Star-Spangled Banner: Our National Anthem

Francis Scott Key

Francis Scott Key

An 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.

Helpless in Prison

Mingled 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 losing 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 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 Final Bombardment

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 flying.

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?

The Famous Lyric

His sloop 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 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:

"O, 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?

"And the 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?

As 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 "Defense 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".

Lasting Legacy

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 1814 poem was to become our National Anthem. It was not officially recognized as such until 1931. Nonetheless, 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."

Francis Scott 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 assassinate an American president when he attacked President Andrew Jackson armed with two pistols. Both misfired from a distance of 6 feet.)