From the very founding of the nation, the American flag has carried a message of hope and triumph, even during the country’s darkest days. In both good times and bad, the flag has continued to wave. During the War of 1812, there was a young American lawyer who bore witness to one of the country’s most critical battles to remain a free country. He had watched American cities come under direct attack and even be destroyed. American soldiers still fought valiantly under the American flag, and in the aftermath of a crucial American victory, this young patriot composed an anthem for all time. His name was Francis Scott Key. This is the story of how the American defense of Fort McHenry inspired him to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Francis Scott Key served his nation at one of the most critical times in its history. He was born in 1779 to a Continental Army officer who served under George Washington and even met the president when he toured the region in 1791. He grew up on his family’s plantation in northern Maryland, but he left home at age ten to attend grammar school in Annapolis. He later studied law at St. John’s College and established a law practice in the city. He soon developed a close friendship with another young lawyer named Roger B. Taney, who later served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and wrote the notorious 1857 Dred Scott decision. In 1806, Key moved from Annapolis to Georgetown, in the District of Columbia, and quickly became one of the city’s most promising attorneys, even appearing before Chief Justice John Marshall and the Supreme Court. His home in Georgetown became a haven for those critical of President James Madison and the approaching war with Britain. Key believed that disaster would befall America if war erupted. Nevertheless, he watched as his country went to war in June of 1812. Little did he know it, but he would be affected by the war more than he could possibly imagine.
America’s military fortunes seemed to seesaw back and forth in the first two years of the conflict, but by the late summer of 1814, it appeared as if Key’s prediction of catastrophe was about to be realized. A British fleet had appeared off of Maryland’s coast in July and British soldiers had begun to march on the national capital. Despite his opposition to the war, Key determined that he would fight to repel the invaders from American soil. He joined the local militia as a civilian aide and watched as the American army tried to stop the British invasion at Bladensburg, Maryland. The Americans were defeated however and were forced to withdraw. Key returned to Georgetown while the British occupied Washington, D.C. From his home, he watched as the British set fire to the Capitol and the President’s House. The British left two days later with the intention of taking the strategic port of Baltimore, Maryland. Though Key had witnessed the fall of Washington, he would soon have a front row seat at the deliverance of Baltimore.
Francis Scott Key’s observance of the climactic battle for Baltimore came about almost by accident. As the British withdrew from Washington, they imprisoned Dr. William Beanes for his role in the capture of several British soldiers. Key was chosen to lead an effort to gain the doctor’s release. He travelled to Baltimore where he boarded a packet ship and sailed down the Patapsco River into the Chesapeake Bay. After two days of searching, the ship intercepted the British fleet as it approached Baltimore. Key boarded the flagship Tonnant and met with British Admiral Sir George Cockburn and General Robert Ross, the men responsible for the destruction of Washington. After arguing the case for Beanes’ release, Key was told that the doctor would be released, but neither of them could return to Baltimore until after the British attack. Over the next three days, Key watched the British finalize preparations for their attack and was appalled at the destruction the British had planned for the city. One officer even told Key the British would almost certainly burn and plunder Baltimore the same way they had Washington. As the sun set on September 12, 1814, Francis Scott Key prepared to watch the climactic Battle of Fort McHenry.
The American Fort McHenry stood on a peninsula guarding the Baltimore waterfront. As day began to break on September 13, 1814, Key watched seventeen British ships, including five bomb ships and one rocket ship, move into position nearly two miles from the fort and prepare to bombard the fort’s garrison. He knew that British officers, including Admiral Cockburn, were confident of success due to the fact that the bomb ships’ mortars were capable of firing shells weighing nearly two hundred pounds. At 6:30 a.m. the British opened fire and the Americans, commanded by Major George Armistead, immediately returned fire on the British ships. Key watched the unfolding drama, but after a time, he grew concerned when the firing from the fort began to diminish. Seeing the American flag continuing to wave, however, he realized that the garrison had not conceded defeat by lowering the flag, the universally recognized symbol of surrender. In actuality, Major Armistead had simply ordered his men to cease firing due to the great distance between the fort and the ships. The majority of the garrison took cover in the fort’s dry moat while American gunners occasionally opened fire just to show they were still there. As the afternoon progressed, American soldiers found themselves pelted not only by a hailstorm of British shells but also by a literal rainstorm. The fort experienced numerous direct hits. One shell even hit the powder magazine but failed to explode, and several Americans were killed and injured. As the daylight drew to a close, it appeared as if the bombardment would continue to rain death and destruction as the British determined to remain on station throughout the night.
