A National Anthem Is Born

The War of 1812 is the only time in our history that the United States was invaded by a foreign power. The war saw American troops decisively defeated by the British at the Battle of Bladensburg, near Washington, D.C., the flight of President James Madison and his wife Dolley, and the burning of Washington itself. But this defeat was followed by a great and unexpected victory at the Battle of Baltimore. This, as most schoolchildren still know, was the inspiration for "The Star-Spangled Banner." The author, Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and amateur poet, watched the battle from a British boat where he was being held prisoner. After a long night, he was elated to see that the fort guarding Baltimore Harbor had not fallen, and he wrote, on the back of a letter, what were to become the words of our national anthem.

Tastes change, even in something like a national anthem, and it is not unusual (or was not before Sept. 11, 2001) to hear people objecting to the unabashed patriotism of "The Star-Spangled Banner." But Key's poem is not mere patriotic rhetoric. It is rooted in an important moment in our history and in the joy that a simple citizen—not a hero or even a participant in the battle—felt when the dawn revealed the American flag still flying over Fort McHenry, and he knew that the real possibility of defeat had given way to victory.

Perhaps we can come closer to recreating this feeling when we read an account of the ignominious destruction of our capital city that preceded the Battle of Baltimore and the triumph that gave us our national anthem. We find them both in the following excerpts from Irvin Molotsky's The Flag, the Poet, and the Song: The Story of the Star-Spangled Banner.


By Irvin Molotsky


The Battle of Bladensburg and the subsequent burning of Washington came two years into the War of 1812. The Americans had already lost Detroit in 1812 and burned York (now Toronto, Ontario) in 1813. In 1814, the British, who had finally defeated Napoleon, could give full attention to their American war.

The British began this phase of the war with a series of raids on towns in Maryland and Virginia. Amazed that they were meeting so little resistance, they advanced toward Washington, which was lightly guarded because the government did not regard it as much of a military target. Strictly speaking, the government was correct. Washington was a small, swampy town without much in the way of military facilities, and it had just 8,208 people in the 1810 census although nearby Alexandria, Va., had 7,227 people and Georgetown 4,948. What the Americans had failed to take into account was the attractiveness of Washington as a symbolic target, the locus of revenge for the sacking and burning of York in Canada. At an emergency cabinet meeting called by President Madison on July 1, 1814, Secretary of War John Armstrong insisted that Washington was not at risk because the main target of the British was Baltimore.

On their way to the capital, the greatest difficulty encountered by the British came from the oppressive August heat of the Washington area. Colonel Arthur Brooke, a British officer, who kept a diary throughout the American campaign, wrote,

Our poor fellows [were] so tired from the long march of the morning and the excessive heat of the day, that many of them in striving to keep up fell down from actual fatigue and breathed their last.

On Aug. 24, the British force reached Bladensburg, Md., just five miles from the White House. Bladensburg is on the eastern branch of the Potomac, now known as the Anacostia River, and it was there that the Americans attempted to make a stand. The British invasion force numbered 5,000, but only 1,500 soldiers, sailors, marines, and freed slaves were on the lines as they attacked a force of 8,000 Americans. However, the Americans were poorly equipped, poorly led, and poorly organized, many of them citizens formed into militia units. The battle began at 1 p.m. and ended in three hours, with the Americans thoroughly defeated and put to flight. Most of the British force paused for a while at Bladensburg to recover from the heat and the battle, while Major General Robert Ross, the British army commander, took a reserve force on the road to Washington.

President Madison had witnessed the Battle of Bladensburg and, before fleeing himself, sent his messenger, James Smith, a free black man, to ride to the White House with an order for Madison's wife, Dolley, to flee. She was fearful but outwardly calm. Years later, Dolley Madison wrote, in a re-creation of that day,

I am accordingly ready. I have pressed as many Cabinet papers into trunks as to fill one carriage.... I am determined not to go myself until I see Mr. Madison safe.... I hear of much hostility towards him. Disaffection stalks around us. My friends and acquaintances are all gone.

She forbade spiking the cannon at the north lawn of the White House with an explosion because she feared that would panic the residents of Washington. The dinner table would be set as if nothing untoward were happening—in fact the table was set for 40 people—and ale, cider, and wine were brought up from the White House cellar.

