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Three Players on a Star-Spangled Chessboard

This post is a bit long, but worth the read for a bit of little-known history.

What did a widowed seamstress, a Methodist missionary and a lawyer have in common? They were players on America’s 1814 chessboard without knowing their connection.

The early 1800s became a pivotal time for England. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, England could turn her attention to righting the wrongs suffered at the hands of the rebellious American colonists. They began blockading American merchant ships, preventing them from sailing to foreign ports. As fate would have it, the British controlled America’s shipping lanes from the Great Lakes region into Canada.

The innovative Americans came up with a way to evade the blockade. They utilized the privateer, the fastest, deadliest ship in the world. With a privateer, American sailors could trail British merchant ships, aim their cannons and capture crew, ship and merchandise. It became a profitable business, and Baltimore Harbor was the main port for that business.

The British had a fight to pick with Americans over a prior misdeed in Canada. A Yankee raiding party had looted and burned what is now Toronto, Canada, showing no mercy for private houses or government buildings. Rear Admiral Cockburn vowed to pay back the Americans by doing the same to Washington, DC.

History tells of their attack on our nation’s capital in 1814, when first lady Dolley Madison fled, taking with her the famous portrait of George Washington. British troops looted and burned the White House and other buildings in our capital.

But Providence undertook the next day. The Brits returned to finish their job but were stopped by a violent tornado. If a hand in heaven had allowed recompense for the looting of Toronto, it stopped after one day in Washington.

Heady with partial success, the British next planned to attack and take Baltimore Harbor, to stop the privateers. There was one problem: Fort McHenry guarded the harbor. And, as a caveat to anyone thinking of attacking the fort, the Americans hired a widow named Mary Pickersgill to sew a flag the size of a large room, to fly over their barricade.

Enter obscure Methodist missionary, Joshua Thomas. The Sunday before the assault on Fort McHenry, British officers discovered Thomas living near Chesapeake Bay, where twelve thousand of their troops were quartered. They conscripted him to hold a meeting to exhort their troops.

They weren’t exactly prepared for his message. He reminded the men that sin caused fighting among nations. Then he told them what a sinner he had been, and how God saved him from sin through the merits of Jesus’ Christ’s sacrifice.

His next statement surprised the officers even further. He said, “I told them that it was given to me by the Almighty that they could not take Baltimore, and would not succeed in their expedition…” After the meeting, several troops thanked him for his faithful warning and said they hoped it would not come true.

The rest is history—only I never learned this the first time around.

The British had a secret weapon, the Congreve rocket. Basically it was a pipe stuffed with gunpowder and capped with a warhead. This new weapon was capable of traveling great distances and wounding or killing several men. When the Brits aimed those rockets at the fort in Baltimore harbor, hour after hour, the ground shook and the air exploded red, sending debris flying everywhere.

Once again, Providence provided the Americans a simple but strange ally: the weather. A huge rainstorm had softened the ground in and around the harbor, until much of the British artillery landed with a thud in the mud, half-buried. Heavy rains caused the British landing force to become lost. Rain soaked the firelocks of their infantry. A fierce battle lasted through the night. Bombs burst; rockets made aerial attack.

During this battle, a lawyer named Francis Scott Key was on board a truce ship, negotiating the release of an American doctor taken as prisoner of war. It was there, four miles away, that Key witnessed the awful bombing and shelling of Fort McHenry. Trying to peer through the smoke and rain, Key wrote some of the famous words to the Star Spangled Banner, including “gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.”

The end of this story is one of victory for American troops and the birth of our beautiful national anthem, written as a simple poem.

What about the Methodist missionary? The returning British soldiers sought Thomas and thanked him for being faithful. They said that while they were fighting, his words rang through their minds. One dying soldier said to a friend, “God bless Parson Thomas. He showed me the way to Christ.”

Three persons were faithful to their tasks: a widowed seamstress, a Methodist missionary and a lawyer who was awed by the sight of a giant flag waving through a smoke-filled night. But most faithful was the God of heaven whose hand moves chess pieces and who writes history from beginning to end.

What about you? Any thoughts on Divine intervention in American history? Join the conversation below.


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