September 16, 1814: Francis Scott Key and the Star-Spangled Banner

Posted on March 3, 2011
By Marc Leepson

The man who named that flag, Francis Scott Key, witnessed the Battle of Baltimore aboard a sixty-foot sloop in the harbor. How Key found himself  in the harbor while the battle raged is an intriguing and not widely known  story.

Francis Scott Key was born on August 1, 1779, at his affluent family’s estate called Terra Rubra in Frederick County in western Maryland. His great grandfather, Philip Key, had come to Maryland from England in the early 1720s. When he was ten years old, Key went to Annapolis to attend St. John’s College. He graduated from that prestigious small liberal arts institution in 1796, then studied law under Judge J. T. Chase in Annapolis.


Francis Scott Key began practicing law in 1801 in Frederick, Maryland. His partner was Roger B. Taney, who married Key’s sister Anne in 1806. Taney went on in 1836 to become the fifth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Shortly after Key married Mary Tayloe Lloyd in Annapolis 1802, he moved to the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C, to practice law with his uncle, Philip Barton Key. Francis Scott Key became one of the city’s most prominent attorneys, eventually serving as U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, and arguing many cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. An amateur poet, Key also was a very religious man who was active in the Episcopal Church. He died in Baltimore on January 11, 1843.

The circumstance that led to Key’s ringside seat at the Battle of Baltimore took place in the immediate aftermath of the British sacking of Washington. Before all of the British troops made their way aboard ships bound for Baltimore, a group of them raided several farms in Maryland outside Washington. Dr. William Beanes, a prominent Upper Marlboro physician and a friend of Key, organized opposition to the renegade British troops. After Beanes’s men captured some of the pillaging British troops, he and several other Americans were arrested and taken prisoner by the British.

A prisoner exchange followed, and everyone but Dr. Beanes was released. He was taken away in the Tonnant, Admiral Cochrane’s flagship, as the British sailed toward Baltimore. Intermediaries contacted Key to ask him to arrange for Dr. Beanes’s release. Key secured permission to negotiate the release from President Madison and Gen. John Mason, who was in charge of matters relating to military prisoners during the War of 1812. Key’s orders were to go to Baltimore and rendezvous with U.S. Army colonel John S. Skinner, who had dealt with British rear admiral George Cockburn on prisoner exchanges and other issues in that city.

Key and Skinner met in Baltimore on September 4. The next day they sailed on a sixty-foot sloop carrying a truce flag in search of the British Fleet. They met up with the Tonnant and were welcomed aboard by General Ross and Admiral Cochrane. Key convinced the British commanders that Dr. Beanes was a civilian noncombatant. After what has been described as a cordial dinner on board the ship, the British agreed to Dr. Beanes’s release. But there was a condition. Key, Skinner, and Beanes were not permitted to return to Washington until after the British attack on Baltimore.

The three men were first escorted to a British frigate, which towed their sloop toward Baltimore. On September 10, Key, Skinner, and Beanes were allowed to return to their vessel, accompanied by British marine guards. They set anchor in Baltimore harbor, about eight miles from Fort McHenry, and spent the next four days there, -witnessing the fighting, including the relentless barrage during the stormy night of September 13—14. It was an emotion-laden experience. Key expressed his high feelings as the British Fleet sailed away from Fort McHenry by writing a poem, which he began to compose on the back of a letter he had in his pocket.

Key finished the four verses of the poem either while sailing back to shore or at a hotel—accounts differ — on September 16. The next day he presented the verses to his brother in law, Judge Joseph Hopper Nicholson, the chief justice of the Baltimore District of the Maryland Court of Appeals. Hopper had commanded the Maryland Volunteer Artillery’s First Regiment, known as the “Baltimore Fencibles,” at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore. Either Nicholson, his wife, Key, or Skinner took the poem to a printer, most likely Benjamin Edes, who also was a veteran of that battle, having commanded a Maryland militia company at the Battle of North Point. Edes owned and operated a print shop on the corner of Baltimore and Gay Street, from which copies of Key’s poem, bearing the title “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” were printed on handbills or broadsheets and distributed throughout the city. The text appeared in the daily afternoon newspaper, the Baltimore Patriot, and the Evening Advertiser on September 20.

