“Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light / What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the clouds of the fight, / O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, / Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
These lyrics to our nation’s national anthem, the “Star Spangled Banner” were born on this night, September 13, in the year 1814… two hundred years ago today. They were the words of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, one Francis Scott Key was inspired to write as he stood aboard the deck of the H.M.S. Surprise and watched the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor in Maryland, during the War of 1812. Of course the lyrics have changed just a little bit, but more about that in a moment.
The Brits Shell Baltimore, Key is Aboard One of Their Ships
The War of 1812 (1812-1815) had not gone very well for the Americans up to this point and this certainly seemed like the darkest of hours for us. The Brits had just sailed up the Potomac River, and had sacked and burnt our Capitol City, Washington D.C. to the ground. They now decided to turn about, sail into Chesapeake Bay, and then turn north and sail into Baltimore harbor and attack that city. But in order to do this, they had
first to get past Fort McHenry, guarding the mouth of the harbor. Dr. William Beanes, had been taken prisoner by the British at that time. Beanes was a friend of Key’s, so Key went to Baltimore, located the ship where Beanes was being held and negotiated his release. But, Key and Beanes weren’t permitted to depart until the morning after the Brits had finished their bombardment of the Fort (above). Having failed to take the Fort, the Brits decided to pack up and leave. But Key, witnessing the assault from the British side, had no way of knowing the outcome of the battle until the dawn broke and he saw our nations flag flying over the fort.
Key Is Inspired to Write a Song…..
The song was not actually written until the next day. Key, who had been greatly inspired by the sight of our nation’s flag still waving triumphantly over the scene the battle, had come up at that time with the words of poem which he jotted down the following morning onto the back of a letter which he had kept in his pocket. When he and his party were released on September 16, Key went back the Indian Queen Hotel where he had been staying, and completed the poem, which he entitled “Defence of Fort M’Henry”. The poem, and an explanation of its origin were published in newspapers and on broadsheets (copies of the song). Eventually it was set to the tune of a popular English drinking song called “To Anacreon in Heaven” by composer John Stafford Smith. Francis Scott Key died of pleurisy on January 11, 1843. Today, the flag that flew over Fort McHenry in 1814 is housed at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. President Woodrow Wilson announced in 1916 that the song should be played at all national ceremonies. It was formally adopted as the national anthem on March 3, 1931.
And the line “through the perilous fight” was actually the way that the poem was originally written. The manuscript above was indeed written by Mr. Key, but it was written by him in 1840, and included that alternate wording “through the clouds of the fight”. This image can be enlarged for closer viewing merely by clicking on the image. Although why Key wrote this alternate wording, I do not know. But I shall endeavor to find out why as soon as I can.
“Picture History of the U.S. Navy” by Theodore Roscoe and Fred Freeman, Bonanza Books, New York, 1956.