The Star-Spangled Banner

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 Star Spangled Banner. Percy Moran, artist, c1913. Prints & Photographs Division

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.

Francis Scott Key. Theodor Horydczak, photographer, ca. 1920-50. Horydczak Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

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.

Flag which floated over Fort McHenry, [June 4/14]. June 4, 1914. National Photo Company Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

The tattered flag that flew at Fort McHenry has been on display for many years at the Smithsonian Institution. The present Star-Spangled Banner exhibitionExternal 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.

Fort McHenry, Baltimore, Maryland. Carol M. Highsmith, photographer, [between 1980 and 2006]. Highsmith (Carol M.) Archive. Prints & Photographs Division

Learn More

  • Read an essay, accompanied by illustrations, sheet music, and sound recordings, about 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 War of 1812: A Resource Guide 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.

Sherwood Anderson

American writer Sherwood Anderson was born on September 13, 1876, in Camden, Ohio. He is best known for his short stories—”brooding Midwest tales”—which reveal “their author’s sympathetic insight into the thwarted lives of ordinary people.”1 Between World War I and World War II, Anderson helped to break down formulaic approaches to writing, influencing a subsequent generation of writers, most notably Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. Anderson, who lived in New Orleans for a brief time, befriended Faulkner there in 1924 and encouraged him to write about his home county in Mississippi.

Portrait of Sherwood Anderson. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, Nov. 29, 1933. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

As he grew somewhat sleepy but was still conscious, figures began to appear before his eyes…. They were all grotesques. All of the men and women the writer had ever known had become grotesques.

The grotesques were not all horrible. Some were amusing, some almost beautiful…. For an hour the procession of grotesques passed before the eyes of the old man, and then, although it was a painful thing to do, he crept out of bed and began to write. Some one of the grotesques had made a deep impression on his mind and he wanted to describe it.

From “The Book of the Grotesque”External. In Winesburg, Ohio,External by Sherwood Anderson. New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1919.

Portrait of Sherwood Anderson, Central Park[New York]. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, June 3, 1939. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

The third child of a harness-maker and house painter who had a fondness for storytelling, Anderson received an uneven education. As a young man, he was intent on establishing his financial independence. He married, had three children, and worked, with growing dissatisfaction, in the business world until 1912, when he suffered a nervous breakdown.

Between 1912 and 1922, Anderson worked as a copywriter at a Chicago advertising agency and wrote fiction in his spare time. In Chicago, he encountered writers Carl Sandburg, Floyd Dell, Theodore Dreiser, and others associated with the Chicago literary renaissance, a flowering of letters sustained by a group of young writers many of whom, like Anderson, had come of age in small Midwestern towns in the late nineteenth century. The movement, which flourished from approximately 1912 to 1925, began as early as 1893, when several young Midwestern writers were drawn together in Chicago for the opening of the 1893 World’s Fair.

Anderson’s first novel, Windy McPherson’s SonExternal, published in 1916 through the efforts of Theodore Dreiser and Floyd Dell, is an autobiographical work about a young man’s success in the business world that he later rejects. Anderson’s 1919 collection of short stories, Winesburg, OhioExternal, is considered his finest work. In 1921, Anderson met writer Gertrude Stein, whose innovative writing influenced his development as a young writer. Anderson would later write in the autobiographical A Story Teller’s Story that the occasion of his reading Stein’s Tender Buttons was perhaps the first time he “really fell in love with words, wanted to give each word I used every chance to show itself at its best.”

A Literary Map of Ohio. Donald Wenty, designer; Columbus: Martha Kinney Cooper Ohioana Library Association, 1983. Courtesy of the Ohioana Library Association. From the exhibition Language of the Land: Journeys Into Literary America

Beyond the last house on Trunion Pike in Winesburg there is a great stretch of open fields…. In the late afternoon in the hot summers when the road and the fields are covered with dust, a smoky haze lies over the great flat basin of land. To look across it is like looking out across the sea. In the spring when the land is green the effect is somewhat different. The land becomes a wide green billiard table on which tiny human insects toil up and down.

From “Departure”External. In Winesburg, OhioExternal, by Sherwood Anderson. New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1919.

  1. John A. Garraty, ed., “Sherwood Anderson,” Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 3: 1941-1945 (New York: American Council of Learned Societies), 1973. (Return to text)

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