Every American grade schooler has been taught the story of The Star-Spangled Banner: how Francis Scott Key, a witness to the bombardment of Baltimore during the War of 1812, was so inspired by the sight of the American flag during the battle that he put his emotions into verse.
Of course, it’s usually not until high school that you find out that Key wrote only the words; the music is taken from a traditional British drinking song called To Anacreon in Heaven. Not a detail fit for kindergarten students, I suppose.
But in this age of one-hit wonders and instant Top-40 hits, many people don’t realize that Key’s song wasn’t an immediate patriotic hit. In fact, it wasn’t until 1931 that The Star-Spangled Banner officially was made America’s national anthem by a law signed by President Herbert Hoover. Of course, the song had been building in popularity for the past century, gaining ground at patriotic events and, in particular, at military functions.
One of its early proponents were the officers at Fort Meade, a U.S. Army post near Sturgis, between Rapid City and Deadwood. Established as the new home for the infamous Seventh Cavalry following their defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Fort Meade maintained a cavalry unit with horses into World War II.
Interestingly, a number of folks – including the Bureau of Land Management and the Fort Meade Museum – say that Fort Meade is “the birthplace of the national anthem.” According to the BLM page, the officers there were playing The Star-Spangled Banner at functions as early as 1892, and that its ceremonial use at the post helped convince superior officers, legislators, and eventually the president to make the song the official anthem of the nation.
However, information on the Wikipedia indicates that the Navy was playing the song at least as early as 1889. Now, I certainly don’t take the Wikipedia for law (it’s pretty dubious as far as academic sources go), but it does present a good research challenge. Maybe I can dig up some more dirt on the history of the whole affair.
Regardless of who was playing the national anthem first, the use of The Star-Spangled Banner at Fort Meade certainly was progressive, and it no doubt had at least an influence on its eventually acceptance as America’s official patriotic ode.
Why do I bring all this up? The fort still exists, although the horses and troops are gone now. Today it’s a military hospital, and much of the fort’s former territory makes up the Fort Meade Recreation Area. I had a chance to do some poking around there this weekend and I took some good pictures. Now that we’ve had the requisite history lesson, I’ll work on getting some accounts of my epic exploration posted.