One of the things that surprised me when I came to Baltimore long ago was the peculiar enthusiasm for our difficult-to-sing national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This zeal is not evident elsewhere in this republic. I don’t believe that I had ever thought about those broad stripes and bright stars before the fates landed me here. Most Americans only know the first verse and there have been many attempts to replace it with an easier-to-sing ditty.
But Baltimore is THE city of the national anthem. It’s our heritage. For here we saw the rockets’ red glare and heard bombs bursting in air in the dawn’s early light. No other place in America can make that claim. (I wonder if any other place cares? But I won’t dwell on that.)
In September, we will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812—which, in Baltimore, was actually the War of 1814 (things happen slowly here). That’s the year when those broad stripes and bright stars withstood the perilous fight o’er the ramparts. (Feel free to sing along now.) The British bombardment of Fort McHenry! The Star-Spangled Banner! Francis Scott Key! You remember, of course? Trust me, Baltimore remembers.
This month, let us put aside our petty differences. Let us not dwell on whether Baltimore is breaking our hearts or the survey that showed nearly half of Maryland’s citizens wanted out of the Land of Pleasant Living. Let’s not brood over 26th Street collapsing or that it will cost at least $18.5 million to fix (it’s only money and we have none). Who cares if Stephen Colbert thinks Charm City is an “uninhabitable wasteland.” He’s wrong. It’s a densely
inhabited wasteland—and we’ve got those broad stripes and bright stars and Poe’s body, too!
Let us also remember that when the British sailed up the Chesapeake Bay in the summer of 1814 they easily sacked Washington. The locals cut and ran. Scattered like chickens. The White House was abandoned. Dolley Madison? Remember her? She saved the portrait of George Washington attributed to Gilbert Stuart. The British actually burned the White House along with many other public buildings. Historians always note that the British were actually amazed to find so little resistance.
After that easy victory in Washington they headed north, where Baltimore offered its would-be invaders a rather different reception. Washington was a small, swampy burg at the time, but Baltimore was the third largest city in America. There were 8,000 souls in Washington, but nearly 50,000 in Baltimore. Washingtonians could not get into their wagons fast enough when they heard the British were coming. But in Baltimore the
natives prepared to fight house-to-house if necessary.
Well, as every schoolchild learns, Fort McHenry withstood the onslaught—and in the morning the flag was still there! So our enthusiasm for “The Star-Spangled Banner” remains robust. Think only of our spirited public singings of that hard-to-sing song. (It has bested many a great vocalist.) Plus, we have the manuscript. It’s up at the Maryland Historical Society. I urge you to visit.
And we have Fort McHenry, an honest-to-God National Park on a tiny spit of land jutting into the water. Let the rest of the country have Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. We’ve got Locust Point!
The War of 1812 or 1814, or whenever it was, is only yesterday in our memory for not only did Fort McHenry withstand the fabled bombardment, but the locals—a grab bag of volunteers, old men and boys as young as 12, and some defenders lured right out of the taverns—turned out en masse. More than 16,000 heavily armed Baltimorons mustered—much to the surprise (and chagrin) of the Brits.
When talking trash about our homespun forces, British General Robert Ross famously quipped “I don’t care if it rains militia!” Big talk. Ross stopped for breakfast at a farmhouse as he rode confidently toward the city and the locals asked him if he would be back for dinner. The general dramatically assured them that he would “dine in Baltimore tonight—or in hell.” Ross got that right. A sniper promptly shot him off his horse and he bled to death. The British invasion unraveled. Baltimore has always hated trash talk, hon. 9
This article appeared originally in the October 2014 issue.