The History Of Our National Anthem

A large crowd gathered last September to celebrate the 195th anniversary of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Baltimore. Another crowd will gather at the same site on September 10-12 for another celebration.

Francis Scott Key was inspired by a scene during the Battle of Baltimore that motivated the lawyer from Washington, D.C. to pen a poem about the American flag, and the verses became the lyrics to our national anthem, according to an article written by Stuart Englert for the July 3rd issue of American Profile.

On September 13, 1814 a fleet of British ships attacked Fort McHenry firing bombs and rockets during a 25 hour bombardment of the star shaped fort. When morning dawned Key, who was negotiating the release of an American prisoner aboard a ship anchored in the harbor, saw a large American flag flying over Fort McHenry signifying that his countrymen had prevailed. He took a letter from his pocket and on the back wrote the immortal words “O say can you see by the dawn’s early light” as the British fleet sailed out of the harbor.

Key’s four verse poem which was originally titled “Defense of Fort McHenry” was written to the tune of a drinking song known well by the British. It was published in newspapers across the country and was renamed “The Star Spangled Banner” eventually being adopted as our national anthem in 1931.

Today the national anthem is sung at the inauguration of presidents, at school functions, sporting events and other gatherings. A Harris poll done in 2004 found that only 39 percent of Americans know all the words to the song and fewer know the story behind the words.

Although the song is difficult for some people to sing it tells the story of a freedom loving people’s triumph over the most powerful military in the world. Dan Esmond, founder of the National Anthem Celebration says, “What we want to do is teach the story of the song and celebrate the song. We believe that if you know the story behind the words of the song and what they mean you will have a greater appreciation of the song.”

The flag that flew over Fort McHenry and inspired the national anthem is on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. which was opened in 2008. Each year millions of people file past the faded and fragile flag which is displayed on a tilted, illuminated table. It is an emotional moment for most visitors when they see the flag and understand what it means. It represents the moment when the fate of our nation was at stake and America prevailed.

The flag has been on almost continuous display since 1907 and now measures 30 by 34 feet. It was loaned to the Smithsonian Institute by the commander of Fort McHenry and was made a permanent gift in 1912. The flag is now about eight feet shorter than it was originally because pieces of the banner were cut off and given to friends as souvenirs by the commander.

While the flag that flew over Fort McHenry is not as large or as vibrant as it was in 1814 the song inspired by the banner remains as stirring to patriotic Americans today as it was nearly two centuries ago. “The song belongs to everyone. I think it is important for this generation and generations to come to pass on the history of the song,” Esmond said.

“O say can you see by the dawn’s early light.”