The Life and Times of the Star-Spangled Banner

The Star-Spangled Banner

The Star-Spangled Banner was written by a young lawyer named Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812 (a misnamed war -- it lasted until 1815). The war was fought over a number of issues. The British needed sailors for their war with Napoleon. They stopped American ships and, if they found any deserters from the British navy, took them back into naval service. Many of these sailors were American citizens, and the Americans believed that Americans were not subject to service in the British navy. The British felt that an English subject did not stop being an English subject just because they were American.

The war hawks in Congress resented the British presence in North America. They wanted to make Canada a part of the United States. The Americans invaded Canada. For the most part, this did not go well. It seemed as though the British would take more American territory than the Americans would take of British. At one point, the Americans succeeded in taking what is now Toronto, and burned the entire town to the ground.

This act infuriated the British. In retaliation, they attacked the capital of the United States, Washington D.C., and burned it. Usually when an army takes the capital of the enemy, that is either the end of the war or close to it. Washington was not, however, much of a capital yet. While the loss was serious, it was not fatal. The retreat of most of the Americans was such a disaster that it came to be known as the Bladensburg races, after the place where the "battle" took place. About 600 regular troops did hold out for a time against the 4500 hardened British soldiers. After burning the city, the British returned to their ships. Significantly, several British soldiers who were too seriously wounded to be moved had to be left behind. Two people who were near the battle played a crucial role in the writing of the Star-Spangled Banner -- Dr. William Beanes and Francis Scott Key.

During the battle, Key was given the job of sending militia to where they were most needed. As a lawyer, he had no military training, but neither did most of the militia.

William Beanes was a doctor living in Upper Marlborough (now spelled Marlboro), Maryland, just outside Washington. As the British army marched through on its way to Washington, Beanes involuntarily hosted several of the commanding officers. He apparently gave them the impression that he was pro-British. With his strong Scottish accent, the British concluded that he was their friend. When the British retreated from Washington after burning it, they went back through Upper Marlborough again. This time, once the main force had passed, Beanes and several of his friends detained 6 British stragglers. ( Beanes and his friends may have been drunk at the time, leading to the indiscretion.)

The whole story of what actually happened is obscure, but his behavior made the British commanders angry. They seemed not to have considered that burning a whole city was worse than detaining a handful of the ones doing the burning. They sent back a detachment and arrested Beanes. To send him back to the where the British were camped, they put him backwards on a mule, so that he faced "the ass of an ass", and tied his feet beneath the mule. At 65 years of age and frail, the doctor would not be able to survive very much of this rough treatment.

The friends of Dr Beanes hired two lawyers to try to rescue him, John Skinner and Francis Key. Before leaving to contact the British, they made a point to visit the wounded British soldiers who had been left behind and were now prisoners. Skinner allowed them to write letters to their families, which he and Key would deliver to the British. In the letters, several of the prisoners told how they had been well treated by American doctors. When Key and Skinner arrived at the British fleet aboard their small ship, the Minden, they were politely received and had dinner with the British commanders. Once Key and Skinner told the British army commander, General Ross, of their mission, however, the general became angry and said that Beanes had committed a serious offense and would not be released. The two lawyers showed the general the letters from the British prisoners. He finally agreed to release the doctor as a kindness in return for a kindness. He made it clear that the release was on that basis only, and not because Dr Beanes deserved it.

William Beanes, John Skinner, and Francis Scott Key were then allowed to return to the Minden, but they were not allowed to leave the fleet, since they were now aware of the British plans for the invasion of Baltimore.

And plans the British had. After burning Washington, the British planned to attack and burn Baltimore. Baltimore was the third largest city in the U.S. at the time. It was an important seaport and the home of many of the most ardent supporters of the war. Take out Baltimore, and the British thought that they could take out much of the American will and ability to fight.

The attack was to be by both land and sea. General Ross led the British army. Admirals Cochrane and Cockburn led the British fleet. As General Ross led his army toward the city, he was shot and killed by an American sharpshooter. The British considered hidden snipers to be sneaky and against the rules of war. They killed all of the sharpshooters, almost certainly including the one who had shot the general. Other American defenses seemed to hold.

With the way blocked by land, the British pressed the attack by sea. The strongest defense of the Chesapeake river was Fort McHenry. Its cannon lacked the range of the British artillery, so the British were able to sit outside the range of attack from the fort and bombard it. The Americans were better prepared in Baltimore than they had been in Washington. The fort was well able to withstand the bombardment from the British fleet. Among the preparations, the fort commander Major George Armistead had ordered a huge flag to be flown at the fort. It was constructed by Mary Pickersgill and her 13 year old daughter Caroline. It was ordered to be 30 feet by 42 feet. It was so large that they had to spread it out for sewing in a brewery, the only space large enough. Major Armistead said that he did not want the British to have any difficulty finding the fort.

Key, Skinner and Beanes watched the bombardment from the deck of the Minden all night long. Beanes had lost his glasses during his ride with the mule and could not see very well. He kept asking, "Is the flag still there?" and again, "Is the flag still there?" Finally, as dawn broke, Key could see through his telescope that yes, the flag was still there.

Key wrote at least the first verse of the Star-Spangled Banner while still on board the Minden. That first verse can be heard as the voice of William Beanes. They all knew that the flag should be easily visible. If the fort had not surrendered, it should still be seen. As long as the inaccurate but scary Congreve rockets were flying, they knew that the fort still held out. When the bombardment stopped, they did not know if it was because the fort had surrendered or the British had given up the attack. The first verse of the Star-Spangled Banner is Dr. Beanes' question, and Francis Key's answer.

The early history of the song is unclear. We are not even sure whether Key wrote the entire song while still on board the Minden. We do know that it was published several times over the next weeks and months. It grew slowly in popularity until it became one of the best known patriotic American songs. As the historian Walter Lord said, it had the right combination of "fear, defiance, suspense, relief."

Several attempts were made to adopt a National Anthem for the United States. In 1908 Congress appointed Oscar Sonneck, who was then the Librarian of Congress and an eminent musical historian, to gather together information on 4 leading candidates. The other 3 songs are included elsewhere in this site. Finally, in 1931, the Congress passed a law making the Star-Spangled Banner the official national anthem. The law did not specify the words to be used, so there is some room for variation. At least the third verse is usually omitted as being too anti-British.

The original words to the Star-Spangled Banner are not known exactly. Early copies have slightly different wording. Key himself gave 5 slightly different versions of the song. A few words are also spelled differently than they are today. Here are the words from an early broadside, with Key's own variations in brackets. I have put the words that vary in green and the alternate text at the end of the line in [brackets]

The Attack on Fort McHenry

The Defence of Fort McHenry


O say can you see by the dawn's early light [ye]

What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming, [by]

Whose broad stripes & bright stars through the perilous fight [bright stars and broad stripes], [clouds of the]

O'er the ramparts we watch'd, were so gallantly streaming?

And the rocket's red glare, the bomb bursting in air, [bombs]

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 & the home of the brave?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep, [On]

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? [that]

Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam

In full glory reflected now shines of the stream

'Tis the star-spangled banner — O long may it wave

O'er the land of the free & the home of the brave.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore, [are the foes] [sweepingly]

That the havoc of war & the battle's confusion

A home & a Country should leave us no more?

Their blood has wash'd out their foul footstep's pollution [This] [his]

No refuge could save the hireling & 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 & the home of the brave.

O thus be it ever when the freemen shall stand [foemen]

Between their lov'd home & the war's desolation! [homes] [war's]

Blest with vict'ry & peace may the heav'n rescued land

Praise the power that hath made & 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 long may it]

O'er the land of the free & the home of the brave.