The Star-Spangled Banner

The broad strokes of the story of the penning of the poem that became The Star-Spangled Banner are familiar to most Americans. We know that it happened during the War of 1812, and was motivated by British shelling of Fort McHenry in Baltimore’s harbor.

Fort McHenry

Fort McHenry

The poem’s author, Francis Scott Key, was a lawyer living in Washington D.C. When the British captured Washington, D.C., they took a local physician, Dr. William Beanes, as prisoner. Beanes was being held aboard a British ship outside Baltimore. Key, who served as district attorney for the District of Columbia, went to the British to try to secure Beanes’ release. He was successful in negotiating the release, but because the British were preparing to attack Baltimore they detained Key while the attack occurred. (Wars were certainly civilized in that era!)

Key therefore anxiously watched the attack on Fort McHenry from the deck of a ship, witnessed a bombardment that included hundreds of bombs, rockets, and shells that killed four of the Fort’s defenders, and then, at daybreak as a rainstorm ended, was relieved and proud to see the Fort’s flag still flying. He wrote some of his poem on the back of an envelope and then completed it at a local hotel.

Artists rendering of the shelling of Fort McHenry

The shelling of Fort McHenry

The flag that flew over Fort McHenry on that day has been preserved and is on display at the Smithsonian Institution. It is a 15-star, 15-stripe garrison flag that was made in 1813. Ohio, of course, is represented by one of the stars.

After Key’s poem was finished and published, it was set to the music of the The Anacreontic Song and quickly became popular. It was one of several popular American patriotic songs — America the Beautiful was another, as was Yankee Doodle — and apparently was claimed, and lustily sung, by soldiers on both sides during the Civil War. Interestingly, it did not officially become the National Anthem until 1931, through the enactment of legislation signed by President Hoover.

The Star-Spangled Banner has four verses, each of which mentions the “star-spangled banner” and ends with the deathless phrase , “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Of course, Americans are familiar with the first verse, which is the one sung before sporting events. The other verses are interesting, too. Who knew that the third verse referred to “pollution” and “the hireling and slave”? In fact, the third and fourth verses strike a distinctly martial, and religious, tone that has been echoed in many American political speeches since 1814:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave

Happy Independence Day to all! Those interested in reading more about Francis Scott Key and The Star-Spangled Banner can go here and here.