It’s not entirely certain what happened that night in September long ago. All we are sure of, in fact, is that the lawyer who had gone out to negotiate a prisoner exchange with the enemy found himself stranded on the ship where those prisoners were being held, some eight miles out in the harbor.
Just weeks before, the enemy had already burned the capitol and now the full might of their impressive naval fleet was trained upon a fort that guarded what was then the third largest city in the young country. And so all that the thirty-five year-old lawyer could do was to simply watch from the deck of that enemy ship while his countrymen, imprisoned in a cargo hold below, anxiously awaited the outcome.
To be sure, the bombarding force had offered the inhabitants of that fort, many of them women and children, a way out of what seemed like inevitable defeat. All they had to do to immediately stop the shelling was to lower the flag which flew over their encampment, all the more noticeable for the captain of that garrison had commissioned it to be made so large–30 by 42 feet, in fact– that the enemy “would have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.”
It’s no wonder then that the prisoners down below kept yelling up at the man on the deck, “Tell us where the flag is.” And indeed, as the night wore on, the enemy trained all of their firepower on that target hour after hour, discharging some 1500 to 1800 shells in all. “It seemed,” according to that reluctant eyewitness, “as though mother earth had opened and was vomiting shot and shell in a sheet of fire and brimstone.” Yet despite being directly hit several times, whenever the glare of the rockets illuminated the sky, what the lawyer saw was that the flag was still flying somehow.
And when the morning sun arose on September 14, 1814, as those on the ship looked through the haze, it was not the Union Jack of the British forces, but Mary Pickersgill’s oversized American emblem that was still fluttering on the flagpole of an undefeated Fort McHenry. Admittedly, it was somewhat in shreds, and the flagpole itself leaned at an odd angle. But all of that was because it was fixed in place by the bodies of patriots who knew what it meant for that flag to be on the ground, and had simply held it up by their hands until they died and someone else took their place.
It’s no surprise that the lawyer thus took the only paper he could find– the back of a letter that had been in his pocket– and began to scribble down his experience, finishing it when he was finally able to return to shore later that day. And within a week, his stirring poem was published across the country and soon put to music.
Through the years, many have complained about it, of course, saying it is too militaristic to be a national anthem. Likewise one New York newspaper long ago argued that the song had “words that nobody can remember to a tune that nobody can sing.”
What’s more, the irony of the inconsistencies in the life of that young lawyer– Francis Scott Key– have not been lost on others. For Key had not only originally opposed the War of 1812 as a “lump of wickedness,” but more significantly, he was a slaveholder who only later through his faith came to understand the sheer villainy of that injustice. In the current climate, it’s no surprise thus that his statue in San Francisco was among those that have been toppled in recent months.
But it’s the story of the flag itself that bears remembering. For even as the men below in the cargo hold prayed that night long ago, others in Ft. McHenry exemplified the ideal that it is better to die on your feet sometimes than to live on your knees.
And as another football season begins–when what happens on the sidelines as the National Anthem is played may be as controversial as any referee’s call during the game–as well as yet another remembrance of 9/11–perhaps that’s worth keeping in our hearts as well.