Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and poet, and John S. Skinner, a government agent, went to see the British officers near Baltimore. They hoped to get the release of Francis's friend, Dr. William Beanes. The British had arrested Dr. Beanes because he had arrested three British sailors. The British wanted to punish Dr. Beanes. But, John Skinner gave them letters from their own wounded men, who had been left behind after a battle near Washington. The letters said the Americans were taking good care of the wounded British. Because of those letters, the British decided to let Dr. Beanes go.
There was a catch, though. The British would not allow the Americans to leave until after British ships had attacked the city of Baltimore. Francis and John were to be held on the ship Surprise. From where the Surprise was anchored, they could clearly see Fort McHenry, with a giant, 50-foot-long American flag flying above its walls. They watched that flag as long as daylight lasted. And when night fell, they waited to see if the flag still flew the following day.
The Bombing of Fort McHenry
The British bombing of Fort McHenry began at 6:00 A.M., on the morning of September 13, 1814. All day long, the British cannons fired at the fort. The British guns were more powerful than the American guns, so the British ships could stay out of Fort McHenry's range. It wasn't until evening that the British ships moved closer, and Fort McHenry's cannons finally could do some damage to the enemy. Soon, the British pulled away again.
For hours and hours of that long night, the British fired their rockets and bombs at the fort. Then, the firing finally stopped. Francis and John could see nothing in the dark. They paced the deck, waiting breathlessly for day to break. Did the flag still fly over Fort McHenry? Or, had the fort surrendered to the British? On the morning of September 14, dawn began to light the skies. Then, Francis and John could see that, yes, the flag still flew over Fort McHenry! The British had failed. Their ships were leaving. The American prisoners would soon be free to go.
Francis Writes a Patriotic Poem
Francis was deeply moved by the sight of the American flag that morning. As he stood on the Surprise's deck, he took a letter out of his pocket. On the back of the letter, he began to scribble lines to a poem about that night. He l' finished the poem later, in a Baltimore hotel room. The poem made its way to a printer, and the printer printed it onto a handbill. The handbill was given out to Baltimore residents and to the soldiers of Fort McHenry. The poem was also published in two Baltimore newspapers. Within a couple of months, it had been printed in newspapers all over the United States. Soon, people began to sing the words of the poem, using the tune of an old English song for music. Political campaigns in the country began to use the song. The army began to sing the song as it raised and lowered the flag every day. On July 4th, celebrators in cities and towns sang the song, too.
At first, the song was called "Defense of Fort McHenry." It later became known as the "Star-Spangled Banner." This is the story of how the people of the United States made the "Star-Spangled Banner" our unofficial national anthem. It wasn't until 1931 that Congress officially named it the national anthem.
Define the following words in relation to the poem:
Chart Directions: Use the following chart to paraphrase each verse of the Star-Spangled Banner. To paraphrase each verse, restate the main meaning of the verse in your own words as you also incorporate the answer to the accompanying question.
Oh say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming?