In September 1814, during the War of 1812, a British fleet sailed up the Chesapeake Bay and closed in on Baltimore, Maryland. The bustling port was one of the largest cities in the young United States and a rich prize. To capture it, the British had to get past Fort McHenry, which guarded the harbor. As the ships crept upstream, their crews could see a gigantic American flag fluttering over the fort’s walls.
On September 13 the big British guns took aim at the flag and let loose a horrifying fire, including huge bombshells that often blew up in midair. When dark fell, gunpowder-filled Congreve rockets traced fiery arcs across the night sky. It was a spectacular sight.
Francis Scott Key had an agonizing view of the battle. The young American lawyer had sailed out to a British warship before the fighting began to gain the release of a friend being held prisoner. He succeeded, but the British grew concerned he might have picked up information about their plans, so they detained him as the attack got underway. Key had no choice but to wait out the night, pacing the deck and hoping the fort could hold out. When dawn’s light finally came on September 14, he spotted the Stars and Stripes still proudly waving through the smoke. Fort McHenry stood, and the British were giving up.
Overcome with emotion, Key scribbled a few lines that began, “O say, can you see by the dawn’s early light . . .” A few days later the poem was printed and distributed in Baltimore. People began singing the words to a popular tune, and soon “The Star-Spangled Banner” was a hit. More than a century later, in 1931, Congress designated the song as our national anthem.