Sunday, September 15, 2019
Saturday, September 14, 2019
The Bombardment of Fort McHenry--the bombs bursting in air.
On September 14, 1814 a young Baltimore attorney, Francis Scott Key, dashed off a long poem, The Defense of Fort McHenry after his release from a British warship on which he was detained during the bombardment of the fort in the War of 1812. It was published to considerable acclaim in the Patriot on September 20. Street broadsides were soon circulating with the instruction to sing the words to the tune of a popular drinking song, To Anacreon in Heaven. In later decades all but the first verse would become largely forgotten and the song would become known as The Star Spangled Banner.
Key had accompanied American Prisoner Exchange Agent Colonel John Stuart Skinner to the HMS Tonnant, flag ship of the British fleet, to appeal to commanders Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn, and Major General Robert Ross for the release of civilian prisoners taken by shore parties. Most particularly they sought the release of Dr. William Beanes of Upper Marlboro, Maryland who had foolishly tried to place straggling and drunken English soldiers under citizen’s arrest for being disorderly in the streets. The officers entertained Key and Skinner hospitably, including a fine dinner with good wine. And they agreed to the requested release. But because the men had seen the strength and disposition of the fleet, they were held on board pending what the British assumed, after the easy landings and attack on the Washington, would be the rapid reduction of Baltimore’s harbor fortification and the seizure of the city.
On board the British flag ship Francis Scott Key spotted a banner in the dawn.
Key and the other Americans had the freedom of the deck as the fleet opened up a 25 hour bombardment of the star shaped fortress. About 1,800 cannon balls were fired at the recently completed modern fortification, and hundreds of rounds of explosive mortar shells were launched from five mortar barges. The HMS Erebus launched Congreve Rockets, which were ineffective but exploded so impressively in the air that they were a highly useful psychological weapon.
Despite the heavy bombardment, American troops at the fort under Major George Armistead were able to concentrate fire on a British landing party west of the fort, squelching an attempted flanking maneuver in support of the main British army approaching the city from the east. At dawn on September 14, Scott, peering through the smoke of cannon fire and morning haze, made out a giant flag flying defiantly over the fort.
Without being able to take the fort with its impressive fire power and without the support of the secondary land attack, Colonel Arthur Brooke, in command of the main 5000 man attacking force after General Ross was killed by an American sniper, ordered his men to withdraw. After re-boarding their transports, the Army and fleet abandoned the attack on Baltimore and set sail for a rendezvous with destiny in New Orleans.
The original Star Spangled Banner--the battered giant flag is preserved and on display at the Smithsonian.
The flag that Key observed was not the standard sized banner that had flown over the fort during the bulk of the bombardment. That flag was heavily damaged. In order to signal the survival of the fort and send encouragement to Baltimore’s ground defenders, Armistead ordered a giant, previously unused, ceremonial flag sewn by local flag maker Mary Pickersgill and her young daughter hoisted in its place.
Coming on the heels of the humiliation of the burning of the Capital the defense of Baltimore became a moment of immense national pride. The first known public performance of the poem set to the tune of To Anacreon in Heaven occurred soon after the publication of the broadside edition when actor Ferdinand Durang climbed on a chair and sang it to a cheering crowd at Captain McCauley’s tavern. Newspapers around the country picked up Key’s poem and it slowly grew in popularity as a song.
But it was not the National Anthem. The United States did not yet have one. The most commonly played patriotic song was Hail Columbia which had been performed at George Washington’s inaugural and had become known as the President’s March. That might have become an official anthem except for the inconvenient fact that the nation was not named Columbia and that another nation had rudely stolen the name in 1810.
In 1831 Samuel Francis Smith penned new lyrics to God Save the King to make the British ditty into an American patriotic song. The simplicity of the tune, much easier to sing than the Star Spangled Banner, or even the popular My Country ‘Tis of Thee made America the dominant mid-19th Century flag waver. It was adopted as an official anthem by the U.S. Navy in 1889 and was linked with the Pledge of Allegiance to become a morning ritual for school children across the country in the wave of patriotism in the wake of the Spanish American War. Despite its use as an unofficial anthem, sharing the music with the official anthem of the country from which the U.S. had declared its independence and with which it had fought two wars, made it unsuitable for international use.
