The Story Behind the National Anthem
The Story behind the National Anthem
On September 14, 1814, U.S. soldiers at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry raised a huge American flag to celebrate a crucial victory over British forces during the War of 1812. The sight of those “broad stripes and bright stars” inspired Francis Scott Key to write a song that eventually became the United States national anthem. Key’s words gave new significance to a national symbol and started a tradition through which generations of Americans have invested the flag with their own meanings and memories.
FRANCIS SCOTT KEY
Attorney Francis Scott Key witnessed the twenty-five hour bombardment of Fort McHenry from a British troopship anchored some four miles away. He had boarded the ship to negotiate the release of an American civilian imprisoned by the British, and had been detained aboard as the bombardment began. On September 14, 1814, as the dawn’s early light revealed a flag flying over the fort, Key exultantly began jotting down the lines of the song that became our national anthem.
After the war, Key continued to practice law in the District of Columbia.
Francis Scott Key was a gifted amateur poet. Inspired by the sight of the American flag flying over Fort McHenry the morning after the bombardment, he scribbled the initial verse of his song on the back of a letter. Back in Baltimore, he completed the four verses and copied them onto a sheet of paper, probably making more than one copy. A local printer issued the new song as a broadside. Shortly afterward, two Baltimore newspapers published it, and by mid-October it had appeared in at least seventeen other papers in cities up and down the East Coast.
This 19th century version (MP3) of the Star-Spangled Banner was performed on original instruments from the National Museum of American History’s collection. Arranged by G. W. E. Friederich, the music is played as it would have been heard in 1854.
The Star-Spangled Banner
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 watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s 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 reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
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 in 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 footstep’s 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 home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it 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.
This is the earliest known manuscript of Key’s song. It is probably one of several drafts that Key made before sending the copy to the printer.
The melody Francis Scott Key used for his song was the popular English tune known as “To Anacreon in Heaven” (MP3). Anacreon was an ancient Greek poet noted for his praise of love and wine. Written about 1775 by John Stafford Smith, the tune was originally the “constitutional song” of the Anacreontic Society, a gentlemen’s music club in London.
The song became extremely popular in America, where it was used to accompany a number of verses, including the patriotic song called “Adams and Liberty,” before 1814. Key himself used the tune for his 1805 song, “When the Warrior Returns from the Battle Afar.”
During the 19th century, “The Star-Spangled Banner” became one of the nation’s best-loved patriotic songs. It gained special significance during the Civil War, a time when many Americans turned to music to express their feelings for the flag and the ideals and values it represented. By the 1890s, the military had adopted the song for ceremonial purposes, requiring it to be played at the raising and lowering of the colors. Despite its widespread popularity, “The Star-Spangled Banner” did not become the National Anthem until 1931.
Armed Forces Instrumental Arrangement
During World War I the War department established a standard arrangement to be used by U.S. military bands. Although this arrangement is often used in nonmilitary performances, there is no single official version of the anthem designated for civilian use. Courtesy Maryland Historical Society.
Soprano Francis Alda, 1917
By the early 1900s the Star-Spangled Banner was a fixture at public ceremonies and celebrations. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
A Military Anthem
The first official step toward making “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem was taken in 1889 when the Secretary of the Navy ordered it played at morning flag-raising ceremonies. By 1917 both the Army and the Navy considered the tune to be the national anthem for ceremonial purposes.
The Official National Anthem
In 1931, due largely to the efforts of Mrs. Reuben Ross Holloway, president of the Maryland State Society, United States Daughters of 1812, and Congressman J. Charles Linthicum of Baltimore, Congress made “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official national anthem of the United States.
See also: Making the Start Spangled Banner