He bore witness to the bombardment from the deck of a 60-foot sloop. For 25 hours, the British Fleet rained down hell’s fury in the form of ordnance over the Americans defending Fort McHenry. And as the man on the sloop watched in horror, more than 1,500 220 pound bombs had their fuses lit by the British and were launched in rapid-fire succession at the fort. He did not see how the fort could possibly stand.
Unfortunately for the British, there was a flaw in their new mortars: they had a tendency to explode in midair rather than upon impact. And the fort stood. From the deck of the HMS Erebus, the new British Congreve rockets were launched, tracing crooked red arcs across the night skies in their wake. In all, the British used five bomb ketches, ten small warships, and the Erebus to assault Fort McHenry for a full day and night. The dates were September 13th and 14th, and the year was 1814. From the deck of the sloop, its name lost to history, Sir Francis Scott Key stood, watching, waiting, praying for a glimpse of our stars and stripes.
When at last dawn broke the horizon, Major George Armistead ordered the fort’s smaller storm flag be lowered and replaced with an impressive sight: a 42×30-foot American flag. During the summer of 1813, Armistead had requested local “maker of colours” Mary Young Pickersgill sew a flag of such size “the British would have no trouble seeing it from a distance.” Mary and her 13-year-old daughter, Caroline, set about sewing what would become one of the most famous flags in our nation’s history. 400 yards of high-quality wool bunting were cut into eight red and seven white stripes, each two feet wide (at the time, those 15 stripes represented the 15 states). Each star was two feet across from point to point.
Laying the pieces out on the floor of Claggett’s Brewery, a neighborhood establishment, they sewed together a masterpiece of American pride. It was this flag Armistead raised in triumph at dawn on September 14, 1814. And, from the deck of the sloop where Key had been forced to wait out the battle due to British concern over the possibility he might have gleaned some useful intel while obtaining the release of an American prisoner, Dr. Beanes, Key finally saw it. The stars and stripes appeared in the dawn’s first light, snapping in the breeze, making a silent proclamation of our nation’s strength and enduring freedom. Overwhelmed by pride and relief, Key penned these words on the back of a letter he had in his pocket:
“Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light/what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming? Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight/O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming/And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there/Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave/O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.” (Sir Francis Scott Key, 1814)
The month of September is more than the start of school and football season; it’s more than Labor Day and the trees turning from lush green to burning oranges and flaming reds. This September, 2014, we witness the 200th anniversary of the bombardment of Fort McHenry, after which Sir Francis Scott Key penned our national anthem. The Star Spangled Banner is also more than just a song. It isn’t just something we sing at baseball games or learn (and forget) how to play in our high school marching band. Key’s song is the epitome of everything Americans have – our freedoms, our liberties, our rights, and, yes, our ability to lose them.
The fighting spirit that has turned the tide of so many wars in our favor seems to be waning. It is with great pride I live in a nation where men and women choose to fight for our country, and even those of us who do not or cannot serve for one reason or another often try to find our own ways to fight for freedom, for what is right. You, our service members, are one of our nation’s greatest treasures, and without your fighting spirit, Fort McHenry would have fallen 200 years ago, and our nation would fall today. And yet, what has become of patriotism?
At an elementary school in Washington state, 5th grade students were tasked with raising and lowering the flag each day. At the start of the school year, a single demonstration took place on how to carry out those basic actions, and then it was left to the kids. In just one classroom, which was, unsurprisingly, the class of a veteran, the importance of the American flag was discussed and a demonstration of proper flag-folding was given. But there were three classes to rotate through, so for one month at a time, each class would be responsible for the flags, and the monthly rotations continued throughout the school year. Sounds good, right?
June 19th, 2014, was the 5th-grade graduation. Before this writer’s own arrival at the school, well over 100 parents had congregated in the school’s gymnasium. In order to reach the gym, each and every one of them passed the flag pole. It was standing-room only, folding chairs packed and adults lining the walls and doorways. And yet, approaching the school entrance, an atrocity was on open display, and had been apparently ignored: the Washington state flag sat atop the American flag.
While this placement of the national colors below state colors may not cause a collective gasp of horror, it should. It’s disrespectful. It’s a flagrant violation of flag etiquette, and the entire point of etiquette is to show pride and gratitude to this symbol of our nation, which so many have sacrificed and given their lives to build and maintain. It also showed a lack of caring on the part of the students; it was thoughtless. However, it also demonstrated thoughtlessness on the part of the school administration. Could no one be bothered to make sure the flag is properly displayed? All it would have taken was a second’s glance out the window. Finally, it’s impossible no other adult entering the school noticed. Of course some did, although many said they didn’t when they were asked. Those who did notice displayed one of two traits: ignorance of flag etiquette and/or flat-out not caring.
If this seems to be an isolated event, it certainly was and is not. Among the flood of disrespectful images this past year was a photo of an airman apparently French-kissing the shadowed profile depicted on the POW flag, a soldier ducking (and mocking) the raising of the flag on post by hiding in her car, and, of course, a so-called military honor guard posing in wildly inappropriate ways around a casket. That last one bore the caption “we put the ‘fun’ in funerals.” One theme rang true: there was a divide between those who felt these behaviors were unpatriotic and disrespectful and those who felt it was nothing but harmless fun. Those demanding respect for our nation’s flag and fallen were told to chill out, and those claiming it didn’t matter quickly began to bear the brunt of a rising tide of anger. Patriotism in America is in danger.
Patriotism used to be a way of life. Hats were doffed and hands placed over hearts to show respect to the flag, and respect was automatically shown to service members. Even in the course of my own fairly young generation, the changes have quickly become glaring and disturbing. Today, hats remain jammed onto heads and hands stay stuffed in pockets during Sir Francis Scott Key’s emotionally-written national anthem, children don’t know and don’t care how to raise and lower the flag, let alone fold it, and, yes, there are those among the military ranks showing a blatant disregard for the very things they’re supposed to be fighting for. It is simultaneously infuriating and heartbreaking, and we as a nation cannot go on in such a manner.
On the day the flags were reversed at the elementary school, I, along with a friend who had accompanied me, briefly spoke to the school office personnel before going outside to remedy the situation. An attempt to raise the flag to its peak before lowering it failed because the ropes had been so hopelessly manhandled, and the American flag was not only in the wrong spot, it was reversed. Between the two of us we managed to correct it without our national colors touching the ground, and all the while parents filed into the building, heedless of the display of disrespect on the school’s front lawn.
The moments spent on the flag that day drove home a few simple points. Patriotism in our country is so lacking it’s almost at its breaking point, and without patriotism, without an understanding and respect for the things this nation was built on, how will we survive? Who will fight for our precious freedoms if no one even knows what they are?
The lack of a basic understanding of history in schoolchildren, which is an entirely separate story, is a factor here, and one that could be remedied by parents taking the time and effort to instruct their children. Yes, historical education and patriotism start at home, and, hopefully, spread from there. Our nation is in dire need of the life-giving patriotism it was founded on.
200 years ago, Sir Francis Scott Key was so deeply moved by the sight of our colors that he wrote our national anthem. Do we have any Sir Francis Scott Keys today? Who will write the next chapter in our nation’s history? Can it be done with our patriotism and national pride lying in tatters on the ground? This is your wake-up call. Patriotism is not dead, but it is gasping for air. What can you do to save it?
Don’t just talk about it; do it. In celebration of the month of September and the 200th anniversary of The Star Spangled Banner, let’s commit Random Acts of Patriotism. We live in what is still the greatest nation on earth. Let’s fight to keep it that way.
What Random Act of Patriotism are you committing?
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