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History and Heritage

The Rockets' Red Glare:

How a war, a tattered flag and a lawyer created the national anthem

The opening notes are immediately recognizable: Played before almost every sporting event in America, it is a song rich with American history and a song that encompasses the American spirit of patriotism: The national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner."


But before Whitney Houston belted out the longest-ever recorded anthem in 1991 during Super Bowl XXV, before it was played during presidential inaugurations, before Americans stood tall with their hands over their hearts, before the words were even set to music, a 35-year-old man sat down to write a poem. He had watched his inspiration unfurl like a flag during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814.

The War of 1812
At the beginning of the 19th century, Britain was at war with Napoleonic France, and, in turn, enforced a naval blockade to stop neutral trade from reaching French shores. To the fledging American nation, proud of its hard-won independence, this was illegal under international law. Even more infuriating, in order to man such a blockade, Britain had started to impress American merchant sailors into the Royal Navy.

In fact, British crews were boarding American-flagged vessels looking for British military deserters and kidnapping them on the flimsiest evidence. A battle raged between USS Chesapeake and HMS Leopard off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, in 1807. Four Sailors were taken on charges of desertion, enraging the American public, according to John Hook, writer for The Historian magazine, and John C.A. Stagg in Mr. Madison's War. Just four years later, while on patrol off the North Carolina coast, USS President engaged the British sloop-of-war HMS Little Belt; the battle left 11 British sailors dead.

These events, coupled with the British support of Native American raids on American settlers on the frontier, pressured Congress to act. On June 18, 1812, President James Madison signed the American declaration of war.

The war was unpopular in most of New England, and the United States took several defeats on land, including the Siege of Detroit, the Battle of Queenston Heights and a failed invasion of Montreal. These events improved British morale, but the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813, which secured control of the great lake, and the Battle of the Thames in Canada ended the Native American raids along the border. In fact, during the latter, Maj. Gen. Willian Henry Harrison all but destroyed a British-allied tribal confederacy under Tecumseh. According to Mackay Hitsman's The Incredible War of 1812, the 1814 American victory at Plattsbugh, New York, eventually ended British attempts to invade from the north.

Meanwhile, at sea, a powerful Royal Navy blockaded the American coast. This allowed the British to strike American trade at will. In 1814, the British laid waste to the capital with the burning of Washington, D.C. but the resilient Americans pushed back against the British during the subsequent Battle of Baltimore.
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Lawyer and Poet for Freedom
In the process, both sides collected prisoners of war. That was where Francis Scott Key came in. Key was born in Frederick, Maryland, in 1779. His father, who had fought in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, sent Key to complete his studies in Annapolis, where he eventually became a lawyer. Key was also deeply religious - he almost went to seminary school to become a priest - and he had a passion for writing poetry. When the Napoleonic War with France spilled onto American shores, Key busied himself negotiating the release of Americans from British imprisonment. Poetry took a back seat for the time being.

On the evening of September 14, 1814, off the coast of Baltimore, Key and Prisoner Exchange Agent Col. John Stuart Skinner were honored as guests of British Vice Adm. Alexander Cochrane, Rear Adm. George Cockburn and Maj. Gen. Robert Ross aboard HMS Tonnant. The men discussed the release of prisoners, including Dr. William Beanes, a Maryland resident who the British arrested after he jailed Redcoats who had looted local farms following the capture of Washington, D.C. that August.

The British agreed to let Beanes go, but another battle was brewing and Key, Skinner and Beanes had gained knowledge of the strength of the British forces and where they were positioned. So the men were confined to another boat until after the British attack on Baltimore. The men could do nothing but watch the relentless bombardment of Fort McHenry in vain, according to Jay B. Hubbell in The South in American Literature.

For 25 hours, the British let loose volley after volley at the fort, and for 25 hours, through smoke and fire, Key looked to see if the American flag was still flying. Each time the smoke cleared, Key could see the flag still standing firm. Unable to destroy the fort, the British left Baltimore Harbor. As Key looked out over the water after the British fleet retreated, the American flag was still there, inspiring Key to write his poem, the "Defence of Fort M'Henry."

"Every minute of that 25 hours, except for two intermissions, there were four to five of these 200-pound exploding bombs in the air," said Fort McHenry volunteer Bill Emmerich. "It was about 1,800 bombs, not including about 800 rockets and not counting the regular cannon that they had. This went on for that 25 hours. The next morning, by Army regulation, 7 o'clock in the morning, the bombardment stopped.

"Key took out of piece of paper, and he said that his heart just spoke and wrote down 'Oh say can you see by the dawn's early light.'"
Fort McHenry War of 1812


Poem to Anthem
The original poem is four stanzas long, but only the first stanza was set to music and renamed "The Star-Spangled Banner." It became a hugely popular patriotic song, but it wasn't until the early 20th century that it became our national anthem.

Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy signed General Order #374 on July 27, 1889, officially marking "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the song to be played at the raising of the flag. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that "The Star-Spangled Banner" be played at military and other appropriate occasions.

However, there were multiple versions of music for the anthem prior to 1917. Wilson assigned the task of creating a singular version to the U.S. Bureau of Education. The Bureau enlisted the assistance of five musicians to write what would become the final official arrangement. Walter Damrosch, Will Earhart, Arnold J. Gantvoort, Oscar Sonneck and John Philip Sousa composed the music and voted on which version would serve "The Star-Spangled Banner" best. The song premiered at Carnegie Hall in New York on December 5, 1917. Years later, the official handwritten version of the final votes of the five talented men was found and highlighted on "Antiques Roadshow," showing all the men's tallied votes, measure by measure.

According to Chicago Tribune writer Don Babwin, the first recorded occurrence of the national anthem being played at a baseball game was during the seventh-inning stretch during Game 1 of the 1918 World Series, Chicago White Sox hosting the Boston Red Sox. It wasn't until World War II that the tradition of performing the national anthem before every baseball game became common place.

More than a century after its first publication, the song was adopted as the American national anthem, first by an executive order from Wilson in 1916 and then by a congressional resolution in 1931, signed by President Herbert Hoover.


Editor's Note:
Learn more about the Battle of Baltimore, Francis Scott Key and "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the historic Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, here.