The newspaper and broadsheets included a short introduction, probably written by Judge Nicholson. “The following beautiful and animating effusion, which is destined long to outlast the occasion, and outlive the impulse, which produced it, had already been extensively circulated,” the introduction said. “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 broadsheet and the newspaper went on to describe the “circumstances” under which the “song was composed.” Key, who was described only as a “gentleman” and was not named, “was compelled to witness the bombardment of Fort M’Henry, which the Admiral [Cochrane] had boasted that he would carry in a few hours, and that the city must fall.” Key “watched the flag at the Fort through the whole day with an anxiety that can better be felt than described, until the night prevented him from seeing it. In the night he watched the Bomb-Shells, and at the early dawn his eye was again greeted by the proudly-waving flag of his country.”

The article indicated that the song was meant to be sung to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” an English song, popular in pubs, that was composed by John Stafford Smith around 1775 and was well known in the United States. The tune was the theme song of the Anacreontic Society of London, a gentlemen’s club that met periodically to listen to musical performances, dine, and sing songs. It was named after Anacreon, the ancient Greek poet known primarily for his verses in praise of love, wine, and revelry. Several similar organizations were formed in the United States, including the Columbian Anacreontic Society in New York, which had begun in 1795, and the Anacreontic Society of Baltimore, which would start in 1820.

On September 21, 1814, the Baltimore American published the song, and it soon became known, if not popular, throughout the nation. It was first performed publicly on October 19, 1814, in Baltimore at the Holliday Street Theatre, popularly known as “Old Drury,” after the performance of a play. The song became known as “The Star-Spangled Banner” after it was published for the first time in sheet music form by Carr’s Music Store in Baltimore in November. The title on the sheet music reads, “THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER,” below which are the words “A PATRIOTIC SONG” and “Air, Anacreon in Heaven.” The song was subsequently reproduced widely in newspapers and magazines and soon appeared in sheet music and in songbooks throughout the nation.

Fifty-seven years later “The Star-Spangled Banner” became the unofficial National Anthem of the North soon after the start of the Civil War. The widespread use of the song beginning in 1861 marked the first time that the nation widely and significantly embraced the flag as a symbol of American patriotism. In the decades following the war the song grew in popularity nationwide.

The United States Naval Academy adopted “The Star-Spangled Banner” as its anthem in 1889, the same year in which navy bases and ships started playing it when the flag was raised each day at morning colors. The U.S. Marine Band began playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at its public performances in 1890. The U.S. Army adopted the song for retiring the colors in 1895, and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point took the song as its official anthem in 1903. During the Spanish-American War in 1898, the American public for the first time began standing during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In 1916, just prior to America’s entry into World War I, Pres. Woodrow Wilson issued an executive order calling for the song to be played at military and naval occasions. In 1917 the army and navy officially named “The Star-Spangled Banner” as “the National Anthem of the United States” for all military ceremonies.

There is anecdotal evidence that “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played at various sporting events, primarily baseball games, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The first documented performance of the song being performed at a sporting event came during World War I at Comiskey Park in Chicago. The date was September 5, 1918; the occasion, the first game of the World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox. The Cubs were using Comiskey Park, the home of the White Sox, because their home, Wrigley Field (then called Weeghman Park), was deemed too small.

The historic event took place during the seventh-inning stretch. As the Cubs band played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the players and the nineteen-thousand-plus spectators stood, took off their hats, and sang along — much as they do today at professional and collegiate sporting contests. At Boston’s Fenway Park on September 9 in the fourth game of the Series, the National Anthem was played before the first pitch. The Red Sox, led by pitching star Babe Ruth, prevailed in that post-season contest—and did not win another World Series until 2004.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was played before the opening-day game and each World Series game the following season, 1919, but not at regular season games. That didn’t take place until 1942, during World War II. Since then the National Anthem has been played before virtually every professional — and many collegiate and high school — baseball, football, basketball, hockey, and soccer contests in this country.

Members of Congress started introducing legislation to proclaim “The Star-Spangled Banner” the National Anthem of the United States around 1910. More than forty bills and resolutions were considered in Congress over the next two decades. On January 30, 1913, for example, Rep. Jefferson Levy, a New York Democrat, and the owner of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, introduced such a joint resolution in the House. That measure, as -was the case with dozens of other pieces of similar legislation, went nowhere.

