On the Olympic stage, as our athletes received their medals from the judges, our national anthem was played. They stood proudly representing our United States of America. Some silently sang the words of the "Star Spangled Banner," some with tears in their eyes. Was this the same feeling that was experienced by Francis Scott Key as he penned the poem that would become our national anthem?
In 1813, Maj. George Armistead, the commander of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, asked for a flag so big that "the British would have no trouble seeing it from a distance." Mary Pickersgill was contracted to sew two flags for Fort McHenry.
One was a 30-by42-foot garrison flag; the other was a 17-by-25-foot storm flag for use in inclement weather. The 30-by-42 foot flag was finished by August at a cost of $405.90. (This flag made during the war of 1812 is in the Smithsonian as a national treasure and was later named the Star-Spangled Banner.)
The British entered Chesapeake Bay on Aug. 19, 1814. By the evening of Aug. 24, the British had invaded and captured Washington, setting fire to the Capitol and the White House. The flames were visible 40 miles away in Baltimore.
Dr. William Beanes, an elderly and much loved town physician, was a close friend of Francis Scott Key, a respected young lawyer living in Georgetown. Beanes was taken prisoner by the British and held on a British flagship. Key was asked to assist in getting Beanes released.
He met with a government agent who arranged for prisoner exchanges, and, after appropriate arrangements, the two set out on a small boat to meet the Royal Navy. The British officers were given letters from wounded British prisoners who praised the care they had received from Beanes. The British agreed to release him, but not immediately, because the Americans had heard of the preparations for the attack on Baltimore, which would begin at 7 a.m. Sept. 13, 1814.
Key and his two companions were placed under guard, and forced to wait out the battle behind the British fleet aboard their American boat. As the British began their relentless shelling of Fort McHenry, the 30-by-42-foot American Flag flew high. From about 8 miles away, the three Americans watched the battle with apprehension. As long as the shelling continued, they knew that Fort McHenry had not surrendered. But before daylight ... silence ...
When daylight came, Key gazed across the waters, and, to his relief, saw Armistead's great flag waving in the breeze ... The flag was still there. After 25 hours of continuous bombing, the British had been unable to destroy the fort, and they had left. Key was so inspired that he began to jot down the words of a poem titled "Defense of Fort McHenry" on the back of a letter he had in his pocket.
Sailing back to Baltimore, he finished the poem and showed it to his brother-in-law, Judge J. H. Nicholson, who took it to a printer. Copies were circulated around Baltimore under the title "Defence of Fort M'Henry."
The poem spread quickly across the United States but was not meant by Key to be set to music. However, a Baltimore music store owner printed the song under the title "The Star Spangled Banner" and suggested it be sung to the "Anacraeon in Heaven," as both had the same rhythm or cadence. That tune had been written for a men's club in London and was sung in the United States as a drinking song. It had once even been the national anthem of Luxembourg. Renamed "The Star- Spangled Banner" by an adoring public, Key's poem became a popular patriotic song, but not yet proclaimed as our national anthem.
During the Civil War, much American music expressed feelings for the flag and the ideals and values of Americans. "The Star Spangled Banner" gained in popularity, and in 1889, the secretary of the Navy made it the official tune to accompany the raising and lowering of the flag.
By the 1890s, the military had adopted the song for ceremonial purposes. In 1916, it was ordered to be played at military and other occasions. During World War I, a standard arrangement was established by the War Department to be used by U.S. military bands; however, there is no single official version of the anthem for civilian use and no rules as to how it should be sung.
On March 3, 1931, after a large public effort over 20 years in which over 40 bills and joint resolutions were introduced in Congress, a law was finally signed. It proclaimed "The Star-Spangled Banner" to be the national anthem of the United States. The actual words were not specifically written in the legal documents. Variation in the exact wording occurs, since Key had written several versions.
Just as at the awards during the 2010 Olympics, at all functions when our national anthem is sung, let us stand with attention appropriate to our station: servicemen and women past and present saluting, others with right hand over heart. Most of all with thanksgiving for what we have as Americans. We do not need embellishments to the notes, the rhythm and extra whoops added by some performers -- the words say it well enough!
O say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watch'd, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro' 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!
Ruth Moriarity is a member of the Generations Advisory Group.