Imagine being the son of an attorney, a judge, and a Continental Army officer, and watching the Capitol Building – where representatives make and pass laws – burn to the ground. British Admiral Sir Tomas Cockburn was criticized after the War of 1812 for burning down the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., the newly constructive capital of the United States. Killing, capture, and spoils of war were common to war, but burning books was considered barbaric.
While all of this history was taking place, Francis Scott Key was a highly respected young attorney living in Georgetown, Maryland, the town boasted of a thriving town with a population of 5,000 people. British troops were known to have entered the Chesapeake Bay in August of 1814 for the sake of invading and capturing Washington, D.C. Mrs. James Madison was one of the last people to evacuate Washington, D.C. before the British arrived with torches in hand. She is reported to have ripped the Stuart oil portrait of George Washington off the mantle so fast that the frame for the picture came to be left behind.
The fires that destroyed Washington, D. C. were visible from the Port of Baltimore. Ergo, Barrister Key was out of a job as the Attorney General of Washington, D.C. He decided to put his skills of negotiation to work by negotiating with British invaders about the release of one of their prisoners, Doctor William Bean.
Everything that Key’s father – John Ross Key – had built and worked for was gone. Everything he had based his financial success story on had disappeared. In many ways the plight of Francis Scott Key resembled the 2011 unemployment statistics of American workers today.
While negotiating with British officers first on the frigate known as the “Surprise” and then on the HMS Tonnant, Francis Scott Key and John Stuart Skinner who accompanied him on his quest, gained knowledge of the presence and strength of British forces rallied to attack and defeat American forces in charge of the City of Baltimore. So it was that they came to be detained on board ship during the assault on Fort McHenry, and left no choice but to watch the bombardment of American defenses stationed in Baltimore from on board the British ship.
Many people wonder where poetry comes from. The genre would seem to mimic life so directly as to be inspired while life happens. What Francis Scott Key saw from the deck of the British ship was a flag ordered by Major George Armistead in 1813. The major had told the flag maker that he wanted a flag that was so big “no one could ever miss it”. The flag was a 30 feet by 42 feet rectangle. Ech of the 15 stars measured two feet wide. It cost a little over $400.00 to have the flag constructed. The “amateur” poet Francis Scott Key finished his poem about what he had seen after the British released both him and his friends. The bombardment had lasted 25 hours and it included 1,500 bombshells.
The British decided that Baltimore was not worth the trouble of further conflict and they departed.
Francis Scott Key was so excited about what had transpired that he took his poem to Captain Benjamin Edes of the 27th Baltimore Regiment. Captain Edes gave an order that the words of the poem should be sung in time with the tune from an old war song. His command was carried out at the tavern next door to the The Holiday State Theater in downtown Baltimore.
After the War of “1812” Francis Scott Key returned to the practice of law. He was the attorney for Sam Houston when he was tried for assaulting another Congressman. He prosecuted Richard Lawrence for his unsuccessful attempt on the life of Andrew Jackson.
Down time is not always a bad thing! Happy New Year everybody!