Francis Scott Key

War of 1812

Francis Scott Key

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Francis Scott Key Square
Francis Scott Key
War of 1812
August 1, 1779 - January 11, 1843

The author of the Star-Spangled Banner, our National Anthem since 1931, was Georgetown Lawyer Francis Scott Key. At the time of the War of 1812, Georgetown was a small port and a northern suburb of the new capital of the United States: Washington, D.C. Key was born to a notable Maryland family with his roots tracing back to Frederick. During the Chesapeake Campaign of the War of 1812, the British launched land and naval attacks on cities and towns up and down the Chesapeake and along its tributaries. On the road to Washington, D.C. British General, Robert Ross stopped at the Upper Marlboro, Maryland home of Dr. William Beanes, a respected citizen from the region. Beanes was a gracious host to General Ross and his staff, and Ross, continuing his way to Washington, D.C., thought he had found a British sympathizer. After the Americans were routed at Bladensburg, Maryland and Washington, DC put to the torch, the British returned to their ships. On their return to their ships some troops reentered Upper Marlboro, causing a ruckus among the local people damaging some personal property. Beanes had the stragglers arrested and jailed. When word reached Ross, he was furious and Beanes was subsequently arrested and placed on board a British warship.

Friends of Beanes immediately secured the services of Key. Key reached the British fleet in the Chesapeake and negotiated the release of Beanes, but not before they were detained due to the pending British attack on Baltimore – they had heard too much. Placed on a truce ship tethered to a British warship, Key and Beanes watched the September 13, 1814 evening attack on Fort McHenry near Baltimore, whose capture would be critical to British success. Throughout the night British ships, just out of range of the fort’s batteries, pounded the garrison. Key, and those with him, watched anxiously from the deck of their ship floating in the Patapsco River. As night gave way to dawn, Key and the others looked across the misty and smoke-filled river to see, in utter amazement, the massive garrison flag, that Fort McHenry’s commander, George Armistead had raised. In that moment of inspiration Key, an amateur poet, picked up a pen and began writing a poem he entitled “The Defense of Fort McHenry” on the back of a letter which he had in his pocket. Several weeks later a Baltimore newspaper, The Baltimore Patriot, published the poem, matching the words to a popular tavern song, Anacreon In Heaven. In the intervening years the tune’s martial spirit was often played at political or military events. Congress, in 1931, legislated that the song, now known as the Star-Spangled Banner become the National Anthem of the United States.

After the battle of Baltimore, Key and his party returned home. Key continued his law practice and eventually retired to the family estate in Frederick where he died in 1843 at the age of 64. Key was buried in Frederick’s Mount Olivet Cemetery where the flag, in one of the few places permitted, fly’s 24 hours a day, over his grave, lit by a spotlight in the evening.