The Music (1780)
Often misunderstood about the American National Anthem is that Francis Scott Key did not write the music. He wrote the poem, which became the words for the anthem. The music of the National Anthem was actually written in 1780 – long before the poem – as a song called “To Anacreon in Heaven,” 🔗 and it was written by British composer, organist, and musicologist John Stafford Smith 🔗.
John Stafford Smith was one of the first collectors of the works of Bach, and was a member of The Anacreontic Society, a gentleman’s club in London comprised of attorneys, doctors, and other professionals who wished to promote music, and did so in the spirit of “wit, harmony, and the god of wine.” Regularly presenting concerts, the society even hosted Joseph Haydn in 1791. Smith composed the anthem as a song to celebrate music and harmony, and published the music in 1780.
The Lyrics (1814)
The War of 1812 between the nascent United States of America and the Kingdom of Great Britain saw battle once again upon the shores of the East Coast. Major George Armistead, the commanding officer of Fort McHenry 🔗 at the mouth of Baltimore Harbor desired to raise a prominent American flag to mark the fort. Major Armistead called upon local colorsmaker Mary Young Pickersgill 🔗, an accomplished crafter of flags for ships, to create a banner 42 feet wide and 30 feet high.
Along with her thirteen year old daughter Caroline, working in a local brewery – Brown’s Brewery 🔗 as it was then known, on East Lombard Street, soon thereafter sold to and thereafter known as Claggett’s Brewery – Mary crafted the great flag: fifteen stars measuring two feet across each, and thirteen stripes (eight red and seven white).
In August of 1813, the flag was completed and presented to Major Armistead.
British Naval forces entered the Chesapeake Bay on August 19, 1814, and commenced bombardment of the coastal forces. Having up until September 14, 1814 flown a storm flag, that night the great flag that the Pickersgill women had hand-crafted was hoisted over Fort McHenry, signaling the victory of American forces after twenty-five hours of shelling. The British forces had decided that Baltimore was too difficult to take, and ordered a retreat.
And the great flag flew over the fort as silence came upon the scene. At that moment, three men watched in wonder from a boat upon the water. Among the trio, poet Francis Scott Key had been observing the battle.
Key had come to Baltimore to secure the help of Colonel John Skinner, who he hoped would assist Key in freeing his recently-captured friend, then a prisoner of war, Dr. William Beanes. They were successful in negotiating the release of Beanes, but they were delayed in their return trip by the great battle. The three men knew as the shelling stopped that the Americans had won, and Key, overwhelmed with emotion, withdrew a letter he was carrying, turned it over, and upon the back, wrote some verses celebrating the victory, and the raising of the great flag, which he called a star-spangled banner.
The first verse of the poem read:
O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, 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?
The “dawn’s early light” referenced the morning of September 14, 1814, the day after the bombardment had begun. The “twilight’s last gleaming” refers to the setting of the sun the night before, September 13.
The broad stripes and bright stars were those hand-sewn by Mary and Caroline Pickersgill in Brown’s Brewery in Baltimore, and the ramparts over which it flew were those of Fort McHenry during the attack.
The rockets fired and the bombs exploding, were fired from British ships in the harbor, including H.M.S. Terror 🔗 and H.M.S. Meteor.
After safely coming ashore, Francis Scott Key checked into a Baltimore hotel, and finished his poem on the defense of Fort McHenry. He sent it to a printer, and had duplicates made on handbills to distribute.
Not long after the publication of the poem, it was soon being set to the great song of music-and-celebration, To Anacreon in Heaven, with a near-perfect fit.
The National Anthem
Despite being considered difficult to sing – after all, it was written by a composer for a music-appreciation society! – the Star-Spangled Banner became a popular patriotic song in the United States, alongside other famous patriotic songs like Hail, Columbia and My Country ‘Tis of Thee (which is, ironically, set to the same tune as God Save the Queen.)
The United States Navy first recognized the official use of The Star-Spangled Banner as an American anthem in 1889, and later acknowledged in the same capacity in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson.
It was not until March 3, 1931 that The Star-Spangled Banner was officially adopted by Congressional Resolution as the National Anthem of the United States of America 🔗.
For several different modern renditions of the National Anthem, click here to visit the official page of the National Anthem on the United States Army Band website 🔗.