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.
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.
On board the British flag ship Francis Scott Key spotted a banner in the dawn.
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 original Star Spangled Banner--the battered giant flag is preserved and on display at the Smithsonian.
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 performed 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 stolen 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, or even the popular My Country ‘Tis of Thee made America the dominant mid-19th Century flag waver. 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 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 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.
Kate Smith's rousing 1938 version of Irving Berlin's God Bless America made the song a leading contender as a replacement National Anthem.
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 & 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.
Sentiment was growing to ditch the Star Spangled Banner until Whitney Houston's spectacular performance at the Super Bowl in 1998 during a spasm of patriotism during the Gulf War.
These days the song is under attack because of Key’s later legal career and political entanglements as an ardent defender of slavery, mouthpiece for strictly enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act, and being an ally of John C. Calhoun and the nullifiers. Critics insist that the Star Spangled Banner is the tainted fruit of a tainted tree.
Despite this and the difficulty in singing the song, it can inspire goose bumps even among the most blasé.
Key's anthem got a boost during the Civil War despite his vigorous pro-slavery sympathy. There was no mistaking the Star Spangled Banner for the Stars and Bars or the Confederate Battle Flag.
The Star Spangled Banner
O say can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
—Francis Scott Key