After witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry in the Battle of Baltimore, Francis Scott Key was inspired to write “Defence of Fort M’Henry“, the poem which would become the lyrics to the United States national anthem.
On September 7th, 1814, Key boarded the British flagship HMS Tonnant to negotiate the exchange of British and American prisoners, but Key was soon held prisoner himself in order to ensure that he could not reveal what he had learned about the strength of the British fleet and their plan to attack Baltimore Harbor. A week later, On September 13, Key could do nothing but watch the bombs bursting in air over the American fort, having been unable to warn of the impending attack. Through the rain and the smoke, the light from the explosions allowed Key to see the smaller “storm flag” defiantly flown over the fort, showing that the Americans had not yet surrendered. When the fighting stopped, however, there was not enough light to determine the outcome of the battle.
At dawn, Key looked across the harbor from his captivity aboard a British warship to see that the smaller flag had been lowered and replaced with the fort’s larger flag, signaling an American victory.
Key began writing the “Defence of Fort M’Henry” that day on the back of a letter he had kept in his back pocket, and finished the poem after his release, publishing it only a week later. Soon after, the text was set to the tune of John Stafford Smith’s “To Anacreon in Heaven“, and became increasingly popular over the course of the next century, until it was officially designated as the national anthem of the United States of America.
O say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
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