As the Washington area marks the bicentennial of the War of 1812, an excerpt from the Book “Through the Perilous Fight:Six Weeks That Saved the Nation” by Steve Vogel, coming out Tuesday. This excerpt is how “The Star-Spangled Banner” came to be.
Some of the events marking the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 in the next two months:
“Through the Perilous Fight” about the War of 1812 recounts the burning of Washington and Fort McHenry.
The sudden quiet in the predawn darkness was terrible for Francis Scott Key and the other Americans watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry from the deck of a ship anchored in the Patapsco River. Had the British attack been abandoned, or had the fort surrendered?
The star-shaped brick fort guarding Baltimore from an invading British force had been brutally bombarded for almost a full day and full night. During the last several hours, beginning shortly after midnight Tuesday, Sept. 13, 1814, the bomb ships Devastation, Terror, Volcano, Aetna and Meteor had opened up on Fort McHenry with unmatched fury. “The hissing rockets and the fiery shells glittered in the air, threatening destruction as they fell,” recalled a young British midshipman aboard a frigate.
The ground shook at Fells Point in Baltimore Harbor, where terrifying rumors swept through the streets that the British had taken the fort and were on the way to burn the city. The rain fell in torrents, accompanied by terrific flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder. “The portals of hell appeared to have been thrown open—the earth and air, nay all the elements, seem to have been combined for the destruction of man,” a resident watching from his rooftop wrote in trembling hand to his wife.
In the twilight evening, Key had seen a large American flag still flying over Fort McHenry. Once night fell, he could no longer see the flag, but the continuing bombardment was proof enough that the fort had not surrendered. But now, the eerie predawn silence Wednesday morning offered no such reassurance.
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Like many Americans, Key, a 35-year-old Washington lawyer, was fervently opposed to the war the United States, angered over violations of American sovereignty, had declared on Britain in 1812. In part, this reflected his devout Christianity, and in part, his cultural affinity with England. Most of all, Key could not abide the idea that his country would attack the British colonies in Canada — innocent third parties, in his view — to settle its grievances with Great Britain.
After British victories on the Canadian front in the fall of 1813 forced the United States to abandon its plans to capture Montreal, he shared his delight with John Randolph, the former House representative from Virginia and his closest friend.
“This I suppose is treason, but as your Patrick Henry said, ‘If it be treason, I glory in the name of traitor,’ ” Key wrote. “I have never thought of those poor creatures without being reconciled to any disgrace or defeat of our arms.”
Yet Key, living in Georgetown with his wife and six young children, felt quite differently about his homeland being invaded. When the British terrorized the Chesapeake in the summer of 1813, burning towns and plantations, he volunteered with the local militia.