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Francis Scott Key and the moment that transformed the American flag into an enduring symbol

Francis Scott Key and the moment that transformed the American flag into an enduring symbol

It is almost astonishing to think that the U.S. flag didn’t carry much more weight than as a military marker in the early decades following the American Revolution.

That all changed beginning with the events of Sept. 13-14, 1814, in and around Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812.

A U.S. force of 1,000 men held the fort through hours of naval bombardment by the British. That and the symbol of the then 15-star, 15-stripe U.S. flag flying the morning of Sept. 14, inspired lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key to pen what is now known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The poem, with music added years later became the American national anthem, and helped raise the specter of one of the most known emblems throughout the world.

War of 1812

The War of 1812 was brought about primarily by the British -- and the French -- crippling U.S. trade in the Atlantic Ocean around and during the Napoleonic Wars, and the British practice of impressment: Taking American ships and commandeering the crew for work in the British navy.

Feeling the economic stress and fearing diplomatic weakness in 1812, President James Madison and Congress declared war on the British, despite the young nation being ill-prepared for such an engagement.

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Prior to the Battle at Fort McHenry, the British had dealt a large blow to the U.S. in August of 1814 with the sacking of new capital Washington D.C., including the burning of the White House and the Capitol building. President Madison and other government dignitaries were forced to flee across the Potomac River to Virginia.

In September, the British turned their attention to Baltimore, one of the country’s three largest cities and economic centers.

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With Americans showing strong force on the ground, the British chose to take Fort McHenry from the sea as a way in.

Francis Scott Key

Key was a prodigious Washington lawyer, son of a distinguished judge and a descendant of Maryland plantation owners. He, like a fair amount of Americans, opposed the war. The vote to declare war is the closest in American history, and the New England delegation seriously considered seceding from the country in response.

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Key happened to be in Baltimore Harbor, in part at the behest of Madison, to negotiate the release of 65-year-old physician William Beanes, who was taken into custody after confronting British soldiers attempting to plunder his Upper Marlboro, Md., home. Beanes was being held on a ship in Baltimore Harbor. The negotiations went on for a few days and even though Key had secured Beanes’ release shortly before the attack on Fort McHenry, the British detained them leave until after the battle since they had heard much talk of the British plans while on board the ship.

Key had to wait out the battle from several miles away in the harbor.

Fort McHenry and Old Glory

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What Key witnessed was a spectacular light show, not unlike what you might see in the distance of a fireworks show in a harbor. 

The shallow waters around Fort McHenry made it impossible for the British to use their heavy guns aboard their bigger ships, thus the bombardment came from smaller ships in the fleet. The pelting of the Fort lasted throughout the night and the U.S. flag stood tall throughout. When the smoke cleared the next morning, Key expected to see the Union Jack atop the fort, but the American flag still stood tall.

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The flag Key saw that morning of Sept. 14 was likely hoisted in place of the storm flag that flew during the battle. What is left of that flag -- which was commissioned as “a flag so large that the British would have no difficulty seeing it from a distance” by the fort’s Major George Armistead, stood 30 feet tall by 42 feet wide and was sewn by Baltimore resident Mary Pickersgill and stands at 30 feet by 42 feet -- now resides in the Smithsonian in Washington. The 15-stars and 15 stripes represent the addition of Vermont and Kentucky into statehood in the 1790s and it is the only time the flag has flown with 15 stripes. With the Flag Act of 1818, the number of stars increased to 20 while the total amount of stripes reduced back to 13 permanently.

From ‘Defence of Fort McHenry’ to ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’

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As Key sat on the ship in the aftermath, he felt inspired by the site and began writing lines of verse on the back of whatever piece of paper he had. He continued to write four stanzas as a boat brought him to shore, the final lines of the first verse so descriptive:

“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”

According to the Smithsonian: “Key’s brother-in-law Joseph Nicholson, a commander of a militia at FortMcHenry, had the poem printed for distribution to the public. Entitled ‘Defence of Fort M’Henry,’ the verse was accompanied by a suggestion that it be set to the music of an English drinking song. Before the week was out, the poem had been reprinted in the pages of the Baltimore Patriot newspaper, which pronounced it a ‘beautiful and animating effusion’ that is destined ‘long to outlive the impulse which produced it.’”

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As it began to appear in newspapers across the country, it was renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and it gave the country and sense of patriotism and a legend to attach to its most noted symbol. 

A treaty to end the war was signed that Christmas at Ghent in Belgium, although word of the peace did not reach America before Andrew Jackson’s famous victory in the Battle of New Orleans.

The Americans’ victory in the war helped put the U.S. securely on the map as a force to be reckoned with in world affairs. And “Old Glory” came to represent that sentiment.

Francis Scott Key flag facts

  • Style: 15 stars and 15 stripes, representing the 15 states as of 1795. Vermont and Kentucky were the new states added after the original signing of the Constitution in 1787.
  • Term: The flag was the offical emblem of the U.S. from 1795 to 1818.
  • Flag Act of 1818: With the addition of five states since 1795 -- Tennessee (1796), Ohio (1803), Louisiana (1812), Indiana (1816) and Mississippi (1817) -- the amount of stars were increased to 20. The act also stipulated that the number of stripes would return to and remain at 13 as more states were expected to join the union.

Information from Smithsonian Magazine, usflag.org and the National Park Service were used in the writing of this article.

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