As the evening of September 13, 1814, approached, Francis Scott Key, a young lawyer, was detained in Baltimore harbor under guard by the British navy. The British were occupying the harbor, planning to attack Baltimore during the War of 1812. A week earlier, Key had boarded a British ship to negotiate the release of his friend, an American physician, from British forces.
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.
Francis Scott Key, “The Star-Spangled Banner”
The two men were released to an American vessel, which the British forces then held in the harbor until after their planned attack. Throughout the night and into the early hours of the next morning, Key watched as the British bombed nearby Fort McHenry with military rockets. As dawn broke, he was amazed to find not the Union Jack, but rather the American flag flying above the fort, tattered but intact.
Key’s experience during the bombardment of Fort McHenry inspired him to pen the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He adapted his lyrics to the tune of “Anacreon in Heaven”, the official song of the Anacreontic Society, an 18th-century gentlemen’s club of amateur musicians in London. The song with Key’s lyrics soon became the de facto national anthem of the United States of America. Congress officially recognized it in 1931.
British forces had disembarked on September 12 at the mouth of the Patapsco River to begin an assault on the city of Baltimore. The following day, British Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane commenced a naval bombardment of the fort, the last remaining barrier to the city. The siege of Baltimore, which came close on the heels of the British occupation of Washington, D.C., was a turning point in the war.
Turned back on land and at sea, the British abandoned their attempt to capture Baltimore on September 14. Four months later, they signed the Treaty of Ghent, which brought the war to an end.
The tattered flag that flew at Fort McHenry has been on display for many years at the Smithsonian Institution. The present Star-Spangled Banner exhibition External at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History features the flag along with the story of its construction, and its history until the present day. The museum’s staff continue to preserve this icon, whose cotton and wool fibers have been endangered by time and exposure.
- Read an essay accompanied by illustrations, sheet music, and sound recordings of The Star Spangled Banner in Patriotic Melodies, a series of special features about this and other patriotic songs presented by the Library’s Music Division.
- Search on Star Spangled Banner in the following collections to view different copies of the national anthem, some with colorfully illustrated covers. Search on patriotic music or patriotic song for more examples of musical Americana.
- Learn more about the history of the American flag by visiting the Today in History feature for Flag Day.
- Search across the Library of Congress collections and in the newspapers in Chronicling America on the word flag, and the phrases stars and stripes, old glory or Star Spangled Banner to read stories and see photographs of the American flag.
- Search the Library’s motion picture collections on the same words and phrases: flag, and the phrases stars and stripes, old glory or Star Spangled Banner, for early motion pictures featuring the American flag.
- Visit A Guide to the War of 1812 for a wide variety of material associated with the war, including manuscripts, broadsides, pictures, government documents, and book titles. The guide provides links to Library of Congress resources as well as other websites.
- Learn more about Ft. McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland from the National Park Service.