The Bloody Reality Behind the Star-Spangled Banner

Updated on June 30, 2017
harrynielsen profile image

Since I often visited Fort McHenry as a child, it has been fun to go back and view these historical events from a different viewpoint.

15 Stars and 15 Bars

The national flag that flew over Fort McHenry in 1814 had 15 bars and 15 stars.
The national flag that flew over Fort McHenry in 1814 had 15 bars and 15 stars.

The Banner

Our national anthem, also known as The Star-Spangled Banner was written during the War of 1812 at a time when our mid-Atlantic states were under attack by the British. The Star-Spangled Banner was in reality, one very large flag that flew over Fort McHenry, which protected the city of Baltimore. Since this flag was the largest ever made at the time, this and only this flag earned the nickname. By chance, this was the very same flag that Francis Scott Key saw flying on the September 1814 morning.

The Storm Flag

Since the Star-Spangled Banner was partially made from wool, the fort had in its possession a smaller "storm" flag that was flown during inclement weather. So whenever bad weather commenced, the big banner was taken down and replaced by the smaller and more durable storm flag that would not become waterlogged.

During the British bombardment, rain storms appeared during the night and so the big flag was taken down by soldiers at the fort and then replaced with the storm flag. But when the rain stopped, the Star-Spangled Banner was again raised...and that was what Francis Scott Key saw from his vantage point. Amazingly only four soldiers died during the bombardment of Fort McHenry.

Historical Visual Account

Bombardment of Fort McHenry in September of 1814
Bombardment of Fort McHenry in September of 1814

Why The British Were Attacking the Maryland Fort

When the British attacked Fort McHenry, the War of 1812 had been already ongoing for over two years. Just prior to the Maryland attack, British forces had marched through the nation's capitol, burning much of the city in the process. The situation was so bad that President Madison and many Washington lawmakers had fled the city in fear of their lives.

After razing the District of Columbia, both British naval and land forces set their sights on Baltimore, home of numerous privateers, who had done considerable damage to the British war effort. In other words, they were going to make the whole city blood if necessary.

Battle Map

Map for the Battle of Baltimore
Map for the Battle of Baltimore

The Result of the Battle for Fort McHenry.

Also called The Battle of Baltimore, this important military maneuver began when 19 British warships sailed up the Chesapeake Bay towards the Baltimore harbor. The fighting commenced when 3,000 land troops landed southeast of the city and marched northward, threatening to take over the busy port.

After the land invasion was repelled on September 12, the naval shelling of Fort McHenry began on September 13th and lasted for 25 hours. On the morning of the 14th, the flag was still flying at the fort and the British soon withdrew their forces from the that part of the Chesapeake.

Francis Scott Key

Francis Scott Key was a successful lawyer, who lived in Washington
Francis Scott Key was a successful lawyer, who lived in Washington

Why Francis Scott Key Was Present

Francis Scott Key lived in Washington, not Baltimore. He was a lawyer, amateur poet and all-around Washington insider, who had come over to the Chesapeake Bay in an attempt to gain the release of some American citizens that were being held prisoners aboard British ships. In fact, he had been personally dispatched by President Madison, who was particularly interested in the release of a Dr. William Beanes, who had been just recently captured by British forces.

Key along with a few others, sailed up to the British fleet on Sept. 7, 1814 in an American ship. They met their adversries (onboard a British ship) and were able to obtain the release of the doctor, but were not allowed to return to shore until after the battle was over. When the bombardment commenced several days later, Francis Scott Key watched the aerial display from an American ship anchored behind the British fleet.

The Musical Score

The Star-Spangled Banner actually has four verses, but almost always just the first verse is sung at public events.
The Star-Spangled Banner actually has four verses, but almost always just the first verse is sung at public events.

Putting Words To Music

There is some difference of opinion as to whether Key wrote the words of the Star-Spangled Banner as pure poetry or whether he already had a tune in mind. According to information presented by the History Channel, Francis Scott was already aware of the tune, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” and in fact had already set several stanzas of verse to the popular drinking song.

Further evidence can be derived from the fact that the words of the anthem fit the unusual music structure of the song to a tee.

The Musical Roots of the Star Spangled Banner

Original Fort McHenry Flag

The original Fort McHenry flag measured 30 by 42 feet. The flag was designed so that opposing forces could the flag from afar.
The original Fort McHenry flag measured 30 by 42 feet. The flag was designed so that opposing forces could the flag from afar. | Source

The Flag and Song Today

Today, the larger flag, the Star-Spangled Banner, is on permanent display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. Meanwhile, the song that Key penned first bore the name, The Defense of Fort McHenry. Over the years, the name of the song was changed to The Star-Spangled Banner, and in 1931 it became the official national anthem of the U.S.

Despite its popularity, it remains a difficult tune to sing, occasionally creating some embarrassing and humorous moments for soloist trying to render the large range of high and low notes. Much of this difficulty is due to the fact that tune was originally created by a London men's club, who enjoyed singing about the benefits of drinking large amounts of wine.


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    • harrynielsen profile imageAUTHOR

      Harry Nielsen 

      3 years ago from Durango, Colorado

      Thanks for adding the link.

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      This video might be helpful in understanding more about the history of the national anthem:

    • harrynielsen profile imageAUTHOR

      Harry Nielsen 

      3 years ago from Durango, Colorado

      Thanks for the nice long reply. A few thoughts about what you said. First of all, you are right about President Madison. His best and perhaps only choice was to seek safe shelter until such time that he could safely return to the new capital. The same goes for the lawmakers, who were in Washington at he time.

      And now on to the history of our national anthem. Evidence that Key wrote the words to the tune rests in two places. Several American writers had already put words to the English musical score. One such effort by Robert Paine Jr. was called Adams and Liberty, was very popular in the new nation. Also of note is that Key wrote his own version of Adams and Liberty in 1805 to the same very tune. So The Defense of Fort McHenry, as the song was originally called would have been the second attempt.

      And now on to the matter of To Anacreon in Heaven. This tune appears to have been more commonly sung as a tavern tune in Britain than in America. Although Joseph Haydn did attend one of the society's meetings in 1791, so did the Duchess of Devonshire at about the same time. And it was the displeasure of the Duchess that lead to the quick demise of the Anacreon Society. But this tune lived on.

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      An interesting and convincing post, but historical facts provide factual insight to help with more straightforward retellings of the events surrounding the Star Spangled Banner.

      For instance, comparing London's Anacreontic Society as basically a bunch of random drunks in a bar is a bit distant from the truth. Their anthem was sung at member's meetings at a specific time by a specific soloist, followed by a choir-style singing of verses in harmony.

      Vienna's brilliant Joseph Hayden was greeted with their band playing one of his concertos during his first visit. Music specialists have over time best explained why the demandingly commanding melody suits a trained voice. They also explain that a new poem fitting an old tune to a tee is no proof that it was written for that tune.

      The record of the many people who lived through those times is prolific (sometimes recorded in diaries not only by date but time of day showing how quickly events unfolded) in a time when there was no history to try to rewrite and no internet spewing false information like lava from a volcano burning up everything in its wake.

      Personal letters between relatives and friends have been preserved alongside official documents, validating each other. It was crucial for President Madison to safely leave the capitol for many reasons. Capturing him would help the British in their effort to continue tethering Americans to their rule.

      It was indeed "so bad", so bad that Americans were defending against what would have been certain death for many more and increased disenfranchisement from the English government across a land that intended to be established as a free nation. They needed to respond with careful decisiveness against a much larger body of warriors.

      So, I've written more than intended when I began but hopefully this will encourage gaining a truer perspective on the bloody events connected to our national anthem.


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