The Star Spangled Banner

On September 13, 1814, 35-year-old Georgetown lawyer and amateur poet Frances Scott Key boarded a flag-of-truce vessel in Baltimore harbor to negotiate the release of a detained American physician.  However, as the British attacks on Baltimore and Fort McHenry were imminent, they detained Key to prevent him from revealing details of their preparations.  On the evening of September 13th to the early morning of the 14th he had a “sweeping” view of the battle from the British warship.

Bombardment of Fort Henry 1814

That morning, “By the dawn’s early light,” Key could see the  torn, singed, and shell-shot flag still flying above the walls of the defending fort.  Inspired by what he was witnessing, Key scribbled the first verses of his poem onto the back of a letter in his pocket.  Upon returning to Baltimore on the 16th, he completed the poem in his room at the Indian Queen hotel and titled the work the “Defence of Fort McHenry”.  After having it printed in broadsheet form, the piece became an instant hit.  Over a dozen newspapers from Georgia to New Hampshire reprinted it.

Defence of Fort McHenry Broadside 1814

Key and his brother-in-law had put the poem together with the melody of an existing song called “The Anacreontic Song” by English composer John Stafford Smith.  Soon after, Thomas Carr of the Carr Music Store in Baltimore published the words and music together under a new title – “The Star-Spangled Banner”.   The song was performed in public for the first time in October by Baltimore actor Ferdinand Durang at Captain McCauley’s tavern.  The popularity of the piece grew to become a runaway success.

At this time, America had no national anthem.  At official functions, “Hail, Columbia” was played while “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” served as a default anthem.  With it’s rising popularity, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was frequently played at patriotic events such as July 4th.

At the start of the American Civil War, physician and author Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. added a fifth stanza to the song. It expressed his outrage over secession and his support of the Union.   His son, future Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., had enlisted for the Union and would be wounded in battle 3 times.

When our land is illumined with liberty’s smile,
If a foe from within strikes a blow at her glory,
Down, down with the traitor that tries to defile
The flag of the stars, and the page of her story!
By the millions unchained,
Who their birthright have gained
We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained;
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave,
While the land of the free is the home of the brave.

 In 1889,the Secretary of the Navy signed General Order #374, making “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official music to be played at the raising of the flag.  In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that “The Star-Spangled Banner” be played at appropriate government and military occasions.  He also ordered the Bureau of Education develop a singular, standard version.  Five eminent musicians were enlisted to agree upon an arrangement – among them the famous composer and band leader John Phillip Souza.  However, in 1929 Robert Ripley observed in his syndicated cartoon “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” that America still had no official national anthem.  This led to President Herbert Hoover signing a law March 3, 1931 adopting “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem of the United States of America.

When the national anthem is played, United States Code, 36 U.S.C. § 301 states:

Conduct During Playing.— During a rendition of the national anthem—

(1) when the flag is displayed—

(A) individuals in uniform should give the military salute at the first note of the anthem and maintain that position until the last note;

 (B) members of the Armed Forces and veterans who are present but not in uniform may render the military salute in the manner provided for individuals in uniform; and

 (C) all other persons present should face the flag and stand at attention with their right hand over the heart, and men not in uniform, if applicable, should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart; and

 (2) when the flag is not displayed, all present should face toward the music and act in the same manner they would if the flag were displayed.

To learn more you should visit the Smithsonian Institution’s online Star-Spangled Banner exhibition covering the history of the flag and the song.  There is also a great video by David Barton of Wallbuilders.  It is short but very thorough.

The star-spangled banner itself is 30-by-34-foot flag and is the largest battle flag in existence.   The flag that survived a night of rocket attacks and artillery shelling is currently on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Star Spangled Banner-1914 centennial-display

A few different renditions of the American national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner”:


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