Britain’s defeat at the 1781 Battle of Yorktown marked the conclusion of the American Revolution and the birth of a new nation; however, not even three decades after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, which formalized Britain’s recognition of the United States of America, the two countries were again in conflict. Resentment for Britain’s interference with American international trade and anger over impressment of sailors, and British support of Indian attacks on the frontier, led Congress to declare war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812.
The conflict saw the US Army attempt to invade Canada while British forces attacked the south. Despite a lack of conclusiveness on the battlefield, several late American victories led to a newfound sense of national identity and a feeling of victory. The war lasted for over two years, and ended in stalemate. During this war a famous poem was written. Two hundred years ago today, a lawyer held captive by the British, inspired by the sight of the American flag, wrote that poem.
In August 1814, British troops invaded Washington, D.C., and burned the White House, Capitol Building and Library of Congress. With Washington in ruins, the British next set their sights on Baltimore, then America’s third-largest city. Moving up the Chesapeake Bay to the mouth of the Patapsco River, they plotted a joint attack on Baltimore by land and water. At 6:30 AM on September 13, 1814, the British ships began a 25-hour bombardment of the Fort McHenry.
Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old American lawyer, had sailed down the bay on a truce ship with Colonel John Skinner, the US government’s prisoner of war exchange agent. The two men hoped to secure the release of Key’s friend, Dr. William Beanes, who had been arrested during the attack on Washington. Having overhead the British attack plans, Key and associates were forced to remain with the fleet for the duration of the battle. Under their scrutiny, Key watched on September 13 as the barrage of Fort McHenry began eight miles away.
“It seemed as though mother earth had opened and was vomiting shot and shell in a sheet of fire and brimstone,” Key wrote later. No one would’ve expected Fort McHenry to withstand the punishment it was taking. But as the sun rose on the morning of the 14th, the huge American flag flying over McHenry, though a little tattered, was still flying. The fort had held against 1,800 British cannonballs.
In the dawn’s early light seeing that the flag was still there he was inspired to write of the fort’s historic defense. The poem was originally printed off in handbill form, and it was distributed to the citizens of Baltimore on September 15 under the title, “Defence of Fort McHenry.” The first dated publication of the poem, again under the same title, appeared September 20 in the Baltimore Patriot. The published broadside included instructions that it be sung to the 18th-century British melody “Anacreon in Heaven” — a tune Key had in mind when he penned his poem. The first documented public performance of the words and music together took place at the Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore on October 19, 1814. A music store subsequently published the words and music under the title “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“The Star-Spangled Banner” was recognized for official use by the Navy in 1889, and by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, and was made the national anthem by a congressional resolution on March 3, 1931, which was signed by President Herbert Hoover