National Anthem Declared 117 Years After Key Wrote It


Our Flag is Still There...At the Smithsonian With a Few Repairs

Capital Goes Up in Smoke

On this Date in History:  During the War of 1812, the British had several military successes including the invasion and burning of Washington, DC.  On August 24, 1814 they burned down the White House and Dolley Madison gained fame for saving the famous painting of General Washington.  President Madison and Dolley had escaped so the Redcoats were pretty much done with the nation’s capital and returned to their ships.  The next target was Baltimore.  The Americans anticipated that the British would attack the important Maryland port city of 40,000 by both land and sea.  As they made preparations, it was learned that a beloved local physician had been captured and spirited to one of the British ships in Chesapeake Bay.  Dr. William Beanes was being held on the British flagship HMS Tonnant.  

Artist's Depiction of Key is Wrongly Dramatic

There was great fear that Dr. Beanes was going to be hanged and so the locals called on the services of a Georgetown lawyer to approach the British in an attempt to gain the elderly doctor’s release.  Attorney Francis Scott Key gained permission from President Madison to sail on the sloop Minden along with Colonel John Skinner under a flag of truce in an attempt to work out a deal.  The British received Key courteously but at first refused to release the good doctor.  Then, Skinner and Key produced a bag full of letters from wounded English prisoners who praised the Americans for their treatment and medical care.  One of the physicians mentioned was none other than Dr. Beanes.  That softened the Redcoat hearts and they agreed to allow Key and Skinner to take Beanes home.  But, there was a small problem.

This Flag is Made Up of People! Like Soylent Green!

They discovered that, inadvertently, attorney Key had learned of the plans for the imminent British attack.  At first the trio was detained on the HMS Surprise but later were moved back to their sloop, the Minden, where they were to wait until after the conclusion of the battle.  On September 13, 1814 the British warships opened fire with a tremendous barrage on Fort McHenry, which protected Baltimore Harbor.  In the initial 25 hour assault, the British fired some 1500 cannonballs, many of which had lit fuses that were designed to explode when they reached the target.  But, they were not too dependable and often became nothing more than bombs bursting in air.   The British also had a new weapon, the Congreve Rocket, that produced red arcs of flame that painted the night sky. 

The first phase was over in the evening and Key, Skinner and Beanes were concerned as they waited on their sloop.  They knew that as long as Fort McHenry was being attacked, then it had not surrendered.  So, their spirits were revived when the bombardment roared back to life at 1AM on the 14th and continued until the pre-dawn hours when the guns went silent.  From his vantage point, Key could not know if the silence meant that Fort McHenry had fallen or not.  It was not until the skies brightened and Key saw that the American flag still fluttered in the morning breeze that the Americans had withstood the onslaught.  What Key did not know was that the battle had proven so difficult that the British officers had determined the cost of success was too high.  The cannonade had been called off and the invading troops on land were ordered into a retreat.

Key's Manuscript

Key was an educated man and an amateur poet.  After witnessing the sight of the flag over Fort McHenry, he scribbled down some inspired words on the back of a letter that he had in his pocket.  As he sailed across Baltimore Harbor he wrote a few more words.   In the Indian Queen Hotel, Key finished his poem later that night.  Key’s brother-in-law, Judge J.H. Nicholson took the poem to a Baltimore printer and distributed it around town under the title, “Defence of Fort McHenry.”   A few days later on September 20, 1814 it was first published in the Baltimore Patriot newspaper.  Papers around the nation picked up the poem and at least one added the note, “Tune: Anacreon in Heaven.”  Not long thereafter in October, a Baltimore actor sang the tune with Key’s words and called it the “Star Spangled Banner.”  It is not clear if the singer sang all four verses to the “Star Spangled Banner.”

These Guys Knew the Tune Before Key Ever Wrote the Words

The song was immediately popular and was included in the repetroir of American patriotic songs.  It was not until the 20th century that the United States had a national anthem.  It was on this date in 1931 that Herbert Hoover signed the bill designating the Star Spangled Banner as the national anthem of the United States. It’s interesting to note that the words to the song were not included in that legal document.  And, it’s probably a good thing that the words to the original tune, To Ancreon in Heaven was not included.  You see…the tune had been composed by John Stafford Smith in 1775.  It was written as an anthem for the London Gentlemen’s Club, The Anacreontic Society.  That club gained it’s moniker from the Greek poet who worshiped “the Muses, Wine and Love.”    It was considered in 18th century America to be a “bawdy British drinking song” but it seems fairly tame to me.  Besides that, if you read the lyrics to “To Anacreon in Heaven” and try to put it to the tune, you find that Key’s words fit much better than the original lyrics that fit about as well as most fraternity drinking songs.

Note the CAPE in Tejas by Monday Morning

Weather Bottom Line:  The forecast is still the same and lame.  There will be a warm up to near or even maybe above seasonal levels for the weekend then a chance of rain early in the week.  Now..that interesting feature is still looking pretty good, though may not bring action around here.  The low will exit on Sunday out of the desert Southwest and might bring a risk of severe weather to the Texas Panhandle and then the Arklatex.  On Tuesday or Wednesday, the set up is looking pretty decent for a low level jet and general dynamic pattern for a severe weather outbreak, though I would think that it would be the Gulf Coast states…maybe as far north as the northern part of Dixie.

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5 Responses

  1. I have heard that story many times but am still moved by it every time. The partriotic fires were burning bright during that time. They seem to have all but extinguished now, I’m afraid.

  2. Don’t be so dour. I can tell you that some of my students would make General Washington proud.

  3. Hey, I can be dour all I want, buddy!

    Well, I’m glad to hear that. I just lament the almost complete lack of fundamental citizenship and U.S. history that is taught in public schools today. Thankfully there are folks like you trying to make up the gap!

  4. I love the images you’ve included in this post! I’m especially curious about the image of the bombardment of Ft. McHenry, the 5th image down the page. Could you tell me the name of the artist and title of the image? I haven’t been able to turn up anything in my rudimentary Google search.

  5. Try this: http://scaliasworld.com/War1812reading.aspx though it does not have the painting’s artist or where the original is, you can see the artist signature, sorta.

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