War of 1812

The Star Spangled Banner

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The Bombardment of Fort McHenry

One of the cultural landmarks to emerge from the War of 1812 was the penning of The Star Spangled Banner by 35-year-old Washington, DC attorney and journeyman poet Francis Scott Key. Key wrote the words to a poem he originally called, “The Defense of Fort McHenry” after watching the British naval bombardment of the Baltimore stronghold on the evening of September 13 -14, 1814. British warships anchored in the Chesapeake Bay attacked Fort McHenry as part of a combined land-sea operation during the Chesapeake Campaign of 1814.

Bombardment of Fort McHenry - September 13-14, 1814 Landscape


History has passed down to us the story of Key’s authorship of penning the poem on the back of an envelope from the deck of a British warship on September 14, 1814, after an all-night attack on the fort during the evening and early morning hours of September 13 and 14. Key and a friend, John Skinner, received permission from President James Madison to approach British forces under a flag of truce to seek the release of an American citizen and friend from Upper Marlboro, Maryland, Dr. Charles Beanes. While on their mission Key and Skinner were privy to British attack plans on Baltimore and detained aboard British vessels until after the fight.

During the rainy night Key watched the bombardment, anxiously keeping his eye fixed on the flag flown above the fort's ramparts from the British fleet anchored eight miles off shore. The attack lasted well into the early morning hours as the fort withstood the assault.

Congreve rockets fired by the British lit up the sky, their bursts over the fort illuminating it with an eerie glare. British artillery shells also burst above the fort. With the sunrise and the clearing of the smoke Key saw that a large American flag, with fifteen stars and fifteen stripes still flew over the fort, measuring 30 x 42 feet. It had been raised in an act of defiance by the Fort’s Commander Major George Armistead.

Key was inspired. The fort had not fallen and the British Navy set sail for sea. Key and Skinner returned to Baltimore on September 16, where Key, in his hotel room, continued to work on his poem.

Key passed his words on to his brother-in-law Judge Joseph A. Nicholson who set them to a popular tavern tune, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” written by British songwriter John Stafford Swift. Within a day the poem had been given to a Baltimore printer who had it turned into a broadside which circulated around the city. From there it gained currency and popularity spreading up and down the American Atlantic coast. By the time the war ended six months later, the song's iconic rise in American popular culture was evident. Its popularity was further boosted in the ground-swell of American nationalism that was a result of the war.

The song’s popularity increased during the 19th century and could be heard at many military and political gatherings. In 1889, the Department of the Navy made it the official song to accompany all of their flag raisings. President Herbert Hoover, on March 3, 1931, signed the law making “The Star Spangled Banner” the official national anthem of the United States. The tradition of playing the National Anthem before the start of sporting events began during World War II when Major League Baseball teams began playing it before every baseball game demonstrating support for American forces fighting in Europe and in the Pacific.

No less than the "American March King," John Philip Sousa, opined the same year it became the official national anthem that the music combined with Key’s “soul-stirring” words is what gives the song its emotional impact. 

The actual flag was restored in 1914 and put on display in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. In 1998 another conservation effort took place and visitors to the National Museum of American History can see the flag on display.