Monday, November 30, 2009

Tribute to an Imprisoned Lawyer

This past Thanksgiving weekend was a pro football fan's dream — three games on Thursday, three on Sunday, and one yet to come tonight. That's seven times to hear the national anthem, and to be reminded of a lawyer who went on a mission of mercy one September afternoon and ended up imprisoned himself. The connection may not seem obvious; in fact, it's a little aggravating to me that the story has been forgotten so easily.

Just as now, it was a time of war. The lawyer was attempting to secure the release of a physician who had been captured by the enemy and being held on a ship anchored in the harbor. It was a different kind of war than the kind we wage today, I think. The captain of the ship invited the lawyer to stay for dinner — not to be hospitable, perhaps, but probably because the lawyer and his entourage, by virtue of boarding the ship, had become privy to its position and that of other enemy ships.

The lawyer and his entourage could not have known that a battle was about to begin, and the commander of the vessel was not about to let him go to warn his countrymen. After a pleasant meal, the lawyer was sent below decks as the battle began. I often think of him sitting there, under guard, helpless, having done no more than his lawyerly duties and thereby being caught up in the tide of battle.

He sat and watched his beloved city under siege, listening to the thunder of the guns and seeing the smoke rise and fog the air over a massive fort on the shore. At one point, the smoke cleared for a moment, and amid the flashes of cannon fire, he saw something that inspired him: the American flag, still waving undisturbed above the stone walls of the fort.

The lawyer's name, of course, was Francis Scott Key, and it was the night of September 13, 1814. He sat in the HMS Tonnant, not far from Fort McHenry, throughout the Battle of Baltimore, and later wrote the words of the "Star Spangled Banner" based on what he saw from his shipboard prison that night.

I don't tear up for lawyers too often, but whenever I hear the national anthem — as I did so many times this weekend — I remember a man who put himself in harm's way, his night of imprisonment, and the inspiration he took from it.

1 comment:

  1. Great column, thanks, Howard. It almost reads like one of those Paul Harvey radio pieces: "And now you know the REST of the story."