Independence . . . a few thoughts

Fireworks over the water are a traditional part of July 4th celebrations in many parts of the country. Fire risk seems lessened, and exploding colors and sounds seem magnified by rippling water below and starry skies above. We have enjoyed such displays many times, watching with as much awe as any child.101_3074

A bit of background

Several years ago, as we made our way by boat across Chesapeake Bay and into Baltimore Harbor, we noticed an unusual buoy — not the normal red or green of navigational markers, not a warning orange — but rather red, white and blue.  At the same time, we couldn’t help but see the flag fluttering in the breeze at historic Fort McHenry, situated on a peninsula that intrudes into the Patapsco River not far away.

We later learned that the U.S. Coast Guard sets a ceremonial marker annually to mark the approximate spot where the words to the Star Spangled Banner were first written.

Gypsy-new camera-NJNYMDDC 517 (2)The unique buoy and an oversize flagpole brought home to us that year the reality of the battle that shaped the destiny of a young nation. History is like that — it sometimes takes being there to make it real.

The War of 1812, which began because of trade disputes and issues surrounding westward expansion, escalated when ongoing battles between Britain and France waned. It was a devastating time for a young country, and there were serious doubts about the ability to survive as an independent nation.

Much of New England never joined the fight. And, by the time it was over, the “second War of Independence,” as it is sometimes known, resulted in the deaths of 15,000 Americans, nearly as many as perished during the Revolutionary War. The War of 1812 actually lasted for two years and eight months.

Putting it in perspective

The fighting at Fort McHenry took place September 13, 1814. By the time the battle was brought to Baltimore, the war was all but lost. Washington, D.C., including the White House, the Capitol and other government buildings, had already been burned. Gypsy-new camera-NJNYMDDC 519 (2)

This past May, on a trip to Bermuda, those events of 1814 became even more real. It was from this Atlantic island some 600 miles offshore that a fleet of British warships was launched on August 1, 104 years ago, carrying 5,000 British Army and Royal Marines troops. Even though the colonies had declared independence nearly 40 years earlier, the British had not yet given up.

It was at Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor that the tide of war changed; defenders fought off the British during more than 25 hours of intense bombardment.

During the fighting, a young attorney was detained on a British ship in the harbor, along with a physician whose release had been promised. Francis Scott Key, sometime poet as well as a lawyer, had negotiated a prisoner exchange with the British, set to occur after the battle. As the fighting ensued, he was inspired to write the words to a poem which was set to music, with the title Defence of Fort McHenry. Later Francis Scott Key added three more stanzas, all but forgotten today.

The Star-Spangled Banner, although popular, was not used ceremoniously for another 75 years. In 1890, it was adopted by the U.S. military for play during the raising and lowering of the colors.

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Touring the Royal Naval Dockyards this spring on the island known to its residents as “the Rock” or “Gibraltar of the West,” we actually thought little about Baltimore or the War of 1812. Instead we were focused on British history and maritime supremacy, until a chance remark brought back the memory of Fort McHenry, the flagpole and the buoy.  We toured the grounds of the British naval compound, walked the ramparts, and imagined those ships sailing towards Baltimore to quash yet another rebellion. With that clarity of perspective, we realized once again that we are still a very young country!

And so we celebrate . . .

It surprised me to learn that Independence Day was not even a holiday to celebrate until 1870, nearly 100 years after the Declaration of Independence was drafted, and long after its authors had passed on.

It surprised me equally as much to learn that the song written by Francis Scott Key  National Anthem was adopted by presidential order in 1916, barely 100 years ago. Congress made it official only in 1931. The anthem made its official debut at a sporting event, a baseball game played in Chicago in 1918, during the turmoil of World War I.

And the fireworks? Well, that part of the celebration was added only after the poem was written and the song was performed.

None of that, however, diminishes the fun — or the spectacle. No matter what else occurs on the 4th of July, whether there are parades or solemn ceremonies, barbecues or backyard picnics, swim parties, bicycle runs or Days at Six Flags, it’s the fireworks that encompass the spirit of the celebration.

But, lest we forget, independence had a cost. It still has. So, as we celebrate, perhaps we should also consider just what independence means, and what price each of us is willing to pay to preserve it.

Stay safe, everyone, on this 4th of July, and enjoy your celebration, no matter what it is!

 

If you’d like to learn more, here are some resources:

http://www.sacredclassics.com/keys.htm

https://www.history.com/topics/the-star-spangled-banner

https://www.constitutionfacts.com/us-declaration-of-independence/fourth-of-july/

https://www.bermuda-attractions.com/bermuda_0002c2.htm

https://www.bayjournal.com/article/us_anthem_flag_arent_the_only_stars_at_fort_mchenry

 

A time to be silent . . .

When the tourist buses leave, quiet descends and shadows begin to fall over the battlefields. A hush falls over the land, and it’s hard not to speak in whispers. It is also difficult to fight back the tears. Gettysburg is a stark reminder of another time, when the air was filled with smoke and cries echoed on the wind.

At least that’s how I imagine it. And those were my feelings last year in Gettysburg. The land was beautiful then, alight with the new growth of young grasses waving in the breeze and flowers blooming in the sun. And monuments. The monuments are both small and grand, sited haphazardly, it seems, on plots of ground that must have great meaning to the survivors of the men who fought here.

It’s a somber place in the late afternoon as the sun begins to move low over the western horizon. Battlefields are always somewhat difficult to visit. Civil War battlegrounds are especially sobering. They are smaller than expected, making it easy to imagine facing an enemy up close and personal and terrible to think about that reality.

The fields of Gettysburg, though, are expansive; the hills roll on into the distance; split timber fences delineate the fields, defining various encounters between Union and Confederate forces, and even driving through the area takes time. I felt compelled to walk among the monuments, to read the inscriptions, to wonder about the units they honored, and to think about the men who died on that ground.

Battlefields have a peculiar pull, no matter where I encounter them, and I have walked silently among the ghosts on battle plains across the globe, from the Little Big Horn to the beaches of Normandy, from the Golan Heights to Glorieta, New Mexico. I have also meandered among the headstones of military cemeteries in this country and in other nations, wondering about the lives of the men buried there, and about their survivors.

I always come away from battlefields with a sense of wonder that no matter how bloody the battle, the earth itself recovers from war relatively quickly. It is much more difficult for the people.

So today – Decoration Day was first celebrated on May 30, 1868 – at 3 p.m., the traditional hour of remembrance, I remember that battle fought long ago in Pennsylvania, and all the other battles of the Civil War and the wars that followed. Whether it’s now called Memorial Day or Remembrance Day or Poppy Day, I like to think that we are moving toward a time when battles will no longer be the way to resolve differences, when our children’s children can walk confidently into a future that only honors servicemen and women who died long-ago.

I thought about all of that yesterday as I enjoyed burgers and bratwurst, potato salad and apple pie with a small group of friends. It was a long weekend, after all, and it’s always good to be with friends and to share good food.

But today, because this is the real Memorial Day, I once again remember the fallen soldiers and those members of the armed services who still are called to give their lives in the service of their country.

The Civil War took more lives than any other this country has fought. We can debate, from the comfort of our time a century and a half removed, the issues that led to that war and that provoke other wars, but we cannot deny the consequences. And we must not forget that good and noble men fought on both sides. Warriors have left grieving families in all the battles since. It is good to pay homage to sacrifice like that.

Now, more than ever before, it seems imperative that we learn from our past. We can then move on to the task of writing the future the way we want it to be.