By midafternoon, Smith galloped up the White House drive and shouted that everyone should flee. Dolley Madison insisted that the portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart be taken down, lest it fall into British hands, and so it was saved and hangs today in the White House. Amid all this confusion, servants continued dinner preparations, including decanting wine into cut-glass bottles on the sideboard. Finally Mrs. Madison left, heading for the safety of Virginia, though an hour later the thoroughly discouraged President Madison returned to the White House and poured himself a glass of wine.

Madison himself finally fled across the Potomac in the evening, joining Dolley in Langley, Va., where they stayed with friends. Servants locked the doors and followed him, as if a bolted door would hold back the invading British. One servant took Mrs. Madison's macaw for safekeeping to the Octagon, one of Washington's magnificent houses of that day, then being used as a residence by the French minister to the United States, Louis Serurier.

When General Ross and his British navy counterpart, Rear Admiral George Cockburn, arrived in Washington on the evening of Aug. 24, 1814, they quickly put the city's public buildings to the torch. First to be set afire was the Capitol, but not before the British had a bit of fun. Admiral Cockburn sat in the Speaker's chair in the House of Representatives and asked, "Shall this harbor of Yankee democracy be burned? All for it say aye!" The resolution carried and the deed was done, and then a force of 150 men set out down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. They broke in and found the set dinner table, and the officers enjoyed the food and wine while the lower ranks prepared to burn the building. Rags soaked in oil were lit and the White House went up in flames.

Besides the White House, then called the President's House as it had not yet gotten its coat of white paint, and the Capitol, the British burned the Treasury, the War Department building, an arsenal, and American war supplies. The Library of Congress was then housed in the Capitol and lost its collection of 3,000 books in the fire. The library was re-established in 1815 when Thomas Jefferson sold it his personal library of 6,487 books for $23,950, the equivalent of more than $217,000 today.

Although the Americans had burned and looted public and private buildings in York during the invasion of Canada, a fact that is much better known to Canadians than it is to Americans, the British refrained from taking full revenge and, for the most part, destroyed public buildings only.

Margaret Bayard Smith, who established the Washington newspaper, The National Intelligencer, with her husband Samuel Harrison Smith, and was a prolific writer for it, left a vivid account of the British attack on Washington in letters to her family. The invading British soldiers, she wrote, "never halted one moment, but marched in a solid mass—disregarding the dead bodies before them." She lamented that "our city was taken, the bridges and public buildings burnt, our troops flying in every direction." She reported seeing many dead horses and "nothing but blackened walls remained" at the once majestic government buildings and offices. "We looked at the public buildings," Mrs. Smith wrote, "but none were so thoroughly destroyed as the President's House. Those beautiful pillars in the Representatives Hall were crack'd and broken. The roof, that noble dome, painted and carved with such beauty and skill, lay in ashes in the cellars beneath, smoldering ruins yet smoking." The Smiths visited the Madisons, and Mrs. Smith reported, "Mrs. M. seem'd much depressed, she could hardly speak without tears."

Colonel Arthur Brooke, the British officer who kept a diary of the campaign, wrote that the invaders burned "the Senate house (supposed to be one of the finest buildings in the world)." He went on,

The President's house, in which was found every thing ready for Dinner, table laid, Wine in, etc., etc., etc. I think this was one of the finest, and at the same time, the most awful sights I ever witnessed—the Columns of fire issuing from the houses, and the Dock yard, the explosions of Magazines at intervals, the sky illuminated from the blazes.

Brooke was amazed by the lack of opposition: "Next morning [we] retired a little from the Town," he wrote,

as we could scarce think the Americans (from their immense population, and a well trained Artillery) would tamely allow a handful of British Soldiers to advance thro' the heart of their Country, and burn & destroy, the Capitol of the United States.

Secretary of War John Armstrong, who had insisted that the British would not attack Washington, resigned, but the episode had little strategic importance. The humiliation suffered by the United States did, however, set into motion a unity, a sense of nationhood, that was to be raised further in the next attack by the British, the attempt to capture Baltimore.

