Article & Photography by Joshua Eller | Owl Staff
“O say can you see by the dawn’s early light” were the first words written by Francis Scott Key following the British attack on Baltimore during the War of 1812. Key never knew one day those words would become the United States’ national anthem. This year, Baltimore celebrates the bicentennial of the valiant defense that gave birth to the anthem.
When the British attacked Baltimore, Key was with the British Fleet to negotiate the release of American prisoners taken during the burning of Washington, D.C. On the morning of September 13, 1814, British ships rained rockets and cannon fire on Fort McHenry for 25 hours. As the British cannons fell silent, a 30 foot by 42-foot American Flag was raised over the fort inspiring Key’s famous four-stanza. It was printed in a Baltimore newspaper on September 20, under the title “The Defense of Fort McHenry.”
Key’s poem was set to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a popular British drinking song at the time, and renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Following the destruction of Washington D.C., Key’s song became a symbol of pride for America during that uncertain time in our nation’s history.
Chief of Interpretation at Fort McHenry, Vince Vaise says, “What happened at Fort McHenry and in Baltimore is very important. If it wasn’t for what happened here, Baltimore would have suffered the same fate as Washington, and the nation may have fallen.”
After the war, the song grew in popularity at public events over the years. Tim Ertel, Chief Musician of the Fort McHenry Fife and Drum Corp says, “At the time of the battle, the country had no anthem. As the flag was raised each morning over the fort, ‘Yankee Doodle’ was played.”
In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson made “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official song for military and appropriate occasions. On March 3, 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed a bill making “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official anthem of the United States of America.
In September of 2014, a variety of events commemorated the defense of Baltimore and the 200th anniversary of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” A hand-sewn replica of the original United States flag was flown over Fort McHenry and the anthem was sung while ships from around the world, including British warships, peacefully came to the city to celebrate.
Before the Battle of Baltimore, the flag was only used to identify American ships and forts. Through his creativity, Francis Scott Key not only gave us the words that would become our national anthem, but also helped the flag become recognized as a national symbol.
Today, one of Key’s original handwritten copies of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is displayed at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore while the original flag that inspired Key is at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.