As we all know, the first line of the first stanza of Francis Scott Key’s poem, the Defense of Ft. McHenry, talks about the “dawn’s early light.” So, why did the folks at Fort McHenry wait till 9 a.m. Sunday to raise that giant replica of the 1814 flag that inspired Key and say it was going up at the very moment 200 years later that Key saw the flag?
As it turns out, Key wasn’t making a statement, he was asking a question, according to Ranger Vince Vaise, the head of interpretation at Ft. McHenry.
Key was on a truce ship, five miles down the Patapsco from the fort. It had been pouring throughout the battle and the sky was just beginning to clear. There was a small, storm flag on the pole, hanging limp.
He probably couldn’t see much of anything, so he asked, “Oh, say, can you see by the dawn’s early light.”
But then, at 9 a.m. Major George Armistead, the commander of the fort, ordered the flags changed, Vaise said.
“The small sopping wet flag was hauled down, the gigantic 30 by 42 flag was hoisted as the fifes and drums played Yankee Doodle. And that’s when Francis Scott Key saw the flag.”
So, Sunday, a detachment from the U.S. Army’s Old Guard, the Navy’s U.S. Constitution, the Fort McHenry Guard, a crowd of re-enactors, representatives of British and Canadian forces filled the parade ground of the old fort, while spectators crammed themselves into every available free space.
Daniel Honey, the drill instructor for the HMS Argyll Guard—their frigate was docked at the Broadway Pier in Fells Point—marched his squad into the fort to take up positions.
“What happened all that time ago is what’s made us close friends today,” he said. “So we’re feeling very proud to be part of this even over the last few days.”
Then, precisely at 9 a.m. a cannon fired, the Ft. McHenry fife and drum corps struck up Yankee Doodle-- an unofficial national anthem in 1814--the storm flag came down and a squad ran the huge 15 star, 15 stripe replica to the top of the pole, where it waved in the morning breeze.
There were speeches and recitations and then the crowd joined in singing all four verses of Key’s poem. Fortunately, they were printed on the back of the program.
Frank Crumbaugh, from Beach Haven, New Jersey, was singing the bass line. He said his son-in-law is a sergeant in the Fort McHenry, so he “wasn’t going to miss this.” And it didn’t hurt that he got to hold his grandson while he was at it.
Justin Costantino wore a red mob cap to get into the spirit of things. He’s in a re-enactment group in Pittsburgh and said he couldn’t resist coming to Baltimore for this.
Any time I see people putting on their paper hats and getting involved and just caring, for even just a Sunday afternoon,” he said, “it warms the cockles of my heart as a historian geek type.”
But Oh, say, can you see…wasn’t the only question Key asked in that first stanza. There was the one at the end. Does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave? General Colin Powell, the featured speaker, said it wasn’t addressed just to the citizens of Baltimore in 1814. It was addressed to the future.
And the answer to him and the answer to all of us is that God willing it waves now and it will wave forever as long as we remember the sacrifice made by these men 200 years ago,” he said. “As long as we remember the sacrifices made by Americans throughout the course of our history, it will wave now and forever in the future.”
This story is part of our series “Rockets’ Red Glare: The War, the Song and Their Legacies,” made possible by a grant from Star Spangled 200, a national bicentennial in Maryland.