The Star-Spangled Banner
On September 14, 1814, U.S. soldiers at Baltimore's Fort McHenry raised a huge American flag to celebrate a crucial victory over British forces during the War of 1812. The sight of those "broad stripes and bright stars" inspired Francis Scott Key to write a song that eventually became the United States national anthem. Key's words gave new significance to a national symbol and started a tradition through which generations of Americans have invested the flag with their own meanings and memories.
Attorney Francis Scott Key witnessed the twenty-five hour bombardment of Fort McHenry from a British troopship anchored some four miles away. He had boarded the ship to negotiate the release of an American civilian imprisoned by the British, and had been detained aboard as the bombardment began. On September 14, 1814, as the dawn's early light revealed a flag flying over the fort, Key exultantly began jotting down the lines of the song that became our national anthem.
Francis Scott Key was a gifted amateur poet. Inspired by the sight of the American flag flying over Fort McHenry the morning after the bombardment, he scribbled the initial verse of his song on the back of a letter. Back in Baltimore, he completed the four verses and copied them onto a sheet of paper, probably making more than one copy. A local printer issued the new song as a broadside. Shortly afterward, two Baltimore newspapers published it, and by mid-October it had appeared in at least seventeen other papers in cities up and down the East Coast.
After the war, Key continued to practice law in the District of Columbia.
During the 19th century, "The Star-Spangled Banner" became one of the nation's best-loved patriotic songs. It gained special significance during the Civil War, a time when many Americans turned to music to express their feelings for the flag and the ideals and values it represented. By the 1890s, the military had adopted the song for ceremonial purposes, requiring it to be played at the raising and lowering of the colors. Despite its widespread popularity, "The Star-Spangled Banner" did not become the National Anthem until 1931.
This is the earliest known manuscript of Key's song. It is probably one of several drafts that Key made before sending the copy to the printer.
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This is the first known printing of Key's poem.
Called a broadside, it was probably printed in Baltimore on Sept. 17, 1814.
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Source: The Smithsonian Institution - National Museum of American History
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