“A gentleman had left Baltimore, in a flag of truce for the purpose of getting released from the British fleet a friend of his who had been captured at Marlborough. He went as far as the mouth of the Patuxent, and was not permitted to return lest the intended attack on Baltimore should be disclosed. He was, therefore, brought up the bay to the mouth of the Patapsco, where the flag vessel was kept under the guns of a frigate, and he was compelled to witness the bombardment of Fort M’Henry, which the Admiral had boasted he would carry in a few hours, and that the city must fall. He watched the flag at the fort through the whole day with an anxiety that can be better felt than described, until the night prevented him from seeing it. In the night he watched the bomb-shells, and at early dawn his eye was again greeted by the proudly-waving flag of his country.” From the Analectic Magazine.
The gentleman referred to in the excerpt was Francis Scott Key. The song that was created after witnessing the bombardment of Fort M’Henry was The Star Spangled Banner. The attached image is of the actual flag that flew over the fort.
It is common knowledge that “The Star Spangled Banner” is our national anthem. We learn to sing the song in elementary school, and we begin to appreciate how difficult of a song it is to singcorrectly when we are a bit older. Yet, there are several interesting details behind the creation of the song, as well as its author, with which you may be unfamiliar. For instance, you might think such a complex song with lyrics that paint such a vivid picture were created by a well-seasoned song writer. Well, think again….
In 1814, Francis Scott Key did not initially write a song entitled “The Star Spangled Banner.” He was not a published song writer, nor was he an author. He had written one song before, “When the Warrior Returns,” which had some of the same phrases as our national anthem, but it had not been a successfully received song by any means. Key was a lawyer in Georgetown, and he appeared before the Supreme Court on many occasions. He did, however, write a poem entitled “Defence of Fort McHenry.” He was moved to do so after he sat helplessly aboard an American ship which had been detained behind the British fleet in Chesapeake Bay. From an eight mile distance, he watched as Fort McHenry was pummeled by the British during their attack on Baltimore in September of that year. What was he doing on a British ship? Why had he been detained? All of those questions popped into my head as well as I first began to learn the story of our national anthem.
Key, a well known attorney, offered to assist Colonel John Stuart Skinner in negotiating the release of several prisoners including Dr. William Beanies. Key’s father had served in the Continental Army, and Key had briefly served in a Light Field Artillery unit in 1813. He was a religious man who loved his country. He served in the army even though his religious beliefs caused him to oppose the war. On September 5th, Skinner and Key traveled aboard a flag-of-truce ship to meet with Major General Robert Ross, Rear Admiral George Cockburn, and Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane for a meal aboard the British vessel the HMS Tonnant. Although they successfully negotiated Dr. Beanies release, their ship was detained behind British lines out of fear that they would pass along information about British plans to attack the city of Baltimore. Over the course of the battle, more than 1,800 bombs would be hurled toward Ford McHenry. Thrilled to observe the American flag still flying on the morning of September 14, Key began to write the poem, and he completed it after returning to Baltimore on September 16. The attached image is of the flag which Key saw flying over Fort McHenry in 1814.
Interestingly, Key decided to transform the poem into a song by setting it to the British song, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” The song had been written by amateur song writer John Stafford Smith in the 1760’s. Over time it had become a popular song that was sung in taverns across Britain and America. The poem and tune, together, form the song that we know as “The Star Spangled Banner.” Although the song was often played by military bands, President Hoover did not sign the joint congressional resolution declaring it to be our national anthem until 1931.
Consider for a moment what it must have been like to watch the British forces attack the fort. Challenge yourself to create your own patriotic song or poem.
36 U.S. Code § 301 – National anthem
1862 Sheet Music Cover & the Flag That Flew Over Fort McHenry
First Printed Edition of The Star Spangled Banner (1814)
1940’s video of The Star Spangled Banner: StarSpan1940
Listen to this MP3 recording of Margaret Woodrow Wilson singing the Star Spangled Banner in 1915 at a Red Cross Benefit: MargaretWoodrowWilson-TheStarSpangledBanner_64kb This image is of Ms. Wilson in 1914.
Lyrics of “The Star Spangled Banner”
“O say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”