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Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Star-Spangled Fiction: Guarding Against Pretended Patriotism

"Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism." -George Washington

Patriotism is a wonderful thing.  It inspires citizens of every nation to take pride in the best parts of their respective motherland.  Patriotism is what motivates the bravest among us.  It causes soldiers to willingly take up arms, fight and even die for their country.  Yes, patriotism is one of the most cherished commodities of any nation, which is why we all must, as the great American George Washington reminded us so long ago, “guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.”

It is the topic of “pretended patriotism” that I wish to address today.  Over the past few years, I have (on various Facebook posts from friends) come across a popular YouTube video on the origins of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  The video, in various forms, has received over 5 million hits.

As you can see for yourself, the narrator of this video (a Baptist pastor by the name of David C. Gibbs) creates for his audience a solemn, even sacred atmosphere in which pure reverence for Francis Scott Key and the brave men who defended “Fort Henry” swells in the heart of the listener.  So why am I complaining about it, you ask?  The video is almost complete nonsense and Pastor Gibbs is either a liar or so historically illiterate that he has no business speaking about this or any other matter of American history!  His errors are many, his embellishments aplenty.  Let’s dissect them one-by-one shall we.

1.) At the beginning of the video, Gibbs states that Francis Scott Key wrote a song “called the National Anthem.”  I’m guessing this was just a mishap on his part but he’s still technically wrong.  The song (actually a poem) was originally called, The Defense of Fort McHenry and was later changed to The Star-Spangled Banner.   Key’s poem was later put to the music of, To Anacreon in Heaven, a popular 18th century British drinking song by John Stafford Smith, and finally emerged as the National Anthem of the United States in 1931.

2.) At the 0.50 mark Gibbs states, “The colonies were engaged in vicious conflict with the mother country, Britain.”  This is a MASSIVE historical faux pas on the part of Gibbs and reveals (right from the start) that he has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.  “The colonies” hadn’t been “the colonies” for AT LEAST 30 years!  The 1783 Treaty of Paris (signed by Great Britain) secured American independence.  Those “colonies” had been states for at least 31 years!  Even more if you trace their genesis to the 1776 Declaration of Independence.  Gibbs doesn’t seem to realize that the War of 1812 was a completely different war than the American Revolution.  In fact, it was the United States that declared war on Great Britain during the War of 1812, not the other way around.
3.) At 1:09 Gibbs begins to describe a fictional situation in which “both sides” (the Americans and the British) had accumulated “prisoners.”  Gibbs then states the American government negotiated to exchange those prisoners and that Francis Scott Key was to act as chief negotiator.  Gibbs states that Key made his way to the British war ships via a “row boat” (Key was actually in a truce vessel, not a row boat) where he began negotiations for the release of American prisoners being held on British war ships.  This claim is ABSOLUTELY FALSE!!!  First, the British were not holding any American prisoners.  Second, Francis Scott Key was not sent by the American government to negotiate for the release of prisoners.  He was actually attempting to secure the release of just one man, Dr. William Beanes, who was a friend of F. S. Key.  Dr. Beans was an elderly non-combatant who had been taken prisoner outside of Washington D.C. after the British burned the White House (and much of the city).  Dr. Beans had not been mistreated in any way during his “captivity” with the British.  In reality, both Dr. Beans and Key were considered "guests" on board a British command frigate, where they dined with other British "gentleman." From the Library of Congress website:

When the British invaded Washington in 1814, Ross and Cockburn with their staff officers made their headquarters in Upper Marlboro, Md., at the residence of a planter, Dr. William Beanes, whom they subsequently seized as a prisoner. Upon hearing of his friend's capture, Key resolved to release him, and was aided by President Madison, who ordered that a vessel that had been used as a cartel should be placed at his service, and that John S. Skinner, agent for the exchange of prisoners, should accompany him. Gen. Ross finally consented to Dr. Beanes's release, but said that the party must be detained during the attack on Baltimore.

