September 14th, 1814 – The Poem That Became an Anthem


During the War of 1812, on September 13th, 1814, Francis Scott Key, accompanied by the British Prisoner Exchange Agent Colonel John Stuart Skinner, dined aboard the British ship HMS Tonnant, as the guests of three British officers: Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, Rear Admiral George Cockburn, and Major General Robert Ross. Skinner and Key were there to negotiate the release of prisoners, one of whom was Dr. William Beanes, a resident of Upper Marlboro, Maryland who had been arrested after jailing marauding British troops who were looting local farms.


Skinner, Key, and Beanes were not allowed to return to their own sloop because they had become familiar with the strength and position of the British units and with the British intent to attack Baltimore. It was the following morning on September 14th, 1814 that Key would compose his poem “Defence of Fort McHenry” that would go on to become the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Key and his fellow prisoners were unable to do anything but watch the bombarding of the American forces at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore on the night of September 13th–14th, 1814. At dawn, Key was able to see an American flag still waving and reported this to the prisoners below deck.

Fort McHenry

Back in Baltimore and inspired, Key wrote a poem about his experience, “Defence of Fort M’Henry”, which was soon published in William Pechin’s the American and Commercial Daily Advertiser on September 21st, 1814. He took it to Thomas Carr, a music publisher, who adapted it to the rhythms of composer John Stafford Smith‘s “To Anacreon in Heaven, a popular tune Key had already used as a setting for his 1805 song “When the Warrior Returns,” celebrating U.S. heroes of the First Barbary War. (Key used the “star spangled” flag imagery in the earlier song.) It has become better known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.Though somewhat difficult to sing, it became increasingly popular, competing with “Hail, Colombia” (1796) as the de facto national anthem by the Mexican-American War and American Civil War.

More than a century after its first publication, the song was adopted as the American national anthem, first by an Executive Order from President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 (which had little effect beyond requiring military bands to play what became known as the “Service Version”) and then by a Congressional resolution in 1931, signed by President Herbert Hoover.


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