James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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TWE Remembers: The Birth of the Star Spangled Banner

by James M. Lindsay
September 14, 2011

The first known photograph of the Star Spangled Banner hung in the Boston Navy Yard on June 21, 1873 (Ho New/courtesy Reuters)

Most singers struggle to perform it. It is hard to imagine a major league baseball game starting without it. The sound of a marching band playing it stirs the heart. I am speaking, of course, of the “Star Spangled Banner.” One hundred and ninety-seven years ago today, Francis Scott Key penned the words to the American national anthem.

Most Americans know the basic story of the “Star Spangled Banner.” On September 13, 1814, British forces began a twenty-five hour bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, then one of the largest and most strategically significant cities in the United States. Key watched the sun come up on the morning of September 14 and saw the American flag still flying proudly over the embattled fort. Moved by what he saw, he penned the words that would make him famous.

What most Americans don’t know is that the flag flying over Fort McHenry was easy to spot. A year earlier, Major George Armistead, Fort McHenry’s commanding officer, ordered the purchase of a flag “so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.” Mary Young Pickersgill, a Baltimore businesswoman, sewed the flag in six weeks with her daughter’s help. It measured thirty by forty-two feet, used more than four hundred yards of fabric, and cost $405.90 to make. The flag had fifteen stars and fifteen stripes representing the original thirteen colonies plus the two newest states, Vermont and Kentucky.

But why was Key a witness to the bombardment of Fort McHenry? He wasn’t fighting. Indeed, he had opposed the War of 1812 on religious grounds (though he did serve as a volunteer military aide in 1814). Key was instead a lawyer who had been pressed into service by the people of Upper Marlboro, Maryland to secure the freedom of their beloved town physician, Dr. William Beanes, who had been taken captive by the British. Key negotiated the good doctor’s release, but in doing so he learned of the British plans to attack Fort McHenry. So the British insisted that Key, Beanes, and another American remain onboard a Royal Naval ship until the British fleet reached Baltimore. The Americans then returned to their ship in the Chesapeake Bay and watched the shelling of Fort McHenry.

The British lobbed an estimated fifteen to eighteen hundred shells at Fort McHenry during the attack, which came three weeks after the burning of the White House. Remarkably, only four of the roughly one thousand American defenders were killed. When the fort still stood after a full day and night of shelling, the British fleet withdrew.

Key’s words were first published in the Baltimore Patriot on September 20, 1814 as a poem entitled “The Defence of Fort McHenry.” He subsequently set his words to a drinking song known as “Anacreon in Heaven.” The song immediately became popular, but more than a century would pass before it became the national anthem.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson declared that the “Star Spangled Banner” should be played on all official occasions. In 1917, the Army and the Navy designated it the national anthem for ceremonial purposes. Although Congressman John Charles Linthicum of Maryland introduced a resolution in 1918 to make it the national anthem, other legislators lobbied for songs like “Yankee Doodle” and “America the Beautiful” that had the benefit of being both original tunes and easier to sing. But fans of Key’s soaring lyrics did not give up. They filed more than forty bills and joint resolutions in Congress to get their way. In March 1931, they finally did.

Oh, if you were wondering what exactly a “spangle” is, the Random House College Dictionary defines it as “a small, thin, often circular piece of glittering metal or other material, used esp. for decorating garments.” So “to spangle” means “to glitter with or like spangles.”

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