Rarely has the sunrise brought such joy.
The dawn of morning over Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor revealed that the Stars and Stripes still flew after a British attack. The scene provided the inspiration for the American national anthem.
The sight on Sept. 14, 1814 inspired an onlooker named Francis Scott Key to pen a verse later known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Those stirring moments helped define the War of 1812 and uplifted the spirits of an American people downtrodden after the burning of Washington three weeks before.
Dr. Don Hickey, a professor at Wayne State College in Nebraska who has written seven award-winning books on the War of 1812, says that the American defense of Baltimore was a key moment in the war.
”The victory at Baltimore was a very important event in the war, and along with the successes at Lake Champlain and New Orleans, gave the Americans a string of victories late in the war,” said Hickey, author of The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. “That was a big help to the American cause.”
The British invasion of the United States had begun with a disastrous American defeat at Bladensburg, Md. on August 24, which left the nation’s capital vulnerable. Hours later, the British set the torch to the White House, the capitol, the Library of Congress, and other public buildings.
Their attention then shifted to Baltimore, the third-largest city in the U.S. and a crucial stronghold whose loss likely would have sealed an American defeat in the war. Despite a formidable defense, the British advanced on the city, and a Royal Navy fleet launched an intense bombardment on the 1,000-man garrison at Fort McHenry in the harbor on the rainy night of September 13.
Flying above the fort was an American flag, measuring 30 by 42 feet, that was commissioned by the commander of the stronghold, Major George Armistead. The massive flag dominated the skyline, the goal of Armistead, who wanted a flag so large that the British would “have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.”
Among those in view of the bombardment was Key, a 35-year-old Washington attorney and self-styled poet who was aboard the British sloop Tonnant on a mission of mercy.
Historians have labeled the War of 1812 the most unpopular war in American history, even more than Vietnam. Key was among the opponents, calling the war “abominable” and a “lump of wickedness.”
He was on the scene to plead for William Beanes, a 65-year-old Maryland physician who had been arrested after British invaders had tried to ravage his home two weeks earlier.
Key agreed to help secure Beanes’ release and received permission from President James Madison to negotiate with the enemy. Key’s efforts proved successful, but since the attack had commenced, he was forced to remain on the Tonnant, eight miles upriver from Fort McHenry, until the battle had ended.
From his vantage point, Key could see the bombardment, and, as he wrote, “the heavens aglow were a seething sea of flame.” Amidst a night that left the Tonnant “tossed as though in a tempest,” Key recalled that “it seemed as though mother earth had opened and was vomiting shot and shell in a sheet of fire and brimstone.” Armistead later reported that “from fifteen to eighteen hundred shells” were fired during the onslaught – as many as one per minute.
When dawn broke, the mists had not cleared sufficiently for Key to view the flag flying above the fort. Fearing that the British banner had been raised, Key wrote that “at last, a bright streak of gold mingled with crimson shot athwart the eastern sky, followed by another, and still another, as the morning sun rose.” Finally, enough light had risen that Key could see the American flag, flying defiantly above the fort. Key called the moment a “most merciful deliverance.”
Dr. Hickey notes that the win at Baltimore was badly needed after the burning of the public buildings in the capitol. “That was the low point for the U.S,” he remarked. “But the high points were the victory in Baltimore harbor three weeks later, along with the key wins at Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain and at New Orleans, which is what people remember from that war.”
Whether Key actually saw the enormous flag designed by Armistead is a matter of debate. Historians have speculated that he spied a smaller flag that may have been raised during the rainstorm. Regardless, Key’s relief at the spectacle induced him to write a few lines of verse onto the back of a letter from his pocket, the only paper he had available.
As the British fleet withdrew, Key and Beanes were released, and on the trip back to shore, Key enhanced the few lines he had already written. In his room at a Baltimore inn the next day, he finalized his rhyme of four stanzas.
Joseph Nicholson, Key’s brother-in-law and a commander of militia at the fort, printed the poem for public distribution. The verse, titled “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” came with the recommendation that it be sung to the music of an old English drinking song.
Later retitled “The Star-Spangled Banner,” it spread across the nation within weeks and became a popular tune of American patriotism for decades. On March 3, 1931, the song was officially named the national anthem, despite protests from critics for its war message and supposed lack of “singability.”
Armistead’s grand flag was later given to the Smithsonian, where it has been refurbished. Ironically, Armistead is overshadowed by his nephew, Lewis Armistead, who fought against the Stars and Stripes as a brigadier general in Confederate service in the Civil War. The younger Armistead was mortally wounded on the final day’s action at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.
One of Key’s sons, Philip Barton Key, also met an unusual fate. In a celebrated scandal, he was shot to death in 1859 by U.S. Senator Daniel Sickles, who learned that the younger Key was having an affair with his wife. Sickles later lost his leg as a major general in Union service at Gettysburg, the day before Lewis Armistead’s fatal wounding.
Francis Scott Key died on Jan. 11, 1843 at the age of 63. A Baltimore newspaper eulogized him by writing that “so long as patriotism dwells amongst us, so long will this song be the theme of our nation.”
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or firstname.lastname@example.org.