The frigate bobbed and swayed as the cannons spewed from the deck. It has been twenty hours since the first shot was fired from the HMS Tonnant, Admiral Cochrane’s flag ship. Twenty long hours of cannon fire from both the British fleet and the defenders at Fort McHenry. The sky was filled with the acrid smoke of the guns – darkening the night, blotting out the stars, burning my lungs.
I was not here on my own accord. I was an American stuck on a British frigate in the middle of a battle against my countrymen. Six days before, I had boarded the Tonnant under the protection of the white truce flag. My orders were to bring back a prisoner of war, Dr. Beanes. That night, I was invited to the Admiral’s table where they were discussing battle strategy. I couldn’t wait to get back to Baltimore with this intelligence. Admiral Cochrane must have known my intent and refused to allow me to leave, even after the negotiations were successful. We were transferred to a smaller vessel, the HMS Surprise, for the remainder of our stay. My own sloop was secured to the back of the British vessel and the sails taken away.
When I left Baltimore, the city was preparing for battle. It was my one consolation, that and the new flag I knew would be flying over the fort. Fifteen stripes and fifteen stars would tell the British that Baltimore was proud of her country. It was that flag that I longed to see on the long night of bombardment. At twilight, after more than a dozen hours of fighting, the flag was still flying, but in the darkness of the night it was hard to make it out, even with the rockets exploding just above the fort. Was the flag still there?
My head throbbed with the constant boom of the cannons. My comrades had gone below, hoping to escape the noise and get a few moments of rest. I could not pull myself away. I had to stay. I had to see what the dawn would bring.
Suddenly the guns went silent. An eerie stillness drifted over Chesapeake Bay. The battle was over, but I had no idea who had won. I saw the ship’s captain at the rail and rushed to talk to him.
“Any news, Sir?”
“The Admiral ordered the cease fire. That is all I know at this time.” Captain Knight turned away and walked toward his cabin.
There was nothing to do but wait for dawn to shed light on the truth.
In those dark moments before first light, my mind played through all scenarios. I dreaded the thought of the fort being taken. I hated the idea of Baltimore being burned like Washington was. I knew the power and the cunning of the British, but still I hoped that we Americans could hold them off.
Slowly night eased away. The smoky midnight sky gave way to gentler grays. I squinted, looking into the distance. My heart swelled as a gust of wind unfurled the flag. There it was. The sight I longed to see. Above the ramparts of Fort McHenry, the stars and stripes showed vibrantly against the morning sky. The Americans had won!
It was then, in that hour of deliverance, my heart spoke. Does not such a country, and such defenders of their country, deserve a song?
I reached into my pocket and pulled out a stubby pencil and an envelope – it was the only piece of paper that I had with me – and began to write.
The Defence of Fort McHenry
by Francis Scott Key
Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
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