Francis Scott Key was a
respected young lawyer living in Georgetown just west of where the
modern day Key Bridge crosses the Potomac River (the house was torn
down after years of neglect in 1947). He made his home there from
1804 to around 1833 with his wife Mary and their six sons and five
daughters. At the time, Georgetown was a thriving town of 5,000
people just a few miles from the Capitol, the White House, and the
Federal buildings of Washington.
But, after war broke out in
1812 over Britian's attempts to regulate American shipping and other
activities while Britain was at war with France, all was not
tranquil in Georgetown. The British had entered Chesapeake Bay on
August 19th, 1814, and by the evening of the 24th of August, the
British had invaded and captured Washington. They set fire to the
Capitol and the White House, the flames visible 40 miles away in
President James Madison, his
wife Dolley, and his Cabinet had already fled to a safer location.
Such was their haste to leave that they had had to rip the Stuart
portrait of George Washington from the walls without its frame!
A thunderstorm at dawn kept
the fires from spreading. The next day more buildings were burned
and again a thunderstorm dampened the fires. Having done their work
the British troops returned to their ships in and around the
In the days following the
attack on Washington, the American forces prepared for the assault
on Baltimore (population 40,000) that they knew would come by both
land and sea. Word soon reached Francis Scott Key that the British
had carried off an elderly and much loved town physician of Upper
Marlboro, Dr. William Beanes, and was being held on the British
flagship TONNANT. The townsfolk feared that Dr. Beanes would be
hanged. They asked Francis Scott Key for his help, and he agreed,
and arranged to have Col. John Skinner, an American agent for
prisoner exchange to accompany him.
On the morning of September
3rd, he and Col. Skinner set sail from Baltimore aboard a sloop
flying a flag of truce approved by President Madison. On the 7th
they found and boarded the TONNANT to confer with Gen. Ross and Adm.
Alexander Cochrane. At first they refused to release Dr. Beanes. But
Key and Skinner produced a pouch of letters written by wounded
British prisoners praising the care they were receiving from the
Americans, among them Dr. Beanes. The British officers relented but
would not release the three Americans immediately because they had
seen and heard too much of the preparations for the attack on
Baltimore. They were placed under guard, first aboard the H.M.S.
Surprise, then onto the sloop and forced to wait out the battle
behind the British fleet.
let's go back to the summer of 1813 for a moment. At the star-shaped
Fort McHenry, the commander, Maj. George Armistead, asked for a flag
so big that "the British would have no trouble seeing it from a
distance". Two officers, a Commodore and a General, were sent to the
Baltimore home of Mary Young Pickersgill, a "maker of colours," and
commisioned the flag. Mary and her thirteen year old daughter
Caroline, working in an upstairs front bedroom, used 400 yards of
best quality wool bunting. They cut 15 stars that measured two
feet from point to point. Eight red and seven white stripes,
each two feet wide, were cut. Laying out the material on the
malthouse floor of Claggett's Brewery, a neighborhood establishment,
the flag was sewn together. By August it was finished. It
measured 30 by 42 feet and cost $405.90. The Baltimore Flag
House, a museum, now occupies her premises, which were restored in
At 7 a.m. on the morning of
September 13, 1814, the British bombardment began, and the flag was
ready to meet the enemy. The bombardment continued for 25 hours,
the British firing 1,500 bombshells that weighed as much as 220
pounds and carried lighted fuses that would supposedly cause it to
explode when it reached its target. But they weren't very dependable
and often blew up in mid air. From special small boats the British
fired the new Congreve rockets that traced wobbly arcs of red flame
across the sky. The Americans had sunk 22 vessels so a close
approach by the British was not possible. That evening the
connonading stopped, but at about 1 a.m. on the 14th, the British
fleet roared to life, lighting the rainy night sky with grotesque
Key, Col. Skinner, and Dr.
Beanes watched the battle with apprehension. They knew that as long
as the shelling continued, Fort McHenry had not surrendered. But,
long before daylight there came a sudden and mysterious silence.
What the three Americans did not know was that the British land
assault on Baltimore as well as the naval attack, had been
abandoned. Judging Baltimore as being too costly a prize, the
British officers ordered a retreat.
Waiting in the predawn
darkness, Key waited for the sight that would end his anxiety; the
joyous sight of Gen. Armisteads great flag blowing in the breeze.
When at last daylight came, the flag was still there!
Being an amatuer poet and
having been so uniquely inspired, Key began to write on the back of
a letter he had in his pocket. Sailing back to Baltimore he composed
more lines and in his lodgings at the Indian Queen Hotel he finished
the poem. Judge J. H. Nicholson, his brother-in-law, took it to a
printer and copies were circulated around Baltimore under the title
"Defence of Fort M'Henry". Two of these copies survive. It was
printed in a newspaper for the first time in the Baltimore Patriot
on September 20th,1814, then in papers as far away as Georgia and
New Hampshire. To the verses was added a note "Tune: Anacreon in
Heaven." In October a Baltimore actor sang Key's new song in a
public performance and called it "The Star-Spangled Banner".
Immediately popular, it
remained just one of several patriotic airs until it was finally
adopted as our national anthem on March 3, 1931. But the actual
words were not included in the legal documents. Key himself had
written several versions with slight variations so discrepancies in
the exact wording still occur.
The flag, our beloved
Star-Spangled Banner, went on view ,for the first time after flying
over Fort McHenry, on January 1st,1876 at the Old State House in
Philadelphia for the nations' Centennial celebration. It now resides
in the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History. An
opaque curtain shields the now fragile flag from light and dust. The
flag is exposed for viewing for a few moments once every hour during
Francis Scott Key was a
witness to the last enemy fire to fall on Fort McHenry. The Fort was
designed by a Frenchman named Jean Foncin and was named for then
Secretary of war James McHenry. Fort McHenry holds the unique
designation of national monument and historic shrine.
Since May 30th, 1949 the flag
has flown continuously, by a Joint Resolution of Congress,
over the monument marking the site of Francis Scott Key's
birthplace, Terra Rubra Farm, Carroll County, Keymar, Maryland.
The copy that Key wrote in his
hotel September 14,1814, remained in the Nicholson family for 93
years. In 1907 it was sold to Henry Walters of Baltimore. In 1934 it
was bought at auction in New York from the Walters estate by the
Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore for $26,400. The Walters Gallery in
1953 sold the manuscript to the Maryland Historical Society for the
same price. Another copy that Key made is in the Library of