September is a month known for many significant occasions. It is the unofficial end of summer and the end of vacation times for most of us. The first Monday is a national holiday, Labor Day, and before the wide-spread use of air conditioning, the school year started soon after that since the weather was beginning to
get cooler. In the United States, we also have a day in September when we pay tribute to grandmom and grandpop - National Grandparents Day. This year we celebrate this glorious day on Sunday, September 9th.
One of the most noteworthy things to occur in September happened 200 years ago, in September 1812. After an altercation with the British Navy, who had illegally boarded one of our ships at sea, the United States declared war on the Empire of Great Britain. It has often been called our second war of Independence and one of the most important and decisive battles of the war took place right here in Baltimore on September 14, 1814, two years into the war. The British had landed troops at North Point at the mouth of the Patapsco River and began their march on Baltimore. At the same time they lay siege to Baltimore Harbor with a fleet of warships just off Ft. McHenry, the star shaped garrison that guarded the entrance by sea to Olde Baltimore Town.
One of the more prominent citizens in those days was a man named Frances Scott Key, born in Frederick, Maryland in 1780. His father had been an officer in Washington’s Army during the Revolutionary War. The War of 1812 dragged on and in 1814, the British decided to step up the battle, invade Washington DC and set fire to many of the buildings there. Two British officers, who commanded the British land forces, set up headquarters at a plantation near Frederick which was owned by Dr. William Beanes, whom they took prisoner on a ship in the Baltimore Harbor. Dr Beanes was a good friend of Francis Scott Key and Key, who practiced law in Frederick, MD, resolved that he would get him freed.
President Madison, who also knew Key, loaned him a ship and finally persuaded the British General Ross
that Dr. Beanes should be set free. Francis Scott Key and another man named Skinner, who handled prisoner releases, sailed out to the ship holding the Doctor. They convinced the British to release their prisoner but the bombardment of Ft McHenry, that guarded Baltimore had already begun and their vessel was forced by the British to remain with their fleet through the night.
The night was pitch black, but they could see from the glare of the rockets and shells that the flag over the Fort was flying through the night. General Armistead, who commanded Ft. McHenry, figured that the British would attack the garrison so he had contracted with a Mary Pickersgill to sew up the flag for a cost of $407.00, which at the time was a tidy sum. The Star Spangled Banner that Pickersgill made was 30 feet by 42 feet and displayed 15 stars and 15 stripes representing our original 13 colonies along with the two recent additions of Kentucky and Vermont which had just joined the Union. As other States joined in later years, stars were added to show the numbers of States but the stripes were reduced to 13 to commemorate the original 13 Colonies or States.
In the morning, when the battle was over, the large flag was still flying over the ramparts and the British were withdrawing. As he watched during the night, Key had written a poem on the back of a letter about the Fort and the flag. When he arrived back on land in Baltimore, Key finished a few of the lines he had written in the darkened ship and found an officer from the Army that had routed the British forces at North Point.
Key told the Army officer to take it to a printer in Baltimore and have him print it.
Few people know any of the words in the 3 other verses of the poem and in fact one line of the fourth verse is “In God is our trust” and this is where our motto “In God We Trust” originated that is used on our currency. Key instructed that it be sung to the tune of an old British drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven”, a tune he had used once before for a song he had written called “When the Warrior Returns”, about our troops coming back from the Barbary Coast.
Francis Scott Key wrote many poems in his lifetime but few were published while he was still alive. Most of
his poetry had a religious theme and he was associated with the American Bible Society from 1818 until his
death in 1843. About 15 years after his death, most of his work was collected and published as a book.
The Star Spangled Banner, which Francis Scott Key originally called, “The Defense of Ft. McHenry”, was
adopted as America’s National Anthem around the year 1916 but it was not official and was chosen mainly because we had no official song up until that time. It has also been known from time to time as ,”Stars and Stripes Forever”.
In 1931, President Hoover signed a Congressional resolution naming it as our National Anthem and it became the official song of America. Before that time, several songs were sung and played as our National song. One of the most used was, “My Country ‘tis of Thee” which is known also as “America”. It was written by a theological student named Samuel Smith in 1831. Believe it or not, it was sung to the tune of “God Save the Queen”. Some others used were “God Bless America” and “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean” or “Hail Columbia”.
Key was a cousin of the famous author, F Scott Fitzgerald, whose full name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald. Francis Scott Key, an author, Continental Army Officer, lawyer, poet, statesman, United States Attorney General and a real American patriot died in Baltimore and is buried in Frederick Maryland. It wasn’t until 1970 that he finally made it into the Song Writers Hall of Fame for the National Anthem.