D URING the War of 1812, the British fleet blockaded our ports and sailed up our rivers to attack our cities and forts. Thus, they entered the Chesapeake Bay, and landed troops outside Washington City.
A battle was fought near there, but the British were not stopped from pursuing their way to the capital. The
city was in great danger and the people hastened to gather their possessions and made their escape. There were
only eight thousand inhabitants in Washington at that time. It was a small town, as compared with its great
size and splendor,
A messenger rode in haste to bid the people flee. He came to the White House, where Dolly Madison, the wife of President James Madison, was waiting for her husband. He called out to her, "Mr. Madison says go, or the house will be burned over your head. The British are on the way to the capital. There is no time to lose. Escape as quickly as you can."
Dolly Madison did not go at once, but set about gathering the Cabinet papers, and the Declaration of Independence, which she made a servant pack in a trunk. Then she ordered a large portrait of Washington to be cut out of its frame, and rolled up so she could take that too. Having done these things, she escaped with her treasures, just as the British were entering the city.
The soldiers marched into the deserted town, and burned the Treasury Building, the Public Library, and the White House. A notorious officer, named Cockburn, followed by a mob of soldiers, entered the new Capitol, climbed into the Speaker's chair, and called out: "Shall this harbor of Yankee Democracy be burned?"
The mob of half-drunken soldiers called out, "Aye," and proceeded to apply the torch to the building.
Dolly Madison found refuge with her friends in the country. When she and the President returned to Washington, they had to live in a rented house. About three weeks after the burning of the city, the British began to attack Fort McHenry, which was built to protect the harbor of Baltimore. One evening, the British sent two bomb vessels, and a number of barges, filled with soldiers, to pass the fort and assail it in the rear.
But the noise of their oars was heard in the darkness, and an order was given to open fire on them. A deadly discharge was poured out from Fort McHenry upon the creeping craft, with the result that nearly all of them were sent to the bottom.
The English suffered so much from this repulse that they abandoned the attack and sailed away.
During the bombardment, Francis Scott Key, a young lawyer, was sent, under a flag of truce, to convey a message to the British fleet. His purpose was to secure the release of several prisoners.
After delivering his message, Key and his party were on the point of departure, when an officer said,
"Mr. Key, I have orders to detain you and your party until the bombardment is over. You will, therefore, remain here."
Key did not like to be held, but there was no help for it. So he and his associates were kept in a little vessel moored to the side of an English ship, under guard of a body of soldiers. Here, on the deck, they witnessed the bombardment of the fort.
All night long the shells were fired. Key watched each one as it fell upon the fort, and listened for each explosion. Suddenly, before the morning dawned, the firing ceased.
"Has the fort surrendered, or have the British abandoned the attack?" was the anxious thought in the minds of the weary watchers.
There was no way to find out until day came. "If the flag is still flying, then the fort has not surrendered," said Key to his companions. Anxiously they paced the deck.
As day dawned, they turned their glasses toward the fort, and, to their great joy, they saw the flag was still there. Key was overcome with emotion. Drawing a letter from his pocket, he wrote on the back of it the opening lines of our national song, "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Later in the day, a small boat took him back to Baltimore. On his way he completed the poem. That very night, he corrected it, and wrote it out as we now have it. The next day, he showed the poem to a friend of his, who was so pleased that he had it printed in a Baltimore paper.
When the words appeared, they were eagerly memorized by an actor, named Charles Durang, who stood on a chair and, for the first time, sang them to a crowd. Then, everybody joined in. Soon the piece was being sung all over the country. It is our great national song, and whenever it is played or sung, we rise reverently and uncover our heads, proud of our great flag and of the deeds of valor it has encouraged.