Key and Skinner were transferred to the frigate "Surprise," commanded by the admiral's son, Sir Thomas Cockburn, and soon afterward returned under guard of British sailors to their own vessel, whence they witnessed the engagement.

The notion that Key was sent to rescue “hundreds” of men, being kept in “chains” is completely bogus.  Pastor Gibbs should know better. 

4.) At the 2:30 mark Gibbs makes reference to “an ultimatum” that had been issued by the British to the soldiers at “Fort Henry” (the fort is actually called Fort McHenry).  According to Gibbs, the British demanded that the American flag be lowered, thereby signifying the surrender of the fort.  If they refused, the British intended to annihilate the fort.  Again, this is completely and utterly false! There was no ultimatum issued by the British, nor did they have any intention (or capacity frankly) to destroy Ft. McHenry.   

5.) At 2:55 Gibbs states that “the entire British fleet” consisting of “hundreds of war ships” were approaching and preparing to attack Fort McHenry.  This is another outright falsehood. The British only had 19 ships at Baltimore, nothing more. In addition, only 8 or 9 of those ships actually fired on the fort, since the other ships didn't have the guns capable of reaching the shore.  Also, it is important to note that Admiral Cochrane (the man in charge of the British fleet) had sent a landing party of British soldiers to attempt to gain intelligence. Cochrane then ordered his ships to pull back and only attack the redoubts of the fort. He clearly didn't want to destroy the fort or inadvertently kill his own men.  In addition, it is worth mentioning that Great Britain was involved in a war with Napoleon and France in Europe at this same time.  The overwhelming majority of their forces were being deployed in that theater, not in America, so the claim that the “entire British fleet” was coming to attack Ft. McHenry is idiotic at best.  In addition, the area of the Chesapeake Bay that meets the mouth of the Patapsco River where the British ships were located, when F. S. Key was with them, is nowhere near the sea. You'd have to go over 130 miles south to get a view of the Atlantic Ocean. So Key could not have "scanned the horizon of the sea" to see "hundreds of little dots" aka "the entire British war fleet.”  Another lie by Pastor Gibbs!

6.) In that same nonsensical rant, Gibbs states that this attack on Fort McHenry would “end the war.” NOT SO!  In fact, negotiations between the British and the Americans were already underway in the Netherland city of Ghent.  Even if the British had somehow destroyed and/or conquered Ft. McHenry it would have had little to no bearing on the outcome of the war.  As stated above, Britain was involved in a far more serious conflict with Napoleon in Europe.  The War of 1812 in America was a mere distraction that the British wanted to resolve as soon as possible.  This is why, despite the destruction of many key cities (including Washington D.C.), the United States escaped from the War of 1812 relatively unscathed.  The Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war, established what became known as Status Quo Antebellum, or in other words, America and Britain simply went back to the way things were before the war ever started.  No land was lost, no demands were made.  Britain washed its hands and moved on to the bigger Napoleon fish to fry.  If we owe anyone a debt of gratitude for getting us out of the War of 1812 it isn’t Andrew Jackson, James Madison, Francis Scott Key or any other American.  Our thanks should go to French General Bonaparte.

7.) At 3:18 Gibbs states that Fort McHenry was “full of women and children” and that it was “not a military fort.”  Both of these claims are completely inaccurate.  Fort McHenry was a very strategic stronghold that protected Baltimore and other neighboring areas.  It garrisoned 1,000 soldiers who were under the command of Major George Armistead.  It was most certainly a military fort!  Why else would the British want to attack it?

