Frequently Asked Questions about
The War of 1812 and The Star Spangled Banner


General Comments and Questions

Q.
What are your sources of information?
A.
Mostly, a biography of Admiral Sir George Cockburn, "The man who burned the White House" by James Pack and published by The Naval Institute Press, currently out of print. I also used a lot of information from the Barney Family Historical Society, and a lot of local sources (How local? Well, on their way to Upper Marlboro, Bladensburg, and Washington, the British marched past the land my house is on. That's pretty local.)
An excellent source of additional information (which postdates these pages) is "The Burning of Washington" by Anthony S. Pitch.
Q.
Why did you write these pages?
A.
I remember, when I was in the fourth grade in Holy Family School on Flatlands Ave., in Brooklyn, New York, learning about the War of 1812 and the writing of "The Star Spangled Banner". I remember asking my teacher who Francis Scott Key was trying to get released from the British.
After all, the British Army had marched over 100 miles in 6 days, engaged American forces in one major battle and many small confrontations, took control of our nation's capital, burned most of its public buildings, and only took one prisoner! Who was this guy and what did he do to infuriate the British so much that they would take him captive?
My teacher didn't know. That person wasn't mentioned in the textbook. None of the other teachers knew. None of the librarians at the Canarsie Branch of The Brooklyn Public Library knew and none of the books they had on the subject mentioned the person. Every time I had another course on American History all the way through college, I would always ask this question but I never got an answer.
Thirty years later, I found myself living in the neighborhood where it all happened!
These pages are so that other fourth graders could find some of the answers they might be looking for.
Q.
Will you do my homework for me?
A.
No.
While I will encourage your effort in any way that I can, I will not perform the effort for you.

The War of 1812 and the British invasion of Washington, DC

Q.
What color was the White House before the British burned it?
A.
It was white.
The White House Historical Association Timeline shows that the President's Mansion (as it was known until 1901 when President Theodore Roosevelt changed it to "The White House") was first whitewashed in 1798, well before the British showed up.
Q.
Are there any photographs of the War of 1812?
A.
Since photography was invented in 1836 by Louis Deguerre, it is unlikely that there are any photographs of the War of 1812
Q.
Why don't you mention that the British invasion of the city ofWashington was in retaliation for the American invasion of the Canadian city of York (now the city of Toronto) in April of 1813?
A.
Because it's not true.
Admiral Cochburn, the architect of the British invasion of Washington, arrived in the Chesapeake Bay in March of 1813. He had been planning to attack Washington long before he found out about the Battle of York.
(Remember that, before the railroad and the telegraph, news only traveled as fast as a man on horseback. It took months for Cockburn to find out about York.)
Admiral Cockrane and General Ross, both of whom arrived later, were reluctant to attack Washington, wanting instead to capture Baltimore. Therefore, it's hardly accurate to say that the invasion of Washington was in retaliation for the Battle of York. It's true that Admiral Cochrane made some general comments that might have led some to believe that this was the case, but remember that those remarks were made upon his arrival in Halifax to bury General Ross after the successful invasion of Washington and the unsuccessful battle of Baltimore. His remarks could have just been "spin control".
Q.
Do you have any more information about the period you discuss in The Road to Washington - British Army Style?
A.
Yes.
  1. At the time, Upper Marlboro was the second largest city in Maryland. It had the only racetrack and the only theater in the Washington area, and was frequently visited by many prominent people, including Presidents and foreign ambassadors, many of whom would have met the local officials. Therefore, it is not surprising that President Madison would have commissioned an expedition to obtain the release of Dr. Beanes.
  2. The British burned or destroyed every public building in the city of Washington, save two: the Patent Office and the official residence of the Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, in the Washington Navy Yard, were spared. The Commandant's residence is the oldest public building in the city of Washington.
  3. During the British occupation of the city, a severe thunderstorm came through the area, as frequently happens during that time of year. One account by a British Army Officer described it as a tornado.
  4. The bodies of six British soldiers are buried in the cemetery at St. Thomas Episcopal Church (formerly Page's Chapel). The graves were not marked, and the locations of the graves are not currently known. The British Embassy has committed to providing headstones for the graves if they are ever located.
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The Star Spangled Banner

Q.
What was the name of the British ship that Francis Scott Key was on when he saw the flag flying over Fort McHenry and wrote "The Star Spangled Banner"?
A.
Francis Scott Key was not on a British ship at that time. After Admiral Cochrane freed Dr. Beanes, Key, Beanes and Col. Skinner were allowed to return to their flag-of-truce vessel, one of a group of sloops that was leased by the Federal Government during the time. While they were allowed to return to their own vessel, that vessel was not allowed to return to port until after the British attack. So Key saw the Star Spangled Banner flying over Fort McHenry while aboard a Chesapeake Bay sloop. The name of that sloop has been lost to antiquity, but it was probably the sloop "President".
Q.
Who REALLY wrote "The Star Spangled Banner"?
A.
Francis Scott Key REALLY wrote "The Star Spangled Banner".
"The Star Spangled Banner" is a poem set to the tune of "To Anacreon in Heaven.", a theme song for a British social club. It was probably a collaborative effort, but John Stafford Smith, who composed the British national anthem, probably had as much to do with it as anyone.
But Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star Spangled Banner", and the words we sing today are exactly the words he wrote in September of 1814, though the original title was "The Defense of Fort McHenry".
Q.
What was the national anthem before "The Star Spangled Banner"?
A.
Before 1931, when Congress made "The Star Spangled Banner" our national anthem, the United States didn't have one. During official functions, bands would frequently play "The Star Spangled Banner", but it had no official status, and neither did any other song.
Q.
What is proper etiquette when "The Star Spangled Banner" is being played?
A.
Actually, the playing of "The Star Spangled Banner" (the song) commands the same respect as the raising or lowering of The Star Spangled Banner (the flag). People are to stand still, remain silent, face the flag, or, if the flag isn't visible, face the band (or other source of the music), and place their right hand over their hearts. Men are to remove any hats or other headgear and hold them in their right hand. Members of the Armed Services of the United States, in uniform, are to salute (while wearing their hats). Members of the Armed Services of the United States, not in uniform, are to stand at attention.
NASCAR drivers are to come to a complete stop.
The President of The United States, as a member of the Armed Services of the United States not in uniform, should stand at attention.
For more information, see the American Legion Web Site.
Q.
Why is "The Star Spangled Banner" played at the beginning of baseball games and other sporting events?
A.
To get everyone to shut up and pay attention. Typically, everyone is milling around talking among themselves. Once the national anthem starts playing, everyone gets quiet, stops what they're doing and directs their attention to the center attraction.

For more information send e-mail to Tom Cavanaugh

Copyright 2000-2004 Tom Cavanaugh.