At the “twilight’s last gleaming,” Francis Scott Key saw that the American flag still waved proudly over the walls of Fort McHenry, but the battle was not over yet. The British fleet unleashed all their might on the fort as the night of September 13th turned into the early morning of September 14th. The citizens of Baltimore crowded the rooftops of buildings and watched the fight with desperate anticipation. Out in the harbor, Key similarly stood on the deck of the packet boat straining to see the explosions from the shells and the rockets being launched from the ships around him. He could no longer see the flag in the darkness, but the bombardment assured him that the fort still remained in American hands. He spent many hours pacing the deck and looking in the fort’s direction for any indication of what was happening. It was an unnerving experience for him. Finally the enemy fire lessened in intensity, and quiet settled over the harbor.
As Key adjusted to the quiet, clouds and a pre-dawn mist hung low in the sky obscuring the fort from view. He frequently pulled out his watch as he breathlessly awaited the first hints of dawn. Then the moment came. Key turned his eyes on the distant fort. He saw a flag atop the flagpole, but he could not see if it was “the stars and stripes, or the flag of the enemy” that was flying above the fort. The flag hung limp for several moments, but then a breeze swept over the harbor. Suddenly, as if God himself wanted everyone to know, a beam of light hit the flag. It was the Stars and Stripes! Key was overcome with emotion at the sight. He would later write that he hoped “I shall never cease to feel the warmest gratitude when I think of this most merciful deliverance.” He immediately took out pen and paper to write a song befitting “such defenders of their country.” It truly was a momentous event for the young country and the pivotal moment in the life of Francis Scott Key.
In the days following the battle, Key shared his elation for the American victory with the entire country. Two days after the battle, September 16th, he, Dr. Beanes and the crew of the packet boat were released as the British fleet sailed away from Baltimore. The residents of Baltimore enthusiastically greeted Key and his companions when they arrived in port later that night. He took a room at a local tavern and spent the night finishing his new song. Setting the words to a popular tune called “To Anacreon in Heaven,” Key showed the work to friends who decided it had to be published. On September 20th, the song appeared in the Baltimore American and Commercial Daily Advertiser newspaper under the title “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” Then on October 19, 1814, it was publicly performed at Baltimore’s Holliday Street Theatre as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The song’s popularity spread not only through Baltimore and Maryland but to other cities on the East Coast as well. Many Americans hailed it as an American masterpiece. One newspaper even said it would “proudly rank among the best efforts of our national muse.” Key was similarly praised for his talent in composing the song after it was revealed he was the author. His name would forever be linked with the valiant defense of Baltimore and, indeed, the nation.
For the rest of his life, Francis Scott Key continued to serve his country. Not long after America’s “providential” victory, as he called it, he returned to his home in Georgetown and to his law practice. He gained a reputation as one of Washington’s most prominent attorneys, even being appointed by President Andrew Jackson as U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. He enthusiastically supported Jackson and served as legal adviser to the president. Despite each of these accomplishments, however, Key remained a national hero for penning “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He was continually praised for its composition and was even greeted with it when he made visits to American cities. He finally retired from public life in 1841 and lived quietly for the next two years. In early January 1843 he returned to Baltimore for business, but he soon developed a severe cold and lapsed into delirium. On January 11, 1843, only a few miles from the fort he helped make famous, Francis Scott Key died at age sixty-three. In his honor, flags were lowered to half-mast in Washington and Baltimore. The United States Congress later resolved that the American flag, the real star-spangled banner, would forever fly over Key’s grave. More significantly, on March 3, 1931 Key’s inspiring song was designated the national anthem.
Francis Scott Key’s life was forever defined by the words he wrote that September day in 1814. Just hours before he had thought it likely America faced a future as black as the night sky above him. Now, “by the dawn’s early light,” it was clear that to him that America had a bright future ahead of it as long as there were brave citizens willing to defend it, like the ones inside Fort McHenry. Hearing and singing the song, each of us should remember and honor the sacrifice required for the American flag to fly over a free people. We should keep this lesson in mind particularly this week as we celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Fort McHenry. Let us strive to ensure that the star-spangled banner continues to wave “o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”