About ED OFFICES


Skip Office Navigation
OS: Office of the Secretary
   Current Section

Facts About the United States' National Anthem
Archived Information


About the Flag That Inspired the Song

During the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain, battles took place throughout the East Coast of the United States, including in and around the capital city of Washington, D.C.

Fort McHenry is located at the entrance to Baltimore harbor, and during the summer of 1813, Major George Armistead served as that stronghold's commander. Major Armistead was ready to defend the fort, but he wanted a flag that would identify his position, making it visible to the enemy from a distance.

Determined to deliver such a flag to Major Armistead, a committee of high-ranking officers called on Mary Young Pickersgill, a "maker of colours" who had experience in making ship flags. They explained that they wanted a United States flag that measured 30 feet by 42 feet. She agreed to the job.

Mary and her thirteen-year-old daughter Caroline worked in a large space at a local brewery. They used 400 yards of best quality wool bunting. They cut 15 stars that measured two feet from point to point, and eight red and seven white stripes, each two feet wide. They laid the material on the malt house floor, where it was sewn together. By August it was finished. It measured 30 by 42 feet and cost $405.90.

In August 1813, the flag was presented to Major Armistead, but, as things turned out, more than a year would pass before hostile forces threatened Baltimore.

On August 19th, 1814, the British entered Chesapeake Bay, and by the evening of the 24th of August, the British had invaded and captured Washington. They set fire to the Capitol and the White House, the flames visible 40 miles away in Baltimore.

In the days following the attack on Washington, British forces left the city and returned to their ships on the Chesapeake, just outside of Baltimore. The American forces prepared for the assault on Baltimore (population 40,000) that they knew would come by both land and sea.

About The Man Who Wrote The Song

Francis Scott Key was born on August 1, 1779 in western Maryland. He attended grammar school and went on to St. John's College in Annapolis, where he graduated at the young age of 17. By 1805, Key had established a law practice in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C.

During the British attacks on Washington, D.C., Key's friend Dr. William Beanes, a much loved town physician from Upper Marlboro, Maryland was taken prisoner by the British army soon after its departure from Washington. Key left for Baltimore to obtain the services of Colonel John Skinner, the government's prisoner of war exchange agent.

With approval from President Madison, together Key and Skinner sailed down the bay on a truce ship and met the British fleet. Key successfully negotiated the doctor's release, but was detained with Skinner and Beanes by the British until the completion of the attack on Baltimore.

At 7 a.m. on September 13, 1814, the British bombardment of Ft. McHenry began. The bombardment continued for 25 hours, with the British firing rockets across the sky.

Francis Scott Key, Col. Skinner, and Dr. Beanes watched the battle with apprehension. They knew that as long as the shelling continued, Fort McHenry had not surrendered. But, long before daylight there came a sudden and mysterious silence. Judging Baltimore as being too costly a prize, the British officers ordered a retreat.

In the predawn darkness, Key waited for the sight that would end his anxiety: the joyous sight of Gen. Armistead's great flag blowing in the breeze. When daylight came, Key spotted the huge flag waving above the Ft. McHenry.

Thrilled by the sight of the flag and the knowledge that the fort had not fallen, Key took a letter from his pocket, and began to write some verses on the back of it. Later, after the British fleet had withdrawn, Key checked into a Baltimore hotel, and completed his poem on the defense of Fort McHenry. He then sent it to a printer for duplication on handbills, and within a few days the poem was put to the music of an old English song. Both the new song and the flag became known as "The Star-Spangled Banner."

In October of that year, a Baltimore actor sang Key's new song in a public performance and called it "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Although the song was immediately popular, it remained just one of several patriotic airs until it was officially named our national anthem by Congress in 1931.

More Information

The original Star-Spangled Banner went on view for the first time after flying over Fort McHenry, on January 1st, 1876 at the Old State House in Philadelphia for the nations' centennial celebration. It is now on display in the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History.

There is much more information on "The Star-Spangled Banner" and other American history topics on the Web. For more details on the history of "The Star-Spangled Banner" you can start with these links:


 
Print this page Printable view Bookmark  and Share
Last Modified: 12/18/2007