Posted by Jon Michaud
This week marks the two hundredth anniversary of the commencement of the War of 1812, a benchmark that has been only halfheartedly acknowledged across the country. Late last year, PBS aired a film about the “small but bitter war.” The State of Maryland, home to Fort McHenry—the siege of which inspired Francis Scott Key to compose the national anthem—has been celebrating the bicentennial with a commemorative license plate. And this weekend, the Society of the Second War with Great Britain in the State of New York will be participating in the War of 1812 Bicentennial Weekend at the Genesee Country Village and Museum in Mumford, New York. There will be a parade, displays of musketry, reänactments, and, for those less than compelled by the military side of history, there will also be a “special focus on Jane Austen and the Regency Era, exploring its fashions and fascinations.”
The Society, which is a chapter of the General Society of the War of 1812, was created in 1896 “to perpetuate [the war’s] memories and victories.” In 1940, it was the subject of a Talk story by P. MacManna, B. Larner, and Russell Maloney. The publicity challenge of celebrating the War of 1812 appears to have been there from the beginning. The secretary of the Society, John L. Ketcham, acknowledged that his organization had “to seize whatever opportunity offers” to remind the public that there was a War of 1812: “The Society is aware that compared to the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Colonial Dames, and the Society of Colonial Wars, it will always be obscure,” our reporters wrote.
Asked why the war had remained so obscure to so many, Ketcham offered two reasons:
One is that the men who fought in 1812 were over-modest about their accomplishments. The privateer captains, he says, reported only a small percentage of the ships they sank. They’d come into post after a successful sally against the British and go home for a quick drink and a supply of clean shirts without mentioning their exploits to anybody, whereas the soldiers who lugged a musket in 1776 devoted a disproportionate amount of time to hoarding up old weapons, pewter mugs, locks of Washington’s hair, commissions, deeds, etc. The other reason is that the British (we are quoting Mr. Ketcham, remember) have acted like cads about their defeat. “They got the stuffing kicked out of them and they’ve been hush-hushing the thing ever since,” he says indignantly.
According to Mr. Ketcham, the War of 1812 was significant because it established American naval power and heightened the country’s international prestige. One of the other legacies of the war, of course, is “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In a 1944 Talk story, Ebba Jonsson (The New Yorker’s first librarian) gave a history of the composition of the national anthem. The famously hard-to-sing tune was composed in England in the seventeen-sixties by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, a London social club. The original song, “To Anacreon in Heaven” featured words by Ralph Tomlinson. Jonsson describes the role played by one Dr. Beanes of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, in placing Key in a position to rewrite Tomlinson’s words:
One evening, the Doctor and a couple of friends were punishing a bowl of punch when three British soldiers, stragglers, who had lost touch with the invading force, knocked at his door. In their alcoholic exuberance, the Doctor and his friends disarmed the redcoats and marched them off to the village lockup. When the British took possession of the town, they freed the prisoners, locked up the Doctor, and then went on to lay siege to Baltimore…. Key, who was a lawyer, took a party from Baltimore out to the British fleet on a ship named the Minden under a flag of truce, to arrange for Beanes’ release. The British admiral agreed to free the Doctor, but detained the Minden and its party while he launched an attack on Fort McHenry… Key stayed up all night on the Minden to watch the battle and eventually saw by the dawn’s early light that the flag was still there. He wrote the lyric on the back of an envelope.
Jonsson points out the “The Star-Spangled Banner” was not officially named the national anthem until 1931. She traces the elevation of Key’s song to another often-forgotten American war:
As late as the Spanish-American war, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sharing honors with “Hail Columbia,” and “My Country ’Tis of Thee” was pressing the pair of them pretty closely. Admiral Dewey, when his fleet steamed triumphantly into Manila Bay, ordered his band to play “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and after that it became much more popular than the other two contenders.