Why Francis Scott Key Wrote the Star-Spangled Banner

Even though this year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, most students (and adults) don’t know much about the conflict. Perhaps that is because America’s second war with Britain ended in a draw and Americans like to celebrate victories. The war gave Americans at least one thing that they are all familiar with, however—the country’s national anthem.

In 1814, the British army burned the capital building at Washington, D.C. After that success, they decided to try to take the nearby city of Baltimore. Baltimore harbor was protected by Fort McHenry, and the American forces there were well prepared for an attack. The Americans built barricades and sunk boats around the fort so when the British vessels entered the harbor they struggled to get into firing range of the fort. British ships fired on Fort McHenry from a distance, though. More than eighteen hundred cannonballs hit Fort McHenry on the night of September 13, 1814.

Lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key watched the bombardment from a boat eight miles away. At the time, he was on a British ship negotiating for the release of an American prisoner of war. Key opposed the war at first, but the British decision to burn the capital upset him. Though he would have liked to avoid war, he did not want his country to be defeated. On September 13, Key watched anxiously to see if the American flag still flew over Fort McHenry, but he couldn’t see because of the smoke.

The next morning the British stopped firing, unable to get their ships past the line of sunken ships around the fort. British shipman Robert Barrett wrote, “As the last vessel spread her canvas to the wind, the Americans hoisted a most superb and splendid ensign [flag] on their battery, and fired at the same time a gun of defiance.”

Francis Scott Key’s relief at seeing the flag moved him to write a few lines of poetry on the back of a letter that was in his pocket. This poem eventually became known as the Star-Spangled Banner. Years later, Key remembered the feelings that led him to write the famous song. He said, “Through the clouds of war, the stars of that banner still shone…Then, in that hour of deliverance and joyful triumph, my heart spoke, and ‘Does not such a country, and such defenders of their country, deserve a song?’ was its question. With it came an inspiration not to be resisted.” In 1931, the Star-Spangled Banner officially became America’s national anthem.

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