Star-Spangled Banner

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"The Star-Spangled Banner," the national anthem of the United States, was inspired by the flag that flew over Fort McHenry in the harbor of Baltimore, Maryland, during the War of 1812 (1812–1815). During that conflict, the British conducted frequent raids on American towns and harbors along the Atlantic coast, including forays into Chesapeake Bay. Some American harbors were fortified, including Baltimore, whose five-pointed, star-shaped brick fort named Fort McHenry prepared to face certain attack by British forces. In anticipation of such an attack Major George Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry, wanted a U.S. flag made so large that the British would clearly see it waving from a great distance as a symbol of bold defiance of their invasion. A Baltimore widow, Mary Pickersgill, had experience making ship flags and agreed to sew a flag that would measure thirty feet wide by forty-two feet long. Pickersgill spent several weeks measuring, cutting, and sewing the fifteen stars and stripes that, because of their size, had to be assembled on the floor of a nearby brewery. In August 1813 Pickersgill presented the flag to Major Armistead and was paid $405.90 for her work.

In August 1814 a large British force landed in Maryland and marched toward Washington, D.C. The British easily defeated the American army at Bladensburg, then entered the capital and burned several public buildings, including the White House. The British subsequently returned to their ships and moved to attack Baltimore. The combined naval and army force coordinated a three-day attack on the city fortifications both in the harbor and on land. On the morning of 13 September 1814, British ships began hurling over fifteen hundred shells, bombs, and rockets toward Fort McHenry from positions in the Patapsco River beyond the reach of the fort's guns. The bombardment, which lasted about twenty-five hours, was designed to divert attention from a British army landing at North Point to be followed by a march overland to take Baltimore.

In the meantime, apprehensively watching this activity from an American truce ship anchored in the river was a Georgetown attorney named Francis Scott Key. Key had visited the British fleet to negotiate the release of a Maryland doctor, William Beanes, who had been taken prisoner by the British during the attack on Washington. Key was successful in obtaining Dr. Beanes's release but could not depart until the attack on Baltimore was concluded. During the night, Key watched the British fire hundreds of projectiles toward the fort but heard only occasional sounds of McHenry's guns returning fire. Unsure if the fort had fallen to the enemy, at the break of dawn Key peered through a telescope and saw the fort's enormous flag waving in the morning breeze, a symbol of defiance and triumph in the face of the enemy. Relieved and inspired by the sight, Key took a letter from his pocket and on the back wrote some poetic verses about the events he had witnessed.

Once the defeated British forces departed, Key completed his four-verse poem on 16 September and sent it to a printer for distribution the next day as a handbill entitled, The Defense of Fort McHenry. He had composed the poem in the form and meter of a wellknown English melody titled "To Anacreon in Heaven." The new combination of song and poem soon became known as "The Star-Spangled Banner," which slowly grew in popularity as a patriotic tune throughout the nineteenth century. During the early twentieth century, various patriotic and veteran organizations lobbied for the song to become the official national anthem, a wish granted by Congress on 3 March 1931.

As for the inspiration for the anthem, Armistead acquired the flag after the war. A few weeks after the battle he provided pieces of the flag to a soldier's widow to bury with her husband. In later years he distributed additional pieces for similar purposes. The flag was kept by his descendents. In 1907 Eben Appleton, Armistead's grandson, loaned the flag to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., for an exhibit. He donated it permanently in 1912 on the condition that it never be removed so that all U.S citizens could view the Star-Spangled Banner. In 1965 the flag was moved to the Smithsonian's new National Museum of American History in Washington and given a prominent place as the first exhibit inside the museum's entrance on the National Mall. Conservation work on the flag at the turn of the twenty-first century (1998–ongoing) will ensure its preservation as a symbol of U.S. strength and independence for succeeding generations of Americans.

See alsoMusic: Patriotic and Political .


Lord, Walter. The Dawn's Early Light. New York: Norton, 1972.

Rukert, Norman G. Fort McHenry: Home of the Brave. Baltimore, Md.: Bodine, 1983.

Sheads, Scott S. The Rockets' Red Glare: The Maritime Defense of Baltimore in 1814. Centerville, Md.: Tidewater, 1986.

Steven J. Rauch