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My Star-Spangled Legacy

A Guard captain and descendent of Francis Scott Key reflects on his rich family heritage
CPT Kyle Key (with National Park Service Ranger Ray Snyder) holds a scaled replica of a 15-star, 15-stripe flag on Sept. 14, 2014, after flying it over Fort McHenry on the 200th anniversary of the fort withstanding the barrage. Photo from CPT Kyle Key
CPT Kyle Key (with National Park Service Ranger Ray Snyder) holds a scaled replica of a 15-star, 15-stripe flag on Sept. 14, 2014, after flying it over Fort McHenry on the 200th anniversary of the fort withstanding the barrage. Photo from CPT Kyle Key

 

On Sept. 13, 1814, the British began a 25-hour bombing barrage of Fort McHenry outside Baltimore. It was the War of 1812, and witnessing the attack from 8 miles away was Francis Scott Key, who, at the time, was detained by the British marines on an American ship. In a moment now part of American lore, Key was so moved at the sight of the fort surviving the attack—and the flag that still flew in the morning—that he penned the poem that became our national anthem. Captain Kyle Key is one of Francis’ descendants—they are cousins, seven times removed—and, like his ancestor, Captain Key is a member of the National Guard (working with the National Guard Bureau). Here, he describes his proud connection.

I can remember as a young child standing with my hand over my heart as my big sister sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a college basketball game at Western Kentucky University in 1978. At the time, I was more impressed with her voice and presence, the still crowd, and the energy that would release after she belted “home of the brave!”

Growing up in Glendale, a small town with a big heart south of Fort Knox, KY, I never truly realized the historical significance of our connection with Francis Scott Key, author of our national anthem, until later in life. It was just a part of who we were as a family.

My mother kept the music sheets and lyrics proudly displayed on her baby grand piano in the living room next to a copy of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home.” Both our national anthem and official song of the Commonwealth of Kentucky were heard in our home on almost a daily basis as my sisters Markita and Cecilia would rehearse for local events.

As I got older and wiser, I listened more to my father’s stories of his childhood and our family history. He told me—and his father before told him—that we were descendants of the same Key family that immigrated to St. Mary’s County, MD, from England in the 1700s, who fought for independence during the Revolutionary War, and the same Citizen-Soldier and lawyer whose poem made the American flag a banner for freedom throughout the world. I must admit, it did make me smile when I would hear the national anthem being performed, but I never knew the feeling could mature to something much more profound.

After I graduated from Western Kentucky University in 1996, I moved to Washington, DC, and served as a press assistant for former U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett of western Maryland. It was then that my family research started to come together. Bartlett’s chief of staff took me to the building in Frederick where Key once practiced law and to Mount Olivet Cemetery, where he and my ancestors are buried. I reconnected with my past and learned volumes about the complicated and interesting man behind our nation’s most beloved song. With the help of libraries, public records, genealogists and later Ancestry.com, we uncovered the Key family connections and direct lineage: His father and my seventh great-grandfather were brothers.

Key wasn’t just known for his “patriot’s pen.” He was also a respected lawyer, accomplished U.S. district attorney and advisor to Presidents Madison, Jackson and Van Buren. He was a devout Christian and educational philanthropist, and while he owned slaves, he paradoxically worked to end slavery.

Reading copies of letters he wrote during the time the British captured and burned Washington made me realize he wasn’t much different from those of us who serve today. He sent his family to safety at his parents’ farm and then closed his firm in Georgetown to muster into federal service with his fellow Soldiers.

Just as the War of 1812 brought destruction on American soil compelling First Lieutenant Francis Scott Key’s call to join the District of Columbia’s militia, Corps of Georgetown Field Artillerists, the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, served as my call to arms to join the Army National Guard.

I never had a greater appreciation for the sacrifices made by our men and women in our Armed Forces until I met some of the first Wounded Warriors returning from Iraq. I continue to be humbled by not only their sacrifices but those of our families as well.

When I first stood at attention as a Soldier and saluted the flag during the national anthem, the feeling I experienced was overwhelming, emotional … even spiritual. Not only was I proud to be an American, I was proud to be a Citizen-Soldier, carrying on a family tradition of service to our country as my forefathers before me.

Long may it wave!