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Tall ships, Blue Angels to return for bicentennial of national anthem

PoetryFort McHenryFlag Day (United States)War of 1812Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

It's a mere yellowing piece of paper with a few hundred words scrawled on it, a document that once sat forgotten in a drawer for three-quarters of a century.

But this summer, the original manuscript of "The Star-Spangled Banner," the poem Francis Scott Key wrote about a certain inspiring morning in September 1814, will be the centerpiece of a sprawling, multimillion-dollar statewide celebration.

On Friday morning, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced the schedule of events for Star-Spangled Summer 2014, a three-month tribute that will conclude Maryland's commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.

From June 14 to Sept. 13 — Flag Day through Defenders' Day — the summer events will feature re-enactments, live music and fireworks. During the final 10 days of the observation, tall ships and the Blue Angels, the Navy's precision flying squad, will return to Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

The mayor called the War of 1812, "the struggle that defined our city and our nation," and said the celebration would center on "the most ubiquitous and emotional ballad in American history."

Rawlings-Blake and other organizers predicted that the celebrationwould draw more visitors to the area than last year's Sailabration, which attracted 1.2 million people.

"I seek to beat those numbers," Rawlings-Blake said during a conference Friday at the Maryland Historical Society, which has housed the document since 1954.

Key, a lawyer and amateur poet, wrote the poem, originally titled "The Defence of Fort McHenry," after witnessing the British navy's 25-hour bombardment of Fort McHenry, which began Sept. 13, 1814.

He had a uniquely clear view of the battle. The Frederick native saw it from a truce ship on the Chesapeake, where he was trying to negotiate the release of Dr. William Beanes, an Upper Marlboro physician taken captive by the British.

Key and a colleague, Col. John Skinner, paced the deck of the ship, the HMS Minden, as a British flotilla rained more than 1,800 shells on the Maryland stronghold.

The battered American troops fired rockets to illuminate the nighttime scene, possibly inspiring Key's image of the "rockets' red glare" –—and ultimately to celebrate the fact that the massive 15-star American flag flying above the fort was still flying when the sun came up Sept. 14.

Paired shortly after it was written with a melody borrowed from a popular song, "To Anacreon in Heaven," Key's poem became the national anthem in 1931.

Legend has it the poet wrote it on the back of a letter he kept in his pocket. He completed it over the next couple of days at the Indian Queen Hotel in Baltimore, where he was staying.

Henry Walters, founder of the Walters Art Museum, obtained the original; it is believed to have been placed in a desk drawer in one of the family's homes and left there, unnoticed and untouched, for about 75 years, said Burt Kummerow, president of the historical society.

That was a boon to its preservation because it kept the paper in the dark.

"Light is the enemy of historic documents," Kummerow said.

Star-Spangled Summer 2014 will commence with a historic moment all its own. The historical society will lend the manuscript to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, where it will be displayed with the actual Star-Spangled Banner, the famed flag that inspired it, for what is believed to be the first time.

The union will occur on Flag Day and last through July 6.

"That's going to be a goose-bump experience," said Kummerow.

At that point, Baltimore will become the center of a series of statewide festivals embracing historic waterfront communities along the Chesapeake Bay that played a role in the successful American defense in 1814.

Visitors outside the city will be able to experience the Chesapeake Campaign, a traveling festival along the Star-Spangled National Historic Trail — 560 miles of land and water routes that follow the movements of British and American troops during the war.

Re-enactments and interactive events are scheduled for towns including Leonardtown, St. Leonard, Bladensburg and Brookville, all of which were important sites as Maryland soldiers fought the invading British.

Starting Sept. 6, Baltimore will host a 10-day festival. It will include free public tours of tall ships, Blue Angels air shows, a living flag presentation at Fort McHenry and what Tom Noonan, CEO of Visit Baltimore, an organizing partner, said will be the largest fireworks display in the history of the state.

The morning of Sept. 14, hundreds of thousands will witness a flag-raising ceremony at Fort McHenry, exactly 200 years after the moment Key saw that "our flag was still there," Noonan said.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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PoetryFort McHenryFlag Day (United States)War of 1812Stephanie Rawlings-Blake
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