The South Dakota Roots of our National Anthem
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"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...."
Brigadier General Caleb Henry Carlton wrote the above words to the mayor of Baltimore to extend his dismay at being unable to attend the 1914 Centennial celebration for the Star Spangled Banner. Carlton's association with the song goes much deeper than his basic military service and pride in country, he was the first to use it for official ceremonies over 22 years earlier.
Carlton, then a Colonel, was assigned as the commander of the Army's 8th Cavalry in 1892, which was stationed at Fort Meade near what is now Sturgis, South Dakota. He arrived at the frontier fort with a special purpose in mind: He felt it the right time for America to adopt a song for official ceremonies as many European countries did. It so happened that his wife suggested the Star Spangled Banner, which though written as a poem in 1812 by Francis Scott Key, in the years following the Civil War had become a popular patriotic tune to celebrate national unity.
Colonel Carlton issued an order that commanded the song be played during the Retreat ceremony when the flag was lowered at the end of each day. All soldiers and staff would muster, the flag would be ceremonially lowered, and the song played by the Army band. In an interview with SDPB in 2012, Command Sergeant Major Patrick Couser with the South Dakota Army National Guard explained the significance of the Retreat ceremony.
"It's the end of the day and it gives the soldiers the opportunity to pay their respects to the colors. 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."
Colonel Carlton also began using the Star Spangled Banner as 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, in a similar fashion to how the song and flag are honored to this day. In later years, Carlton continued to lobby for the song to be used in an official capacity, writing to other military commanders, governors and the Secretary of War.
Colonel Carlton held command of Fort Meade until his retirement from service in 1897, just two days after he was promoted to Brigadier General. He did live to see his dream of an official national anthem come true when President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order designating the Star Spangled Banner as the "national anthem of the United States" in 1916. Carlton would pass away at age 86 in 1923. Later Congress would pass an act confirming Wilson’s presidential order, and on March 3, 1930 President Hoover signed it into law.