By Clover Carroll
Every year, the jumbo American flag that hangs from my porch roof during July has only 15 stars—which makes it a great conversation starter. When friends ask me why, I explain that it is a replica of the original star-spangled banner, about which Francis Scott Key wrote our stirring national anthem in 1814—a scant 38 years after the Independence we celebrate this month was gained. With only a few states having joined the original 13 colonies by then, the tattered great garrison flag that Key beheld waving tirelessly above the melee carried only 15 stars and 15 stripes. I acquired this flag on an inspiring and educational visit to the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, just south of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and have displayed it proudly ever since. I highly recommend this field trip, especially for families. A ferry across the Inner Harbor delivers you to the star-shaped fort, a national park that features a wealth of special programs, movies, and tours. The original star-spangled banner is on display in the Smithsonian Institutions’ Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
America declared war on Great Britain in June 1812 in defense of its maritime rights against British blockades, mounted to prevent the French—with whom it was at war—from obtaining American exports. In addition, Britain was in the habit of “impressing” American sailors, that is, kidnapping them and forcing them into military service. This year marks the bicentennial of the War of 1812, which lasted three years and which historians credit with forming our national identity—and with tying up loose ends from the Revolutionary War. This complex and little known war encompassed the burning of Washington (including Dolley Madison’s famous rescue of George Washington’s portrait from the White House just before the British arrived), the battle involving the indestructible USS Constitution, which was later memorialized in Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem “Old Ironsides,” and the Battle of New Orleans. I hope you’ve had the pleasure of beholding the red glare of fireworks bursting in air accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s rip-roaring 1812 Overture—composed in 1880 to commemorate Russia’s defense against Napoleon’s invading armies —replete with cannon fire, ringing chimes, and a rousing brass finale.
As a major international seaport, Baltimore was a key target of the British navy. As Fort McHenry prepared to defend against attack, Major George Armistead commissioned “a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance” (www.nps.gov/fomc). The resulting version of Old Glory measured 30 feet high by 42 feet long! In September 1814, Francis Scott Key, a young lawyer and poet, was detained while under British guard on an American truce ship in the Patapsco River, just where it enters the Chesapeake Bay, during the Battle of Baltimore. After a fearful night witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry, Key awoke to see the huge flag still visible through the fire and smoke, and expressed his elation in the four stanzas of this poem, only one of which is usually sung. Setting his lyrics to the tune of an old drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” Key’s song was published by the Baltimore Patriot and became so popular that Congress adopted it as our national anthem in 1931.
But why does my flag have only 15 stars, when in fact 18 states had been admitted to the union by 1814? And why does it have 15 stripes instead of the customary 13? The Stars and Stripes was officially approved by the Continental Congress in 1777 as the flag of the fledgling nation, with Pennsylvania Congressman Francis Hopkinson playing a central role in its design. In 1795, two more stars and two more stripes were added to reflect the admission to the union of Vermont and Kentucky. This was the version of the flag that Key saw with such joy flying defiantly above Baltimore Harbor. Although Tennessee, Louisiana, and Ohio had also become states by this time, Congress had been too preoccupied with the war effort to redesign the flag. In 1818, Congress enacted legislation adding five stars and removing two stripes. They decided that henceforth the number of stripes should remain 13—symbolizing the 13 original colonies—and the number of stars should always match the number of states. Any new star should be added on the July 4 following a state’s admission. This has been the system ever since, with the 50th star added on July 4, 1960, to acknowledge the 1959 admission of Hawaii to the union.
Written with majestic diction and syntax, like the 1792 Marseillaise (my favorite national anthem), Key’s lyrics combine a celebration of military strength with the personal poignancy of an anxious patriot fervently hoping for the flag’s survival against heavy odds as it rises above the chaos of battle. The reader is drawn in by the series of questions asked by the poem, feeling as if s/he is present on the watery battlefield. Where is the foul enemy now? What is that flash of color through the dim twilight? Can you see it? Does it still wave? The intensity in the poem mounts as we wait for the answer, finally revealed in the third stanza: Yes! “the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave!” Key employs patriotic diction with noble connotations such as gallantly, hailed, shines, triumph, and glory—words that inspire us to feel pride and admiration for our navy, our flag, and our country. The last stanza even suggests that God is on our side as we fight against tyranny and that our land is heaven blessed—as we who live in beautiful Crozet would certainly agree. Looking to the future, the poet promises that our flag, and symbolically our country, shall continue to thrive. With its soaring music and wide vocal range, our national anthem can be difficult but is still fun to sing. It is a beloved recognition of the flag we salute, the independence we celebrate, and the freedom we treasure expressed in thrilling poetry that has withstood the test of time. Long may it wave!