Life During Wartime

Life During Wartime > Military and Civilian Leaders > Francis Scott Key

Francis Scott Key

St. Leonard Creek
Portrait of Francis Scott Key. Courtesy Library of Congress

Francis Scott Key (1779–1843) was not a military hero, but he was the creator of one of the most important legacies of the War of 1812: the poem that became the United States national anthem. 

A native of Frederick County, Maryland, Key studied law at St. John’s College in Annapolis, and eventually became a prominent lawyer in Frederick and then in the District of Columbia. At the Battle of Bladensburg he served as a civilian aide to Brigadier General Walter Smith.

When the British withdrew after their invasion of Washington, they took an American physician, Dr. William Beanes, with them as prisoner following an incident in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. Key was asked to help obtain the release of Dr. Beanes. He traveled with US agent for prisoners John Stuart Skinner to the British fleet to negotiate Beanes’s release.

Key and Skinner succeeded in obtaining freedom for Beanes, but the Americans were detained on a truce boat during the bombardment of Fort McHenry. When the guns finally silenced and the British ships began withdrawing, Key and his companions saw the American flag flying over Fort McHenry, signaling that the fort had successfully withstood the British attack.

Key was so moved by the sight that he composed lyrics he called “The Defense of Fort M’Henry” to be sung to the tune of a popular gentleman’s club song “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Printed first as a handbill within a few days of his return from the British fleet, Key’s lyrics quickly spread through the nation and gained in popularity. In 1931 Congress made the ”Star-Spangled Banner” the official national anthem of the United States of America.

Francis Scott Key continued his successful career as a lawyer and served near the end of his life as district attorney in Washington, D.C.

  • Dr. William Beanes, a well-respected doctor, was captured by the British at his home, which set in motion a chain of events leading to the writing of the "Star-Spangled Banner." You can visit the sites of the Beanes home and grave in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
  • Francis Scott Key Memorial Park in Georgetown honors the author of the national anthem of the United States of America.
  • Visit Fort McHenry to learn more about the events that inspired Key's words for the "Star-Spangled Banner."

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