A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Saturday, May 06, 2006

In which the History Geek relates the History of the Star-Spangled Banner...

History Geek here, with a brief reminder about the Star-Spangled Banner and its history.

It was during the War of 1812, or, what my AP book likes to call "The Second War for Independence." Great Britain had supposedly acknowledged American independence in the Treaty of Paris of 1783, but then proceeded to ignore their promise to abandon forts along our western border in the Great Lakes region and to cease the impressment-- or forced enlistment-- of American sailors into the British Navy when they were encountered upon the high seas.

And our sailors were certainly encountered on the high seas. In the early years of our republic, we had built up a quite sizeable merchant marine, which is understandable given our distance from European ports. The US merchant marine was a particularly important cog in the trade between the West Indies and Europe. All this would have been fine if it hadn't been for the minor dust-up between Britain and Napoleon.

At the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Nappy had lost most of his navy to the English. So of course, what did he do but declare the closure of the European continent (at least, the part controlled by France or its allies) to British trade-- and neutral trade, like us-- in his Berlin decree of 1806 and his Milan decree of 1807. Britain, of course, was having none of it. The end result was that all we wanted to do was sell stuff, but both France and England threatened to confiscate our ships AND our stuff.

But we feared the British navy more than the French one, because the British navy often seized our sailors and impressed them into their navy. Why did they do this? Because, British ships were known as "floating hells." Conditions were so bad that even native-born Brits didn't want to serve, and would often be forced into service by "press gangs." Of course, these sailors often deserted at their first opportunity-- and sometimes they ended up in America, where they put their skills to work in the US navy or the merchant marine as naturalized citizens. We looked upon them as Americans-- but the British navy saw them as deserters. When an American ship was stopped at sea by the British, any sailors on our ships deemed to be deserters would be seized. Actually, any British-born naturalized citizen would often be seized. Actually, who carried papers showing they were native-born at that time? Sometimes the British just grabbed warm bodies-- and record-keeping and identification was so haphazard. In the summer of 1807, when the commander of the US naval frigate the Chesapeake was stopped by the British HMS Leopard and refused to allow them to search for "deserters", the Leopard opened fire, and when our commander surrendered, the British boarding party dragged four crewmen off to serve as British Limeys. But Americans were quite angry at the British, even when the Brits later recalled the commander of the Leopard and returned three of the four men-- one had been hanged in the meantime-- oopsy.

But it made our blood boil. Especially when the British claimed they had the right to grab sailors off our ships no matter what apologies they had made over the Chesapeake incident. The British may have attempted to make amends for that incident, but they reserved the right to do it again, if only in a less ham-handed manner. It was the principle of the thing.

On top of that, the British used the forts they kept in the Great Lakes to stir up all kinds of Indian unrest on the frontier-- and we really didn't need any help keeping the Indians riled up, thank you very much, since we ticked them off plenty on our own. But many of our westerners blamed the British, and fever for war was high among the "war hawk" faction.

So President Jefferson, never one in favor of manufacturing and trade, got Congress to pass an embargo which forbade any American ship from going to any foreign port. In the world. This made the merchants in New England mad, since their manufactures had nowhere to go. Even after the"Dambargo" was repealed and replaced by other measures such as the Non-Intercourse Act and Macon's Bill No. 2, they felt harmed by the Republican-controlled government's economic decisions. When war broke out, the predominantly Federalist New England merchants were so mad about not being able to trade with the British that they almost seceded in the winter of 1814-1815.

When war broke out in 1812, things did not look good. We invaded Canada, but had to retreat to Detroit. Chicago (then known as Fort Dearborn) was lost to Indian attack, which laid the groundwork for Chicago being the center of the universe when it comes to snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory in baseball. The US won some naval battles in the early weeks of the war, but then the British navy seized the upper hand. We did do well in naval battles on the Great Lakes. We managed to kill Tecumseh, an Indian ally of the British who had been promoting a pan-Indian confederation against us, at the Battle of the Thames in 1813. Down South, Gen'r'l Andy Jackson put down a Creek uprising and marched toward New Orleans.

But in August, 1814, the British invaded near Washington, DC. Washington was put to the torch by the British in retaliation for our burning of the Canadian capital of York, and then the invading force moved to Baltimore. But Baltimore was ready. American ships blockaded the entry to Baltimore's harbor, so the British had to lob artillery from a distance.

"The Star Spangled Banner" was written during the Battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore during this seige. Francis Scott Key, a Baltimore lawyer, had negotiated the release of an acquaintance from the custody of the British but had been refused permission to return to Baltimore due to the knowledge he and his party had of British strength and its upcoming attack on Baltimore. The war seemed desperate, and many hopes failed in the face of British successes and humiliations. Scott feared that the Fort could not withstand the long attack.

His fears were assuaged after the more than twenty-four hour battle when he saw the flag still flying over Fort McHenry. His poem, entitled "The Defense of Fort McHenry" was later renamed "The Star Spangled Banner," set to music -- yes, a drinking song-- and adopted as the national anthem under Woodrow Wilson's administration.

***Update: More fascinating info can be found at the always charming elementaryhistoryteacher's place!


At 5/7/06, 4:40 PM, Blogger EHT said...

Well done and you beat me to it. I have been working on a post very similar. I strongly agree that if more people knew or remembered the history of this great song they would appreciate it more. I linked my post to yours. :)

At 5/8/06, 5:21 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Well, I left plenty for you to wonderfully describe, since I'm sick as a dog. Thank goodness for teamwork!

At 5/14/06, 2:17 PM, Blogger r said...

Well done! And written in such a way that even history-impaired adults and teens can understand.

Thank you.


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