The Star Spangled Banner

 The Star-Spangled Banner” is the national anthem of the United States of America. The lyrics come from "Defence of Fort McHenry", a poem written in 1814 by the 35-year-old amateur poet Francis Scott Key after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by Royal Navy ships in Chesapeake Bay during the Battle of Baltimore in the Second American War for Independence (1812 – 1815). 

The poem was set to the tune of a popular British drinking song, written by John Stafford Smith for a men's social club of amateur musicians in London.  "To Anacreon in Heaven", set to various lyrics, was already popular in the United States.  Set to Key's poem and renamed "The Star-Spangled Banner", it would soon become a well-known American patriotic song. With a range of one and a half octaves, it is known for being difficult to sing.  Although the song has four stanzas, only the first is commonly sung today, with the fourth ("O thus be it ever when free men shall stand...") added on more formal occasions.

The attack on Washington, including the burning of the White House, followed by the attack on Baltimore, though quite serious, was part of a strategic diversion intended to draw forces away from the main attack down the Champlain and Hudson valleys (detailed above).  Even though the American victory on Lake Champlain had ended the principal threat, English possession of Baltimore could have put a stranglehold upon the entire commerce of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, most notably the Susquehanna River.  It would have been a most valuable negotiating chip in English hands during any peace negotiations.  But before the English could take Baltimore, they would have to reduce and capture Fort McHenry.


Oh, say does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave,

O’er the Land of the Free, and the Home of the Brave


Fort McHenry, Baltimore, Maryland

National Park Service Aerial Photo 


Fort McHenry was designed in 1798, and named after James McHenry, a Dublin-educated native of Ballymena, County Antrim, in Ireland’s northern Province of Ulster.  He came to the United States in 1771, and studied medicine in Baltimore.    He was a surgeon-soldier, joining Washington’s staff before the Battle of Monmouth, and staying with him through 1781; he became Secretary of War under President Washington, and continued under Adams (1796-1800).  Fort McHenry was built to defend the important Port of Baltimore from enemy attacks. It was positioned on the Locust Point peninsula which juts into the opening of Baltimore Harbor, and was constructed in the form of a five-pointed star surrounded by a dry moat — a deep, broad trench.  See:

Beginning at 6:00 A.M. on 13 September 1815, ships of the Royal Navy began a continuous bombardment of the fort, which would last for over 24 hours.  Despite having longer range guns, as well as rockets, the British ships were unable to pass Fort McHenry and penetrate Baltimore Harbor because of defenses including a chain, sunken ships, and the American cannon.  They were, however, able to come close enough to fire rockets and mortars on the fort.  “The rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air,” are recalled in American 4th of July fireworks displays, which celebrate not only the Declaration of Independence in 1776, but, also, its successful defense in America’s Second War for Independence.

 Francis Scott Key


Francis Scott Key, a Washington lawyer who had come to Baltimore to negotiate the release of Dr. William Beanes, a civilian prisoner of war, witnessed the bombardment from a nearby truce ship.  During the rainy night, Key observed that the fort’s smaller "storm flag" continued to fly, but once the shell and Congreve rocket barrage had stopped, he would not know how the battle had turned out until dawn.  By then, the storm flag had been lowered, and an oversized American flag, which had been sewn in anticipation of the British attack on the fort, had been raised.  The naval component of the British attack upon Baltimore had been repulsed.  When Key saw the huge flag emerge intact in the dawn of 14 September, he was so moved that he began that morning to compose the poem "The Defence of Fort McHenry" which would be renamed "The Star-Spangled Banner" and later become the national anthem of the United States of America.


On 20 September, both the Baltimore Patriot and The American printed the song, with the note "Tune: Anacreon in Heaven".  The song quickly became popular, with seventeen newspapers from Georgia to New Hampshire printing it.  Soon after, Thomas Carr of the Carr Music Store in Baltimore published the words and music together under the title "The Star-Spangled Banner".  The song’s popularity increased, and its first public performance took place in October, when it was sung at Captain McCauley’s tavern, 601 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.

 The song gained popularity throughout the nineteenth century and bands played it during public events, such as 4th of July / Independence Day celebrations. On 27 July 1889, US Navy General Order #374 made "The Star-Spangled Banner" the official tune to be played at the raising of the flag.

“Play Ball” - While "Star-Spangled Banner" was performed as early as 1897 at baseball opening day ceremonies in Philadelphia, and then more regularly at the Polo Grounds in New York City beginning in 1898, the tradition of performing the national anthem before every baseball game did not begin until the Second World War.  National anthems are now common at major sporting events around the world.

John Philip Sousa recommended that the United States adopt the “Star Spangled Banner” as a national anthem, stating that "it is the spirit of the music that inspires" as much as it is Key’s "soul-stirring" words.  "The Star-Spangled Banner" was recognized as the national anthem by congressional resolution (46 Stat. 1508, codified at 36 U.S.C. § 301), signed into law by President Herbert Hoover on 3 March 1931.

Administered by the National Park Service since 1933, Fort McHenry is the only area of the National Park System to be designated both a National Monument and an Historic Shrine. Fort McHenry is open to the public year round and offers visitor programs and special events.  It is a tradition that when a new flag is designed for use by the United States, it is first flown over Fort McHenry, over the same ramparts referred to in the National Anthem.  The first official flags with 49 stars, and with 50 stars, were flown over Fort McHenry and remain there today.

One of the biggest celebrations at Fort McHenry happens in early September, when Defenders Day ceremonies are held, in conjunction with “Star Spangled Banner” week-end, to celebrate the successful defense of the city during the War of 1812.  However, any time of year is a good time to visit both Fort McHenry and the Frigate CONSTELLATION, both in Baltimore.




The first USS CONSTELLATION (1797 – 1853), a 38-gun frigate designed by naval constructors Joshua Humphreys and Josiah Fox whose plans were altered in the execution by builder, David Stodder, and the superintendent of shipbuilding, Captain Thomas Truxtun, was built at the Sterrett Shipyard, Baltimore, Md., and launched on 7 September 1797.  It takes its name from the constellation of stars on the American flag, the “Star Spangled Banner.”  During America’s Second War for Independence, she was commanded by Captain (later Rear Admiral) Charles Stewart (1778 – 1869), grandfather and namesake of the great Irish Parliamentary Party leader, and champion of Home Rule for Ireland, Charles Stewart Parnell (27 June 1846 – 6 October 1891), the Blackbird of Avondale.  Since the death of Parnell, 6th October has been “Ivy Day” in Ireland.   No longer in commission, the CONSTELLATION is maintained by Historic Ships in Baltimore.


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