Is our national anthem sacred?

Terry Garlock's picture

At a local high school sporting event recently, a few parents were offended that one school’s supporters sang along with the ending of the national anthem and changed the last word to support their team. The offended parents feel that is disrespectful to our troops and want an apology. The identifying details don’t really matter.

Personally, I don’t think that kids changing a word in the national anthem to support their team means any disrespect to anybody, I think they are just playing around in school spirit.

But I wouldn’t change anything about the national anthem to support anything, not even one word; it has too much meaning that seems to be lost on much of America. Knowing the historical context helps.

When Congress declared war on the British in 1812, America was a fledgling country with a relatively small and weak military. British ships had been, for 10 long years, capturing American ships on the high seas and impressing our sailors to man British ships. Winning another war against the mighty British may have been pushing our luck, but it was a matter of rights and sovereignty.

It might have been a good thing for the U.S., for a while, at least, that Britain paid little attention to our declaration of war and focused her heavy attention on war with Napoleon. American forces tried and failed to take British strongholds in Canada and the Royal Navy blockaded our Atlantic coast.

After defeating Napoleon in 1814, the British gathered forces and attacked. They overpowered American forces and marched on Washington, D.C. President Madison, who was rallying the troops, feared the British could not be stopped and sent word to his wife, Dolly, to evacuate the White House.

She refused to leave, even after the guards had left, until a full-length portrait of George Washington was removed from its frame to take with her in safekeeping for future generations. Dolly Madison barely made it out before the British took our capital city and burned the White House, House and Senate, Library of Congress, U.S. Treasury and many other buildings.

Some say the flames could be seen from Baltimore, which is ironic because that city was the next target of the British. Before British warships could enter the harbor to take Baltimore they had to take Ft. McHenry, which guarded the harbor with cannon.

On Sept. 13 the British fleet of 19 ships stood just outside the range of Ft. McHenry’s old cannon and prepared to pound the fort into submission with newer rockets and mortar cannonballs that exploded in the air and rained shrapnel down on those below.

Aboard one of the British ships was Dr. William Beanes, an American taken prisoner under dubious circumstances. His friend, an attorney named Francis Scott Key, was determined to win his release.

President Madison agreed with Key and he ordered a government sloop with a flag of truce to take Key to the British ship of Gen. Ross to negotiate Beanes’ release. Gen. Ross agreed to release Beanes, but he and Key had to remain on board the British ship until the imminent battle was over.

As the rockets and mortars started firing, all eyes turned to the embattled fort, miles away.

Beanes and Key could clearly see an American flag flying over Ft. McHenry, but they did not know the flag they saw that night was the fort’s smaller “storm flag,” used during rainy weather like this day of battle.

There was another magnificent flag stored away at Ft. McHenry, a huge flag 30 feet tall and 42 feet wide, each star two feet high. This huge flag had been commissioned to fly atop a 90-foot flagpole at Ft. McHenry, intended to be visible far away in the Chesapeake Bay.

As the one-sided battle lit up the night sky with rockets and bombs raining on the fort, you can see in your mind’s eye, if you let your imagination run free, Beanes and Key standing at the rail of the ship, wondering whether the fort would hold through the night.

If the fort surrendered, surely Baltimore would fall the next day. Did that mean our new and weak country was doomed? Was this experiment in freedom and democracy to end so soon?

The rockets and bombs continued to light up the night sky and our flag, their booms delayed and muffled by distance. The pounding would last many hours, during which nearly 1,800 mortar rounds were fired at the fort.

In the wee hours, the explosions suddenly stopped. The night was dark and quiet, revealing nothing. The silence weighed heavy. Did the fort surrender? Did the bombardment fail?

Finally, as night gave way to the first hint of faint morning light, imagine Beanes and Key standing at the rail again after a little fitful sleep, struggling to see more than dark shapes, saying to each other, “Whose flag is it flying over the fort? Is it ours? Is it the British Union Jack? Did we hold out or did we surrender?”

Francis Scott Key was inspired that morning to write a poem. The first stanza asks whether the flag they saw last night in the light of explosions might still be flying this morning, a question posed in desperate hope:

“Oh! 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 rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

“Gave proof thro’ the night that our flag was still there.

“Oh! say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave,

“O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

As Beanes and Key strained at dawn to see which nation’s flag flew over the fort, they didn’t know our men in the fort had lowered the smaller storm flag in the night and raised the huge flag to signify with attitude that the fort was still in American hands.

With slowly gathering light, they could see the outline of a large flag moving in the breeze, and finally they could make out faint stars and stripes. The flag was ours! Key’s second stanza is about recognizing our flag:

“On the shore, dimly seen thro’ the mist of the deep

“Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,

“What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep

“As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?

“Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,

“In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream.

“‘Tis the star-spangled banner. Oh! long may it wave

“O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”

Key’s poem reflects the tension and relief of our nation struggling to survive while it was still barely born. The outcome of that war was far from certain, though the British had a significant advantage. But the destruction of Baltimore never happened because Ft. McHenry held.

Then a most unlikely event turned in America’s favor; in early 1815 Andrew Jackson’s outnumbered troops defeated a powerful British force at New Orleans. A treaty was ratified ending hostilities.

The United States of America survived.

Francis Scott Key’s poem eventually became our national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.” I wonder how few who hear the first stanza at public events, or even those who skillfully sing the song spanning high and low octaves, really understand the meaning of the words.

My guess is not many understand that in the first stanza we only hear the question, “Whose flag is flying? Did our country hold out through the night? Does our flag still fly o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” We almost never hear the thrilling answer in the second stanza, “‘Tis the star-spangled banner. Oh! long may it wave!”

There are two other stanzas that you may wish to discover on your own, but even if you don’t, the first two stanzas tell us our national anthem is not just familiar words set to a difficult melody, but that those words mean something important.

Is our national anthem sacred? It is to me. I guess you have to decide whether it is sacred to you, and whether playing with it is acceptable.

But I wouldn’t be too hard on high school kids caught up in school spirit changing one word.

If you want to see real disrespect, use this link to see comedienne Roseann Barr sing the National Anthem in an intentionally ugly way at a 1990 San Diego Baseball Game, followed by a spit (www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FhndWwWt8I). And because she is a celebrity, she was applauded. What does that say about us?

[Terry Garlock, who lives in Peachtree City, may be reached at tgarlock@mindspring.com.]