairs of a sovereign nation. And two years into it, the Americans weren't doing very well.

Earlier in the summer of 1814 British forces had decimated an unprepared American militia and marched into the recently constructed Washington D.C., forcing President Madison to flee. After literally eating the President's abandoned dinner in the White House, the British burned it and the Treasury building, humiliating the young nation and plunging our morale to its lowest point. Pushed out of Washington by a fierce storm and the summer heat, the British forces next chose to move on the thriving port city of Baltimore. In the early nineteenth century Baltimore was the primary hub of our Atlantic merchant vessels, as well as a staging ground for our ragged navy of pirates and privateers.

To lay siege to such a large city, the British would require that Baltimore couldn't be supplied or reinforced by sea, which meant controlling Chesapeake Bay. If they could take the Chesapeake Bay, and the city that commands it, the British could effectively cut the fledgling American nation in half, denying each half vital communication and trade with the other. As the British ground forces moved into position, the British Navy sailed towards Baltimore.

The only thing standing between the citizens of Baltimore, and the nation, and defeat at the hands of the British was Fort McHenry. Yet small Fort McHenry had never been through a battle, an this unproven fort with short-barrelled cannon faced the most powerful and well-trained navy in the world. The British Navy had much longer guns, and could easily stay beyond the range of the fort's meager cannon fire, attacking the Americans with impunity, which is exactly what they did.

In the early morning of September 13
the British began what was the single largest artillery bombardment in human history. For twenty five straight hours, over three thousands rockets and bombs were hurled at the small fort, and the garrison had no choice but to endure the shelling. Hunkered down in crowded underground bunkers, unable to fight back because the British remained out of range of their shorter cannon, the defenders had no alternative but to withstand the unrelenting bombardment for hour after hour.

Meanwhile, the citizens of Baltimore watched from the heights as their only hope endured the British assault. Merchants, tradesmen, women, and children all relied on the small fort and its young men to hold firm. Loss of Fort McHenry meant the loss of Baltimore, their livelihoods, and possibly their lives. Yet how could they possibly hold out against the British Navy for long?

The battle was also being observed by a young lawyer who had been visiting the British Admiral under a truce-flag. He was on board the Admiral's ship to negotiate the release of a prisoner of war, and because he had heard details of the imminent attack, this Maryland lawyer was obliged to remain aboard until the battle was over. As dusk turned into darkness, young Francis Scott Key passed the night as a guest of the British Navy while it shelled his countrymen.

And it was a very dark night; moonless with heavy rain. Both the fort and the city of Baltimore were in complete blackout to reduce ambient light, not wanting to assist the British with their targeting. It became so dark that the only way to gauge the battle came from the exploding rockets and bombs, momentarily lighting up the night sky, providing a fleeting glimpse to those watching for any sign that the fort, and their fates, might crumble. Watchers fixated on the one point they could discern through the flashes of gunpowder - the small American flag flying above the fort. If the fort surrendered it would strike the colors, so as long as the flag still flew there was still hope. Helpless, the citizens of Baltimore and the young lawyer could do nothing but watch and wait. The night and the shelling wore on, and everyone wondered what the morning would bring.

As dawn broke on September 14, 193 years ago today, the citizens of Baltimore peered into the early morning gloom to learn their fate - did Fort McHenry hold, or had it fell, dooming the city? What greeted them that morning stunned them; waving in the breeze above the Fort was indeed an American flag but it was not the small, ragged, ripped flag of the night before, but rather the largest American flag anyone had ever seen.

Earlier in the war when it became apparent that it was was unlikely Baltimore would escape unscathed, the Fort's Garrison Commander Major George Armisted commissioned a Baltimore seamstress to sew him a very special American flag, one so large it could be seen from the city five miles away. In that darkest hour just before dawn, this prescient Major lowered the small storm flag and raised for the first time what has become our star-spangled banner. 30 feet by 45 feet, it was the largest American flag in the world; pristine, enormous, and unscathed, and it was a message to the fearful city- the fort held.

The new flag was also easily seen by the British Navy just a few miles offshore, and wisely the Admiral deduced that if Fort McHenry wasn't going to submit after the twenty-five hour onslaught it had already received, there was nothing remaining in his arsenal that might do the job. Abandoning his hope for Baltimore, the Admiral gave the order to weigh anchor and he sailed the fleet out of Chesapeake Bay. Deprived of their naval support, the British ground forces also decided to pursue easier pickings, and they too moved on, leaving Baltimore - and the United States - intact.

Francis Scott Key was moved by what he experienced that night, and by what what our soldiers endured for their country. He quickly wrote a poem about his impressions, which was originally titled the Defense of Fort McHenry, but soon became known as The Star-Spangled Banner. After years of unofficial status as our defacto anthem, in 1931 Key's poem and the music it was set to became our official National Anthem by an act of Congress. It's a four verse song, though we're only familiar with and only sing the first verse, and over the years many have argued that it's not a fitting tribute for America. Some have proposed America the Beautiful and God Bless America as better songs for the job, more accessible and easier to sing.

Yet I say we didn't just pick the Star Spangled Banner, we earned it. And the men and women of our armed forces deserve it. Today is not a holiday, there are no parades on anyone's behalf. Few ever consider the War of 1812, and fewer still the Battle for Baltimore. But those guys sat there huddled in the dark while getting shelled for 25 hours, and in doing so, saved a nation. Damn it if they don't deserve a hell of a good song for that.

Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming?

Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight,

O'er the ramparts we watch'd, were so gallantly streaming?

And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof thro' 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?


At 12:50 PM, Blogger ad7am said...

I sing The Star-Spangled Banner to my infant son, because it's one of the few songs for which I know the words. And now I know why I know them.
Thanks for this.


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