September 17, 2015

Star-Spangled Banner

Today in 1814, poet and lawyer Francis Scott Key placed the finishing touches on his poem “Defence of Fort McHenry,” which would eventually become “The Star Spangled Banner”—national anthem of the United States. Three days earlier, Key had been held captive aboard a British ship and watched the spectacular moonlit bombardment of the fort during the Battle of Baltimore of the War of 1812.

There are two men who can take inventive credit for the horrors that kept Key awake that night and prompted him to write the now infamous description “…and the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air….” The red glare was provided by Congreve rockets, designed by Sir William Congreve in 1804 but whose inaccuracy and tendency to explode prematurely led them to be discontinued by the 1850s.

Meanwhile the bursting shells (and scattering hellfire) were the handiwork of Henry Shrapnel and were so effective that they remained in use through the Vietnam War. You can ready my full entry on Shrapnel here.

Francis Scott Key has one more bizarre connection to Tawdry Knickers. He served as the lawyer for Sam Houston—senator, governor, and first and only president of Texas (when it was a republic)—after Houston beat the buckeyes out of Ohio congressman William Stanbery in 1832. Stanbery had publicly insulted him on the floor of the House of Representatives, and Houston beat him with a stick in broad daylight on Pennsylvania Avenue. He was found guilty, and to “Houstonize” became the word (not often used, obviously) for beating up a congressman.

As for “The Star Spangled Banner,” its tune was based on a British drinking song, and it wasn’t designed as the national anthem (in fact, the United States had no national anthem) until President Herbert Hoover signed it into law in 1931.