The school histories have made us all acquainted with the main events that led Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner." We get something like a full-length portrait of this episode in a recently published volume bearing Key's name as its title and evidently proceeding from a descendant—F. S. Key-Smith. It is known that the hymn had its birth amid the cannon-shots of the British attack upon the defenses near Baltimore on September 13, 1814.

Francis Scott Key was a temporary prisoner within the lines of the British fleet whither he had gone to intercede for the release of a friend, Dr. Beans, who had been held by Admiral Cockburn on an unjust charge. The mission succeeded, but the Admiral decided to hold his visitor until his little affair with the forts could be settled. Allowed to remain on their own vessel, the Minden, Mr. Key's party were anchored in a position from which they could witness all that would take place in order that their humiliation might be the more complete from the victory which the British were confident of acquiring over their countrymen. In a letter to John Randolph, of Roanoke, the mission was described by Key, but no mention was made of the hymn:

"You will be surprized to hear that I have since then spent eleven days in the British fleet. I went with a flag to endeavor to save poor old Dr. Beans a voyage to Halifax, in which we fortunately succeeded. They detained us until after their attack on Baltimore, and you may imagine what a state of anxiety I endured. Sometimes when I remembered it was there the declaration of this abominable war was received with public rejoicings, I could not feel a hope that they would escape; and again when I thought of the many faithful whose piety lessens that lump of wickedness I could hardly feel a fear.

"To make my feelings still more acute, the Admiral had intimated his fears that the town must be burned, and I was sure that if taken it would have been given up to plunder. I have reason to believe that such a promise was given to their soldiers. It was filled with women and children. I hope I shall never cease to feel the warmest gratitude when I think of this most merciful deliverance. It seems to have given me a higher idea of the 'forbearance, long suffering, and tender mercy' of God, than I had ever before conceived.

"Never was a man more disappointed in his expectations than I have been as to the character of British officers. With some exceptions they appeared to be illiberal, ignorant, and vulgar, and seem filled with a spirit of malignity against everything American. Perhaps, however, I saw them in unfavorable circumstances."

The more vivid style of Mr. Key's descendant pictures for us the particular moment which is looked upon as the special inspiration of the national song:

"Between two and three o'clock in the morning the British, with one or two rocket and several bomb-vessels manned by 1,200 picked men, attempted, under cover of darkness, to slip past the fort and up the Patapsco, hoping to effect a landing and attack the garrison in the rear.

"Succeeding in evading the guns of the fort, but unmindful of Fort Covington, under whose batteries they next came, their enthusiasm over the supposed success of the venture gave way in a derisive cheer, which, borne by the damp night-air to our small party of Americans on the Minden, must have chilled the blood in their veins and pierced their patriotic hearts like a dagger.

"Fort Covington, the lazaretto, and the American barges in the river now simultaneously poured a galling fire upon the unprotected enemy, raking them fore and aft, in horrible slaughter. Disappointed and disheartened, many wounded and dying, they endeavored to regain their ships, which came closer to the fortifications in an endeavor to protect the retreat. A fierce battle ensued. Fort McHenry opened the full force of all her batteries upon them as they repassed, and the fleet responding with entire broadsides made an explosion so terrific that it seemed as tho Mother Earth had opened and was vomiting shot and shell in a sheet of fire and brimstone.

"The heavens aglow were a seething sea of flame, and the waters of the harbor, lasht into an angry sea by the vibrations, the Minden rode and tossed as tho in a tempest. It is recorded that the houses in the city of Baltimore, two miles distant, were shaken to their foundations. Above the tempestuous roar, intermingled with its hubbub and confusion, were heard the shrieks and groans of the dying and wounded. But alas! they were from the direction of the fort. What did it mean? For over an hour the pandemonium reigned. Suddenly it ceased—all was quiet, not a shot fired or sound heard, a deathlike stillness prevailed, as the darkness of night resumed its sway. The awful stillness and suspense were unbearable."

With the first approach of dawn, "Mr. Key turned his weary and bloodshot eyes in the direction of the fort and its flag, but the darkness had given place to a heavy fog of smoke and mist which now enveloped the harbor and hung close down to the surface of the water." Reading on we learn from Mr. Key-Smith:

"Some time must yet elapse before anything definite might be ascertained, or the object of his aching heart's desire discerned. At last it came. A bright streak of gold mingled with crimson shot athwart the eastern sky, followed by another and still another, as the morning sun rose in the fulness of his glory, lifting 'the mists of the deep,' crowning a 'Heaven-blest land' with a new victory and grandeur.

"Through a vista in the smoke and vapor could now be dimly seen the flag of his country. As it caught 'The gleam of the morning's first beam,' and, 'in full glory reflected shone in the stream' his proud and patriotic heart knew no bounds; the wounds inflicted 'by the battle's confusion' were healed instantly as if by magic; a new life sprang into every fiber, and his pent-up emotions burst forth with an inspiration in a song of praise, victory, and thanksgiving as he exclaimed:

"''Tis the Star-Spangled Banner, Oh! long may it wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.'

"As the morning's sun arose, vanquishing the darkness and gloom; lifting the fog and smoke and disclosing his country's flag, victorious, bathed in the delicate hues of morn, only an inspiration caught from such a sight can conceive or describe, and so only in the words of his song can be found the description.

"The first draft of the words were emotionally scribbled upon the back of a letter which he carried in his pocket and of which he made use to dot down some memoranda of his thoughts and sentiments."

Mr. Key and his party were now allowed to go. They returned to Baltimore. On the evening of the same day he wrote out the first complete draft of the song. It was published first in the Baltimore American and Commercial Daily Advertiser. Its immediate reception is thus described:

"Copies of the song were struck off in handbill form, and promiscuously distributed on the street. Catching with popular favor like prairie fire it spread in every direction, was read and discust, until, in less than an hour, the news was all over the city.

"Picked up by a crowd of soldiers assembled, some accounts put it, about Captain McCauley's tavern, next to the Holiday Street Theater, others have it around their tents on the outskirts of the city, Ferdinand Durang, a musician, adapted the words to the old tune of 'Anacreon in Heaven,' and, mounting a chair, rendered it in fine style.

"On the evening of the same day it was again rendered upon the stage of the Holiday Street Theater by an actress, and the theater is said to have gained thereby a national reputation. In about a fortnight it had reached New Orleans and was publicly played by a military band, and shortly thereafter was heard in nearly, if not all, the principal cities and towns throughout the country."

1 From the account given by Mr. Key-Smith in his "Francis Scott Key," as summarized by Frederick A. King in The Literary Digest of April 29, 1911.
Return to text.

Table of Contents
Return to Main Page
© 2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman