On Flag Day (June 14), the townspeople of Frederick, Maryland will host a big celebration to kick off the year leading up to the 200th anniversary of the composition of The Star Spangled Banner.
The poem that became the anthem was written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key (1780-1843), a resident of Frederick, Maryland. The Maryland Historical Society is loaning the manuscript to Frederick so that it can be "reunited" with its author who is buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery there.
How the Anthem Came to Be Written
Key wrote the poem that was to become our national anthem while aboard a ship that was under temporary British control. The British had captured Washington D.C. on August 24, and by early September they were plotting a siege of Baltimore by planning to attack Fort McHenry, which sits at the mouth of Baltimore Harbor.
Prior to the build-up for the Battle of Baltimore, the British marched through Upper Marlborough, Maryland in mid-August in their approach to D.C. Upper Marlborough was nearly deserted as Americans had gone off to fight, but an older physician, Dr. William Beanes (1749-1828), was still in town and gave his home to the British commander, General Robert Ross, to be his headquarters.
After Washington, D.C. was taken, the British returned through Upper Marlborough, plundering local farms along the way. The few landowners who were still there plotted revenge, and one of them encouraged Dr. Beanes and another fellow to help capture and imprison a few of the British stragglers.
Word of the capture got back to General Ross who ordered that the Americans responsible be seized. He soon released the other two gentlemen but felt personally betrayed by Beanes who had seemed to be a British sympathizer. Beanes was taken back to General Ross' ship, and rumor had it that he was to be hanged.
Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old Georgetown lawyer at the time was summoned by U.S. officials to help negotiate with Britain for the release of the elderly Beanes. Key was accompanied by Colonel John Skinner, an American agent for prisoner exchange, and they sailed on a sloop flying a flag of truce. On September 3, Key and Skinner boarded the British ship where Dr. William Beanes was being held and conducted a difficult but successful negotiation. Key and Skinner were carrying letters from some of the British soldiers whom Beanes had helped after the battle for Washington.
The British confirmed that Beanes would be released, but they worried that the Americans had picked up some information about the British plans for taking Baltimore. As a result, the British released the men to the American vessel but kept them under guard throughout the attack on Fort McHenry.
The attack began at 7 a.m. on September 13, and for 25 hours the British bombarded the fort. A good number of the bombshells exploded too early, leaving red flares across the sky.
Throughout the battle, Key, Beanes, and Skinner watched from the deck of their ship until darkness made it too difficult to follow the action. Overnight, the shelling slowed; the Americans were afraid that Fort McHenry had been taken.
The next morning, Francis Scott Key, Dr. Beanes, and Colonel Skinner awoke to see that the American flag still waved above the fort. This was the moment that inspired Key. He began to write a poem on the back of a letter he had in his pocket.
The next day when Key's brother-in-law, Judge J.H.Nicholson, read the poem, he liked it so much he had it printed. Calling it, the "Defence of Fort M'Henry" Nicholson arranged for it to be handed out all over Baltimore. Nicholson also suggested the words be set to music using the tune of "To Anacreon in Heaven," a song which was popular in America at the time and happened to be a British drinking song.
In October 1814, a Baltimore actor sang the song at a local tavern, calling the song the "Star-Spangled Banner." It was an immediate success.
In March of 1931 Congress adopted it as our national anthem.
Plans for the Reunion of Author and Manuscript in Frederick
A new historic marker commemorating Key and his relationship to Frederick will be unveiled at 2 p.m. on Friday, June 14, and following that ceremony, the manuscript will be available for public viewing at Frederick City Hall. A bomb fragment from 1814--one of the British "bombs bursting in air"--will be among the other artifacts on view.
On Saturday the manuscript will still be available for public viewing, and there will be walking and bike tours of "Francis Scott Key's Frederick." Steve Vogel, the author of Through the Perilous Fight, will give a book talk Saturday afternoon.
At 3 p.m., the manuscript of The Star-Spangled Banner will be taken to Mount Olivet Cemetery, where Key is buried, and there will be a ceremonial reunion. Accompanying it will be horse-mounted units from the National Capital Park Police - Montgomery County, and U.S. Army Old Guard units, including the Colonial Fife and Drum Corps, the Colorguard, and an Escort Platoon.
At the cemetery, Tracie Luck, a professional opera singer and Frederick native, and the Fort McHenry Guard Fife and Drum Corps will perform The Star Spangled Banner.
Key was born in Frederick County (a section that later became part of Carroll County), and he married and began his law career in Frederick in the early 1800s.
For more information on the weekend's activities, visit the Frederick, Maryland website. Frederick is a part of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground, a non-profit four-state partnership dedicated to raising awareness of the rich American heritage in the region.
For more stories about America's past, visit www.americacomesalive.com