Today in History: The Star-Spangled Banner



Engraving by John Bower (source)

America’s national anthem, now known as The Star-Spangled Banner, was originally written by Francis Scott Key as lyrics to a popular song during the time of the War of 1812.  When Key wrote it, however, the song was unnamed; not until the lyrics were printed in a broadside the following week did they appear under the title “Defence of Fort M’Henry”.  But how did these now-famous words come about in the first place?

Meeting with the British aboard the HMS Tonnant on September 7th, 1814, to secure the release of American prisoner Dr. William Beanes, Key and fellow lawyer John Stuart Skinner soon found themselves prisoners as well.  Fearing that they knew too much about plans for the upcoming attack on Baltimore (September 12th-13th), the British agreed to release Dr. Beanes as long as the three men did not return to shore until after the skirmish was over.  Although able to witness the bombardment from the ship he was on, Key would not know the outcome until morning had dawned on September 14th; discerning the Stars and Stripes still flying high over Fort McHenry, Key was inspired to write:

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 and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watch’d, were so gallantly streaming?
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?

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 on the stream –
‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O! love may it wave
O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havock of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul foot-steps’ 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 doth wave
O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

O! thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov’d home, and the war’s desolation,
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the heav’n-rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d 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.



The actual “Star-Spangled Banner” that inspired Key, on display at the Smithsonian Institute (source)


Learn more about the writing of The Star-Spangled Banner as well as the Fort McHenry flag and its restoration on and



*Cultural Contemplations is a private blog and is not affiliated with any particular institution or organization.


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