Twenty-four hours after he arrived in Washington, General Ross marched his troops back to the ships still at Benedict, Md., on the Patuxent River, and the invaders set sail on Sept. 10 to attack Baltimore, a much richer target than the provincial Washington.

Here is where Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and soon-to-be writer of "The Star-Spangled Banner," enters the story.

Key was enlisted to help rescue an American physician, William Beanes, a resident of Upper Marlboro, Md., not far from the site of the Battle of Bladensburg. Dr. Beanes had been arrested by the British, who mistakenly thought him to be a recent immigrant from Scotland. This was a more serious accusation than it seems.

At the time, Britain believed that anyone who was born British remained British forever. The United States, on the other hand, maintained that any foreigner could become a citizen after five years of residence and after meeting some requirements. (The conflict between these two views of citizenship was one of the causes of the War of 1812: Seamen on American ships regularly were being seized by British naval officers on the grounds that they were British and were probably deserters from the King's navy.) Although Dr. Beanes was, in fact, a third-generation American, the accusation that he was born a British citizen meant the British could try him for treason.

Beanes was in immediate danger, too. When he was arrested, his captors made him sit on a mule facing the hind end. "With bare feet tied under the animal's belly," an early account said,

he was herded throughout the night and the next day to where the invading army was encamped. From there he was shipped as brig prisoner on the flagship HMS Tonnant down the Chesapeake Bay.

It got worse when Beanes boarded the ship, where some of his captors threatened to hang him from the nearest yardarm.

Key went to President Madison and got permission to deal directly with the commander of the British army, General Ross, on Dr. Beanes's behalf. He set off from Washington on Sept. 3, accompanied by Colonel John S. Skinner, an American prisoner-of-war exchange officer, showing a flag of truce and carrying a letter arguing that Beanes had been an unarmed citizen who should not have been arrested. On Sept. 7, they arrived at the Tonnant. However, the British could not release Beanes, or even Key and Skinner, while they were in the middle of planning an attack on Baltimore, lest the Americans tell their army what they knew of the plans.

It is hard today to imagine the importance of Baltimore in 1814. Today, it is an attractive, busy city, but not as important as it was then. In the 1810 census, Baltimore, with 46,555 residents, was the third-largest city in the United States, trailing only New York City (96,373) and Philadelphia (53,722). Baltimore had an excellent harbor that made it a center of shipping, shipbuilding, commerce, and industry, and it had a strategic position at the head of the Patapsco River, which connected it to the Chesapeake Bay. Since the British had naval superiority in the Chesapeake, they would approach Baltimore by ship. And so the British, with Key, Colonel Skinner, and Dr. Beanes aboard their flagship, headed toward Baltimore, where they would lose the battle and America would get its "Star-Spangled Banner."


On the evening of Sept. 11, 1814, a balmy Sunday evening lit by a bright moon shining from a cloudless sky, the British fleet arrived at the mouth of the Patapsco River. This put the British approximately 12 miles from Baltimore by water and 15 by land. At about two o'clock on the morning of Sept. 12, the British force started going ashore. One American account puts the invaders' strength twice as high as the British report of 4,000. On the other hand, Colonel Arthur Brooke, in his campaign diary, put the British force at 3,000 men facing 12,000 Americans. It seems that winners are prone to exaggerate the size of their enemy—it enhances their accomplishment—and losers are just as likely to understate the size of their own force—it suggests a cause for the defeat.

The British carried rations for three days, enough time, they calculated, to capture Baltimore. Major General Robert Ross, the British army commander, had said he would eat his next Sunday dinner there. While accounts of the opposing armies' sizes varied greatly, there is no doubt that the British, who had just defeated Napoleon, were better trained than the Americans, who were largely part-time militiamen.

The residents of Baltimore knew what to expect if the British could reach their city, since they had received word of the burning of Washington and, in fact, could see the flames of the burning capital 35 miles away. A suggestion of desperation appears in this notice published by a committee formed to defend the city:

Elderly men who are able to carry a firelock, and willing to render a last service to their country & posterity; are requested to meet at the Court House at 11 o'clock tomorrow, to form a company and be prepared to march in conjunction with the troops expected to move against the enemy.

