Book Review: Star-Spangled Banner

Book Review: Star-Spangled

Thumbnail image by Larry White from Pixabay

By Kathy A. Megyeri 

Did you know that: 

  • “O say, can you see” was originally a poem by Francis Scott Key, who was only 35 years old at the time? 
  • The National Anthem tells the story of the Star-Spangled Banner rising high above a fort after a night of intense battle during the War of 1812? 
  • Mary Pickersgill made the flag that flew over the fort and went on to found one of the first aged women’s homes to care for elderly single or widowed women? 
  • British Vice Admiral Cochrane’s observations of American slavery and the mistreatment of his in-laws in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War colored his attitude toward the entire battle? 

But do most people even know the following? 

  • What was the battle about? 
  • Why were the rockets glaring? 
  • Whose bombs were bursting? 
  • Why were free Black soldiers fighting on both sides? 
  • Who really was Francis Scott Key? 
  • How did he get so close to the battle? 

This fantastic book, “Star-Spangled: The Story of A Flag, A Battle and The American Anthem,” marketed erroneously to mainly young adults and teens, should be required reading in every high school U.S. history class and for every candidate taking the U.S. citizenship test.  It’s so interesting and unique because it tells of this battle from both the American and British perspectives and includes the author’s notes, a timeline, a glossary, endnotes, a bibliography, an index, attractive archival illustrations, full-color photography, and original artwork. 

The Star-Spangled Banner. Image from Amazon

The author, Tim Grove, knows well of what he writes because he was formerly chief of museum learning at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. Grove also has written numerous books for young readers (and even old ones like me) like “First Flight Around the World,” which won a YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction finalist award. 

When the British attempted to invade Baltimore while the over-sized American flag that hung over Ft. McHenry which guarded the entry to the port of Baltimore, it was Frank (name by which his friends knew him) Scott Key who witnessed the event while on the deck of one of the invading British ships. He scribbled his awe at seeing the star-spangled banner through the rockets’ “red glare by the dawn’s early light.” 

Image from the National Park Service

Grove has researched this event meticulously and accurately but the book is such an enjoyable read with its documents, drawings and photographs that it’s been called “stunning” for its layout. Maps, letters, historical documents and paintings illustrate the book. The details included are staggering, such as the receipt for the U.S. flag that Mary Pickersgill made, a Baltimore city directory showing her address, and a secret letter between two Admirals regarding potential future attacks on Baltimore and Annapolis. Grove even includes myths versus reality, including the competing claims that Betsy Ross versus Rebecca Young created the first flag for the American Revolution, although no written evidence exists for either. 

I personally learned more about politician Samuel Smith, shipbuilder Thomas Kemp, the burning of Washington, DC, “Frank” Key as an attorney, and the fact that Britain promised freedom to African American slaves if they joined their cause, even going so far as to building a fort on an island off the coast on which to train them. As many times as I have seen the star-spangled banner in the Smithsonian’s National History Museum, I now applaud the fact that Tim Grove was so inspired to write this phenomenal history as a result of his working there. 

Image from Wikipedia

In the book’s epilogue, he follows the lives of the main characters, traces a time-line, adds a glossary, suggests places to visit, and even includes notes and an index.  I was so enthused over this book upon completion of reading it that I wanted nothing more than to buy enough copies to distribute at every July 4th picnic, ballgame, and parade to everyone singing the Star-Spangled Banner on that holiday.  But instead, to dash my desire, on June 20, 2020, the statue of Key was toppled by protesters in San Francisco during demonstrations against racial injustice following the death of George Floyd because Key was a slave holder.

So the song’s lyrics about the “land of the free” were really written by one who defended in court slave-holders’ rights to own human property, according to the Smithsonian. One year later, an art exhibit opened with 350 slave sculptures gathered around the same space where the statue of Key stood. Perhaps that’s the reason why this book doesn’t contain the lyrics for the entire Star-Spangled Banner, but Americans should still know that Key wrote it in 1814 and it was later set to music and became our National Anthem in 1931, although a line that includes a defense of bondage was originally written into its third stanza, according to historians. 

Even sadder is the fact that Key, as district attorney of Washington, DC, successfully lobbied President Andrew Jackson to appoint his brother-in-law Roger Taney to the U.S. Supreme Court where he famously wrote the Dred Scott decision which declared that Blacks were not and could never be citizens of the U.S.  Thus, the third verse of the “Star-Spangled Banner” is now rarely sung as it refers to sending slaves to their graves, but historians say that was probably meant to threaten African Americans who were promised freedom by the British if they fought on their side during this War. 

At any rate, the book is still worthy of ownership and study, if only to understand the song we all sing on July 4th, the flag we still pledge allegiance to, and the song’s author whose life needs to be put in context and examined by all Americans.