Sunday, September 13, 2015

Today in history: the inspiration for the Star-Spangled Banner

American history classes often skip over the War of 1812 but it is an important part of our country’s history as it was the first real war of a new nation. It would also give us our National Anthem. On this day in 1814, Fort McHenry began its defense of Baltimore Harbor from the British Navy attack in the Chesapeake Bay. On the morning of September 14th, a large garrison flag was raised to signal American victory. The sight inspired Francis Scott Key, who was aboard his ship among the British fleet, to write his poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry” which would late become “The Star-Spangled Banner.”


Key was aboard the British ship in order to negotiate prisoner release. He was not allowed to return his ship to Baltimore and was forced to watch the bombardment, unable to do anything to help. At dawn, he saw the flag and reported it to the prisoners below. When he returned to Baltimore, he would write his famous poem. Many do not know or have never read the full poem.



Defence of Fort M’Henry

The annexed song was composed under the following circumstances--A gentleman had left Baltimore, in a flag of truce for the purpose of getting released from the British fleet, a friend of his who had been captured at Marlborough.--He went as far as the mouth of the Patuxent, and was not permitted to return lest the intended attack on Baltimore should be disclosed. He was therefore brought up the Bay to the mouth of the Patapsco, where the flag vessel was kept under the guns of a frigate, and he was compelled to witness the bombardment of Fort M'Henry [sic], which the Admiral had boasted that he would carry in a few hours, and that the city must fall. He watched the flag at the Fort through the whole day with an anxiety that can be better felt than described, until the night prevented him from seeing it. In the night he watched the Bomb Shells, and at early dawn his eye was again greeted by the proudly waving flag of his country.

O! say can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watch'd, 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 on 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 havock of war and the battle's confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash'd out their foul foot-steps' 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 lov'd home, and the war's desolation,
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the heav'n-rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv'd 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.

The poem would be set to the tune “To Anacreon in Heaven” aka the Drinking Song. It is the official song of the Anacreontic Society, an 18th century gentleman’s club of amateur musicians in London. The society is dedicated to the Ancient Greek poet, Anacreon, who was renowned for his drinking songs and odes to love. The song was composed in 1775 and Key used the melody to compose his poem. When the poem was first published, a note cited that the poem should be song to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Since the song was a popular British drinking song and amid anti-British sentiment at the time, the use of the song was to such a patriotic poem was equivalent to thumbing their noses at the British.


The Star-Spangled Banner became a popular song with the Union Troops during the Civil War. However, it did not become the national anthem until March 3, 1931 when Congress passed a measure to formally designate the song as the national anthem of the United States.