[FLAG RUSTLING] "Oh say does that star-spangled banner yet wave o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?" Powerful words from our national anthem, they speak to our American identity and are woven into our national flag. Timeless words written by one man, Francis Scott Key, about one flag at one moment, September 14, 1814, here at Fort McHenry.
In 1812, the storm clouds of war had gathered over a young United States, as the nation pitted itself once more against the might of the British Empire. For two years, the conflict wore on, from the British colonies of Canada to America's southern coast and out across the high seas. To draw off US forces from Canada and damage America's economy and morale, the British Navy attacked and blockaded the nation's east coast heartland. Up and down the Chesapeake Bay they raided, destroying towns and farms and spreading fear.
Then, in August 1814, disaster. The invading British seized Washington, DC, and burned the nation's capital. A citizen soldier of Baltimore spoke for many. "Every American heart is bursting with shame and indignation at the catastrophe." And Baltimore hearts were also full of anxiety, for they feared they would be next.
"Citizens of Baltimore, take heed. The British fleet approaches. Admiral Cockburn has declared that he will burn this nest of pirates. If you can, flee the city. Take your valuables. Protect your families, gentlemen."
As Baltimore braced itself, a young Maryland lawyer, Francis Scott Key, embarked on a diplomatic mission to free a prisoner of war, sailing right into the heart of the approaching British fleet. But with their attack on Baltimore imminent, the British detained Key amidst their massing warships. On the outskirts of Baltimore, citizens-- men and women-- militia, and regular troops desperately prepared defenses. They dug almost a mile of earth entrenching and waited with bated breath.
On September 12, British soldiers landed at North Point, where a bloody battle with Maryland militia failed to halt their march towards Baltimore. However, the British could not tackle the city's earthwork defenses and troop reinforcements without their navy's help. The next day, the British bomb ships would open up their main assault with a ferocious bombardment.
Their target-- Fort McHenry. They had to knock out the fort to bring their ships in range of the city. The fate of Baltimore now lay in the hands of the fort's defenders.
[SHOUTING] "Move quickly, there."
1,000 soldiers frantically prepared for battle, knowing they were the last defense to thwart the British.
With the enemy in their sights, the men awaited the inevitable, a bombardment from the world's most formidable navy.
Then the attack began, as the British fleet pounded the fort with rockets and mortar shells.
The long day turned into rain-soaked night.
But still the British bombs and rockets thundered over the fort, exploding deadly shrapnel in all directions.
The fort's defenders were, in the words of one citizen soldier, "like pigeons tied by the legs to be shot at."
The American artillery answered the British with desperate return fire.
But would it be enough? Baltimore's citizens watched in panic through the night. One recalled, "The attack on Fort McHenry was distinctly seen from Federal Hill and from the tops of houses which were covered with men, women, and children."
[INAUDIBLE] "Heave! Heave! Clear! Fire!"
Early next morning, September 14, the British guns finally fell silent. A huge flag was raised above the fort, but whose? Through the long night, Francis Scott Key had been forced to watch the bombardment from among the enemy fleet.
"Not at all?"
Now, he strained to see the flag in the dawn's early light.
"It's ours, Mr. Skinner."
"Huzzah, we've won."
Inspired by their courage, Key wrote down a few lines. "'Tis the star-spangled banner. Oh, long may it wave o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave." As the British withdrew, Key returned to Baltimore, where his words soon found music and a publisher. And "The Star-Spangled Banner" was born. It captured a defiant patriotic spirit and spread rapidly across the nation, pouring new life into the national flag as a symbol of American identity.
The popularity of the song and the flag grew during the years that followed. "The Star-Spangled Banner" eventually became the official anthem of the United States in 1931. Inspired by the brave defense of Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key's words and the flag they so memorably portray are now woven into our sense of national identity. These words still resonate as loudly today as the glaring rockets and bursting bombs of 1814.
(SINGING) O say, can you see, by the dawn's early light, what so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming? Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight, o'er the ramparts we watched, 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?
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Learn about the history of Fort McHenry and the writing of the U.S. national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Ordering the Fort McHenry visitor center films
"The Battle of Fort McHenry": The current visitor center film (featured above) is available in DVD format from the gift shop. Call (410) 625-2330 for more details.
Last updated: July 15, 2020