By Brenda Owen
It was inspired by a bloody battle more than a century ago, written by a lawyer on the back of an unfinished letter, and set to the music of an English drinking song about a Greek poet, yet Americans get a lump in their throats when those first notes fill the air.
It’s our national anthem.
On this day in 1931, the bill designating “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem of the United States was adopted by the Senate and signed by President Herbert Hoover the same day.
Today, almost any American can hum the tune or even sing a few lines but for those who have marched to war with that melody ringing in the ears, the anthem has an even more special meaning.
Virginia Ingellis, commander of American Legion Post 49 in Tupelo, said meetings are often opened with a recitation of the national anthem.
“We don’t always sing it, but we repeat the words in unison,” she said.
Ingellis said the soaring notes of the anthem should inspire respect and admiration in every American.
“People my age usually show a lot of respect for the anthem and the flag and younger children can learn to do the same if they have a good teacher,” she said.
Mooreville teacher Carol Rupert agrees.
“The best way children develop respect and patriotism is through their parents’ example,” she said. “Parents need to let their children see them removing their hats and standing with their hand over their hearts when the anthem is played and the flag is flying. Children need to be taught early to be still and reverent at those times and respectful of the flag and the music.”
Rupert said the anthem should remind every American of the millions of men and women who fought to preserve the freedom to sing it.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” was written by Francis Scott Key and is sung to music composed by John Stafford Smith. Long before Congress officially approved the song as the national anthem, the Army and Navy had marched into battle and celebrated victories to the tune.
Key wrote the song during the War of 1812. When the British retreated from Washington during the war, they took Key’s friend William Beanes with them and held him aboard a warship in Chesapeake Bay. Key, along with John S. Skinner, received permission from President James Madison to intercede with the British for Beanes’ release.
Key and Skinner boarded a prisoner-exchange boat in September 1814. The British agreed to release Beanes, but the boat was held in temporary custody by a British warship because the vessel was preparing to bombard Fort McHenry, which protected the city of Baltimore.
They held all three Americans on the prisoner-exchange boat at the rear of the British fleet until after the battle ended, so they could not reveal plans of the attack to patriots on shore.
From this vantage point in the midst of the enemy, Key witnessed the British fleet’s bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. The bombing started on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 1814, and continued all that day and and almost all night.
Key and his friends were aware that Fort McHenry had little defense. The three prisoners anxiously paced the deck all night. Even when morning came, they could not tell who had won the battle because the smoke and haze was so thick.
Suddenly, just after dawn, a break in the mist cleared the view for a moment, and they saw the American flag still flying over the walls of the fort. Key was so excited that he pulled an unfinished letter from his pocket and started writing verses to express his overwhelming feelings. He wrote most of the words of the song in a few minutes. Later that day, the British released the Americans, and Key returned to Baltimore, where he finished the other stanzas.
Key turned the text over to a Baltimore printer after being released by the British. The poem was printed on handbills the next morning and distributed in the city.
A few days later, actor Ferdinand Durang sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” in Baltimore to the tune of an old English drinking called “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Anacreon was a Greek lyric poet who made wine and love his main themes. Americans knew the melody as that of a military march of the 1700s and as a political song named, “Adams and Liberty.” Durang’s performance marked the first time the anthem was sung in public.
The song became popular immediately, and three months later it was played during the Battle of New Orleans.
Key later served as district attorney of the District of Columbia from 1833 until 1841. He never took his poetry seriously though he wrote enough to fill a collection. Key was extremely religious and even considered becoming an Episcopal clergyman at one time. Consequently, much of his poetry was religious and included the hymn “Lord, with Glowing Heart I’ll Praise Thee.”
Today, by government permission, the United States flag flies continuously over Key’s grave at Frederick, Md., and over Fort McHenry.
An attitude of patriotism is the best way to honor the national anthem, said Lt. Paul Stevenson, United States Navy recruiter in Tupelo, but there are proper procedures for paying respect when the anthem is played.
Sailors, and other military personnel stand at attention and face the direction of the music when the anthem is played, he said. If the anthem is played with raising or lowering of the flag, those present face in the direction of the flag. If they are in uniform and wearing a military hat, they salute from the sounding of the first note to the last. Those in ranks salute together, on command. When not wearing a hat and in uniform, it is customary to stand at attention during the playing of the national anthem.
“The same marks of respect prescribed during the playing of our national anthem are shown during the playing of a foreign national anthem,” he said. “We show them the same respect we want them to show to our anthem.”
Civilians or military personnel in civilian clothes should remove their hat with their right hand and place it over their heart.
A good general rule, he said, is that anytime the anthem is played and the flag is displayed, face the flag. If the flag is not displayed, face the music. Hold the salute until the music has stopped or the flag has been hoisted, lowered, or has passed.