8.) At 3:35 Gibbs states that the British stated to Key, “Do you see that flag way up on the rampart?  If they will lower that flag the shelling will stop, we will know they have surrendered and you will be under British rule.”  There is a lot of nonsense here to unpack so take a breath.  First, the mythology about the flag at Fort McHenry has grown to legendary proportions.  In fact, you can visit the Museum of American History in Washington D.C. and see it for yourself.  It is a behemoth flag, measuring 30 X 42 feet.  But this wasn’t the flag that flew during the battle.  In fact, the soldiers at Fort McHenry had made a tradition of hoisting the oversized flag (made by Baltimore local Mary Pickersgill and her 13-year-old daughter), every day as a part of their morning reveille.  Second, as stated in a previous comment (#6), the destruction/defeat of Ft. McHenry would have had little to no bearing on the outcome of the War of 1812.  The United States was not going to be “under British rule” in any way, shape or form.  Gibbs is simply piling horseshit on top of dogshit. 

9.) At 4:40 Gibbs states that “the prisoners” kept asking Francis Scott Key, “Tell us where the flag is?”  As stated earlier, there were no prisoners on these boats, and Key wasn’t even watching the attack from a British ship!  The story is completely bogus.  Let’s move on.  
10.) At 5:30 Gibbs states that Francis Scott Key quoted George Washington, who allegedly said, “The thing that sets the American Christian from every other person on earth is the fact that he would rather die on his feet, than live on his knees!"  Washington never said this!   In fact, the quote actually comes from Jose Marti, a Cuban freedom fighter.  His words were later made famous by a man named Emiliano Zapata (1879-1919), who was a leading figure in the Mexican Revolution.  For whatever reason, the quote has been associated with George Washington, a laughable lie for anyone who knows anything about Washington’s true religious beliefs.

At the 6:00 mark Gibbs states that the British became upset at the fact that the flag had been “hit many times” but was still standing.  As a result, the British focused all their guns on that one point in an effort to bring down the flag.  In response, all the American “prisoners” (who weren’t there to begin with) joined Key in prayer that the flag would remain.  Images of George Washington in prayer overlay the scenes of Fort McHenry’s bombardment.  Morning comes…the flag is at a crooked angle…but it STILL REMAINS!!!  This is the climax moment of Pastor Gibbs’ bullshit speech, and unfortunately for him is complete fiction.  The British were not fixed on the flag.  They didn’t even have the capacity to do such a thing!  In addition, George Washington never prayed at Valley Forge!  Oh, and the bombardment didn’t begin at nightfall.  It started in the morning. 

At 7:10 Gibbs drops his biggest lie of all.  He states that Key made his way to “Fort Henry” (again, it’s called Fort McHenry) where he beheld scenes of utter carnage and devastation.  The flag had received multiple direct hits and had almost fallen, but hundreds of patriots gave their lives to ensure that the flag remained.  One can almost hear the tears of those who heard this stupid presentation live!  The true historical record, however, tells us that the flag wasn’t destroyed or in any danger of being destroyed.  And even more important, hundreds of men were not killed trying to hold up the flag.  In fact, the most reliable sources tell us that no more than 4 or 5 men were killed during the bombardment of Fort McHenry!  The image of hundreds of dead patriots, huddled around a bent and broken flag pole, is a made up fiction spewed by a man who clearly needs to go back to middle school and get a refresher course on American history.  

In conclusion, I would like to repeat George Washington’s admonition:


I’m not going to question Pastor Gibbs’ patriotism.  I’m sure he loves his country.  I am, however, happy to call him out on his nonsense.  On the off chance that you one day Google your name and run across my blog, Pastor Gibbs, let me simply say this: your attempt to inspire through historical fiction doesn’t help your cause.  Lying and embellishing the truth (and yes, I believe you are guilty of both) cannot be justified, even if it creates an inspiring, patriotic myth.  Yes, you are far from being the first person to play fast and loose with the truth in order to bolster your cause, but take the high road, sir!  I’m sure it’s nice having several YouTube videos with over 6 million views but was it worth the deception?  Can you invoke the words of Francis Scott Key (“the home of the brave”) when you cowardly lie about the past? 

I think these are fair questions for you to ponder, Pastor Gibbs…along with the rest of us.