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After an anxious night during the British attack on Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key wrote victorious lyrics for a song celebrating the Americans’ resistance. Originally titled “The Defense of Fort McHenry,” it was soon called “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the flag it features. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, 54315
“The Star-Spangled Banner,” original manuscript by Francis Scott Key, September 15, 1814
After an anxious night during the British attack on Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key wrote victorious lyrics for a song celebrating the Americans’ resistance. Originally titled “The Defense of Fort McHenry,” it was soon called “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the flag it features.
Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, 54315
The National Anthem
“The Star-Spangled Banner,” a song based on a poem by Francis Scott Key, was inspired by the American flag during the War of 1812. It became the United States’ national anthem through the efforts of Representative John Linthicum of Maryland. Linthicum introduced his bill in the House of Representatives in 1929. Bolstered by petitions, letters, and telegrams from around the country, he pressed for its passage, saying that an anthem would be an expression of patriotism. In 1931 Congress officially designated the song as the national anthem.
O say does that star spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
“Star-Spangled Banner,” National Anthem of the United States
Separating fact from fiction about 'The Star
On September 14, 1814, the Battle of Fort McHenry inspired Francis Scott Key to write
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Separating fact from fiction about 'The Star-Spangled Banner'
September 14, 2016 by Mark Clague
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On September 14, 1814, the Battle of Fort McHenry inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner." The University of Michigan's Mark Clague corrects some common myths about our national anthem.
Francis Scott Key (credit: Wikimedia Commons)Myth #1: Francis Scott Key was held prisoner aboard a British ship during the bombardment of Baltimore.Correction: Key was aboard his own American truce ship during the battle.
Key and fellow lawyer John S. Skinner, the U.S. Agent for Prisoners of War, sailed from Baltimore on September 5, 1814 on an American truce ship and headed down the Patapsco River hoping to meet the British fleet somewhere in the Chesapeake Bay. They were on a mission of mercy to negotiate the release of the elderly Dr. William Beanes, a civilian non-combatant who had been taken prisoner by the British as they departed Washington, DC after burning the White House, the Capitol, and other government buildings in revenge for the U.S. burning of York (current day Toronto) in April 1813.
Key was a persuasive addition to the negotiating team because of his close family ties to both the United States and England. His father served in the Continental Army; his uncle remained a British loyalist during the Revolution. Key’s mission was a success.
During their talks, and then upon the release of the doctor, Key and Beanes were moved from the H.M.S. Tonnant, where they had negotiated with British Admiral Cochrane, to the H.M.S. Surprise and finally back to their own American truce ship. (The exact name of this ship has defied generations of researchers.) During the harrowing 25-hour bombardment, their ship was tethered to a British vessel (one not involved in the fighting) and placed under guard in order to prevent Key and his companions from revealing to Baltimore’s defenders any attack plans overheard. Key was likely some six to eight miles from America’s Fort McHenry, which guarded against certain American defeat by protecting the entrance to Baltimore’s harbor. Superior British weapons pounded the fort from newly designed bomb ships anchored safely out of range of the fort’s own guns.
Yet Key rose on the morning of September 14, 1814 and through the lens of his spyglass saw his nation’s 15-star, 15-stripe flag waving defiantly over the fort. He was elated and relieved, certain that God had intervened. He spent the next two days waiting for the British to depart, when they would release him and his compatriots. And what does a patriotic poet do when stuck with nothing to do and having witnessed a momentous event? He wrote the lyrics of a song to a well-known melody that he knew well.Myth #2: Francis Scott Key drafted “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the back of an envelope (or letter).Correction: Key most likely wrote his draft on a clean sheet of paper using pen and ink.
While the original working draft of Key’s lyric is lost, envelopes were not commonly used in 1814 and then only by the rich for special occasions. Instead, letters in Key’s day were written on a sheet of paper that was folded and sealed with wax. Postage was charged by the number of sheets in a letter, so a sheet of postal wrapping would have been both a waste of paper and a waste of money, since it doubled the postal cost.
Detained during the battle aboard his own American truce ship—one that would have been amply provisioned for an official U.S. diplomatic mission—Key would have had plenty of blank paper and other writing supplies at hand. He would have planned, for example, for paper and pen to write out an agreement of release for Dr. Beanes, to chronicle his journey, and to write a letter to President Madison about his mission’s fate. He wouldn’t use scrap paper for his report.
The surviving handwritten final draft of Key’s lyric is held by the Maryland Historical Society. Note that Key ran out of room as he was writing and the fourth verse gets scrunched at the bottom of the page. Even national poets are human!
Key’s copy was then given to a Baltimore printer and 1000 broadsides were printed and distributed to the U.S. soldiers and militiamen who had served in “Defence of Fort McHenry,” which was the original title of Key’s lyric.Myth #3: Francis Scott Key wrote a “poem” later set to music by someone else.Correction: “The Star-Spangled Banner” was always conceived of by Key as a song and he wrote his “lyric” to fit a specific melody of his own choosing.
Usually referred to as a poet, Francis Scott Key is more accurately remembered—at least in connection with “The Star-Spangled Banner”—as a lyricist. In fact, he wrote lyrics for a total of three songs and ten hymns. In all cases, he invented words to fit previously existing musical models. This was typical in Key’s era when hand-engraved music notation was expensive, but printing words was common, fast, and pretty cheap.
In one strategy known as the broadside ballad tradition, lyrics would be written to match the rhythm and contour of familiar tunes and published as text only in newspapers and books. The melodies for these “broadside ballads” were usually identified by a note just below their title. The most successful of these lyrics went “viral” and were reprinted by local newspapers (all newspapers were local at this time, of course).
Francis Scott Key pens “The Star
On September 14, 1814, Francis Scott Key pens a poem which is later set to music and in 1931 becomes America’s national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The
Year 1814 Month Day September 14
Francis Scott Key pens “The Star-Spangled Banner”
On September 14, 1814, Francis Scott Key pens a poem which is later set to music and in 1931 becomes America’s national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The poem, originally titled “The Defence of Fort M'Henry,” was written after Key witnessed the Maryland fort being bombarded by the British during the War of 1812. Key was inspired by the sight of a lone U.S. flag still flying over Fort McHenry at daybreak, as reflected in the now-famous words of the “Star-Spangled Banner”: “And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.”
Francis Scott Key was born on August 1, 1779, at Terra Rubra, his family’s estate in Frederick County (now Carroll County), Maryland. He became a successful lawyer in Maryland and Washington, D.C., and was later appointed U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.
On June 18, 1812, America declared war on Great Britain after a series of trade disagreements. In August 1814, British troops invaded Washington, D.C., and burned the White House, Capitol Building and Library of Congress. Their next target was Baltimore.
After one of Key’s friends, Dr. William Beanes, was taken prisoner by the British, Key went to Baltimore, located the ship where Beanes was being held and negotiated his release. However, Key and Beanes weren’t allowed to leave until after the British bombardment of Fort McHenry. Key watched the bombing campaign unfold from aboard a ship located about eight miles away. After a day, the British were unable to destroy the fort and gave up. Key was relieved to see the American flag still flying over Fort McHenry and quickly penned a few lines in tribute to what he had witnessed.
The poem was printed in newspapers and eventually set to the music of a popular English drinking tune called “To Anacreon in Heaven” by composer John Stafford Smith. People began referring to the song as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and in 1916 President Woodrow Wilson announced that it should be played at all official events. It was adopted as the national anthem on March 3, 1931.
Francis Scott Key died of pleurisy on January 11, 1843.