Star Spangled Banner
Our National Anthem
eerie silence fell across the early morning darkness and the young Baltimore attorney
breathed a sigh of relief. It was after 1 A.M. on the morning of September 14, 1814
and it was the first time in more than 18 hours that things had been quiet. Since 7
A.M. of the previous day more than 1,800 bombs, cannonballs, and the new Congreve rockets
had lit the sky and shattered the peaceful harbor. From the deck of his sloop behind
the enemy fleet a young Baltimore attorney breathed a sigh of relief. "Did you
see it still there?" he may have asked his friend Dr. Beanes.
Dr. Beanes knew what Francis
Key was referring to. Both men had strained their eyes through the darkness of night
for the last several hours to glimpse the American flag that flew from Fort McHenry.
During daylight it was hard to miss, even at this distance. The flag was 30'
high and 40' feet wide. But as darkness had fallen, the only time the flag could be
seen was during those seconds when it was momentarily lit by bombs the enemy hurled at the
small fort. As long as the two men and their third companion Colonel John Skinner
could see the flag flying, they knew there was still hope that their Nation had survived.
Now the bombardment had stopped and there were no flashes to light the sky and
reveal that flag still waving proudly. Perhaps, in fact, that flag no longer waved.
Maybe the reason for the silence was the unthinkable fact that Fort McHenry had
fallen to the British, its defenders dead, and Baltimore vulnerable to the same fate that
had already befallen our Nation's Capitol.
with the uncertain fears about the fate of his fellow Americans, Mr. Key felt an even more
frustrating sense of helplessness. His Nation, just 38 years old, was on the brink
of loosing the freedom its patriots had fought and sacrificed for six years to
achieve. And there was absolutely NOTHING he could do now to intervene or assist in
its defense. He couldn't join the valiant warriors in defending the fort and
resisting the invading British soldiers. Mr. Key was himself, a prisoner of the very
same enemy that was raining molten death on his countrymen.
The war of 1812 was well into its
second year, and things did not look promising for the 16 United States of America.
Despite the repeated violation of American ships that precipitated the war, it was not a
popular conflict. Many Americans referred to it disdainfully as "Madison's
War", Attorney Key among them. As it had dragged on the people of the United
States tired of the conflict and opposition to the war had grown. Then, on August
25, 1814 it became personal. General Robert Ross and 4,000 combat veterans of
the British Army had marched almost unopposed into the Nation's 14 year old capitol city
of Washington, D.C. When they left the following day the city was ruined, every
Federal building burning or in ashes, the President and his wife hiding in nearby Virginia
after narrowly escaping capture.
After destroying the Capitol and heady with their
easy victory, the British headed north into Maryland. With them they took an elderly
and well respected American physician, Dr. William Beanes. Dr. Beanes was accused of
spying, and was taken as a prisoner aboard the British Flag ship Tonnant anchored
in Baltimore harbor. The remaining population of Washington, D.C. feared that the
beloved doctor would be hanged and appealed to attorney Francis Scott Key to intervene.
On August 27th President Madison slipped back into what remained of the Capitol and
gave Mr. Key an official sanction. On September 3rd Key and Colonel
Skinner, who was experienced in negotiating prisoner exchanges, sailed for
Baltimore. They reached the Tonnant under a flag of truce on the morning of
the 7th and had been held as prisoners themselves ever since.
Actually the two men had been marginally
successful. After defending Dr. Beanes by producing letters from wounded British
prisoners who told how Dr. Beanes and other American physicians had respected them and
treated their wounds, the British agreed to release the three men...after a few days.
But the three men knew far too much of the British plans to attack and destroy
Baltimore to be released before the attack. They were placed under guard aboard the H.M.S.
