Sunday, September 14, 2014

Civil War Sunday - Oh Say Can You See

50 years before the United States Civil War our country fought another war, a war which tends to be swallowed up in the fascination our country has in the events that occurred between April of 1861 and April of 1865.

Today is the 200th anniversary of the writing of a poem of thanksgiving by a young lawyer, Frances Scott Key.

Too many Americans mumble their way through this poem that became our National Anthem, wondering why anyone cares if we can see in the dawn's early light, and hearing something about rockets, red glare, and bombs bursting in air.  Too many Americans have little understanding about why the song was even written to begin with.

Today, I want to explore that poem.

And, best of all for my Sunday Civil War feature, there is a tie in with the Civil War.

It is well known that our National Anthem is difficult to sing, and every public performance becomes a moment of stress for the singer.  The reputation of a singer, even a famous one, can hinge on whether the singer can survive the ordeal or not.

So why was such a song even chosen to represent our country,and what does that choice have to do with the Civil War?  For that, we must go back in time to the year 1814.

I have a number of readers in Great Britain, and I appreciate every one of them.  I consider them my cyber acquaintances.  But, in 1814, my country was at war with their country.

Some three weeks before the events of September 14, 1814, on August 24, 1814, the British had captured our nation's capital,with our President (and other high officials) fleeing. Our President eventually took refuge in a private house in the small town of Brookeville, Maryland.

Our treasury was bankrupt.  Our capital was in ruins. Our President was running for his life. Things were not looking good for the United States. 

Now, some three weeks later, the British were aiming to capture Baltimore, Maryland, a key harbor.

Enter an attorney practicing in Washington, DC, Frances Scott Key. Key, a religious man,  had opposed the United States getting into what we call the War of 1812, but fought briefly in it.  He was well respected.

A physician and college of Key, Dr. William Beanes, was taken prisoner by the British after the capture of Washington, DC and was being held in Baltimore.

Frances Scott Key was asked to negotiate with the British for the release of Dr. Beanes. With another gentleman, Colonel John Skinner, Key made his case and the British agreed to release Dr. Beanes. But first, the attack on Baltimore was beginning and the British decided they would not release Beanes until after the battle was over. 

The British detained Key, Beanes, and Skinner on an American sloop for the duration of the battle.  They also wanted Key to help negotiate the expected surrender of Baltimore, and Ft. McHenry, which was guarding Baltimore.

On the American sloop, Keys, Skinner and Beanes watched the engagement.

Through the night, the bombardment continued. On the American sloop, Key had a close up view
(he was about eight miles away) of what was happening, but he could not see if the fort had surrendered or not.  Finally, after 25 hours, the British ceased their attack.

Key scanned the dawn skies - was the American flag still flying over Ft. McHenry?


Key was an amateur poet, and he quickly wrote a poem called "Defence of Fort McHenry." which was published in the Baltimore paper.

After the war of 1812,  Key became a U.S. District Attorney.  He was also a slave owner, with complex views on slavery. 

Key died in 1843, at the age of 63.  (Key, incidentally, also has a link with the City of San Francisco, perhaps a story for another time. I'll give you a hint: San Francisco cable cars.)

In 1861, as the Civil War began, there was another bombardment of a fort - Ft. Sumter, in Charleston Harbor (South Carolina), which became the first battle of the war.  The "Defence of Fort McHenry." resonated with many loyal to the Union. 

Ft. McHenry? It was used as a Union prisoner transfer camp, and was known as the Baltimore Bastille.

After the Civil War, the song gained in popularity, and eventually, in 1931, became our National Anthem.

Many myths surround the writing of the poem that became the lyrics to the National Anthem. One fascinating fact is that the song differs from what Key had originally envisioned.

Over the years, there have been other interpretations.  Wonder what Key would have thought of this one....

And, there is one more little tidbit to be mentioned. This really has nothing to do with our National Anthem, but makes a good story.  Key had 11 children. One of Key's sons, Philip Barton Key, had an affair with the wife of a U.S. Congressman from New York.  In 1859, the Congressman found out about the affair, got his wife's confession, confronted Key on the street and murdered him.

Sickles was found not guilty - in fact, he was the first person to successfully use the defense of temporary insanity.

The Congressman's name was Dan Sickles.  Sickles fought for the Union in the Civil War, receiving the rank of Major General, and lost his leg in the Battle of Gettysburg.  The leg, incidentally, is on display in a medical museum (no, I haven't gone to see it.)

If you've ever been to Gettysburg and visited the battlefield, you can thank Dan Sickles, who was instrumental in preserving it for history. 

And, as one more historical note - at least one descendent of Key is expected to attend today's ceremonies.

History - full of fascinating stories.


  1. Very interesting history! I live in Spokane, Washington, but when I was visiting Charlottesville, Virginia, there were several re-enactments of the war and cannons firing. Odd to me, but it was very important to them!

  2. Interesting read, every nation suffers a series of good and bad history, but its our human culture that we wan't to stand out from others, thats why we can distinguish each culture by just listening to their national anthem

  3. Hey Alana

    History fascinates me!! Thank you for sharing the story behind your empowering National Anthem. #HUGSS

    Anthems have the power to unite a divided country. To date, I cannot help but stand when India's anthem is played ANYWHERE! There were a few controversies regarding our anthem too! A lot of cynics still feel that Mr. Rabindranath Tagore - the man behind the lines of our anthem - penned this as a tribute to the British, who were ruling India at that time!

    If you are interested to learn more about Jana Gana Mana, our anthem, please check out this link:


    Hope you can see this comment, dear friend #HUGSSSS


  4. Very inspiring. I hope history will not repeat itself. There's so much to learn from the past.

  5. I always love your historical posts Alana and what a great song! The lyrics are very good.


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