The legislation did not succeed for several reasons. First, some believed that it was inappropriate for the nation to adopt as its National Anthem a song derived from an English drinking tune—especially after January 19, 1920, when Prohibition went into effect. Others objected to “The Star-Spangled Banner” because the music was not written by an American. Another objection had to do with the difficulty of singing the tune, which has a very wide range of notes. There also were arguments that Key’s words were directed at a military enemy, Great Britain, that had become a close American ally. And some believed that the song was only appropriate as a martial air and not in times of peace.

” ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ suggests that patriotism is associated with killing and being killed, with great noise and clamor, with intense hatreds and fury and violence,” Clyde R. Miller, an administrator at Columbia University’s Teachers College, said in 1930. “Patriotism may on very rare occasions involve all of these, but not everyday life.”

There also was sentiment to designate other patriotic songs as the National Anthem. A popular favorite was “America the Beautiful,” which Katharine Lee Bates, an instructor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, wrote after climbing Pikes Peak, Colorado, in 1893. The words to that song were first published as a poem in 1895. The lyrics were revised twice, in 1904 and in 1913. Until 1910 the poem was sung to many different tunes, including “Auld Lang Syne.” In 1910 Bates’s words were put together with the tune we know today, “Materna,” which was composed by Samuel A. Ward in 1882. The other song most frequently suggested for the National Anthem was the traditional folk tune “Yankee Doodle,” which was written in the late 1760s.

A long lobbying effort by patriotic and veterans groups led by the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars -won the day on behalf of Key’s song. The VFW had been on record as early as 1917 favoring the “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the National Anthem. In December 1926 the group launched a lobbying campaign in support of a “Star-Spangled Banner” National Anthem bill pending in the House of Representatives. “There is a powerful and well-financed propaganda emanating from pacifist sources to replace Francis Scott Key’s inspiring words with something more flowery and meaningless,” said Herman R. La Tourette, patriotic instructor for the VFW’s Department of New York, following a meeting in which the group asked the public to write to members of Congress urging them to support the bill.

That bill died in Congress, but the VFW continuing lobbying for subsequent similar legislation during the next four years. Representatives of more than sixty veterans and patriotic groups held a conference in Washington on January 30, 1930, to make a big push for another “Star-Spangled Banner” bill that had been introduced by Rep. J. Charles Linthicum, a Maryland Democrat who represented the congressional district in Baltimore that included Fort McHenry.

The following day the Veterans of Foreign Wars presented the House Judiciary Committee with a petition—which VFW commander in chief Walter I. Joyce called “fifty miles of names’ —containing some five million signatures urging the adoption of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the National Anthem. Sopranos Elsie Jorss-Reilley of Washington and Grace Evelyn Boudlin of Baltimore, backed by the U.S. Navy Band, performed the song for the committee that day “to refute,” the New York Times said, “the argument that it is pitched too high for popular singing.” The hearing room was packed with members of women’s patriotic organizations decked out in what the Times, in a front-page article, described as “broad bands of red, white and blue.”

The House approved the bill on April 21, 1930. The Senate voted for it unanimously on March 3, 1931, and on that same day Pres. Herbert Hoover signed into law a measure officially designating “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the National Anthem of the United States.


No flag sewn by Betsy Ross is known to exist today. But the flag that inspired the National Anthem, the flag known as the Star-Spangled Banner, today resides in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington. There is, moreover, indisputable evidence showing that Mary Young Pickersgill of Baltimore was the creator of that enormous and enormously influential, thirty-by forty-two-foot, fifteen-star, fifteen-stripe flag.

“She sewed the Star-Spangled Banner flag,” said Sally Johnston, executive director of The Star-Spangled Banner Flag House in Baltimore. “We have the original receipt for the flag in our collection.”

That receipt, dated October 27, 1813, was given to Mary Pickersgill and her niece Eliza Young by the U.S. Army for making “1 American Ensign, 30 by 42 feet, first quality Bunting” and for another flag “17 by 25 feet.” The army paid $405.90 for the larger flag, the Star-Spangled Banner, and $168.54 for the smaller one, which also flew at Fort McHenry.


Excerpted from Flag: An American Biography, by Marc Leepson

Copyright © 2005 by Marc Leepson.

Reprinted with permission from Thomas Dunne.

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