1814 – Francis Scott Key composes the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” after witnessing the massive British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Maryland during the War of 1812.
Francis Scott Key was born on August 1, 1779, in Frederick County, Maryland, to a wealthy clan on the plantation of Terra Rubra. He was educated at home until the age of 10 and then attended an Annapolis grammar school. He went on to study at St. John’s College, ultimately returning to his home county to set up practice as a lawyer. Key wed Mary “Polly” Taylor Lloyd in the early 1800s, and the couple would go on to have 11 children. By 1805, he’d set up his legal practice in Georgetown, part of Washington, D.C. He was also a abolitionist and helped establish the American Colonization Society, which advocated the transport of African Americans to Africa
By the early 1810s, the United States had entered into conflict with Britain over the kidnapping of U.S. seamen and the disruption of trade with France. The ensuing hostilities would come to be known as the War of 1812. Though opposed to the war due to his religious beliefs and believing that the disagreement could be settled without armed conflict, Key nonetheless served in the Georgetown Light Field Artillery.
British forces captured Washington, D.C., in 1814. Taken prisoner was a Dr. William Beanes, who also happened to be a colleague of Key. Due to his work as an attorney, Key was asked to help in the negotiation of Beanes’ release and in the process traveled to Baltimore, where British naval forces were located along Chesapeake Bay. He, along with Colonel John Skinner, was able to secure Beanes’ freedom, though they were not allowed to return to land until the British completed their bombardment of Fort McHenry.
On September 13, the three at sea watched what would become a day-long assault. After continual bombing, to Key’s surprise, the British weren’t able to destroy the fort, and Key noted upon the dawning of the next morning a large U.S. flag being flown. (It had in fact been sewn by Mary Young Pickersgill at the request of the fort commander.)
The British ceased their attack and left the area. Key immediately wrote down the words for a poem that he would continue composing at an inn the next day. The work, which relied heavily on visualizations of what he witnessed, would come to be known as the “Defence of Fort M’Henry” and was printed in handbills and newspapers, including the Baltimore Patriot. The poem was later set to the tune of a drinking song by John Stafford Smith, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” and came to be called “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Throughout the 19th century, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was regarded as the national anthem by the U.S. armed forces and other groups, but it was not until 1916, and the signing of an executive order by President Woodrow Wilson, that it was formally designated as such. In 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed a Congressional act confirming Wilson’s presidential order.