To most Americans the "Star-Spangled Banner" is the title of our national anthem and also refers to the American flag in general. However, when Francis Scott Key wrote the words to our national anthem, he was inspired by one American flag in particular. That flag was the flag that flew over Fort McHenry that stood at the entrance to Baltimore Harbor during America's war with Britain in 1812. The rest of the story is not known to most Americans, but it is well worth the telling.
Francis Scott Key (1779-1843) was an attorney in Washington, D.C., when the British attacked and burned the capitol in the summer of 1812. Upon withdrawing from Washington, the Red Coats took Dr. William Beans as a prisoner of war. The good doctor had offended the British soldiers who were stragglers from the main army and were terrorizing the citizens of upper Marlborough, Md. Even though he was a civilian, Dr. Beans was taken to Baltimore where he was held with other American prisoners on a warship anchored in Chesapeake Bay.
Within a few days, President James Madison authorized Key and John S. Skinner to treat for the release of Dr. Beans. Key and Skinner boarded the warship and, after some negotiations, the British agreed to allow all three men to return to shore. At that point, however, one of the British officers believed that the Americans had overheard their plans to begin shelling Fort McHenry that morning. Fearing their plans would be revealed, the British decided to hold the men at least until the next day.
At that time Baltimore was America's third largest city, and it particularly incensed the British that American privateers operating from the city were wreaking havoc on the British fleet. Determined to occupy Baltimore they first attacked by land. The Americans who held the city were led by Lt. Colonel George Armisted, who vowed to hold Baltimore and Fort McHenry at all hazards. The land attack soon fell into disarray. Worse yet, General Robert Ross, one of Britain's most experienced field commanders, was killed in the process. The task of taking Fort McHenry would fall to the Royal Navy. The H.M.S. Volcano began the bombardment with her heavy guns at a distance of three and one-half miles, some two miles beyond the range of Fort McHenry's cannons. The fusillade lasted all day and through most of the night with some 2,200 rounds being fired at the fort.
As darkness fell, Francis Scott Key and his companions paced the deck and strained to see if the stars and stripes still flew over the ramparts of Fort McHenry or had been replaced by the Union Jack. At times the fort was masked in thick smoke. Occasionally the smoke would clear just as rockets and shell bursts illuminated the sky, allowing Key a glimpse of the flag. Now the scene was set for some of the most stirring words ever written. Key took an unfinished letter from his pocket and began to write on the back of it: "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."
As the night wore on and the bombardment tapered off, Key could no longer see the flag. Dawn arrived with a heavy mist shrouding the fort. Suddenly at seven o'clock a break appeared in the mist. To the astonishment of his British captors the flag still flew! Key wrote, "OH! SAY, CAN YOU SEE, BY THE DAWN'S EARLY LIGHT, WHAT SO PROUDLY WE HAILED AT THE TWILIGHTS LAST GLEAMING. WHOSE BROAD STRIPES AND BRIGHT STARS, THO' THE PERILOUS FIGHT. OH! SAY DOES THAT STAR-SPANGLED BANNER YET WAVE O'ER THE LAND OF THE FREE AND THE HOME OF THE BRAVE."
The attack had failed. Cheers rose from old Fort McHenry. Fife and drum played and Colonel Armisted ordered the battle torn flag replaced with a much larger flag. At 30 feet by 42 feet, made of wool, it was the largest American flag of that time, sewn by unsung American Heroine and seamstress, Mary Pickerstill. It had been made weeks in advance for just such an occasion. As the flag reached full staff, British warships as far as eight miles away learned the battle's outcome. The flag that bears the name of our national anthem can be seen today in Washington, D.C., at the Museum of History and Technology.
The day after the battle Key's poem was printed on hand bills and distributed throughout the city. The poem would soon become a song. In what is a rather curious footnote of American history, the melody to the Star-Spangled Banner was adopted from an old English drinking song "To Anacreon In Heaven". Anacreon was a Greek lyric poet who lived in the 6th Century, B.C. His main themes were wine and love. Most Americans of that day were unaware of the song's origin, but rather knew it as a military marching song of the 1700s.
A few days after the battle at Fort McHenry the "Star-Spangled Banner" was sung for the first time by actor Ferdinand Durang. It immediately became popular and was played by a military band at the Battle of New Orleans.
America, like most nations of that time, did not have an official national anthem. One-hundred-seventeen years would pass before President Herbert Hoover signed a bill making Francis Scott Key's battle inspired poem with a melody toasting a Greek poet America's national anthem.
Many say the "Star-Spangled Banner" is difficult to sing and other patriotic songs, such as "America The Beautiful", would be better; I cannot agree. The melody is both dignified and stirring. Francis Scott Key's words describe an event and a time that defined the American character. It was a time when men who had lived to see the birth of our nation feared they would live to see her pass into history. Now, 186 years have come and gone since the battle at Fort McHenry. If Francis Scott Key gazes down upon us now, he will be pleased to see what a great nation we have become. It is fitting that we sing his song and honor the "Star-Spangled Banner" on this July 4th, America's two hundred and twenty-fourth birthday.
Charles Porchia is a Virginia City resident.