The Star-Spangled Banner - A Flag and A Song

Illustration of three men holding guns arresting a British officer holding a bag in each hand.
As British troops returned to their ships after capturing Washington, DC, they passed through Upper Marlboro where local citizens, including Dr. William Beanes, arrested several stragglers for looting.

This little-known incident led to a chain of events that put Francis Scott Key among the British ships bombarding Fort McHenry.  As a result, Key created new lyrics to a popular song that later became the US national anthem. (c) Gerry Embleton

“Then, in that hour of deliverance, and joyful triumph, the heart spoke; and, Does not such a country, and such defenders of their country, deserve a song?”
--Francis Scott Key, 1836

It all began with an arrest. Sixty-five-year-old Dr. William Beanes of Upper Marlboro was a respected physician and Revolutionary War veteran well known in the Washington region. He had cordially entertained both Major General Robert Ross and Rear Admiral George Cockburn when the British Army had marched through on its way to attack Washington.

The trouble began when the British were returning to their ships. Enemy stragglers and at least one deserter were looting in the neighborhood and Dr. Beanes helped local citizens arrest the troublemakers. The British brass was not amused by what they considered a betrayal. Dr. Beanes, arrested while in his bed, soon found himself and two companions in irons onboard a Royal Navy ship. The next stop might be Halifax, Nova Scotia, or, even worse, Dartmoor Prison, England.

Richard West, a close friend of the doctor’s, hurried off to Benedict to plead for Beanes’s release, but his efforts were rebuffed. West then approached his brother-in-law, the influential young Georgetown lawyer, Francis Scott Key, for assistance. Born in Frederick County, Key, a pious man who had considered becoming an Episcopal priest, had attended St. Johns College in Annapolis. He was well connected in the Federal City. A member of the D.C. militia, he had served as a civilian aide at the Battle of Bladensburg.

Key met with President Madison, who then met with Brigadier General John Mason, the commissary general of prisoners. They approved a mission to seek the release of Beanes and requested that American Prisoner Exchange Agent John Stuart Skinner accompany Key. Skinner had conducted many dealings with the British and was familiar with the commanding officers. After obtaining letters from British wounded attesting to the good treatment they had received at Bladensburg, Key met Skinner in Baltimore where they boarded a truce ship and sailed south to the British fleet near the mouth of the Potomac River. Boarding Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane’s flagship H.M. ship-of-the-line Tonnant, the party was greeted coldly by the senior British officers when the purpose of their mission was revealed.

At first General Ross was unwilling to release the doctor, but when shown the letters from wounded Englishmen lauding their medical treatment, the general and his naval colleagues agreed to let Beanes go. However, the doctor and the truce party were detained to prevent them from reporting the British plans to attack Baltimore, which they had been privy to. As the enemy fleet traveled north up the Bay, the three Americans were transferred to the H.M. frigate Surprise and their truce boat and crew towed behind. Before the battle commenced, Key, Skinner, and Dr. Beanes were returned to their truce boat but still kept under guard; there they unwittingly found themselves at the very center of the Battle for Baltimore.
Illustration of five women sitting on a wood floor, sewing a large American flag.
Mary Pickersgill, along with her teenage daughter, mother, nieces, and servants, painstakingly hand sewed a new garrison flag for Fort McHenry in 1813. The giant flag (30 by 42 feet) would become the Star-Spangle Banner.

Because of its great size, the flag needed to be spread on the empty malt house floor of a nearby brewery for assembly by Pickersgill and her helpers. (c) Gerry Embleton

If not during the actual bombardment of Fort McHenry, then certainly when the garrison flag was raised at 9 a.m., all three gentlemen undoubtedly saw the flag flying over fort. The garrison flag (30 feet by 42 feet) had been ordered by the fort’s commander, Major George Armistead, the year before along with a smaller storm flag (17 feet by 25 feet). The job went out to a 37-year-old widow, Mary Pickersgill, an experienced ship and signal flag maker. She labored for seven weeks with her 13-year-old daughter, Caroline, two nieces, 13-year-old Eliza Young and 15-year-old Margaret Young, a 13-year-old African-American indentured servant, Grace Wisher, and possibly her mother, Rebecca Young, who had taught her the trade. They pieced together strips of loosely woven English wool bunting then laid the whole flag out on the expansive floor of a brewery near Mrs. Pickersgill’s Pratt Street house, now the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House Museum.

