And the Rocket’s Red Glare

Most people know that our national anthem originated from the war of 1812, but not many know that the tune the poem Francis Scott Key wrote is set to was normally sung by drunken folks in pubs like an Irish shanty.  While teaching my son his history lessons today, I realized how much more there was to this war and the story of our anthem.  It’s rather entertaining, actually.

After the British landed in Chesapeake Bay, they had orders to lay waste to any towns they captured, but the first win was way too easy.  The whole town of Bladensburg was shuttered and American soldiers were nowhere to be found.  President James Madison was supposed to be around here somewhere.  Rather than burning down the town, they decided to hold Bladensburg for ransom.  But, there was no American leadership to be found to negotiate with, and they couldn’t find Madison.  He was gone.  Perhaps he was in the District of Columbia.

capitol_dome
Capitol Building

So, the British set their sights on the capital.  The first stop?  The Capitol building.  I bet the British were surprised when they couldn’t find any leaders here, either.  Where was everyone?  Well, the house of congress was built a little too well, and the British had a tough time burning it down.  They must have been frustrated when their fires kept going out.  Well, if congress wasn’t home, maybe they could find somebody home at the president’s house.  There, Madison’s wife, Dolley, had been preparing for a dinner party.

appletons_cleveland_grover_white_house
White House 1891

Dolley was a bit savvier than James in times of war.  She removed anything of value from the property when she heard the British were heading her way.  She left in a hurry with valuables in tow.  Once again, When the Brits arrived, the lights were on, but nobody was home.  There before them was a delightful feast with food still warm and the president’s Madeira wine still chilled.  The soldiers enjoyed the lovely spread and toasted the king before starting a bonfire inside the president’s residence.

dolley
Dolley Madison

Refreshed from the feast, the soldiers were still determined to cause more damage and find somebody… anybody in America’s leadership.  Why not hit Americans where it hurts and raid the treasury?  That should get somebody’s attention.  So, off they went only to find it empty.  They burned it anyway along with the Library of Congress.  That action probably drew the most ire from some.  Ever the patriot, Thomas Jefferson offered up his collection of 6,487 books to replenish the library.  They cost America $23,950.  However, that was a bargain considering they were worth much more than that.  Burning the library was a low blow, but the Brits weren’t being very effective in the rest of their endeavors.

Well, the District of Columbia was a big bust, so it was off to the next city.  The Brits had a bone to pick with Baltimore.  Privateers out of this port had been wreaking havoc on British ships and sinking any they found.  England wanted revenge.  Once again, the British found Americans prepared.  The whole city had been taken over by Major General Samuel Smith.  Citizens and slaves alike had dug trenches, practiced military drills and readied cannons.  Somehow, Smith convinced the town’s merchants to sink their own ships.  This essentially blocked the British ships from entering the harbor.  Now they could only use their long-range cannons.  The rockets they used couldn’t do much damage, but they sure did make things look scary once the bombardment commenced.  And the rocket’s red glare… by_dawns_early_light_1912

The flag that flew over the embattled Fort McHenry was commissioned by Major General Armistead through Mary Pickersgill, a well-known flag maker.  The original flag measured 42 feet by 30 feet.  He wanted to make darn sure the British knew to whom this country belonged.  By the time the war ended in 1815, the British finally realized America would never again be a colony belonging to them.  We earned their respect as a nation through perseverance and gumption.

I really don’t understand why colleges like George Washington University no longer require American history to be taught to their history majors.  Really?  A university named after George Washington… an American university!  We have enough Americans who don’t know their history trying to repeat the parts where we failed right now.  We need to be encouraging our kids to learn it, know it, and live by it.  Besides, history can be so entertaining!


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