Born in battle: The story of the 'Star-Spangled Banner'

Every few years, it seems there comes a discussion of our national anthem.  I would guess that few people in our country understand the historical significance of the song; fewer still know the words of the song or that the song actually has four verses.

What makes the song we know as "The Star-Spangled Banner" so significant is that it was born in battle.  Immediately after witnessing the Battle of Baltimore, in 1814, when the United States was being invaded by the forces of the British Crown, Francis Scott Key translated the events he had seen into a poem to be set to music.

The British fleet, along with some of their land forces, threatened Fort McHenry, which protected the city of Baltimore.  The defenders knew of the impending attack and had made an enormous flag, thirty feet by forty-two feet, which flew defiantly over the fort.

Francis Scott Key, an attorney, had been tasked to approach the British commander to obtain release of some American prisoners.  He sailed out to the British Fleet under a flag of truce and was taken aboard the flagship of the fleet.  Because of the imminent attack, Key was detained until the battle would be over.

Key was forced to watch the attack on his country from the deck of an enemy ship.  The bombardment of Fort McHenry (referred to then as M'Henry) went on for the day and into the night of September 13–14, 1814.  Key was not able to see what was happening except in those brief moments where the flash of a bursting shell or a rocket would illuminate the scene, showing that the flag still flew over the fort.

In the hours before dawn, Key nervously paced the deck of the ship, peering into the dark to see whether his countrymen had prevailed.

As dawn broke, Key saw a flag, hanging lifelessly on the flagpole.  He was unable to discern whether it was that of the Americans or of the British.  As more light became available and as the breeze freshened and the flag fluttered out and caught the gleam of the morning's first daylight, it was the Stars and Stripes!  The Star-Spangled Banner!  The British withdrew; the Americans had prevailed.

Key was overcome with exhaustion and relief.  He had the idea for a poem; he wrote as if he were witnessing the battle.

The poem, which, as written, had no title, began with the author, pacing the deck of the enemy ship, asking if the flag still flew:

O say can you see by the dawn's early light,
what so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming;

Whose broad stripes & bright stars through the perilous fight
O'er the ramparts we watch'd, were so gallantly streaming?

And the rocket's red glare, the bomb bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,

Oh say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free & the home of the brave?

Now, with the coming of the dawn, Key peered into the lightening day to answer that question:

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,

What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
as it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?

Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream.

Tis the star-spangled banner — O long may it wave
O'er the land of the free & the home of the brave.

The third stanza addressed the foe, the British forces, who, using hired mercenaries and forcefully impressed seamen, had boasted that they would overwhelm the American defenders:

And where is that band who so tauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war & the battle's confusion

A home & a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash'd out their foul footstep's pollution

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.

And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
o'er the land of the free & the home of the brave.

Finally, Key turned to prayer.  He urged Americans to always guard their country and affirmed that America should always be a country trusting in God:

O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov'd home & the war's desolation!

Blest with vict'ry and peace may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made & preserved us a nation!

Then conquer we must when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto — "In God is our trust,"

And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

When the poem was printed, it was noted that it was to be sung to the tune of a well known, at the time, song, "An Anacreon in Heaven."  The song is singable, although it requires better talent than that heard at the typical baseball game.

It has been suggested that some other song might replace our national anthem.  It might make some sense to have someone sing "God Bless America" before ball games; it might be a sing-along.  But it is humbly suggested here that the song, now known as "The Star-Spangled Banner," has deep meaning, and, because of the circumstances of its creation, it approaches the level of being almost sacred in the same sense as the statue of the Marines raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, or the many memorials that decorate other battlefields soaked with American blood.

Image: Edgar Percy Moran.

If you experience technical problems, please write to