If there is anything taken more seriously than the US flag, it’s possibly the national anthem. The Star-spangled Banner accompanies just about every major American function, and at major sporting events a significant honour is bestowed on those asked to sing what is probably the best known national anthem in the world.
Listen closely to the words and it tells of a highly emotional moment in US history when the war with the British was being fought and of one man’s relief in seeing the US flag still flying after a vicious bombardment.
Before the Battle
The War of 1812 had been a particularly nasty conflict with the British. They had burned down the Capitol and the White House in Washington, and were set on taking the port of Baltimore, which was protected in part by Fort McHenry, just to the south.
On September 7th, 1814, during the build-up to the attack on Baltimore, two Americans, Colonel John Skinner and a lawyer and part-time poet by the name of Francis Scott Key, had gone out to one of the British ships. They had come to negotiate the release of Dr William Beanes, a friend of Key who had been seized following the attack on Washington. The British agreed, but all three had learned too much about the forthcoming attack on Baltimore and so were detained by the British on board the frigate Surprise until it was over.
The Defense of Fort McHenry
The attack started on September 12th, 1814, and after an initial exchange of fire, the fleet withdrew to form an arc just outside the range of Fort McHenry’s fire.
Skinner, Beanes and Key watched much of the bombardment from the British deck. The major attack started in heavy rain on the morning of September 13th. Just under three miles in the distance the three men caught glimpses of the star-shaped fort with its huge flag – 42ft long, with 8 red stripes, 7 white stripes and 15 white stars, and specially commissioned to be big enough that the British could not possibly fail to see it from a distance.
In the dark of the night of the 13th, the shelling suddenly stopped. Through the darkness they couldn’t tell whether the British forces had been defeated, or the fort had fallen.
As the rain cleared, and the sun began to rise, Key peered through the lifting darkness anxious to see if the flag they had seen the night before was still flying. And so it was that he scribbled on the back of an envelope the first lines of a poem he called Defense of Fort M’Henry:
O, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming
As the mist started to clear he was aware that there was a flag flying – but was it the British flag? It was difficult to tell:
What is that which the breeze o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
But finally the sun rose, and with intense relief and pride he saw that the fort had withstood the onslaught …
‘Tis the star-spangled banner – O long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Keys, Beanes and Skinner were taken by the British back to shore on Friday, September 16th. In his room in the Indian Queen Hotel, Keys completed all four verses of the poem, and the following morning he took it to his brother-in-law, a local judge, who thought it so good that he arranged to have it printed as a handbill. Printing was completed by Monday morning, and the copies were distributed to everyone at the Fort.
Key made a number of hand-written copies of his original poem, introducing occasional changes as he did so. But it wasn’t just Key that made alterations; various editors along the way have also had a hand in altering spelling, punctuation and even the words. The original text of the poem has therefore varied depending on where you read it.
It is possible that Key only ever intended this as a poem; there was nothing in his original notes to suggest a tune. However, there was a very popular tune of the time, which Key would have been familiar and for which had been written many differents sets of words. Perhaps the most notable of these was Robert Treat Paine’s ode, Adams and Liberty, written for the Massachusetts Charitable Fire Society in 1798. All these songs had the same very distinctive form and metre, and there can be no doubt that Key was heavily influenced by it (and may even have had it in mind).
When the handbills were printed, they did bear the name of this tune to which the poem should be sung – To Anacreon In Heaven. Somewhat ironically, this is a song written for a British drinking club!
The Anacreontic Society was a popular genetlemen’s drinking club, based in a pub in the Strand, London. The words of the song had been written by the society’s president, Ralph Tomlinson, but the tune is more of a mystery.
At one time, the English composer Dr Thomas Arnold was thought to be its composer – Arnold had written numerous songs for the society. However, it is now accepted that the tune was probably written collectively by a group of members, led by John Stafford Smith, probably in 1771.
The poem and tune become an anthem
In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that it should become the National Anthem played by the military and naval services, but it wasn’t until March 3rd, 1931 that it was officially designated as the National Anthem by act of Congress:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the composition known as The Star-spangled Banner is designated as the National Anthem of the United States of America.
In the third verse of the poem, Key expresses his particular bitterness towards the British:
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution
No refuge could save the hireling & slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave
An understandable feeling of the time, but as the two nations came closer, such sentiments weren’t considered appropriate and as a result this third verse is usually omitted. A couple of alternative verses have been written in later years, and these are included on the page containing the text of the Anthem.
One of the original copies that Key wrote was sold to the Maryland Historical Society for $26,400 in 1953. Of the original printed versions, it is believed that only eleven copies still exist and the only known copy that is in private hands was sold by Christie’s on 3rd December, 2010, for $506,500. The actual flag that he saw is preserved in the Smithsonian Institution.