American flag a rallying point

September 23, 2001|By Raymond Daniel Burke

THE UBIQUITOUS appearance of American flags throughout our community in the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has brought a cavalcade of color to our ordinary byways. It is a stunning display made all the more poignant on these days when the brilliant late summer sunshine stands in such profound contrast to the darkness that has enveloped our country and our hearts.

Our region has seen other Septembers when the welcome break from summer's humidity has provided the backdrop for our nation's greatest perils. And, in those times, it has been the display of the flag that both sustained us in battle and held us together in spirit.

In September 1814, it appeared that the young American republic was in real danger of imminent extinction. The invading British had burned Washington, forcing our central government to flee for its life, and they now intended to deliver a decisive blow by taking the port city of Baltimore. It was a time of terror and desperation.

The reaction here was to commence a methodical preparation to repel land and sea attacks and to commission a huge flag to fly over Fort McHenry.

When the dawn of Sept. 14 revealed that the flag still waved over a fort that had withstood a 25-hour bombardment, and the land assault had been turned back, the very spirit of the nation was reborn.

Francis Scott Key's moving poem, with the fort's flag as its inspiration, indelibly captured the essence of that moment, and became a nationwide hymn to the determination that had preserved a nation.

A generation later, in September 1862, the country teetered on the verge of self-destruction. Just days after an enormous victory over the Union army at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee determined that he would take the war into Maryland.

Hoping to arouse Confederate sympathy in the state, Lee's army marched through Frederick on Sept. 10, 1862. It was there that Barbara Frietschie's display of the American flag became a source of inspiration to an embattled nation.

John Greenleaf Whittier's poem romanticizing the event preserved for the ages more than the image of a 95-year-old woman defiantly flying the Stars and Stripes over the heads of Confederate troops. It also captured for posterity the emotions and determination of a nation as its fate was being played out in the rolling Maryland countryside.

It would take the ferocious clashes at South Mountain and the horrors of Antietam to end Lee's invasion, and it would take another 2 1/2 wrenching years of war to preserve the union and cleanse it of the stain of slavery. But the story of Barbara Frietschie would remain a powerful statement of the meaning of the flag.

So now we have our own September crisis, and we again, spontaneously and without overt orchestration, turn to the flag, but not merely because it is the symbol of our country. The events of 1814 and 1862 demonstrate that it is more than that.

Unlike most national banners, this is not the flag of a people joined by their ethnicity, religion or geographic origin. It does not represent the heredity of a ruling family, nor is it the standard of an army. It is the flag of the union of a people in the unique idea out of which their nation was born. Perhaps Whittier's poem described it best: "The symbol of light and law."

The continued vitality of that idea can be witnessed on nearly any street-- its colors brilliantly flying in the clarity of the September air.

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a partner in a Baltimore law firm.

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