On September 14, 1814 a young Baltimore attorney, Francis Scott Key, dashed off a long poem The Defense of Fort McHenry after his release from a British warship on which he was detained during the bombardment of the fort in the War of 1812. It was published to considerable acclaim in the Patriot on September 20. Street broadsides were soon circulating with the instruction to sing the words to the tune of a popular drinking song, To Anacreon in Heaven. In later decades all but the first verse would become largely forgotten and the song would become known as The Star Spangled Banner. That makes today the 200th birthday of what became the American national song.
Key had accompanied American Prisoner Exchange Agent Colonel John Stuart Skinner to the HMS Tonnant, flag ship of the British fleet, to appeal to commanders Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn, and Major General Robert Ross for the release of civilian prisoners taken by shore parties. Most particularly they sought the release of Dr. William Beanes of Upper Marlboro, Maryland who had foolishly tried to place straggling and drunken English soldiers under citizen’s arrest for being disorderly in the streets. The officers entertained Key and Skinner hospitably, including a fine dinner with good wine. And they agreed to the requested release. But because the men had seen the strength and disposition of the fleet, they were held on board pending what the British assumed, after the easy landings and attack on the Washington, would be the rapid reduction of Baltimore’s harbor fortification and the seizure of the city.
Key and the other Americans had the freedom of the deck as the fleet opened up a 25 hour bombardment of the star shaped fortress. About 1,800 cannon balls were fired at the recently completed modern fortification, and hundreds of rounds of explosive mortar shells were launched from five mortar barges. The HMS Erebus launched Congreve Rockets, which were ineffective but exploded so impressively in the air that they were a highly useful psychological weapon.
Despite the heavy bombardment, American troops at the fort under Major George Armistead were able to concentrate fire on a British landing party west of the fort, squelching an attempted flanking maneuver in support of the main British army approaching the city from the east. At dawn on September 14, Scott, peering through the smoke of cannon fire and morning haze, made out a giant flag flying defiantly over the fort.
Without being able to take the fort with its impressive fire power and without the support of the secondary land attack, Colonel Arthur Brooke, in command of the main 5000 man attacking force after General Ross was killed by an American sniper, ordered his men to withdraw. After re-boarding their transports, the Army and fleet abandoned the attack on Baltimore and set sail for a rendezvous with destiny in New Orleans.
The flag that Key observed was not the standard sized banner that had flown over the fort during the bulk of the bombardment. That flag was heavily damaged. In order to signal the survival of the fort and send encouragement to Baltimore’s ground defenders, Armistead ordered a giant, previously unused, ceremonial flag sewn by local flag maker Mary Pickersgill and her young daughter hoisted in its place.
Coming on the heels of the humiliation of the burning of the Capital the defense of Baltimore became a moment of immense national pride. The first known public performance of the poem set to the tune of To Anacreon in Heaven occurred soon after the publication of the broadside edition when actor Ferdinand Durang climbed on a chair and sang it to a cheering crowd at Captain McCauley’s tavern. Newspapers around the country picked up Key’s poem and it slowly grew in popularity as a song.
But it was not the National Anthem. The United States did not yet have one. The most commonly played patriotic song was Hail Columbia which had been played at George Washington’s inaugural and had become known as the President’s March. That might have become an official anthem except for the inconvenient fact that the nation was not named Columbia and that another nation had rudely stole the name in 1810.
In 1831 Samuel Francis Smith penned new lyrics to God Save the King to make the British ditty into an American patriotic song. The simplicity of the tune, much easier to sing than the Star Spangled Banner, made America, or My Country ‘Tis of Thee popular. It was adopted as an official anthem by the U.S. Navy in 1889 and was linked with the Pledge of Allegiance to become a morning ritual for school children across the country in the wave of patriotism that swept the country in the wake of the Spanish American War. Despite its use as an unofficial anthem, sharing the music with the official anthem of the country from which the U.S. had declared its independence and with which it had fought two wars, made it unsuitable for international use.
By the time that President Woodrow Wilson issued an executive order that the Star Spangled Banner be used as an anthem by military and naval bands in 1916, other songs were emerging as a contenders for the title of an official anthem. Katherine Lee Bates’ poem America the Beautiful was set to a tune by Samuel A Ward. George M. Cohan’s rouser You’re A Grand Old Flag from the 1906 musical George Washington, Jr. also was another candidate.
Despite the competition, Congress finally designated the Star Spangled Banner as the National Anthem in 1931 and the resolution was signed into law by President Herbert Hoover.
Key’s song, however, always had its detractors. With its wide range, it is very hard for all but accomplished singers and its martial spirit offends those who would prefer their patriotism without belligerence.
Most commonly mentioned as an alternative is a song that Irving Berlin wrote for his Doughboy camp musical Yip, Yip Yank in 1917 but which had been cut from the show. Years later, Berlin tinkered with the lyrics and Kate Smith sang it on her popular radio show in 1938. God Bless America became an instant favorite and is often sung at public events either with or as an alternative to the Star Spangled Banner.
There has even been a movement to make Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land the anthem. Guthrie wrote the song as a direct answer to Smith’s version of God Bless America in 1940 but did not record it until 1944. It was not published until Woody put out a mimeographed pamphlet of 10 of his songs to sell at concerts in 1950. It took off with the folk revival and political upheaval of the 1960’s and was recorded by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and, Peter Paul and Mary and many others. As great as the song is, it is difficult to imagine a song with that political pedigree ever becoming the official Anthem.
Despite the difficulty in singing the song, most American’s sing along when the Anthem is played. And in the hands of an accomplished singer, its soaring final bars can inspire goose bumps even among the most blasé.