Chesapeake at War

Chesapeake at War > The Star-Spangled Banner

As the bombardment ceased on the morning of September 14, 1814, three Americans aboard a truce ship strained to see Fort McHenry. They had been watching the Battle for Baltimore from the Patapsco River, where they were anchored with the British fleet.

US agent for the exchange of American prisoners John Stuart Skinner and Georgetown lawyer Francis Scott Key had negotiated the release of physician William Beanes, captured by the British following an incident in Upper Marlboro. Their business was finished, but the Americans were not allowed to leave the fleet until after the attack on Baltimore was over, lest they reveal British plans.

So it was that Key and his fellow Americans were at the center of the Battle for Baltimore. In the eerie silence that followed the 25-hour bombardment, they glimpsed the American flag flying over the fort, signaling that Fort McHenry had held. With great relief they watched as enemy ships withdrew.

The Song

Inspired by the sight, Key began writing new lyrics for a familiar tune. Over the next few days, he perfected the four verses of “The Defence of Fort M’Henry,” set to the tune of the 1780 English gentlemen's drinking song “Anacreon in Heaven.”

“By Dawn’s Early Light,” a 1912 romanticized painting by Percy Moran, depicts Francis Scott Key observing the American flag flying over Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, signaling that the Americans had withstood the British attack. Library of Congress

Key showed his composition to his brother-in-law Joseph Nicholson, who took it to the Baltimore American newspaper. First published in a handbill on September 17, the lyrics soon appeared in newspapers all along the eastern seaboard.

Key’s lyrics grew in popularity, and the song was eventually re-titled “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In 1931, it became the official national anthem of the United States of America.

The Flag

The flag that inspired Key’s lyrics also became a powerful symbol of American patriotism. Commissioned by Major George Armistead in 1813 for the garrison at Fort McHenry, the giant flag had been made over six weeks by Baltimorean Mary Pickersgill and her helpers. At 30 ft. by 42 ft. the flag was too big for Pickersgill’s house, so the final assembly was done on the floor of a nearby brewery.

After the firing ceased on the morning of September 14, the fort’s storm flag was lowered and replaced by the large garrison flag.

The original garrison flag that became known as the Star-Spangled Banner, remained in the Armistead family for 90 years. It is now part of a permanent exhibit at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, in the nation’s capital.

  • Learn more about Francis Scott Key.
  • Learn more about the history and legacy of the National Anthem and the flag that inspired it at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Test your singing skills, play games, and share your stories and photos about what the flag and anthem mean to you.

Visit these places to see where Star-Spangled Banner history happened:


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