The United States of America was forged into a nation with a rich heritage in just a few hundred years by courage, a stalwart belief in freedom, and by blood. She has a relatively short history compared to other countries, but that history is filled with brave men and women who fought hard and selflessly for the idea of freedom that they held dear. Even her national anthem was borne of committed men fighting and dying to keep this country free. Too many Americans don’t know this, including even the President, who once stated that he didn’t think "The Star-Spangled Banner" was an appropriate national anthem for this country because “it’s so violent, with all the bombs bursting in air, and all.” Well, those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it . . . or have their national anthem changed. So it is important to understand the events that led to Francis Scott Key composing the most well-known song of American history. The words were set to a tune composed by John Stafford Smith and most aptly proclaimed to be the national anthem in 1931 by President Herbert Hoover. But the story of "The Star-Spangled Banner" began over 200 years ago during the second war for independence.
In the early 1800’s, the United States had been an independent nation less than 40 years, having severed ties with England in 1776 by fighting for freedom in the American Revolution. Now Great Britain and France were at odds with one another. They were each trying to prevent the United States from trading with the other. To build up their naval forces, the British Royal Navy would use a tactic known as “impressment” to remove sailors from U.S. merchant ships and force them to serve Britain by fighting the French on British ships. The United States was not happy with this violation of maritime rights.
As hostility again increased between the “mother” country and our new nation, President Madison blocked all trade with Great Britain. Some congressmen, however, did not think these sanctions were enough and clamored for war. On June 18, 1812, President Madison did declare war on Great Britain. U.S. Brigadier-General William Hull attacked Canada, but British Major General Sir Isaac Brock chased Hull and his men back to Detroit where he surrendered without firing a shot. Still the war raged on.
In the summer of 1813, one year into the War of 1812, Major George Armestead assumed the command of Fort McHenry in Baltimore. The commander asked for a flag so big “the British would have no trouble seeing it from a distance.” Two officers commissioned a young widow of Baltimore and a “maker of colours,” to create the flag. Mary Young Pickersgill and her 13-year-old daughter Caroline, along with three more teenagers (her two nieces and an indentured slave named Grace Wisher), worked in an upstairs front bedroom with 400 yards of wool bunting. They prepared 15 2-foot white stars with 15 2-foot wide stripes, eight red and seven white. They laid out the pieces on the floor of Clazzett’s Brewery and amid the pungent smell of hops and ale, sewed the flag together. It was finished in six weeks. The flag measured 30 feet by 42 feet. Pickersgill also made a smaller one for flying in inclement weather. She received $574 for the two flags, more than most Baltimoreans earned in a year at that time. Major Armestead proudly flew the colors over the star-shaped fort. Little did he or Mary Pickersgill know that this star-spangled banner would soon inspire an anthem and continue to inspire a nation for the next 200 years.
Mary Pickersgill’s 15-strip flag. Two stripes and two stars were added for Kentucky and Vermont. It would be the only 15-stripe flag to be made. After the War of 1812, Congress proclaimed there would be 13 stripes and one star added on the Fourth of July for every state admitted to the Union in that year. [Attribution: By Concord (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]
By September 1813, Britain was still at war with France, and fighting the Americans at the same time proved too demanding. American Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry won the Battle of Lake Erie. This victory placed the Northwest Territory under American control. General Harrison took back Detroit by winning the Battle of Thames, and the American Navy was amassing several victories over the British Royal navy.
Then Great Britain defeated Napoleon in April 1814 and turned its full attention and force to the United States. The British sent Major General Ross to conduct raids in Chesapeake Bay as a diversion to operations mounted against the Americans from Canada. It would be a two-prong approach by the British. General Ross would land at North Point and launch a ground assault. Admiral Cochrane would attack Fort McHenry and its harbor defenses by water. British ships raided Chesapeake Bay and the British captured Washington D.C. on August 24, 1814. Ross’s orders were to set fire to government buildings, including the Capitol and the White House. Ross had argued the destruction of the property reduced soldiering to mere marauding and it would only strengthen the Americans’ resolve, which it certainly did.
President James Madison had already joined his generals on the battlefield. His wife Dolly remained at the White House as the British entered the town, setting fire to buildings. The full-length Stuart portrait of George Washington hung on the wall. President Washington’s eyes looked at her as she now had to flee the White House with the servants and staff. She ripped the portrait of our first president from the wall. Breaking the frame, she rolled up the precious treasure, neglecting her own personal possessions. This famous full-length painting of the first president hangs in the White House to this day.
Stuart portrait of George Washington that Dolly Madison saved during the burning of Washington. [Attribution: Gilbert Stuart [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]
Thunderstorms at dawn kept the fires in D.C. from spreading. The next day, more buildings were burned, but thunderstorms again dampened the fires.
The British were gaining momentum, and on Saturday, September 10, the Royal Navy anchored off North Point at the mouth of the Patapsco River, with Baltimore in its sites. Baltimore’s church bells called its militia to arms early Sunday morning. On Monday, September 12, boats filled with British soldiers came ashore. General Ross led the ground assault. An American sniper killed him as he was making his way to the Battle of North Point at Fort McHenry. Colonel Arthur Brook took over his command.
U.S. Major General Samuel Smith dispatched 3,200 men and six cannons under the command of Brigadier General John Stricker to delay the British advance. By 4:00 in the afternoon, the British were overpowering the Americans, and Stricker retreated north to reform his troops at Bread and Cheese Creek and prepare for a British assault. Colonel Brook, however, having over 300 casualties, elected not to pursue. It would be a long night for both armies, preparing for the next day’s battle. But for a young attorney and amateur poet, who was being held captive on a British frigate in the bay, it would be the longest night of his life.
