by James Hill
Originally published in the Chillicothe Gazette, June 6, 2021
If you’ve visited the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, you’ve likely stepped into the low-lit room that houses the Star-Spangled Banner. You also noticed the gaping holes throughout the flag. About 20 percent of it is missing. It’s not because it’s been tattered in battle; it was cut. Georgiana Armistead Appleton, daughter of Lt. Col. George Armistead, the commander of Fort McHenry, took the flag on tour throughout the country in the 1800s for all to see and would often scissor small cloth souvenirs for dignitaries and hosts.
It may seem odd that such an iconic image of America was parted out this way, but it is human nature to attempt to tie ourselves to history and significant events. It’s why some people collect coins or signatures. You may have a box of concert posters or ticket stubs in your closet. You probably kept your high school yearbooks. In the late 19th century, having a piece of the Star Spangled Banner would have been the zenith of anyone’s Americana ephemera collection.
One of the pieces of the flag was even buried with Francis Scott Key, the author of the lyrics that would become the national anthem. In fact, such highly metaphoric patriotism is a common theme in American writing and mythos.
Locally, Henry Holcomb Bennett wrote a poem in 1897 that gained national popularity. Bennett was a journalist and landscape painter born in Chillicothe in 1863. His most famous poem, “The Flag Goes By” first appeared in the national magazine The Youth’s Companion (later merged with Boy’s Life). Almost immediately, the poem was re-published in several student readers—old-fashioned textbooks such as those printed by McGuffey out of Cincinnati. Around the turn of the century it was published as bestselling sheet music with music scored by well-known ragtime composer Floyd Godfrey.
The poem begins with the instructions, “Hats off!” as the flag passes by during a parade. It goes on to describe the colors and what the symbol represents to the author, including this stanza:
Days of plenty and years of peace;
March of a strong land’s swift increase;
Equal justice, right and law,
Stately honor and reverend awe
The poem ends in another flourish of bugles and drums and reminds us to once again take off our hats when the flag is passing by.
The building we call the library annex that faces West Fifth St. in Chillicothe has been the site of more than one elementary school and there is still a flag pole, directly across from the Ross County Historical Society, that has a marker placed at the base in June of 1956 recognizing Henry Holcomb Bennett.
Although the poem and song are not as well known today, the older generation may still recall the words. Ask your grandparents and on this Flag Day, take a moment to read it—or sing it. You can find the full poem on the library’s website at www.CRCPL.org/TheFlagGoes-By.