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The Star-Spangled Banner

the national anthem of the United States

The Star-Spangled Banner was written by Francis Scott Key, of Georgetown, Maryland, during the bombardment of Fort McHenry, Baltimore, Maryland, September 13-14, 1814 (during the War of 1812). When a friend, Dr. Beanes, a physician, was taken aboard Admiral Cockburn's British squadron for interfering with ground troops, Key and J.S. Skinner, carrying a note from President James Madison, went to the fleet under a flag of truce on a cartel ship to ask for Beanes's release. Cockburn consented, but as the fleet was about to sail up the Patapsco to bombard Fort McHenry, he detained them, first on HMS Surprise and then on a supply ship.

Francis Scott Key
Francis Scott Key

Key witnessed the bombardment from his own vessel. It began at 7 a.m., September 13, 1814, and lasted, with intermissions, for 25 hours. The British fired more than 1,500 shells, each weighing as much as 220 pounds. They were unable to approach closely, however, because the U.S. had sunk 22 vessels. Only 4 Americans were killed and 24 wounded. A British bomb-ship was disabled.

Inspired by the sight of the American flag still flying over Fort McHenry the next morning, Key wrote a verse on the back of an envelope. The next day, while staying at the Indian Queen Inn in Baltimore, he added three more verses and gave the poem to his brother-in-law, Judge J. H. Nicholson. Nicholson suggested setting the poem to the tune of a well-known drinking song, To Anacreon in Heaven, and had the poem printed on broadsides.

The first printed edition combining words and music was published by Thomas Carr, Baltimore, on September 20, 1814.

The Star-Spangled Banner, original printed sheet music
The Star-Spangled Banner, original printed sheet music

By the Civil War The Star-Spangled Banner had become one of the most popular patriotic songs of the United States, as well as the official song of the U.S. military, but it took a rather embarassing newspaper column to turn it into the national anthem. On November 3, 1929, Robert L. Ripley ran a panel in his syndicated cartoon stating that "Believe It or Not, America has no national anthem." Americans were shocked and wrote five million letters to Congress demanding Congress proclaim a national anthem. Congress listened, and The Star-Spangled Banner was designated the national anthem of the United States by Act of Congress on March 3, 1931.

[Key only made five copies of his poem, one of which is now owned by the Library of Congress. Only ten copies of the original printed sheet music are known to exist; fortunately the Library of Congress owns one of them.]

The Star-Spangled Banner in Key's handwriting
The Star-Spangled Banner in Key's handwriting

The Lyrics of The Star-Spangled Banner

I
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 thru the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched 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.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

II
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! Oh long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

III
And where is that band who so vauntingly wore
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!

IV
Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Bless with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power hath made and preserved as 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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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> Revolution to the Civil War, 1775/1783-1861 >> Middle 19th Century, 1845-1861 >> James Madison's Administration, 1809-1817

This page was last updated on June 18, 2017.