Francis Scott Key's Fourth Stanza
Two hundred years ago today, it was the unlikely convergence of a physician and a lawyer that produced the most recited poem in American history. Its inspiration occurred just a few miles from Fort McHenry, located in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the site of one of our nation’s most important military conflicts.
Here’s the background leading up to the legendary battle, well, one-sided bombardment really. In mid-1812 the Americans and British found themselves at war with each other for the second time in just over 30 years, this time mostly over trade restrictions and freedom of the seas.
Over the next two years until the spring of1814, the British were prevented to giving their full effort against the relatively weak Americans due to the greater threat of Napoleon’s seemingly endless years of aggression in Europe and northern Africa.
With Napoleon no longer a danger following his abdication in April 1814, the British could now concentrate their efforts on the pesky Americans.
To recapture their prized former colonies, they devised a powerful three-prong military strategy. The northern assault was to sail down Lake Champlain toward New York to cut off much of New England. The southern strategy was to seize New Orleans, then sail up the Mississippi to capture and secure the western borders.
But perhaps the most important of the three prongs was to sail up the Chesapeake and take possession of Baltimore. If the British could capture this vitally important American port city, the young nation would be split in two and quickly fall.
By late August 1814, the British had captured Washington D.C., burning many of its newly constructed national buildings including the White House and Capitol. (This was the last time non-military buildings had been burned by a foreign enemy prior to September 11, 2001.) Shortly thereafter, British General Robert Ross also captured an elderly American patriot and physician, Dr. William Beanes, for imprisoning British deserters.
A young lawyer and friend of Dr. Beanes, Francis Scott Key, boarded the ship on which Beanes was being held to negotiate his freedom. Ross was willing to let Beanes go but his release would have to wait for the invasion of Baltimore (including the Battle of North Point, the land assault where Ross was killed) and the subsequent bombardment of Ft. McHenry was about to commence.
The British fleet could launch its attack from a distance of about two miles, beyond the fort’s retaliatory capability. For 25 hours the fleet fired its continuous but inaccurate barrage without any real risk to its ships.
From their location, a couple of miles distant on an enemy ship, Beanes and Key watched the bombardment with great concern. During the dark of night, they could see the American flag flying above the fort illuminated by the British rockets’ “red glare” exploding above the “ramparts” or the walls of the fort.
In the early morning hours of September 14, 1814, the shelling stopped and the bay was eerily still. Beanes and Key knew then that if the British had prevailed, their beloved young nation was likely to perish. Or, as they prayed, the Americans had held the fort preserving the city and likely the republic.
Just before dawn, fog and smoke cruelly reduced visibility on the bay. It was likely that the elderly, poorer eye-sighted Dr. Beanes, both fearfully and hopefully asked the famous question to the much younger Key: “Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?” In other words, does our great flag still fly above the fort?
The first stanza of Key’s poem, “Defence of Fort McHenry,” which would, of course, later become our national anthem is entirely a series of unanswered questions, including its concluding line: “Oh! Say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
The two men had yet to realize that not only had the brave Americans held the fort, but at the dawn’s first light they had hoisted an enormous flag, (40 feet in length on a 90 foot pole) audaciously and defiantly waving at the unsuccessful British fleet.
The answer to Beanes’ questions and their quiet celebration (after all they were in the midst of the enemy) upon Key’s sighting of the oversized American flag flying above the fort doesn’t appear until half-way through the second stanza. Their public celebration may have been low-key, so to speak, but you can easily feel the great raw emotion, the jubilation, emanating from the Key’s words:
“On the shore, dimly seen thro' the mist of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, O’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's fist beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner. Oh! long may it wave
O'er the land of the fine and the home of the brave!”
Key, not surprisingly gloats over the failure of the British in the third stanza which was mostly dropped after they became our allies in the 20th century.
But the poem/song’s most powerful stanza is its last. In the fourth stanza Key proclaims the primary reason for the republic’s survival and a divine hope for its glorious future:
“Oh! thus be it ever; when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation,
Blest with victory and peace, may the Heav’n-rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, for our cause it is just,
And this be our motto- "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Written 200 years ago. Few words choke me up more.