Until the War of 1812, the primary function of the American flag was to identify ships and forts. The flag didn’t attract the reverence of the public. It wasn’t until Francis Scott Key wrote a song glorifying it that the flag took on symbolic meaning to Americans. The sight of the flag rallied Key and his fellow prisoners.
After the song had become popular, the flag became treasured because of the struggle and victory it represents. The stars and stripes are now recognized as priceless symbols of our nation’s ideals.
The Bombs Bursting in Air
Fort McHenry was the target during the Battle of Baltimore in September 1814. It came on the heels of a disheartening attack by the British on Washington DC, which had resulted in the burning of the Capitol, Treasury, and the White House.
Now, the British were relentlessly shooting shells and rockets, trying to force Ft. McHenry to surrender.
A few days before the Battle of Baltimore, Key had boarded the flagship of the British fleet to negotiate the release of a friend, Dr. William Beanes. The British eventually relented and agreed to let the Beanes go, but required Key to remain under guard so they wouldn’t lose the element of surprise.
Key was forced to watch the missiles rain down on Fort McHenry from afar while still under guard. The large-scale bombardment continued overnight. Key was not confident in the ability of the Fort to withstand such an attack. After a long night, waiting for the smoke to clear as it began to get light, he was overjoyed to see the American flag flying over the fort to announce the victory.
Dawn’s Early Light
The sight of the flag waving after the battle at Fort McHenry was awe inspiring for Francis Scott Key. The fact that “the flag was still there” inspired him to write down his feelings about the occasion in a poem while he was still under guard. Still under lock and key with his negotiated release pending, Key wrote the words on the back of a letter he had in his pocket. Key and his clients were released at twilight on September 16th. He finished his composition during his stay at the Indian Queen Hotel in Baltimore before returning to DC.
Key’s words gave focus to the feelings of patriotism, courage, and resilience that occurred because of the victory over the British in the Baltimore battle. The commander of Fort McHenry, Lieutenant Colonel George Armistead, also became a symbol of victory and was lauded by local papers. Key’s brother-in-law, Judge Joseph H. Nicholson, realized the words fit the popular melody of the Anacreontic Society in London, an amateur musician’s club.
For the Land of the Free
Nicholson submitted the poem, originally titled The Defense of Fort McHenry, to the Baltimore Patriot newspaper with a note, “to the tune of Anacreon in Heaven.” It was published near the end of 1814 as a tribute to Armistead and his victory, and it quickly became a battle anthem for the war.
After Key’s song had become known nationwide, the American flag became the physical expression of national identity, unity, and pride. The Star Spangled Banner is particularly difficult to sing due to the range of more than an octave and a half required from the singer.
This flag took on the name given to it in song and was known after that as The Star-Spangled Banner. It became an Armistead family keepsake and was passed down through the family to the Lt. Colonel’s grandson, who recognized it as a national treasure. The Armistead family donated it to the Smithsonian in 1907, with the request that it always be on view to the public.
Oh, Say Can You See
The Star-Spangled Banner is now housed at the National Museum of American History. Visiting the same flag that Francis Scott Key saw the morning after the battle brings powerful emotions to five million visitors per year. It’s a powerful national symbol and history lesson.
Celebrating its 203rd birthday this year, the Star-Spangled Banner is looking good for its age. It’s a bit threadbare, missing a few chunks, and the colors are faded. However, seeing it floating in the low-oxygen chamber in which it is stored at the National Museum of American History can still take your breath away.
The size itself inspires admiration, as each of the 15 stars measures approximately two feet across. The remaining banner is 30-feet by 34-feet—about eight feet short of its original size, due to deterioration.
Its shredded appearance only serves to make it more mystical.
The Banner Yet Waves
People began referring to the song as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and was recognized for official use by the US Navy in 1889. In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson announced that it would be played at all official events. A congressional resolution made it the official National Anthem on March 3, 1931. It was signed into law by President Herbert Hoover.
The American flag has rallied our nation to come together in many dark periods. It is a priceless symbol of our nation’s ideals and has come to embody the victory of the American spirit. The Star-Spangled Banner is visible proof of the strength and perseverance of America.