The Rockets' Red Glare:
How a war, a tattered flag and a lawyer created the national anthem
The opening notes are immediately recognizable: Played before almost every sporting event in America, it is a song rich with American history and a song that encompasses the American spirit of patriotism: The national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner."
But before Whitney Houston belted out the longest-ever recorded anthem in 1991 during Super Bowl XXV, before it was played during presidential inaugurations, before Americans stood tall with their hands over their hearts, before the words were even set to music, a 35-year-old man sat down to write a poem. He had watched his inspiration unfurl like a flag during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814.
The War of 1812
At the beginning of the 19th century, Britain was at war with Napoleonic France, and, in turn, enforced a naval blockade to stop neutral trade from reaching French shores. To the fledging American nation, proud of its hard-won independence, this was illegal under international law. Even more infuriating, in order to man such a blockade, Britain had started to impress American merchant sailors into the Royal Navy.
In fact, British crews were boarding American-flagged vessels looking for British military deserters and kidnapping them on the flimsiest evidence. A battle raged between USS Chesapeake and HMS Leopard off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, in 1807. Four Sailors were taken on charges of desertion, enraging the American public, according to John Hook, writer for The Historian magazine, and John C.A. Stagg in Mr. Madison's War. Just four years later, while on patrol off the North Carolina coast, USS President engaged the British sloop-of-war HMS Little Belt; the battle left 11 British sailors dead.
These events, coupled with the British support of Native American raids on American settlers on the frontier, pressured Congress to act. On June 18, 1812, President James Madison signed the American declaration of war.
The war was unpopular in most of New England, and the United States took several defeats on land, including the Siege of Detroit, the Battle of Queenston Heights and a failed invasion of Montreal. These events improved British morale, but the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813, which secured control of the great lake, and the Battle of the Thames in Canada ended the Native American raids along the border. In fact, during the latter, Maj. Gen. Willian Henry Harrison all but destroyed a British-allied tribal confederacy under Tecumseh. According to Mackay Hitsman's The Incredible War of 1812, the 1814 American victory at Plattsbugh, New York, eventually ended British attempts to invade from the north.
Meanwhile, at sea, a powerful Royal Navy blockaded the American coast. This allowed the British to strike American trade at will. In 1814, the British laid waste to the capital with the burning of Washington, D.C. but the resilient Americans pushed back against the British during the subsequent Battle of Baltimore.