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Saturday, July 2, 2016


Rendition of Francis "Frank" Scott Key aboard
an American sloop 8 miles from Fort McHenry
On a rainy September 13, 1814, British warships sent a downpour of shells and rockets onto Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor, relentlessly pounding the American fort for 25 hours. The bombardment, known as the Battle of Baltimore, came only weeks after the British had attacked Washington, D.C., burning the Capitol, the Treasury and the President's house. It was another chapter in the ongoing War of 1812.

A week earlier, Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old American lawyer, had boarded the flagship of the British fleet on Chesapeake Bay in hopes of persuading the British to release a friend, Dr. William Beanes, who had recently been arrested. Key's tactics were successful, but because he and his companions had gained knowledge of the impending attack on Baltimore, the British did not let them go. They were not held captive on the British ship as some believe, but allowed to return to their American vessel but with the British guarding them. Under their scrutiny, Key watched on September 13 as the barrage of Fort McHenry began eight miles away. His brother-in-law was commander of a militia at the fort, so Key could not have been an unconcerned onlooker.

"It seemed as though mother earth had opened and was vomiting shot and shell in a sheet of fire and brimstone," Key wrote later. But when darkness arrived, Key saw only red erupting in the night sky. Given the scale of the attack, he was certain the British would win. In the clearing smoke of "the dawn's early light" on September 14, he saw the American flag—not the British Union Jack—flying over the fort, announcing an American victory.

In addition to a thunderstorm of bombs, a torrent of rain fell on Fort McHenry throughout the night of the Battle of Baltimore. The fort's 30-by-42-foot garrison flag was so massive that it required 11 men to hoist when dry. If waterlogged, the woolen banner could have weighed upwards of 500 pounds and would have snapped the flagpole. So, as the rain poured down, a smaller storm flag that measured 17-by-25-feet flew in its place. In the morning, most likely the rain-soaked storm flag would have been taken down and the larger one hoisted--and that's the flag Key would have seen by "dawn's early light".

Key put his thoughts on paper while still on board the ship, setting his words to the tune of a popular English song. His brother-in-law read Key's work and had it distributed under the name "Defence of Fort M'Henry." The Baltimore Patriot newspaper soon printed it, and within weeks, Key's poem, now called "The Star-Spangled Banner," appeared in print across the country, immortalizing his words—and forever naming the flag it celebrated.

Flag that flew over Fort McHenry in 1814
Today, the flag that flew over Fort McHenry in 1814 is housed at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. To preserve this American icon, experts at the National Museum of American History recently completed an eight-year conservation treatment with funds from Polo Ralph Lauren, The Pew Charitable Trusts, and the U.S. Congress. And when the museum reopened in summer 2008, the Star-Spangled Banner was at its centerpiece, displayed in its own state-of-the-art gallery.

Started in 1996, the Star-Spangled Banner preservation project—which included the flag's conservation and the creation of its new display in the renovated museum—was planned with the help of historians, conservators, curators, engineers and organic scientists. With the construction of the conservation lab completed in 1999, conservators began their work. Over the next several years, they clipped 1.7 million stitches from the flag to remove a linen backing that had been added in 1914, lifted debris from the flag using dry cosmetic sponges and brushed it with an acetone-water mixture to remove soils embedded in fibers. Finally, they added a sheer polyester backing to help support the flag.

Adding linen backing in 1914

"Our goal was to extend [the flag's] usable lifetime," says Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, the conservator for the project. “The intent was never to make the flag look as it did when it first flew over Fort McHenry,” she says. "We didn't want to change any of the history written on the artifact by stains and soil. Those marks tell the flag's story."

While the conservators worked, the public looked on. Over the years, more than 12 million people peered into the museum's glass conservation lab, watching the progress.

"The Star-Spangled Banner resonates with people in different ways, for different reasons," says Kathleen Kendrick, curator for the Star-Spangled Banner preservation project. "It's exciting to realize that you're looking at the very same flag that Francis Scott Key saw on that September morning in 1814. But the Star-Spangled Banner is more than an artifact—it's also a national symbol. It evokes powerful emotions and ideas about what it means to be an American."

In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson announced that it should be played at all official events. It was adopted as the national anthem on March 3, 1931.

Francis Scott Key, circa 1825
Francis Scott Key was born on August 1, 1779, at Terra Rubra, his family’s estate in Frederick County (now Carroll County), Maryland. He became a successful lawyer in Maryland and Washington, D.C., and was later appointed U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.

On June 18, 1812, America declared war on Great Britain after a series of trade disagreements. At first, Key disapproved of the U.S. decision to declare war. But then,  in August 1814, British troops invaded Washington, D.C., and burned the White House, Capitol Building, and Library of Congress. Their next target was Baltimore.

Although Key loathed politics, he was a prominent figure in Washington, D.C. Key ran a thriving law practice, served as a trusted advisor in Andrew Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet”, and was appointed a United States Attorney in 1833. He prosecuted hundreds of cases, including that of Richard Lawrence for the attempted assassination of Jackson, and argued over 100 cases before the United States Supreme Court. Francis Scott Key died of pleurisy on January 11, 1843.

Caroline Clemmons is the author of numerous books, including the Bride Brigade series. The latest of that series is OPHELIA, Bride Brigade Book 4, available at Amazon in print and e-book.




  1. Thanks for sharing this history. Hope you have a joyous 4th of July.

  2. Thank you for the history lesson! Some of it I knew, but also learned something new! Happy 4th to you and your family!

  3. Outstanding! Great post for Independence Day. Loved it.


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