National Anthem deserves a salute this summer … and always
Opinion / Guest Commentary:
By Jill Wilkinson
Editor’s note: Wilkinson, 85, is a La Jolla resident who is passionate about being an American. Though originally from Australia, she has lived in America since 1950, and became a U.S. citizen just 20 years ago.
Here in La Jolla (and in Coronado, Miramar and San Diego, generally), residents share and cherish a long, proud military tradition, highly valuing the area’s deep Navy roots. The fact that our National Anthem (with its honored link to The War of 1812) just celebrated another birthday should be cause for happiness locally.
It was in the year 1814, during that somewhat contested fray that Maryland attorney Francis Scott Key wrote his famous verses, only one of which we sing. The Star Spangled Banner commemorates not only that small, brave Maryland militia band that held out at Fort McHenry on the Chesapeake, but also refutes the claim that the fighting during 1812-1815 was a forgotten war. Assuredly not so, since every time the great music is played, or the ringing words resound, we remember that gallant win at the little Fort on the Bay.
The victory at Fort McHenry was preceded, importantly, by a brilliant Naval U.S. win on Lake Champlain. Also, defensively, the Fort was aided by blocking off the entrance to the Chesapeake. But the greatest triumph belonged to those determined and courageous soldiers. The contest, it seems to me, was akin to the Battle of the Coral Sea in World War II. In both cases, we stopped an enemy in its headlong rush toward our annihilation; a psychological win, some historians say. Maybe, but that’s pretty valuable actually; it gives heart to continue fighting.
So when Canada insists she won, I don’t agree. True, she kept her country hers in spite of U.S. attempts to own her, but the main and achieved American task was to turn the British back. That, the U.S. soldiers did.
Andrew Jackson’s magnificent accomplishment in New Orleans put the final nail in the enemy’s coffin. The peace treaty had already been signed, ironically. But again, the overpowering win by Jackson’s forces was vital because the British, treaty or no treaty, were still trying to invade America and grasp back for themselves our dear Republic, so hard won in the Revolutionary War.
Finally, the National Anthem itself, in some quarters is criticized for its musical difficulties. But dramatically these fit. Freedom is a struggle to win and if those intrepid men could keep at it, I think we can tackle a few rising notes. (Besides, such notes represent the soaring bombs and rockets!)
One can imagine Key sharing with his neighbors after the great event, “O say can you see?” We can picture the relief felt by Baltimore and the Maryland region, after being cruelly raided by the foe, when they saw that victory flag floating out. Together, those folks must have savored the sight and rejoiced as we do today, in imagination’s sway.
Happily, the war produced heroes, like Dolly Madison, full of guts and ginger, who saved the George Washington portrait. This was just before the British burned the Capital, the White House, the Library and the Navy Yard. And, notably, Major George Armistead, who resolutely led his men at the Fort – overcoming the odds emphatically. He proved how a handful could beat a boatload. He, and they, showed how hope could transcend circumstance.
Frank Key (as some friends called him) is a hero certainly. He stood bravely aboard that enemy gun boat, giving us his inside report, watching as the long battle raged, capturing the moment through storm and firing. Afterward, he jotted down the verses on the back of an envelope. His spirited account still pulls us in. “The defenders of the Fort deserved a song,” Key said. On this need, he was not found wanting. As a U.S. Marine said on a recent Fourth of July television special: ”It’s a can-do song.”
The actual name of our National Anthem changed ultimately referring to our cheerful, buoyant flag, which is in every way wonderful. The thrilling ending, with its rhetorical question, makes us want to shout out: “Yes, it does still wave!” Still, we must make sure it continues to do so, and that we stay free, and hopefully, brave.
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