Anthem writer prayed flag still flew History: Francis Scott Key's perceptions may have been off in that dawn's early light, but his aim was true.

Way Back When

September 12, 1998|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Francis Scott Key loathed the War of 1812, which he described as a "lump of wickedness" in a letter to John Randolph of Roanoke.

Key witnessed the naval bombardment of Baltimore from grandstand seats on the main deck of a cartel ship anchored at Old Roads Bay, some eight miles below Fort McHenry. He had gone there to secure the release of Dr. William Beanes, a Prince George's County physician who had been taken prisoner by the British.

"I have since then spent 11 days in the British fleet. I went with a flag [of truce] to endeavor to save poor old Dr. [William] Beanes a voyage to Halifax, in which we fortunately succeeded," he wrote Randolph.

"They detained us until after their attack on Baltimore, and you may imagine what a state of anxiety I endured. Sometimes when I remembered it was there the declaration of this abominable war was received with public rejoicings, I could not feel a hope that they would escape, and again when I thought of the many faithful whose piety lessens that lump of wickedness I could hardly feel a fear," he wrote.

Walter Lord, the Baltimore-born author of "The Dawn's Early Light," wrote, "He [Key] detested the saber-rattling rowdiness of Baltimore -- sometimes felt the place deserved any punishment it got -- but now it was fighting for its life, and he knew where his heart really lay. He was first and last an American, and in these hours of suspense he fervently -- desperately -- prayed the flag was still there."

Through the long night, Key and his companions walked the deck, observing the fury of battle and wondering as to the fate of the fort's plucky defenders.

Dawn was slow coming because of the rain clouds that scudded across the sky.

"But it was growing brighter all the time, and soon an easterly breeze sprung up, flecking the Patapsco and clearing the air. Once again Key raised his glass -- and this time he saw it. Standing out against the dull gray of the clouds and hills was Major Armistead's American flag," wrote Lord.

At 7 a.m., the British fleet began retreating down the Patapsco River and within two hours had left Baltimore. The attack was ended.

"He looked at the flag on the fort again, and it was about now that the turbulent, fervent thoughts racing through his mind began to take poetic shape. Using the back of a letter that happened to be in his pocket, Francis Scott Key began to jot down lines and phrases and likely couplets ..." wrote Lord.

Key, a pious and devout Episcopalian, considered the victory by the defenders of Fort McHenry nothing short of miraculous. In his letter to Randolph he described it as a "most merciful deliverence."

Landing at Hughes' Wharf on Sept. 16, 1814, Key made directly for the Indian Queen Hotel, where he worked through the night completing his poem. Set to the popular British tune "The Anacreon in Heaven," the tune found favor in Baltimore instantly and within weeks newspapers in New England were reprinting Key's lyrics.

Skeptics, however, have raised questions about what Key actually saw and the lore surrounding the creation of the "Star-Spangled Banner."

In 1988, P. William Filby, former head of the Maryland Historical Society, told The Sun, "I don't see why kids should have to read inaccurate stories.

"It would have taken a gale to make the flag wave because it measured 42 feet by 25 feet, and it was so heavy it would have taken 10 men to raise it." And because of the heavy rains the night before, Filby said, "what Key probably saw was the flag wrapped soggily around the pole."

He also questioned the notion of Key scribbling on the back of an envelope. "They weren't invented until 1840, so Key probably just wrote the words on a piece of paper," he said in the interview.

He also disputed the idea that the poem could have been printed in New York the next day after being published in the Baltimore American and Commercial Daily Advertiser.

"In those days they didn't have telephones. Their mode of transportation and communication was stagecoach, and that could only travel 40 miles a day," reported the newspaper.

Others debate what flag Key may have seen. Two flags were at the fort during the bombardment.

One measured 42 feet by 30 feet, which is now undergoing restoration at the Smithsonian Institution. Historians believe that was a smaller flag, which was flown during bad weather, that actually flew during the attack.

In the footnotes of his book, Lord suggested an explanation in the correspondence of a British midshipman, Robert J. Barrett, who wrote, "As the last vessel spread her canvas to the wind, the Americans hoisted a most superb and splendid ensign on their battery and fired at the same time."

Army regulations required a signal gun to be fired at 9 a.m. each day and it is believed that it was the larger, 100-pound Star-Spangled Banner that was hoisted that morning.

"According to witness accounts, the rain had stopped by morning. If the larger flag had been protected from the storm throughout the night, the broad stripes and bright stars would have been dry and, quite possibly, flapping in the morning breeze," suggested The Sun in a 1988 story.

At Key's death in 1843, an editorial in The Sun said: "Mr. Key is well known as the author of the spirited and beautiful National Song -- 'The Star Spangled Banner' -- and, if he had no other claim to the admiration and respectful remembrance of posterity, that, alone, would make his name survive as long as American freedom shall live. The enthusiasm of the patriot, combined with the inspiration of the poet, enabled him to express the love of country in glowing strains which would have honored the purest men of the most renowned days of the land of eloquence and song."

Key is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, where the American flag flies day and night and is never lowered.

Pub Date: 9/12/98

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