"Star-Spangled Banner"

Gary Scott
Historian, National Capital Area
National Park Service
1100 Ohio Drive, SW
Washington, DC 20242

Visitors to the Washington-Baltimore area will find the history and heritage of our nation’s anthem and the flag that inspired it are preserved for future generations.

Visitors to the Baltimore-Washington area have the choice of visiting several historic sites related to the early history of our country’s flag and our National Anthem.

The original "Star-Spangled Banner," which flew over Fort McHenry in the Baltimore harbor on September 13–14, 1815, during the British bombardment of the Fort in the War of 1812, now hangs in the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington. It is a huge flag of 15 stars.

A replica is often flown over Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, a unit of the National Park Service on North Point in the Baltimore harbor. A film in the visitor’s center at Fort McHenry National Monument colorfully recounts the British invasion and the Fort McHenry Battle which inspired Francis Scott Key’s poem.

As the story goes, Key’s uncle, Dr. William Beanes, a prominent physician, was entertaining several friends at dinner near Upper Marlboro, Maryland, in 1814, while British forces were marching upon Washington and passing through town. Dr. Beanes’ guests grew indignant about the invaders and attempted to arrest a few straggling soldiers who remained in town. British officers, hearing of the arrest, sent a squad of soldiers to arrest Dr. Beanes’ party. They were carried off to Admiral Cockburn’s flagship which was lying in the Patuxent River. Cockburn dismissed the guests after a lecture and took Beanes as a prisoner on his ship to Baltimore.

Francis Scott Key then hastened from Washington to Baltimore and went under a flag of truce on board the vessel to intercede with Cockburn for his uncle’s release. Key’s plea was in vain. Cockburn would not even let Key go ashore until after the bombardment of Fort McHenry. Cockburn felt that Key and his uncle knew too much about the attack plans of the British fleet to risk their release until after the battle concluded.

Now a prisoner on a British ship in the Baltimore harbor, Francis Scott Key saw the American flag flying "by dawn’s early light" over Fort McHenry. Thus inspired by the sight of his country’s flag, he put pen to page and wrote the poem "The Star-Spangled Banner." Captain Benjamin Edes, who commanded a company of the Twenty-seventh in the land Battle of North Point, printed Key’s poem at his shop on the corner of Baltimore and Gay Street, and scattered copies throughout the saved city of Baltimore. It was put to a popular tune and sung throughout the city. The tune endured and became the National Anthem.

Francis Scott Key worked as a lawyer in Georgetown in the District of Columbia. His house occupied a beautiful site on a bluff overlooking the Potomac River near what is now the Francis Scott Key Bridge. His house has since been lost, but a group of Georgetown citizens called the Francis Scott Key Foundation remembered the Key house and established the Francis Scott Key Park in Georgetown near the access ramp to the Key Bridge. The park was dedicated on September 14, 1993, the anniversary of the firing on Fort McHenry. This small park is home to a garden with landscaped walks with a panoramic view of the Potomac River and the C&O Canal. The centerpiece of the park is a bust of Key by sculptor Betty Mailhouse Dunston. The park is just a few blocks away from the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, where Key served as vestryman.

The Washington, DC, and Baltimore areas are rich with the history and heritage of our nation. Preserving these and other sites around the country for future generations is our duty as Americans.