Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The story behind The Star Spangled Banner

Several months ago a friend shared an audio clip with this story as a dramatic reading. It was touching and I filed it away to listen to again on Independence Day. On this most patriotic of our holidays, I was reminded of it while singing our National Anthem and as I listed to the clip and re-read the words to the song I found myself sobbing in thanksgiving for the gift I'd taken for granted for so long. To quote another less famous but more modern song, “I believe we will answer each to Heaven for the way we spend our priceless liberty.”

Francis Scott Key, author of The Star Spangled Banner, was an attorney in Baltimore who was chosen to negotiate a prisoner exchange. Both the young United States of America and Britain had accumulated a large number of prisoners in fighting the Revolutionary War. The American prisoners were held on British ships about 1000 yards off the coast. When arrangements had been made, he went out to one of the ships in a row boat and commenced negotiations with the British admiral. Finally they had an agreement to exchange prisoners one for one.

Mr. Key went down into the belly of the ship where the prisoners were held and told them that they were going to be released but as he went back to the deck, the admiral pulled him aside and said there was a complication. He said that they’d still honor the agreement to release the prisoners but after tonight it was going to be basically academic. The he directed Mr. Key’s attention to the horizon where he could see the tiny specks of the approaching war ships. The admiral went on to explain that it was the entire British war fleet. Then he pointed to the coast and Fort Henry saying that all of the ships would be directing their fire at the fort. The stated goal was to remove it from the face of the earth. Mr. Key tried to dissuade him as the fort housed mainly women and children and was not a military installation. The British admiral insisted that there was no need to worry because he’d left them a way out. The he pointed to the flag on the rampart.

He said if the colonists would just lower the flag, the shelling would stop immediately. That’s how they know the colonists had surrendered and agreed to be under British rule. Mr. Key went back down to the prisoners and related this new information. Dusk came and night fell and the flag remained in place. And the shelling started. It went on for hours and was continual and merciless. Mr. Key related that all he could hear from below, in the rare moments of silence as guns were reloaded, was the sound of men praying “God, keep that flag up.”

Eventually the British repositioned and brought all their firepower to bear on the flag itself. Mr. Key said that the men being held prisoner kept yelling up, “Tell us where the flag is. Is it still up?” And amazingly every time he could see it in the glow of bursting bombs, it was still standing. Finally morning broke and he went ashore. The flag itself was in shreds; the flagpole strangely askew.

But somehow it was still standing.

He learned that it had taken repeated direct hits. But that every time it had fallen under the heavy bombing, men had rushed forward to hold it in place. Fathers, sons, brothers… knowing with complete certainty that they would die in the act willingly went forward. They held the flag up humanly. As they fell, their bodies were removed and others took their place. In the end, what held the flagpole in place were patriot bodies… remains of men who gave all because they knew what it would mean if that flag came down.

For the most part I think these men - men who knew, and paid, the price of liberty - have been forgotten by history and remain nameless and faceless. But they are heroes none the less. At the very least they are heroes to me. They truly made a difference in the world!

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