By the time that President Woodrow Wilson issued an executive order that the Star Spangled Banner be used as an anthem by military and naval bands in 1916, other songs were emerging as contenders for the title of an official anthem. Katherine Lee Bates’ poem America the Beautiful was set to a tune by Samuel A Ward. George M. Cohan’s rouser You’re A Grand Old Flag from the 1906 musical George Washington, Jr. also was another candidate.
Despite the competition, Congress finally designated the Star Spangled Banner as the National Anthem in 1931 and the resolution was signed into law by President Herbert Hoover.
Key’s song, however, always had its detractors. With its wide range, it is very hard for all but accomplished singers and its martial spirit offends those who would prefer their patriotism without belligerence.
Kate Smith's rousing 1938 version of Irving Berlin's God Bless America made the song a leading contender as a replacement National Anthem.
Most commonly mentioned as an alternative is a song that Irving Berlin wrote for his Doughboy camp musical Yip, Yip Yank in 1917 but which had been cut from the show. Years later, Berlin tinkered with the lyrics and Kate Smith sang it on her popular radio show in 1938. God Bless America became an instant favorite and is often sung at public events either with or as an alternative to the Star Spangled Banner.
There has even been a movement to make Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land the anthem. Guthrie wrote the song as a direct answer to Smith’s version of God Bless America in 1940 but did not record it until 1944. It was not published until Woody put out a mimeographed pamphlet of 10 of his songs to sell at concerts in 1950. It took off with the folk revival and political upheaval of the 1960’s and was recorded by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and, Peter Paul and Mary and many others. As great as the song is, it is difficult to imagine a song with that political pedigree ever becoming the official Anthem.
Sentiment was growing to ditch the Star Spangled Banner until Whitney Houston's spectacular performance at the Super Bowl in 1998 during a spasm of patriotism during the Gulf War.
These days the song is under attack because of Key’s later legal career and political entanglements as an ardent defender of slavery, mouthpiece for strictly enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act, and being an ally of John C. Calhoun and the nullifiers. Critics insist that the Star Spangled Banner is the tainted fruit of a tainted tree.
Despite this and the difficulty in singing the song, it can inspire goose bumps even among the most blasé.
Key's anthem got a boost during the Civil War. There was no mistaking the Star Spangled Banner for the Stars and Bars or the Confederate Battle Flag.
The Star Spangled Banner
O 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 through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
—Francis Scott Key
Friday, September 13, 2019
Hadrian's Wall is now a picturesque British tourist attraction.
Donald Trump probably slept through world history classes at expensive New York Military Academy and the two years he spent at Fordham before transferring to Wharton to study the art of the real estate swindle. He probably promised to pay some dweeb to do his homework and then stiffed him. But even The Donald may have heard of Hadrian and his wall and been envious and inspired. After all, he wants to be Caesar and has a taste for bloated projects.
According to sources I consult when choosing topics for the blog, on this date in 122 A.D. or C.E. in current academic parlance work began on the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, defensive fortifications that stretched across the northern boundary of the Roman province of Britannia. How that can be determined with such precision is unclear to me, but never let a fuzzy date interfere with a good story.
A statue of the Emperor Hadrian photo shopped to re-create its original vivid paint job makes for a stunningly life-like image.
The wall was built at the direction of the Emperor Hadrian, the third of the so-called Five Good Emperors, who ruled the Empire from 117 to 138. He came from a noble Roman family of Iberian origins and was also a noted Stoic philosopher. Hadrian ruled over a period of stability and initiated a policy of peace through strength by fortifying and garrisoning the borders of the Empire most threatened—in Germania and Britannia. The German fortifications were elaborate wooden palisades, but the largely treeless moors of northern Britannia caused those fortifications to be built of abundant local stone.
Hadrian’s Legions had crushed a major rebellion in Britannia a year earlier and sent the remnants of the defeated armies scurrying north into the Cornish and Scottish highlands where both Celts and Picts had long resisted Roman rule. The Emperor personally ordered the construction to “separate the Romans from the Barbarians,” while on a personal inspection tour of the remote province.
The Wall eventually extended west from Segedunum at Wallsend on the River Tyne to the shore of the Solway Firth. For most of its distance the wall was continuous but interspersed at intervals with gates to allow trade and collect tariffs and garrison forts. In the rugged terrain near its western terminus, the curtain wall was replaced by a system of Milecastles and Turrets, each within sight of one another.
