200th Anniversay – Publishing of the Star-Spangled Banner

This post is drawn directly from http://history1800s.about.com/od/War-of-1812/ss/Star-Spangled-Banner-Baltimore-Newspaper.htm. 

The British bombardment of Fort McHenry was an important military event, but it lived on in memory because a witness to the attack, attorney and amateur poet Francis Scott Key, was inspired by the sight of the fort’s enormous American flag on the morning of September 14, 1814.

And Key, of course, wrote the lyrics for what would become known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Key was an unlikely author for such a poem. He had not agreed with the reasons for the War of 1812, and had been part of the American public which opposed the war. As a Federalist, Key did not think much of the War Hawks, the pro-war faction of the Congress led by Henry Clay.

However, as a native Marylander he had tried to defend his home state against the British invasion of 1814. He had been present at the Battle of Bladensburg, when the British forces scattered the Maryland militia before burning buildings in Washington, including the Capitol and the White House.

When a prominent Maryland physician, Dr. William Beanes, was taken prisoner by the British as their fleet departed southern Maryland, Key, in his role as a prominent lawyer, was asked by the federal government to help arrange his release.

Key and John Skinner, an employee of the U.S. Department of State, approached the British fleet under a flag of truce. Boarding a British ship and meeting with officers, they managed to arrange for the release of Dr. Beanes. However, the British commanders, Admiral Cockburn and General Ross, would not release Key, Skinner, and Beanes until after the attack on Baltimore.

And so Francis Scott Key became an eyewitness to the bombardment of Baltimore. During a rainy and foggy day and night, Key watched from the deck of a British warship as the Royal Navy lobbed aerial bombs and fired Congreve rockets at Fort McHenry.

When the local newspaper, the Baltimore Patriot and Advertiser, resumed publication on September 20, 1814, it published the text of a poem Key had written about his experience.

Below is the introduction and Key’s text, as it appeared on page two of the newspaper (note: some spellings have been slightly changed to conform to modern usage):

The Defense of Fort McHenry

The following beautiful and animating effusion, which is destined long to outlast the occasion, and outlive the impulse which produced it, has already been extensively circulated. In our first renewal of publication, we rejoice in an opportunity to enliven the sketch of an exploit so illustrious with strains which so fitly celebrate it.

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 McHenry, 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.

Tune — Anachreon in Heaven

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 watched 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 repose,
What is that, which the breeze o’er the towering sleep,
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 havoc 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 footsteps’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 homes and the war’s desolation;
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the heav’n-rescued land
Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause 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.

Library of Congress

By Dawn’s Early Light


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