Does the name Betsy Ross raise a flag for you? You will recall that she was a seamstress and a flag maker for the Pennsylvania Navy back in the 1700s. She’s brought to mind just now because June 14 is America’s Flag Day — the day set aside for Americans to appreciate the principles for which it stands. Flag Day also brings to mind the historic figure who authored one of the most cherished and patriotic tributes ever to sing the praises of the American Flag — Francis Scott Key.
At the outbreak of the War of 1812, a humongous American flag waved from atop the flagpole over Fort McHenry. The British army detested that flag as an affront to the Royal Crown and ordered Fort McHenry to cease flying it immediately. When the defenders of the fort defied that directive, an admiral commanding an armada of British warships unleashed a hellacious bombardment upon the fort that went on for 25 hours. Key was a prisoner on one of those ships and could see Fort McHenry from afar.
When, finally, the British gunships fell silent in the night, he wondered if the flag had been brought down by the bombs. The next morning, “in the dawn’s early light,” he was beside himself with joy at the sight of the Stars and Stripes waving defiantly over Fort McHenry. That triumph consecrated the souls of the soldiers who gave their lives at the base of the flagpole to keep Ole Glory raised. Francis Scott Key was so moved that he seized his pen and captured the event in the words of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The Star-Spangled Banner was born of the flag of Fort McHenry and the flag of Fort McHenry was born of The Star-Spangled Banner. They gave birth to each other. The massive bomb-damaged flag from the War of 1812 resides now in the archive of the Smithsonian National Museum. It’s a treasure of American heritage that draws millions of visitors a year. The Star-Spangled Banner was eventually set to song and, on March 3, 1931, was designated to be the national anthem of the United States of America.
The years beneath my gray hair go to “way back when.” Coming forward from then to now, I have noticed, year after year, that fewer and fewer Americans fly the Stars and Stripes on Flag Day. I have to confess that observing their disappearance is a troubling experience. But being the eternal optimist that I am, I’m hoping this June 14, the flags of Flag Day will go “viral” and paint the skies over America with the colors of our nation.