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National Anthem's roots reach to Fort Meade

Jim Kent

American athletes who win gold at the 2012 Games will stand at attention as the Star Spangled Banner is played. The song we sing at ball games and the Olympics began as a poem written during the War of 1812 and also has ties to the US Cavalry. Today we Fort Meade, just outside Sturgis, to explore the connection between our country's national anthem and a former Army outpost on what was once the Western frontier.

"Dear Sir...I regret my inability to accept your commission's kind invitation to the Centennial of the Star Spangled Banner. I specifically regret this as I was probably the first officer of the United States Army to order this air played at all band practices and to require all persons present to rise and pay it proper respect...."

That's an excerpt of a letter written on August 15, 1914 from then Brigadier General Caleb Carlton to James H. Preston, mayor of Baltimore. In it, Carlton expresses his dismay over not being able to attend the Centennial celebration for the Star Spangled Banner, written by Francis Scott Key a century before.

Randy Bender is the program director of the Fort Meade museum.

"There had been a push for a number of years to have a fort located here," Bender explains. "And with all the gold traffic coming into Deadwood that push increased."

Fort Meade was established in 1878 and during the early years was garrisoned by various U.S. Army units, including the 8th Cavalry. In 1892, the 8th was assigned a new commander and according to Randy Bender, Colonel Caleb Carlton brought with him a personal mission.

"This had been a topic that he and his wife had discussed many times," Bender continues. "The fact that all these other countries had their national airs that they would play at official occasions and America had none. His wife, Sadie, was actually the one who suggested the Star Spangled Banner would be a good one, because of the unusual circumstances that it had been written under, the respect that it showed for the flag. And Carlton agreed with her."

Upon assuming his new command, Colonel Carlton issued an order directing that the Star Spangled Banner would be played each day at the Retreat ceremony - when the flag is lowered.

"Traditionally, all the soldiers or staff would muster at 1700, they would have the Retreat, they would lower the flag...and it's a multi-purpose thing," observes Command Sergeant Major Patrick Couser. "It's the end of the day and it gives the soldiers the opportunity to pay their respects to the colors."

CSM Couser serves with the South Dakota Army National Guard. He says, the significance of the Retreat ceremony, then and now, can't be overstated.

"We are directed," notes Couser, "if you cannot see the colors, you face and salute the music. Either way, it's the same intent. Just...just think about all the blood and the honor that goes into that beautiful flag, and what it stands for, and all the people that shed their blood so we have the freedoms that we do."

It's with that same sense of respect that Colonel Carlton directed the Star Spangled Banner be the last song played whenever the fort's band performed. The Colonel further instructed all persons present to rise and salute, or for men to remove their hats if they were civilians.

"The New York Times referred to the fact that the Colonel of the 8th Cavalry was trying to establish a national anthem. When Governor Sheldon, of South Dakota, visited Fort Meade, our custom was explained to him. Later, I attended a reception given by Governor Hastings of Pennsylvania, at the Governor's Mansion, in Harrisburg, Pa., and he promised me that he would try to have the custom established among the Pennsylvania militia....."

Colonel Carlton's 1914 letter showed that he was also in touch with Secretary of War Daniel Lamont and various military commanders across the country to advise them of his efforts regarding the song, which had grown increasingly popular over the years since it was written.

Though the Star Spangled Banner didn't become the national anthem until 17 years after Carlton's letter - and only then at the urging of renowned bandmaster John Philip Sousa, Library of Congress music specialist Loras Schissel says there's no escaping the fact that the actions of Fort Meade's commander did contribute to the song's eventual designation.

"And I think they were part of a movement to make the Star Spangled Banner the piece that when people would hear it they'd stand up and popularizing this song as a tune that, musically, meant something special to Americans," Schissel explains.

As South Dakota's 196th National Guard Regiment conducts the modern Retreat ceremony at Fort Meade, Randy Bender says it's nice to see the same respect being given to the flag as was shown in 1892 - regardless of which song is played to honor it.

South Dakota Army National Guard Sgt.Jerry Warmbein read Col. Caleb Carlton's letter for the audio production of this story.