Key and his colleagues had perhaps the most unique location from which to observe the bombardment among all Americans since they occupied front-row seats amongst the enemy as the drama unfolded. First, on September 12, they heard the guns of the Battle of North Point a few miles away. On a gloomy, rainy September 13, they watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry many miles away. All day and into the dank, stormy evening, the noisy light show of rockets and bombs continued. During the night and early morning hours of September 14, there was more intense gunfire near the fort. At dawn, the men were all straining to see the fort and the flag. The British stopped their bombardment and an eerie quiet settled over the harbor. The three Americans slowly realized the British were retiring. The attack was over.

Released a few hours later as the British fleet sailed away, Key spent the evening at the Indian Queen Hotel in downtown Baltimore. It is there that he wrote the four stanzas to a tune that he probably had dancing in his brain on the truce ship. That original manuscript, entitled “The Defence of Fort M’Henry” and written with only a few revisions, is on display today at the Maryland Center for History and Culture. From the beginning, Key intended for the stanzas to be sung to “The Anacreontic Song” or “To Anacreon in Heaven,” an eighteenth-century English club song that was already popular in America. An amateur poet and avid member of the gentlemen’s clubs of the era, he had been toying with both patriotic ideas and various tunes, but his witnessing of the bombardment inspired him to write new lyrics to an old tune.

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 rockets'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, now conceals, now discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the mornings' first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines on 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 washed out their foul footsteps 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 loved homes and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heaven-rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved 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!

Black and white image of sheet music with "Star-Spangled Banner" as the title.
This early version of the "Star-Spangled Banner" incorrectly refers to Francis Scott Key as "B. Key, Esqr."and puts the dates of the bombardment as 12 and 13 of September rather than 13 and 14. A note at the beginning of the song states "with spirit."

Set to the tune of a familiar club song of the day, "To Anacreon in Heaven," it proved to be very popular from the beginning and spread throughout the country in just a few weeks. Library of Congress, Music Division

By September 17 printed versions of the piece were being handed out to the men in the fort and among the citizens of Baltimore. Within weeks it was published with its new name, “The Star Spangled Banner,” in seventeen newspapers all over the east. A Mr. Harding is credited as the first to formally sing the new lyrics to the song on stage before a seated audience at the Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore on October 19, 1814.

Bands played the song regularly during the Civil War and the U.S. Navy made it an official part of its flag ceremonies in 1889. President Woodrow Wilson ordered it be played for military ceremonies during World War I. The popular “Ripley’s Believe or Not” cartoon series then pointed out that the United States had no national anthem. When famous composer John Philip Sousa published his opinion that Francis Scott Key’s “soul-stirring” lyrics should become the national anthem, it helped begin a campaign to make it so. President Herbert Hoover finally signed a law on March 3, 1931, making “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official anthem of the United States. Since then, hardly a national sporting event has been played or an official ceremony opened without a rendition of the anthem.

The original Star-Spangled Banner remained in Major Armistead’s family for ninety years. It was displayed in Baltimore on occasion and, as was the custom of the day, pieces were snipped off as gifts for friends and dignitaries. It was loaned, and later given, to the Smithsonian Institution after 1907 by Colonel Armistead’s grandson, Eben Appleton. On public display for much of the last century, the remains of the giant flag became dangerously fragile. It recently underwent a decade-long, multimillion-dollar restoration and is again on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in the nation’s capital. It is said to be among the most sought-after artifacts by visitors to the Smithsonian Institution.

excerpt from "In Full Glory Reflected: Discovering the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake" by Ralph E. Eshelman and Burton K. Kummerow

Last updated: April 6, 2023

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