On this Memorial Day, we honor the American heroes who have sacrificed their lives serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. Our President and First Lady will make two stops to historic and patriotic sites today. One is Fort McHenry, which is on a peninsula in Baltimore.
America was brought into a war between France and Britain in 1812. The British frequently captured American sailors and forced them to serve in the Royal Navy, and they were encouraging the Indians in the West to attack our frontier settlements, and gave them weapons to do so. Americans became so angry over this that the United States declared war on Great Britain in June 1812 to protect free trade and sailor’s rights, and American rights on land.
The people of Baltimore were certain that the British would attack the city, so they spent months fortifying the already existing Fort McHenry to defend Baltimore. But they felt they had no suitable flag to fly over the ramparts of the star shaped fort.
Major George Armistead, the commanding officer, said he wanted “to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.” General John Stricker and Commodore Joshua Barney ordered two flags, especially made for the garrison by Mary Pickersgill in Baltimore, according to historical reports stored by the National Park Service. The fort’s flag was huge and had 15 stars on it.
The bombardment of Fort McHenry started two years into the war, on September 13, 1814 and lasted until the next morning. The Brits unloaded thousands of soldiers and had them march on the fort as the British Navy bombed the fort from their ships. The U.S. troops were cobbled together from the Army, Navy and militias and volunteer civilians from Maryland and surrounding states but they were severely outnumbered. As our military men and women have done before when outnumbered and threatened, we repelled the opposing military through courage and stamina. Four men were lost inside the Fort and two dozen were injured.
Francis Scott Key, who was a lawyer, was given permission by President Madison to take a boat out to meet a British ship for a prisoner swap. On the morning of September 14, Key witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry while under British guard on an American truce ship in the Patapsco River. Seeing his country’s flag still flying over the Fort the next morning, he was moved to pen these immortal words:
O say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming!
And the rockets’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through 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?
There are three additional verses, but we normally sing just this first verse of our National Anthem at various events. The successful repulse of the British Army and Navy at, and around, Fort McHenry had a tremendous effect on the spirit of the American people, one author-historian wrote. And that’s why we remember Fort McHenry’s troops, on Memorial Day.
Bill Williams served in the U.S. Air Force during the last four years of the Viet Nam War. His father and four of his uncles served in the other branches of the service during WWII, some receiving Purple Hearts. One uncle was killed in a fighter plane training mission, others went on to serve in the Korean War.