My library contains three books by military historian Robert Leckie. One deals with all of the wars involving America (there were several) before the American Revolution. Another deals with the revolution itself and is really an outstanding read. The third is my only book covering the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, areas of America history I have otherwise neglected. Leckie is highly accessible and is considered a mainstream (as opposed to academic) historian. He enjoys telling and good tale and makes history interesting and entertaining in the process.
One fascinating story which Leckie tells in From Sea to Shining Sea begins with Dr. William Beanes, a elderly, wealthy and respected member of American society. People all around Maryland knew him or of him and admired the man. During the War of 1812, his house was confiscated by the British for use as a headquarters. That particular campaign ended successfully for the British but nevertheless resulted in numerous stragglers from the red coat army littering the countryside. They took what they pleased from the local population and were under no military control.
Beanes and some others wanted to deter what they saw as the threat of rampant theft and anarchy against their fellow citizens. So they organized the capture and imprisonment of several stragglers to set an example. The British military took exception to this even if there were undisciplined stragglers involved. They promptly had Barnes arrested in 1814 and placed on the British naval vessel Tonnant in Chesapeake Bay for transport elsewhere to stand trial on some vague charge against the capturing of British stragglers.
This distressed the many friends and admirers of Beanes. They arranged for a Georgetown attorney to represent him and attempt to negotiate his release. The attorney quickly accepted the case and asked to see his client aboard the British vessel in the middle of the Bay. The attorney had been an ardent pacifist, speaking out against the war from its beginning. But his thoughts changed after the British burned Washington DC.
The attorney contacted American President James Madison directly and received official emissary status on behalf of the American government. But British General George Cockburn flew into a rage at the attorney’s request for clemency. The attorney appealed particularly on the grounds of cruelty, Beanes being an elderly man. When the attorney asked permission to give Beanes the soap and underwear he had brought aboard with him Cockburn yelled that he would not even allow the attorney to see Beanes.
But the attorney anticipated such a reaction and brought him a letter signed by one of the captured British stragglers, a captain in fact, who offered a testimonial of receiving good care while detained by the Americans. He handed this to the British commander of highest rank, Admiral Alexander Cochrane, commanding the ship in the Bay. Much to Cockburn’s disgust, Cochrane acknowledged this act of kindness on the part of the Americans by agreeing to Beanes’ release.
But Barnes and the attorney were not permitted to leave the ship at that moment on that evening. This was because as the attorney undertook negotiations aboard the ship, the large array of British warships began the bombardment of Fort McHenry, the key to setting up the capture of Baltimore. The war was continuing with grave intensity and safe transport back to the shore could not be ensured. So Cochrane invited Barnes and the attorney to remain on the deck of the ship and watch the astounding artillery display in otherwise darkness.
What I haven’t shared with you up to now is that the attorney was Francis Scott Key. Leckie continues: “If McHenry fell, then Ross’s army would move on to the conquest of Baltimore. Throughout the night the two men watched in dread as British shells and rockets burst over and upon the fort. Key, who had a local celebrity as a poet, began to jot down his impressions: ‘rocket’s red glare…’ ‘bombs bursting mid-air…’ Key was also thrilled by the sight of McHenry’s huge flag illuminated by the explosions flashing around it. As dawn began to break, Dr. Beanes leaned forward to peer to McHenry’s rampart but his failing eyes caught no glimpse of Old Glory. Again and again he asked anxiously: ‘Is the flag still there?’
“The question triggered in Key’s poetic brain a theme for a poem, beginning, ‘O say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,’ and he began to convert his notes into verses. After he and Dr. Beanes were allowed to go to ashore, he revised and expanded them and then took the completed poem to his brother-in-law, Judge J.H. Nicholson. The judge had been in Fort McHenry during those dreadful twenty-five hours. He had seen ‘the rocket’s red glare’ and had had his stomach squeezed by the shock of ‘bombs bursting in air.’ He had lived Key’s poem, and saw at once that it could be sung to the melody of a popular drinking song called ‘To Anacreon in Heaven.’ Nicholson suggested immediate publication, and a young printer’s devil named Samuel Sands set it in type and it came forth anonymously in a handbill entitled ‘Defence of Fort M’Henry,’ It was published on September 20 in the Baltimore Patriot; soon soldiers began singing it, and it spread gradually – though not suddenly – across the country. But not until March 3, 1931, did the United States Congress adopt ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ as the American national anthem.” (page 344)
So, if not for the capture of a bunch of British stragglers partly instigated by Dr. William Beanes, the song we call our National Anthem might not have ever come to be. There is no better day than today to recognize that fact.