The Star-Spangled Banner
Francis Scott Key, 1814
O say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watch'd, 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.
O 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 thro' the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in 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 on the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner: O, 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 footsteps' 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.
O thus be it ever when free-men 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 Pow'r 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!
Fort McHenry, which guarded the entrance to Baltimore harbor (via the Patapsco River) faced almost certain attack during the War of 1812. Major George Armistead, the commander of Fort McHenry, was ready to defend the fort, but wanted a flag-- a BIG flag, that would be visible from a distance-- to identify his position.
A committee of high-ranking officers called on one Mary Young Pickersgill, a Baltimore widow who had experience making ship flags. She agreed to create a United States flag that measured 30 feet by 42 feet.
Mrs. Pickersgill and her 13-year-old daughter, Caroline, spent several weeks measuring, cutting, and sewing the 15 stars and stripes (interesting note: this flag is one of the only 15-stripe, 15-star flags in existence; passage of the Act of Congress in 1818 reduced the number of stripes to 13 and provided for one star for each state). When the time came to sew the flag together, they realized that their house was not nearly large enough. Mrs. Pickersgill thus asked the owner of nearby Claggett's brewery for permission to assemble and finish the flag on the building's floor during evening hours. He agreed, and the women worked by candlelight to finish it. Once completed, the flag was delivered to the committee, and Mrs. Pickersgill was paid $405.90 for her labor (quite a tidy sum in those days, no?).
In August 1813, the completed flag was presented to Major Armistead, but, as things turned out, more than a year would pass before hostile forces threatened Baltimore.
On August 14, 1814, our nation's capital was occupied by the British, who had defeated our forces at the Battle of Bladensburg. The President's House and other public buildings were burned.
During their departure, the British arrested Dr. William Beanes of Upper Marlboro (said to be responsible for the arrest of British stragglers and deserters during the campaign), and imprisoned him on a British warship in the Chesapeake Bay.
Friends of Dr. Beanes asked Francis Scott Key, a Georgetown lawyer, and John S. Skinner of Baltimore to ask British commander General Ross for the physician's release. Key and Skinner reached the British squadron on Sept. 7. Dr. Beanes' release was secured, and Key and companions were detained on a truce ship eight miles away.
On Sunday, September 11, 1814, alarms sounded-- the British fleet had appeared off North Point. The fleet landed without resistance and advanced toward Baltimore. A small force of 250 American volunteers met the invaders, and a sharpshooter killed General Ross. The command passed to Colonel Brooke, who continued the advance on Baltimore.
Realizing that a land attack would result in heavy casualties, Brooke reconsidered his actions and began to withdraw and move back to the ships.
On Tuesday, September 13, British bomb ships (led by Admiral Cochrane) began hurling 190-pound high-trajectory shells toward Fort McHenry. The fort's guns were too underpowered to reach the bomb ships. As such, there had been only occasional sounds of the fort's guns returning fire during the rainy night. At dawn, the British bombardment tapered off.
Had the fort been captured? Placing a telescope to his eye, Key trained it on the fort's flagpole. Sometime early that morning, as a gesture of defiance, the wet storm flag that had flown throughout the night had been replaced with the large garrison flag sewn by Mrs. Pickersgill.
Thrilled by the sight of the flag and the knowledge that the fort had not fallen, Key took a letter from his pocket, and began to write some verses on the back of it. After the truce ship reached Baltimore at twilight on Friday, September 16, Key checked into the Indian Queen Hotel in Baltimore, and completed his poem "On The Defense of Fort McHenry."
His brother-in-law, Capt. Joseph Nicholson, urged that it be published. Copies were printed on handbills at a local newspaper office over the weekend and were distributed to everyone at the fort.
Within a few days the poem was put to the music of the English song "To Anacreon in Heaven" (which may have been written by John Stafford Smith, a British composer born in 1750).
Later, both the song and the flag became known as "The Star-Spangled Banner."
The first public performance of the words and music together took place at the Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore on October 19, 1814 (a Mr. Hardinge sang the song after a performance of the play, "Count Benyowsky").
In 1931, "The Star-Spangled Banner" was officially made the National Anthem by Congress, although it already had been adopted as such by the Army and the Navy.
The flag itself was passed down from Armistead, to his daughter (Mrs. William Stuart Appleton, who had been born at Fort McHenry), to her son (Eben Appleton). In 1907 Mr. Appleton lent the flag to the United States National Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1912 he converted the loan to a gift with the stipulation that it never be removed for any reason, so that "any American citizen who visits the museum with the expectation of seeing the flag (may) be sure of finding it in its accustomed place."
It resides there still.
Happy 4th, one and all : )