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Patrick J. Sullivan

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A Poem at Dawn
by Patrick J. Sullivan   

Last edited: Sunday, December 29, 2002
Posted: Saturday, December 28, 2002

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The American Fighting Man
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He was a lawyer, not a soldier. Although his young country was at war, and the enemy had attacked and destroyed part of the capital, his one concern that September afternoon was the release of his friend, a doctor taken by the enemy after their raid on the city. After successfully negotiating the doctor's release under a white flag, he was informed rather curtly that the two would not be allowed to leave until the next morning, owing to an impending bombardment and assault on a minor fort along the river. Frustrated, and humiliated by the negotiation process, the young man paced the deck of the small ship at anchor. He was upset and ashamed at the haughty and dismissive manner in which he was treated.

He heard the enemy naval officers make disparaging remarks about the ease by which the fort would fall and the relatively poor showing by the American troops in the war. These remarks were intended for the young man's ears, and with a burning shame, he knew it. He looked afar at the small flag flying over the still peaceful fort and wondered to himself how long it would continue to fly.

Having nothing else to do, he watched the preparations for the assault from the railing. The enemy bomb ketches, ships with huge squat mortars at their center, were being aligned and sighted to lob high arching shells to the interior of the fort. Other warships began to position themselves to fire their broadsides directly at the walls of the small fort. Some were even equipped with rocket batteries to deliver a series of salvos into the beleaguered garrison. As dusk descended, the operation began.

From his distant vantage point, the sound of the battle was muffled and delayed, a mere echo of the flash of the cannon and mortars. What caught the young man's attention was the visual spectacle of the battle. Unaccustomed to military affairs, he was stunned by the visual imagery of the exploding shells and rockets as they streaked towards their target. The brilliant flashes of red-orange and the drifting haze of smoke gave the battle a shocking and unearthly pall. As the young man watched in horrified fascination, he was transfixed by a single image, illuminated again and again by the explosions and the flash of firing cannon from the fort. It was the small flag of his country waving defiantly as the enemy intensified the attack.

Throughout the long night, the battle raged. The young man saw shell after shell explode inside the fort, and was horrified at the damage to the exterior walls as they were illuminated by each explosion. Towards dawn, the firing died away, and the tired young man waited anxiously during the long pauses between flashes. He began to doubt whether the next would illuminate the tiny flag of his country, or the flag of the enemy, signifying that the brave fort had fallen at last.

As dawn approached, and the sky lightened to a drab twilight, he strained his eyes through a borrowed telescope to see a dark cloth banner being raised above the fort. His heart sank at the vision. The flag atop the fort was noticeably larger than the one flown the previous night. Surely the fort had fallen and the flag now flying above was the ensign from one of the ships that sent marines to storm the battlements. He saw a glimpse of color in the flag, vague patterns of red, white, and blue on the limp cloth. The colors of the enemy ensign, the Union Jack. At that moment the first rays of the sun fell on the top of the flagpole, and the first morning breeze lifted the flag to full span.... and he saw stars. Brilliant white stars on a field of blue with white and red stripes in the full illumination of the sun over a fort still wreathed in shadow. No enemy ensign had such ornamentation.

To the young lawyer's immense joy and to the surprised consternation of the enemy officers and sailors aboard the ship, the flag that flew over the fort was a huge version of the tattered storm flag of the night before. Specially made a year earlier at the request of the commander of the fort, the 15 star, 15 stripe, 42 foot long, and 30-foot wide banner fluttered proudly in the light dawn air above the crumbled fort walls. The fort had survived the night's attack, and as an inspiration for his men the fort's commander hoisted the larger flag just before dawn. With an emotional shout by the young man, he saw the flag of his country still flying free in the wind.

The lawyer's gift to mark the event was penned within minutes of seeing the sun-illuminated flag fly over the fort that September morning. Overcome with excitement and emotion, he worded his account as a poem, in tribute to the vision that was forever engraved in his memory. Within a few weeks, it was set to music. Perhaps with a final touch of defiant irony, the lawyer chose a drinking song melody he may have heard while aboard the ship that night. In any case, the poem and the song became wildly popular, as did the author, Francis Scott Key.

Eventually, the song became our national anthem; The Star Spangled Banner

Few people realize that behind many a great poem is usually an even greater story or event. This is not really that surprising, since good poetry is so often an expression of deep emotion. Stirred by events witnessed or related to them, poets record their emotions in rhyme and meter, as if implying that prose could not approach the subject with the proper reverence of expression. In time, however, the story is sometimes forgotten or set aside, and the poetry loses some of the impact it once had.

Such forgetfulness has fallen on our national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner. The words have become something to be sung only at sporting events without really feeling the emotion related in their poetry. Since these emotions are not felt, they are often misconstrue d and even derided at times. It has even been suggested that our anthem is "too militaristic", without realizing that the words are those of a civilian, in wondrous awe of the power of perseverance shown by a beleaguered garrison, and the hope of a new dawn for that singular and hallowed idea: freedom.

Perhaps if we knew the story, and read the poetry as it was intended, we can share in the pride and soaring emotion that the author felt that morning. Maybe it will help us sing the song with a little more understanding and reverence, and cherish it as the enduring symbol of our country and its people during times of trial and trouble.

Patrick J. Sullivan
© 2001

The Star Spangled Banner
By Francis Scott Key

Oh, 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 thru the perilous fight,

O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?

And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

Oh, 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! Oh 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!

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand

Between their loved home and the war's desolation!

Blest with victory 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!

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