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The Star-Spangled Banner: By Dawn’s Early Light

Francis Scott Key was so impressed that Fort McHenry survived the British attack that he wrote the Star-Spangled Banner.

By:  |  February 13, 2021  |    822 Words
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The bombardment of Fort McHenry by British forces on September 13, 1814. The defense of the fort inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem which became the American national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner. (Getty Images)

The Star-Spangled Banner is a symbol of liberty for Americans and a reminder of what our ancestors have gone through to provide the liberties we have today. But how did the song come about and why? It’s an interesting story.

The story takes place around the time of the War of 1812. The British attacked Washington, D.C., burning the Capitol and even the White House. In 1813, Major George Armistead, the commander of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, knew that his fort was probably a British target. He contacted the commander of Baltimore defenses to say that he needed a big flag. “We, sir, are ready at Fort McHenry to defend Baltimore against invading by the enemy…except that we have no suitable ensign to display over the Star Fort, and it is my desire to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.” This large flag ended up becoming the inspiration for the Star-Spangled Banner.

Francis Scott Key observes the bombardment and the U.S. flag over Fort McHenry. (Getty Images)

In September 1814, Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old American lawyer, found out a friend had been arrested by the British. Key went to the flagship of the British fleet on the Chesapeake Bay. He was able to convince the British to release his friends. However, Key had seen the plans being made to attack Baltimore so the British, who didn’t want him warning his fellow Americans, allowed Key and his friend to return to their ship, but then kept them there until after the attack.

On September 13, 1814, while Key watched helplessly from his ship, just eight miles away, the British warships attacked Fort McHenry with a barrage of shells and rockets. The attack lasted for 25 hours. “It seemed as though mother earth had opened and was vomiting shot and shell in a sheet of fire and brimstone,” Key later wrote.

When night fell, Key could only see red in the sky. He believed the British would certainly win with such a strong attack, but as morning arrived and the smoke started to clear, he spotted the huge American flag – not the British Union Jack – flying over the fort. By “the dawn’s early light” on September 14, Key realized all was not lost.

Inspired by the victory, Key immediately set out to put his thoughts into words while still on board this ship. Within weeks it became known as the “Star-Spangled Banner” and was printed in newspapers around the country. The huge flag was renamed the same and became a lasting and inspiring symbol for Americans.

It has been more than 200 years since Key watched the attack on the fort and wrote the song that became America’s anthem, and the flag that inspired has survived as well, being well-preserved at the National Museum of American History.

The Star-Spangled Banner

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d 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?

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, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in 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 wash’d out their foul footstep’s 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 lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d 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.

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