The Story Behind “The Star-Spangled Banner”
The War of 1812 was a 32-month military conflict between the United States, and Great Britain and its Indian allies in North America. Great Britain was fighting two wars at once, but after the defeat of Napoleon of France in April 1814, the British had newly available troops and ships to ramp up the war with the United States…and they did.
In August 1814, the British burned much of Washington D.C., including the Capitol and the White House. Later that month they accomplished the “Raid on Alexandria,” acquiring most of the town’s wealth in exchange for not burning it, including 22 merchant ships and “vast quantities of flour, cotton, tobacco, wines and cigars.” This last made them late for a date with other troops to attack Baltimore.
In Baltimore’s preparation for an expected attack on the city, Fort McHenry was made ready to defend the city’s harbor. Major George Armistead wanted a very large flag to fly over the fort; two oversized American flags were made. The larger would be the Great Garrison Flag, the largest battle flag ever flown at the time. The smaller of the two flags would be the Storm Flag, to be more durable and less prone to fouling in inclement weather.
Francis Scott Key and John Stuart Skinner set sail from (the uncaptured) Baltimore flying a flag of truce on a mission approved by President James Madison. Their objective was to meet with the British to secure the exchange of prisoners. Key and his companion boarded the British flagship on September 7 and spoke with Major General Robert Ross and Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane over dinner while the two officers discussed war plans. Because Key and Skinner had heard details of the plans for the attack on Ft. McHenry and Baltimore, they were held captive until after the battle.
Key and Skinner spent a long night witnessing the bombardment. At some point during the rainy night, Key had observed (“by the rocket’s red glare”) that the fort’s smaller Storm Flag continued to fly, but once the barrage had stopped, he would not know how the battle had turned out until dawn. By then, the Storm Flag had been lowered and the larger flag had been raised. In the picture to the left, note the soldier standing in front of the flag to get a sense of scale of the Garrison Flag.
Key was inspired by the American victory and the sight of the large American flag flying triumphantly above the fort. This flag, with fifteen stars and fifteen stripes, had been made by Mary Young Pickersgill together with other workers in her home on Baltimore’s Pratt Street. The flag later came to be known as the Star Spangled Banner Flag and is today on display in the National Museum of American History, a treasure of the Smithsonian Institution.
Aboard the ship the next day, Key wrote a poem on the back of a letter he had kept in his pocket. At twilight on September 16, he and Skinner were released in Baltimore. He completed the poem at the Indian Queen Hotel, where he was staying, and entitled it “Defence of Fort McHenry.”
The poem was set to the tune of a popular British song written by John Stafford Smith, and renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner.” “The Star-Spangled Banner” was recognized for official use by the Navy in 1889, and by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, and was made the national anthem by a congressional resolution on March 3, 1931, which was signed by President Herbert Hoover.