“The Star-Spangled Banner”, the national anthem of the United States, was written in 1814 by Maryland lawyer Francis Scott Key. Set to the melody of an English drinking song (To Anacrean in Heaven), the patriotic tune was an instant hit, and Congress officially decreed in the national anthem in 1931.
Key, a prominent attorney and amateur poet, wrote the anthem’s lyrics under peculiar circumstances. During the War of 1812 (which actually lasted until December 1814), the British attacked Washington, DC, sacking the city and burning down the White House. Next they targeted Baltimore, about forty miles north of the capital, and its imposing fortress, Fort McHenry, which guarded the city’s harbor.
Before the beginning of that battle in September 1814, Key had been selected to meet the British commander aboard his warship in Baltimore harbor to discuss the release of a prisoner of war. The British agreed to release the prisoner but insisted that Key remain at sea aboard a neutral ship behind the British fleet until after the battle to prevent him from sharing information with the Americans about British preparations.
Forced to watch the fighting from eight miles out at sea, the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” describe Key’s impressions of the battle as it unfolded. The British bombardment – “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air” – would last for twenty-five hours before the invaders gave up. As the smoke cleared, Key excitedly peered through the haze over Fort McHenry to the the red, white, and blue flag still fluttering in the morning breeze – a sign of American victory.
The British, unsuccessful in their attack on the fort, allowed Key to return to shore that day, and his poem was immediatley published in local newspapers. It was reprinted nationally and for the next century would be played at many patriotic events. Major League Baseball made it the de facto anthem by selecting the song to be played before baseball games, and Congress later made the selection final.
Fort McHenry’s original flag, sewed by Baltimore seamstress Mary Pickersgill, is in the custody of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.