General Ross and his soldiers were advancing on the
city of Baltimore determined to crush it as they had Washington, DC. The fierce
resistance of Americans dug in outside the city held the British at bay. General
Ross requested Naval support shortly before he was killed in one heated battle. To
support the ground attack, Admiral Sir George Cockburn began moving his ships upriver
towards Baltimore on Sunday, September 12th. The only barrier in his path was a
small American outpost, Fort McHenry. The pentagon-shaped fort housed 57 guns and
1,000 soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Armistead. It was
Armistead who, a year earlier as a Major, had commissioned the creation of the huge
flag that flew from the center of Fort McHenry. On Monday morning the attack, that
would ultimately last for 25 hours, began. Francis Scott Key and his two American
friends were transferred to their sloop behind the convoy of British warships. They
could only watch helplessly from its ramparts, closely guarded by the same enemy that was
simultaneously killing their countrymen.
stillness dragged on for hours. Despite the fact that Mr. Key had not slept in close
to 36 hours, the present quiet afforded no respite. With his companions he strained
his eyes towards the fort, willing them to pierce the darkness and find the red, white and
blue banner still waving proudly over Fort McHenry. He prayed for the rays of dawn
to pierce the sky and reveal the sight that would signal the survival of his countrymen,
perhaps indeed of his Country itself. Slowly the hours dragged on. Then, at 4
A.M. as daylight seemed near, the fusillade of deadly rockets began anew. In a sense
it was a welcome sound. Mr. Key knew that as long as the battle still raged,
Americans still survived and resisted at Fort McHenry.
The three hour lull had
simply afforded the British ground troops opportunity to position themselves for one
final, crushing assault. Now and then a brief flicker of light from an
exploding rocket would reveal what Mr. Key thought might be that huge flag still flying
proudly over Fort McHenry. Maybe he even caught himself anticipating, even hoping
for, another brilliant flash of light from the enemy rockets. Then he stopped
himself, realizing that the same explosions that lit the skies to reveal the flag and
allay his fears, simultaneously rained death on the men who fought to keep that flag
So intense was the final
bombardment that the early morning dawn was filled with smoke and the odor of burnt
gunpowder. So thick was the curtain of smoke, that by 8 A.M. even the morning
sunshine could not reveal whether or not the flag still waved. Then quiet returned.
Mr. Key watched as the British ships began to withdraw. Had the fort, badly
weakened by the enemy naval bombardment, finally fallen to the British ground troops?
alone in the bay, Francis Scott Key looked fearfully towards the shoreline. A
breeze began to move across the water's surface and the smoke of battle began to shift
ever so slightly to reveal patches of blue sky. And then, in the distant blue there
appeared new colors....red and white....brief glimpses of the two-feet wide stripes of the
Star Spangled Banner. Then a star appeared in the daytime sky, then another....then
fifteen stars in the daytime. What a welcomed site they were. Mr. Key's heart
swelled with hope, and pride in the men who had so valiantly fought through the night to
keep that flag flying. Reaching into his pocket he withdrew an envelope and began to
write his thoughts:
say! can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro' 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?
Mr. Key's sloop moved through the lifting curtain of battle-smoke towards Baltimore, the
35 year old attorney continued to work on his poem. Later in the day in his room at
Baltimore's Indian Queen Hotel he cleaned up his copy on fresh paper, added a few more
lines, and titled the 4 stanza treatise "Defence of Fort M'Henry". His
brother-in-law saw the poem and had a local printer make copies. Within days a
polished up version appeared in the "Baltimore American", then in other
newspapers and publications. In time, the verses began to be sung to the tune of a
popular English drinking song, "To Anacreon in Heaven".
here to play "To Anacreon in Heaven"
Though Mr. Key wrote
additional poetry in the years following the battle at Fort McHenry, none ever came close
to the popularity or literary acclaim of his Star Spangled Banner. He never knew
that his poem was our National Anthem. It was not officially recognized as such
until 1931. None-the-less, it was immensely popular and brought Mr. Key considerable
acclaim, which he dismissed with humility. Years after that historic battle he told
an audience in his hometown of Frederick, Maryland:
"I saw the flag of my country
waving over a city--the strength and pride of my native State--a city devoted to plunder
and desolation by its assailants. I witnessed the preparations for its assaults.
I saw the array of its enemies as they advanced to the attack. I heard the
sound of battle; the noise of conflict fell upon my listening ear, and told me that 'the
brave and the free' had met the invaders."
Key died in 1843 after a distinguished legal career which culminated with his service as
the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. (Among his many cases was his role
as prosecutor in 1835 in the case against Richard Lawrence, the first man to attempt to
assasinate an American president when he attacked President Andrew Jackson armed with two
pistols. Both misfired from a distance of 6 feet.)