The Americans quickly fell back, and the British land force advanced toward Baltimore. The next day, Tuesday, Sept. 13, the British fleet reached a point 2 miles below Fort McHenry, a star-shaped installation with cannons installed on each of the points.

As the British prepared to attack Baltimore, Francis Scott Key, Colonel John Skinner, and Dr. William Beanes were transferred from the British flagship to a sloop tethered to a British ship about 8 miles below Fort McHenry. A number of British marines remained on Key's boat to make sure no escape would be attempted.

On Sept. 13, 1814, at seven o'clock in the morning, the British bombardment of Baltimore began. This was no Washington. This was a major American city, defended by Fort McHenry in the harbor and a considerable force of soldiers on land under the command of Major General Samuel Smith, who deployed them to meet the anticipated land attack to the east of Baltimore. The British bombardment included 1,500 bombshells fired from the ships at Fort McHenry, but the large naval guns of the fort's battery kept the enemy from moving in close.

It was here that the British overreached. Sir Alexander Cochrane, who was in command of the British expedition, ordered three gunships to move closer to increase the chances of their damaging the fort, but this brought them within range of Fort McHenry's guns, and Major George Armistead, the fort's commander, ordered that a cannonade be directed at them. The American response forced the three gunships to withdraw after half an hour, and one of them, the Erebus, was so damaged that it had to be towed to safety. The two sides exchanged cannon fire into the night, during which a British force left the fleet by barge and attempted to capture nearby Fort Covington. This led the Fort McHenry gunners to turn their fire on them as well, helping to drive them off. It was this terrific exchange of cannon—the noise, the flashes of explosions—that Francis Scott Key witnessed from his position on the sloop.

As the river stalemate continued, the British land force moved toward Baltimore and General Smith then concentrated his defenders in its path. The British, disheartened by the loss of their army commander, Major General Ross, who had been killed by an American sniper, and their strength depleted by battle, now calculated that they were far outnumbered by the Americans. Because of the guns of Fort McHenry and because of the obstruction from 20-odd boats that the Americans had sunk in the river, the British army was deprived of covering fire from the ships on the river. When a small flanking naval attack was repulsed, the British hopes for capturing Baltimore vanished.

The British fleet continued the bombardment of Fort McHenry to cover the withdrawal of the army, ending its attack on Sept. 14, twenty-five hours after it began, and sailing down the Patapsco River two hours later. On Sept. 15, the withdrawing British army, its movements shielded by a heavy rain, reached the mouth of the Patapsco and went back aboard the ships. Two days later, the British fleet sailed off. The Americans had won at Baltimore.


During the 25-hour bombardment, Francis Scott Key, still held hostage on a British boat in Baltimore Harbor, got a terrifying picture of Fort McHenry under attack. The bombshells that were part of the British attack were designed to detonate as they neared their targets, the "bombs bursting in air," as Key was to write soon after the battle. Key's "rockets' red glare" came from the British use of the Congreve rocket, which was invented in 1804 by Sir William Congreve, a British artillery officer, but had its roots in 13th-century China. Congreve was inspired by fireworks, and today's Fourth of July rockets are similar to Congreve's. A Congreve rocket had a long stick attached to it. The stick was placed in a pipe held upright by a frame; the rocket was ignited and it burst out of the pipe. It was basically a big and deadly bottle rocket. The rockets were not very accurate but could be fired in a devastating barrage. Thirteen-inch mortar shells fired from cannons added more devastation to the "bombs bursting in air."

With the rain and the smoke from the bombardment, Key and his American friends had no way of knowing how the battle was going. He waited for the dawn. "At last," he later wrote,

it came. A bright streak of gold mingled with crimson shot athwart the eastern sky, followed by another and still another, as the morning sun rose in the fullness of his glory, lifting the "mists of the deep," crowning a "Heaven-blest land" with a new victory and grandeur.

There was not yet a national anthem, so when it became clear that Fort McHenry had withstood the British attack, a huge star-spangled banner was run up the flagpole to the tune of "Yankee Doodle."