Construction on the wall took six years to complete. Sections were assigned to each of the three Legions posted to Britannia, and construction details differed depending on which Legion did the work. Originally Milecastles and gates were to be manned by small garrisons of a few dozen each. Within a few years, it was determined to strengthen the line with the construction of 14 to 17 major forts at intervals, each capable of holding 100 to 1000 troops. Infantry was posted along most of the distance and two large cavalry posts for 1000 riders anchored each end.
Eventually the entire defensive line included small forts set north of the wall as an early warning system; a glacis, an artificial slope of earth and ditch; a berm with rows of pits concealing entanglements; the curtain wall and gate fortresses; and an interior military road. It was a formidable barrier.
Remains of a small gate garrison fortification. The gate below was cut by modern farmers to access grazing for their sheep.
After the Legions completed construction, the Wall was garrisoned by Auxiliary troops—non-Roman citizen mercenaries hired by the Empire. They probably included troops raised in Germania, Gaul, and Iberia, but eventually were mostly locally recruited Britons. The garrisons were permanent and the soldiers farmed nearby lands on both sides of the wall for sustenance, married, and raised families. By the end of its useful existence, which actually outlived the Roman presence in Britain, the troops were so well integrated that they were essentially a local militia. In its early years as many as 10,000 soldiers maintained the garrisons.
After Hadrian’s death his successor Antoninus Pius sought to aggressively push the frontier north. He ordered the Antoine Wall built to the north at the narrowest width of lower Scotia. Hadrian’s Wall was stripped of most of its garrisons and made a secondary defensive line. But the barbarians of the north were too much and after Marcus Aurelius came to power he ordered the Antoine Wall abandoned in 164 and the return to and reconditioning of Hadrian’s original line.
"Barbarians" attacking the Wall.
In the years around 190 the wall came under concerted attack from the barbarians. Fierce fighting damaged some sections, but on the whole the Wall prevented Britannia from being overwhelmed. Major renovations and repairs were made.
By 410 the Legions and most Roman administrators had left the island. While still technically part of the Empire, local troops and Romanized Britons were left to their own devises. Parts of the wall remained occupied and garrisoned well into the 5th Century before the last remnants of Romanized Briton collapsed under pressure—the myth shrouded era that gave original birth to the Arthurian Legend.
For generations local farmers stripped portions of the wall of stone for their own construction and local authorities used them for road building. By the early 19th Century it was in danger of disappearing as a landmark.
Early Victorian John Clayton began buying up land crossed by the wall, sponsored archeological excavations, and began reconstruction efforts.
In 1830 Newcastle upon Tyne Town Clerk John Clayton, an avid antiquarian, undertook to save the Wall from continued demolition and to restore as much of it as possible. In 1834 he personally began to buy land on which the wall sat and to do excavations and eventual restoration. Over time he had control of land from Brunton to Cawfields. By the introduction of modern agricultural techniques and selective livestock breading, the lands became profitable enough to sustain Clayton’s continued work on the wall. He also publicized and popularized his work throughout England.
Although Clayton’s heirs squandered his fortune at the gambling tables, much of the work was done.
In 1987 Hadrian’s Wall was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its maintenance and preservation is the responsibility of English Heritage, a government organization in charge of historic sites in England. Hiking trails parallel much of the Wall and in most places visitors can walk right up to it, and even climb it to have their pictures taken. It is the most popular tourist attraction in northern England.
Although often photographed, this stretch of Trump's Wall is part of less than 47 miles he has actually built.
Despite looting Federal agencies including FEMA and the Department of Defense of billions for construction of his southern border wall and running roughshod over public lands including nature reserves as well as over local land owners and municipalities, Donny Boy’s project is not going well. 46.7 miles actual wall have been built two-and-a-half years into Trump's presidency. Existing fencing and barriers, some of it merely barbed and razor wire already cover 648 of the more than 1000 miles of his proposed wall from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Despite ordering his minions to defy Federal Law and court orders with a promise to pardon them if they are indicted, he is unlikely ever to come close to completing the monument to his own ego. As Caesars go he is much more likely to be remembered as a Nero fiddling while Rome—American democracy—burns, than as the “Good Emperor” Hadrian.