On This Day

star spangled banner, fort mchenry, defence of fort mchenry
Smithsonian Institution
“A View of the Bombardment of Fort McHenry,” an illustration by J. Bower, 1816.

On This Day: Francis Scott Key Writes “The Star-Spangled Banner”

September 14, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On Sept. 14, 1814, American lawyer Francis Scott Key wrote “The Defence of Fort McHenry” after witnessing the British bombardment of Fort McHenry. The poem would become “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem of the United States.

“And the Star-Spangled Banner in Triumph Shall Wave”

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Francis Scott Key was a Baltimore lawyer and amateur poet who had served in a militia during the War of 1812. On Aug. 25, 1814, a day after he had watched British forces burn down the White House, Key returned to Baltimore.

In September, he was asked to help secure the release of Dr. William Beanes, a popular physician who had been taken prisoner by the British. Key, along with Col. John C. Skinner, sailed under a truce flag to the British flagship on Sept. 3. Key and Skinner successfully negotiated the release of Beanes. However, as the British were planning an attack on Fort McHenry, they would not release the three until after the attack on the fort.

The British began their bombardment on the morning of Sept. 13, firing their high-powered bombs from outside the reach of the American artillery. For 25 hours, at times during a heavy rainstorm, the attack continued as Fort McHenry flew a small storm flag. Key watched the attack from the warship, and knew that as long as he could see the flag that the Americans had not surrendered.

On the morning of Sept. 14, the bombardment ended. Maj. George Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry, ordered the storm flag to be taken down and the larger garrison flag to be raised. The 30-by-42-foot flag, which had been commissioned by Armistead a year before, was larger than the standard flag because Armistead wanted a flag “so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance,” according to the Smithsonian Magazine.

As Key watched the flag rise, he was inspired to write a poem on the back of an envelope. The four-verse poem, titled “The Defence of Fort McHenry,” would later become known as the “The Star-Spangled Banner” and be declared the national anthem of the United States in 1931.

Becoming the National Anthem

Upon his return to Baltimore, Key revised and printed his poem and the next day an anonymous printer released it on a broadside. The broadside noted that it could be sung to the British drinking song “To Anacreon in Heaven,” which Key had in mind when he wrote the poem. It was picked up by Baltimore newspapers and soon became known up and down the East Coast.

The song was first performed publicly at Baltimore’s Holliday Street Theatre on Oct. 19, 1814, after which it was renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The song grew to become one of the most popular patriotic songs and was played often during the Civil War. In 1889, the Navy began playing it at flag-raising ceremonies, and in 1917, the Navy and Army adopted it as the national anthem for ceremonial purposes.

In 1931, Congress passed a law declaring “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem of the United States. Officially, the song has four verses, though only the first verse is typically sung.

The “Star-Spangled Banner” Flag

The 15-star, 15-stripe “Star-Spangled Banner” flag was returned to Armistead before his death in 1818 and remained in the family until 1912, when grandson Eben Appleton donated the flag to the Smithsonian Institution. A star and the ends of the stripes had been cut off and given away as keepsakes. There was also a red chevron sewn on one of the white stripes, presumably an “A” for “Armistead.”

The Smithsonian restored the flag in 1914, sewing a linen backing to it. In 1999, the flag was removed from the museum to undergo a new restoration. After nine years of work, the flag was again put on display in November 2008 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It lies flat in a climate-controlled chamber.

Historical Context: The War of 1812

In the early 19th century, Britain imposed trade restrictions on the U.S. and employed the practice of impressment toward American sailors. In June 1812, President James Madison declared war on Britain, marking the beginning of the War of 1812.

After the British burned down the White House, it appeared that they were close to winning the war. However, the successful defense of Baltimore and, more importantly, an American Naval victory at Lake Champlain, helped to turn the tide. On Christmas Eve 1814, the two sides signed a peace treaty, the Treaty of Ghent, that restored pre-war relations.

Biography: Francis Scott Key

Francis Scott Key was born in 1779 to a wealthy Maryland family. After graduating from St. John’s College, he began practicing law in Georgetown, Md. He originally opposed the War of 1812, but was persuaded to join a Maryland militia.

After the war, he returned to law, serving as district attorney for the District of Columbia and working to raise money for an African colony for slaves.
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