Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Dark and Stormy Night

This is the earliest known manuscripts of Key's song.

       A storm raged over Baltimore Harbor in Chesapeake Bay 200 years ago this weekend.  It was a rain-wrapped bombardment of Fort McHenry by British naval forces.  

     On board the British ship, HMS Tonnant, a lawyer called Frank by his friends and the British Prisoner Exchange Agent, Colonel Skinner were trying to arrange the release of some American prisoners.  However, the British refused to allow them to return to their own ship as they had overheard some of the strategies being discussed and know the positions of the enemy.

     Frances Scott Key didn't believe in the war his fledgling nation had declared on Britain.  It was looking very bleak for America as the British had already burned most of the federal buildings in Washington, including the White House, and now were attacking Baltimore.  He was trapped aboard an enemy ship, watching what he assumed to be the demise of his country and hearing bombs exploding all through the night.

     As the skies barely began to lighten on the morning of September 14, 1812, he could just make out a flag flying over the fort--an American flag.  The American victory saved Baltimore from a British takeover and spelling the beginning of the end for them as well.

     Not long after his harrowing experience, Key was inspired to write about it set to the tune of a popular song of the day and entitled, "Defense of Fort McHenry."  It was quickly published in the local newspaper.  

     However, it was not until 1931 that Herbert Hoover signed legislation to make "The Star-Spangled Banner," as it came to be called, our national anthem.  Generally, only the first verse is sung, but Key wrote four verses, each ending with the words
"O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!"

Fort McHenry's flag is on display at the National Museum of American History.  Read more about it here.

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