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The Story Behind The Song | The Star-Spangled Banner

Updated: Oct 17, 2021

The Man Who Indirectly Inspired The Writing of America’s National Anthem

The War of 1812

On June 18th, 1812, after a series of trade disagreements and the British impressment of U.S. maritime rights, president James Madison declared war on Great Britain. Thus began the War of 1812.

Madison’s declaration, however, was not unilaterally supported. In fact, many Americans opposed this decision. Not only did they believe that the strength of the British war machine far outweighed the young American militia, but with Britain being America’s most prominent trading partner, a schism could potentially be disastrous for the economy.

The War of 1812 has since come to be known as America’s “forgotten war” mainly because it was sandwiched between two of the nations most pivotal conflicts - the American Revolution (1765 - 1783) and the Civil War (1861 - 1865). It occurred during the time of the Napoleonic Wars, which was responsible for upwards of six million total deaths and had a far greater impact on Europe and the world. Compared to this devastating loss of life, the War of 1812 saw relatively few casualties - fifteen thousand Americans including just under nine thousand British and Canadians.

However, one of the more significant outcomes was that America gained its current national anthem.

Dr. William Beanes

William Beanes was a second generation Scottish American living in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. His grandfather, Christopher Beanes, immigrated from Scotland to the colony of Maryland in 1671.

In the summer of 1814, a British fleet led by General Robert Ross and Navy Admiral Sir George Cockburn made their way through the Chesapeake Bay. They travelled up the Patuxent River before eventually landing in Benedict, Maryland where they then marched their way 30 miles north to Upper Marlboro.

A prominent doctor who was well respected throughout the community, Beanes was one of the few remaining locals who had not deserted. Although a proud American, he offered his home to the British soldiers to be used as their temporary headquarters as a sign of peace. This led General Ross to believe that Beanes was perhaps a British sympathizer.

Ross and his men stayed through the night until the afternoon of August 23rd when they left Beanes’ estate to fight in the Battle of Bladensburg. After a clear and easy victory, they continued for another nine miles to the U.S. capital in Washington D.C.. As retaliation for the attack on York one year prior, they burned down several important U.S. government buildings including the Capitol Building, Library of Congress, and even the White House.

On their way back to Upper Marlboro, several British deserters ransacked a number of abandoned local farms in search of food and supplies. Determined to protect his community, Beanes and a few remaining residents captured the soldiers and imprisoned them in Prince George’s County jail. However, one solider was able to escape. He travelled back to the British fleet and informed General Ross of their capture. This infuriated Ross who was convinced that Beanes had betrayed them. He believed that Beanes’ earlier hospitality was a ploy for gaining information on the British. Ross accused Beanes of being a spy and ordered that he be detained and brought back to England to be put on trial.

However, their invasion was not over just yet. Before returning to England they had one more city to conquer - Maryland’s greatest city, Baltimore.

Francis Scott Key

Francis Scott Key was a successful 35 year old lawyer and amateur poet. He, like many Americans, opposed Madison’s declaration of war against Britain. But when he found out about the burning of the American capital he was quick to get behind the fight.

When word of William Beanes’ capture reached Key, he met with president Madison to ask for permission to attempt to negotiate his friend’s release. With Madison’s blessing, Francis Scott Key, along with U.S. Prisoner Exchange Agent John Stuart Skinner, set out on a truce vessel to meet with the British.

The two were able to convince General Ross that the elderly Beanes was a man of good character with an upstanding reputation. Ross eventually agreed to let Beanes go free. However he decided that the three men had heard too much of their plans to attack Baltimore. Fearing that they might alert the city of their impending invasion, Ross commanded that they stay aboard their vessel under strict supervision until the attack was over.

Knowing of the British plan to invade the city of Baltimore, Key and his compatriots feared the worst. All that stood between the British and Maryland’s greatest city was the star-shaped Fort McHenry. On September 12th, as night approached and darkness fell on the city, so began a 25-hour bombardment by the British navy. All-in-all the British fired over 1,500 canon balls.

On the morning of September 14th, as the British attack on Fort McHenry began to wane, Key anxiously awaited for the fog to clear. The future of his country laid behind a thin veil of mist. Which flag would be flying above the fort?

With his eyes strained and heart pounding, Key peered through the smoke as the 15-star American flag stood defiantly waving, a symbol of their victory. Fort McHenry withstood the attack and the American experiment had survived. General Ross understood that the fort could not be breached and he and his troop left to return to England.

The harrowing events that Francis Scott Key witness that day is what inspired him to write the words to a poem which he titled, “The Defense of Fort McHenry”.

Oh 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’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there

Oh say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

The Battle of Baltimore proved to be a pivotal battle in the war of 1812. After more than two years of conflict, on December 24th, 1814 U.S. and British officials in Ghent, Belgium negotiated a peace treaty which effectively ended America’s forgotten war. The result was ultimately considered a draw, though some argue that America had lost.

However, what America gained was an enduring and unifying reminder of the nation’s triumphs.

The words of Francis Scott Key’s poem were set to the melody of “To Anacreon in Heaven”, a popular drinking song of the late 1700s written by British composer John Stafford Smith. It quickly gained in popularity and was later renamed to “The Star Spangled Banner” by a music publisher. It wasn’t until 1931 when congress passed a bill which was signed into law by president Herbert Hoover making “The Star-Spangled Banner” America’s national anthem.

If you’ve been to any sporting event in America over the last 75 years chances are you’ve heard Francis Scott Key’s poem set to music. During World War II, Major League Baseball became the first sports league to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” before games, a tradition which was soon adopted by the other major sporting events.

Interestingly, even though there are four verses, only the first verse is sung at most occasions. There have been several complaints about the anthem throughout the years, including that it glorifies war, and also that it’s too hard to sing. Other songs have been suggested to replace it including “America The Beautiful”, and “My Country Tis of Thee”.

The Star-Spangled Banner

The commander of Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore, Colonel George Armistead, ordered that the flag had to be big enough for the British to see from a distance. He enlisted the help of flag maker Mary Pickersgill to construct a 42 foot wide by 30 feet tall symbol of American freedom that was to be flown on a 90 foot poll. The flag was mostly made out of dyed English wool and white cotton stars. Each star is two feet wide, and although there were 19 states at the time only fifteen stars fly on the flag.

The remnants of this historical artifact is currently enshrined in the National Museum of American History in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C..

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