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The Star-Spangled Banner


On the rainy night of September 13, 1814, British warships pummeled Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor with shells and rockets for 25 hours. From the perspective of Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old American lawyer who watched the attack unfold, it must have been hard to imagine the fort holding out against such heavy firepower. Key later wrote, “It seemed as though mother earth had opened and was vomiting shot and shell in a sheet of fire and brimstone.” As the smoke cleared the following morning, Key witnessed a sight that infamously lives on to this day through "The Star-Spangled Banner". On September 14, a massive American flag defiantly flew over Fort McHenry. The stars and stripes signaled that the British attack had failed. Victory belonged to America.

This video from We Are The Mighty provides a brief overview of the origin of Francis Scott Key's poem, which became the Star-Spangled Banner.

Prior to the attack, Key boarded the flagship of the British fleet on the Chesapeake Bay. His mission was to free a friend who had recently been arrested and was being held by the British. Key was successful in his efforts to get his friend released, but he and his party were not allowed to leave just yet. Because the Americans had learned about the impending attack on Baltimore, the British allowed them to return to their own vessel but continued guarding them. From this position, Key watched the barrage of Fort McHenry on September 13.

A painting of Francis Scott Key looking out at Fort McHenry from his vessel. (Photo: Smithsonian Magazine)

Inspired by the sight of the American flag flying over Fort McHenry after the 25-hour bombardment, Key wrote a poem in tribute to the events that unfolded before his eyes. He set his words to the tune of a popular English drinking song. Key’s brother-in-law read his work and had it distributed under the name “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” The writes,The Baltimore Patriot newspaper soon printed it, and within weeks, Key’s poem, now called “The Star-Spangled Banner,” appeared across the country.” The Star-Spangled Banner was adopted as the United States’ national anthem on March 3, 1931.

One of the earliest known manuscripts of Key's tribute to the action at Fort McHenry. (Photo: National Museum of American History)

Nearly 203 years later, the original flag that inspired Key's poem survives and is on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C.

The original flag from Fort McHenry on display. (Photo: National Museum of American History)

The Star-Spangled Banner will always remind us of the conflict and bravery that our flag has been witness to. From the defense of Fort McHenry in 1814 to the present day, we must never forget those who have kept our flag soaring high. Key’s words will live on forever in the hearts and minds of Americans until the end of time.


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