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Posted January 24, 2012
The War of 1812 is one of my favorite studies. If the American Revolution was the war that gave birth to the idea of the United States, then the War of 1812 saw the upstart country grow up. Considered the second War of Independence, it established the destiny of the continent. It threatened the very existence of Canada. It firmly established the ideas that led to the Manifest Destiny, and the government-sanctioned annihilation of native populations. Early Americans were so divided about the war effort, many threaten succession, fifty years before the Civil War.
And yet, the War is largely forgotten, except for a few names of battles like the Battle of New Orleans, where the pirate Jean Lafitte became a hero, and the Battle of Chesapeake Bay, where the iconic USS Constitution -- Old Ironsides -- bested the British; and, a few legends like First Lady Dolley Madison, saving many of the treasured items from the presidential mansion during the burning of Washington D.C., and the mythic Shawnee leader Tecumseh, often compared to George Washington in his ideas.
And of course, the song, The Star-Spangled Banner.
In her recent book, Francis Scott Key’s Star-Spangled Banner, Monica Kulling retells the story of this fabled song in the context of these complex historical times. She introduces young readers to the personhood of Francis Scott Key, giving the character a sense of presence that goes beyond the dry collection of dates and times. “Francis Scott Key loved writing poems,” she begins. “He wrote them on horseback. He wrote them late at night. Once Francis even wrote a poem after a battle. It became America’s national anthem.”
By recreating the daily life of Francis, Monica introduces young readers to the growing frustrations of the early Americans and their struggles to create a new nation. As a lawyer, and a father of eleven children, Francis is worried about what might happen. When war is declared, he joins the reserves. It turns out, he’s too slow and clumsy, and he doesn’t make for a good soldier. He’s sent home ten days after he joins. When his friend, Dr. Beanes, becomes a prisoner of war, Francis rejoins the effort to save his friend. As Francis accompanies Colonel John Stewart Skinner to help with the release of his friend, he becomes a prisoner himself aboard the British ship. He watches helplessly as the British bombard Fort Henry during the Battle of Baltimore.
Monica recreates the exciting action leading up to the battle, weaving a fine tapestry of fact and narrative that keeps the reader turning the pages. “The country is lost if the Fort falls,” says Dr. Beanes. And Francis replies, “We are safe as long as our flag flies.” And for twenty five hours, through billows of smoke and fires of bombs, Francis keeps watching the land to see the flag. Will the flag still be flying by dawn?
As part of the Step Into Reading series, teachers will find this a valuable addition to their reading curriculum as well as teaching young readers about a history that has been largely forgot.
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