A Poet and a Friend
Almost two weeks earlier, Francis Scott Key had traveled from his home in Georgetown to a burned-out Washington, D.C., to obtain permission from President Madison to travel under a flag of truce to the enemy in order to beg the release of his good friend, Dr. William Beanes. Dr. Beanes had treated wounded British soldiers returning from the fiery raid on Washington that General Ross had led earlier in August. Thus, Ross thought Beanes was sympathetic to the British, but after the army pulled out, three British soldiers, who somehow failed to stay with their regiment, caused trouble in Dr. Beanes’ town of Upper Marlboro. The good doctor had them arrested, but one escaped to report the trouble to General Ross. Ross, in turn, came back and arrested Dr. Beanes and quartered him on the H.M.S. Tennant. It was to this ship that Key and Colonel John S. Skinner, agent in charge of prisoner exchange, had traveled.
They found the ship in the late afternoon of September 7. Upon meeting with Admiral Cochrane and showing him letters from British soldiers praising Dr. Beanes’ care of them, Key pleaded for his friend’s release. The admiral was disinclined to relent, saying that Dr. Beanes had violated his professional neutrality by having the soldiers arrested. The admiral called in General Ross and Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn. Key again presented the letters and pleaded his case. Cockburn retorted it was all nonsense and the doctor must be punished. However, General Ross disagreed. He was moved by the letters—British soldiers attesting to their good care under the doctor. General Ross granted the doctor’s release but could not allow the men to leave until after the British attacked Baltimore. The men had seen and heard too much and were sequestered on the frigate Surprise during the three-day advance on Baltimore.
The men paced helplessly in the small hold as they listened to the church bells pealing on Sunday morning. These bells were not calling the people to prayer but to arms. On Monday, September 12, they had no trouble seeing the stars and stripes flying proudly over Fort McHenry. They watched helplessly as 16 small boats carried the British ashore to attack their countrymen, General Ross at the helm. It would be the last time they would see him. News came late that day that General Ross was dead, and Colonel Brooke had taken command and retreated. The British would wait until morning—then attack. They spent the night preparing. The prisoners were moved to a smaller boat and Admiral Cochrane took command of the Surprise to lead the attack.
Meanwhile, Brooke’s retreat became a strategic victory for the Americans because it allowed General Smith to complete fortification of Baltimore. And during the night, Major Armestead ordered 20-25 small vessels be sunk in the harbor in an effort to prevent the British fleet from getting close enough to attack. The skies were threatening rain, so Armestead retrieved his large flag and hoisted the smaller one to fly in the storm. The bombardment began in the dark hours before dawn and would continue for 25 hours. While Armestead successfully prevented the British from getting close enough to do any real damage with their bombardments, neither could his own 36-pound shells reach the British ships.
The prisoners spent the day pacing in their small quarters, listening to the bombs. They could see that the American shells were falling short of the British ships. But they couldn’t see what success, if any, the British were having on shore. As dusk began to fall, Francis Scott Key looked out the small window of their ship. Dr. Beanes asked him, “Can you see the flag?” Key squinted through the smoke and the glow of the setting sun. It began to rain and thunder and lightning flashed around the bay making it possible to glimpse the flag. “It’s flying,” he called. “It’s flying!”
Late in the night, the British attempted landing 1,000 men at Ferry Branch. An American sentry discovered them and was able to alert the troops at Fort McHenry, who fired on the army and stopped their advance. Bombs exploded overhead, lighting up the sky, and Key could still see the flag. Though it was limp with rain, it was still there. In the pre-dawn hours, the bombardment stopped. In the silence that followed, the three imprisoned men stood motionless. What did it mean? Had we won? Would they be prisoners still? Key peered through the smoky dawn light. “Can you see it?” Beanes asked. The clouds parted and unfurling in the breeze of the dim morning sky was the large and precious star-spangled banner.
Painting by Edward Percy Moran (1862-1935) of Francis Scott Key and Dr. Beanes watching the battle at Fort McHenry while being imprisoned on a British ship. [Attribution: By Edward Percy Moran (1862–1935) (picture I took of painting 2008) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]
Amid the cheers and congratulatory embraces of the three men, Key found an old letter in his pocket. Many hymns of that day were penned to the tune of popular drinking songs. So, with the tune of the drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” humming in his head, he began to write:
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 through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming!
The British abandoned the assault, and Francis Scott Key, Colonel Skinner, and Dr. Beanes were in Baltimore by the afternoon. At Indian Queen Hotel on Baltimore Street, Key finished the first stanza of his poem and wrote three more.
And the rockets’ 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?
On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in the dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream.
‘Tis the star-spangled banner, oh, long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
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 wash’d out their foul footstep’s 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.
Oh, thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n-rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d 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.
The War of 1812 is known as the second war for independence because had we not won, our country would have fallen under the rule of Great Britain again. With defeat of the British at Fort McHenry, the British fleet sailed to Jamaica. A peace treaty was signed at Ghent (now Belgium) on December 24, 1814. However, word did not reach America, so the final battle was fought and won by Andrew Jackson at New Orleans on January 8, 1815.
Mary Pickersgill’s huge flag, while not flown during the Battle of Baltimore, was raised in celebration the morning of September 14, 1814. It waved and snapped in the wind as Francis Scott Key sailed back to Baltimore with his friend Dr. Beanes. The flag is now on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. And "The Star-Spangled Banner" is still our national anthem, a very appropriate anthem for our country, with all the bombs bursting in air, and all.