Contrary to popular belief, that flag is not the one that flew over Fort McHenry during the British bombardment. It was raining then, and forts did not fly their prized flags in the rain. Instead, the flag flying at Fort McHenry that night was a smaller and less valuable banner called a "storm flag." By dawn's early light, if we may borrow a bit of poetry here, the rain had stopped and Armistead had a magnificent new flag that had just been made for Fort McHenry run up, and that is what Key then saw. That version is supported by an eyewitness account from a young British naval officer, Robert J. Barrett, who wrote that, as the British sailed away, the Americans "hoisted a most superb and splendid ensign on their battery."

Key described the events of that day in a speech in Frederick, Md., years later:

I saw the flag of my country waving over a city, the strength and pride of my native state, a city devoted to plunder and desolation by its assailants. I witnessed the preparation for its assaults. I saw the array of its enemies as they advanced to the attack. I heard the sound of battle. The noise of the conflict fell upon my listening ear and told me that the brave and free had met the invaders.

There is an old legend in American history that Abe Lincoln scribbled the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope. This is not true. But is this the source of the legend? Key began to write "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the back of a letter he had in his pocket. After the British left, Key wrote more during the trip from the harbor to Baltimore City and wrote the rest of it in the Indian Queen Hotel.

Key's brother-in-law, Judge Joseph H. Nicholson, the second in command at Fort McHenry, was very much taken with Key's poem and took it to a local printing shop, where it was set in type and printed in handbill form. The copies were circulated around Baltimore under the title "The Defence of Fort McHenry," a name evidently given to it by Nicholson.

A descendant of Key's, Francis Key-Smith, took up the story in a biography of Key that he wrote:

Copies of the song were struck off in handbill form and promiscuously distributed on the street. Catching with popular favor like prairie fire, it spread in every direction, was read and discussed, until, in less than an hour, the news was all over the city.

Picked up by a crowd of soldiers assembled, some accounts put it, about Captain McCauley's tavern, next to Holiday Street Theater, others have it around their tents on the outskirts of the city. Ferdinand Durang, a musician, adapted the words to the old tune of "To Anacreon in Heaven," and, mounting a chair, rendered it in fine style.

On the evening of the same day it was again rendered upon the stage of the Holiday Street Theater by an actress, and the theater is said to have gained thereby a national reputation. In about a fortnight it had reached New Orleans and was publicly played by a military band, and shortly thereafter was heard in nearly, if not all, the principal cities and towns throughout the country.

On Sept. 20, 1814, "The Star-Spangled Banner," by then given its new name by Key, was published as a poem in The Baltimore Patriot and then reprinted by other newspapers around the country. At some point, the notation "Tune: To Anacreon in Heaven" was added.

"To Anacreon in Heaven" was an English drinking song that was enormously popular in both Britain and the United States. It was first performed in Baltimore earlier in 1814 and had become so popular that people wrote many parodies of it. Key himself had used it in composing a poem in honor of Stephen Decatur, the American naval hero, and he probably had the tune in his head as he composed "The Star-Spangled Banner" because his words fit the rhythm of "Anacreon" exactly.

The use of "Anacreon" came with a price. Americans have struggled to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" ever since because its range is outside most people's abilities. Nevertheless, "The Star-Spangled Banner" increased in popularity steadily over the years and finally was adopted as America's national anthem on March 3, 1931.

It could be said that the 25-hour ordeal Fort McHenry withstood under British guns on Sept. 13—14, 1814, was the day the United States became a nation. Certainly Americans singing Key's song found a greater devotion to the union, setting into motion a love of the flag as well, although that reverence did not reach its present level until the Civil War. America does not have the kings and queens of royalty, and there is not an officially sanctioned religion. It has the greatest democratic document ever written, the Constitution, and when the nation salutes the flag or sings Key's song, there is a strength greater than any throne or church. This was Key's shining moment, his one great good deed, something that was never to be repeated.

Irvin Molotsky, who was an editor and reporter for the New York Times for 34 years, is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. The Flag, the Poet, and the Song is copyrighted by Mr. Molotsky, and this excerpt is reprinted by arrangement with Dutton, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc. A paperback version of the book, published by Plume, is scheduled to appear in December 2001.
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