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U.S. Military History: The Star-Spangled Banner

Ross Dunfee

At the outset of the 19th century, Great Britain was locked in a long and bitter conflict with Napoleon Bonaparte’s France. Both France and Great Britain attempted to block the United States from trading with the other, and restrict the USA from westward expansion. Beginning in 1812, Napoleon began to encounter the first significant defeats of his military career so Britain turned its attention to the United States. The U.S. Navy of about 20 ships was now facing the 1,000-ship strong British Navy. Ultimately, on June 18, 1812, President James Madison signed a declaration of war against Great Britain. The war of 1812 is sometimes referred to as the second American Revolution.

As U.S. sailors were captured on the high seas, they were being pressed into British service to fight against the U.S. Washington, D.C., had been captured by the British, chasing President and Dolley Madison from the White House and burning government buildings including the Presidents’ House (later known at the White House) and the U.S. Capitol building.

After a year and a half of fighting, a young American lawyer named Francis Scott Key and John C. Skinner, a U.S. government liaison agent, were sent to the British warship HMS Minden in Baltimore Harbor to negotiate release of American prisoner Dr. William Beanes. During negotiations, Key and Skinner overheard plans for an attack on Baltimore, Md., so the British detained all three until after the battle.

The British plan was to first bombard Fort McHenry from 16 warships then send lighter warships up river to bombard the rest of Baltimore. The bombardment began at dawn of Sept. 12, 1814, and at dawn on Sept. 13 the firing finally ceased after 25 hours. Fort McHenry was unable to respond to the bombardment because the ships were out of range of the fort’s guns. Then came the silence. Had the fort fallen or did the British give up?

Through the night bomb bursts and rockets illuminated the sky providing glimpses of a flying flag, but it was the rising of the sun that validated a flag was still flying. But what flag was it? As the three Americans leaned into the ship’s railing, they finally saw it. Not a white flag of surrender and not the smaller 17 ft. by 25 ft. flag that flew during the battle, but a 30 ft. by 42 ft. red, white, and blue in-your-face flag that represents freedom, independence, and liberty. Fort McHenry did not yield. The British had failed, and withdrew from Baltimore Harbor. Three months later the war was over by signing the Treaty of Ghent on Dec. 24, 1814.

As Key viewed the flag after the bombardment, he began to write a poem on the back of a letter he had in his pocket. On Sept. 16, he was released in Baltimore where he completed all four verses of the poem.

After being set to music, the song was first adopted for official use by the U.S. Navy in 1889. In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson ordered that the song should be played at military occasions; and on March 3, 1931 President Herbert Hoover signed the bill that officially adopted The Star-Spangled Banner as the national anthem.

SOT-AZ (Support Our Troops-Arizona) honors our flag, our nation, and our patriots by presenting 628 flags along the boulevards of Robson Ranch 11 to 12 times each year. Visit www.sotaz.org to learn more about Support Our Troops-Arizona.