Francis Scott Key was a lawyer living in Baltimore at a time when the United States of America was at a war with Britain that began in 1812 and by 1814 the British had successfully attacked Washington, D.C. and taken the city. At that time James Madison was the President of the United States and he and his wife, Dolly, lived in the White House.
Knowing that the British were about to invade the city of Washington, D.C. and having no army or militia that could protect it, the inhabitants fled. This included President Madison who knew that if he were captured the war would be over and America would once more be under British rule. Therefore, he left Washington, D.C. and camped out in the woods, acting as a president in hiding. His wife Dolly remained behind in the White House, hoping not to leave but preparing a chest of items to take with her in case she did.
She was expecting her husband to return in a day or two, and so was he, but as British troops moved ever closer to the city President Madison knew it was unsafe to return. When the British troops reached the edge of the city, Dolly had no choice but to leave herself. Her fear was that if she was captured by the British, she would be held as a prisoner of war and possibly used to force her husband to surrender.
Dolly already had a carriage waiting and she quickly loaded her chest with personal items. Inside the chest were not only clothing but important government documents such as minutes of the cabinet meetings which would have been of great value to the British. She also had a large portrait of George Washington taken down to make sure the British soldiers did not take possession of it. To them, George Washington was the ultimate traitor to England and they would have relished having taken from America a portrait of their most honored hero.
It is reported that as she was fleeing Washington D.C. she remembered something she had forgotten and turned back. By this time the British shoulders were marching on Washington, D.C. Once back at the White House, Dolly rushed inside the building. What she wanted was not her silverware, or china, or more clothing. She wanted to get something much more important. She grabbed the original Declaration of Independence document and the original copy of the Constitution of the United States because she didn't want these to fall into the hands of our enemies. She knew they had to be preserved for future generations to have and to cherish because these were our national treasures.
When the British troops took over the city of Washington, D.C., they set the White House on fire along with the other government buildings. It was said that the flames coming from Washington D.C. that night were so bright that they could be seen ten miles away. However, by then President James Madison and his wife had successfully managed to escape to Viriginia. From this place of safety President Madison continued doing his duty as Commander-in-Chief of our armed forces as best he could.
At the time, Washington D.C. was a small city that was still in the process of being enlarged but thirty miles north of there was the city of Baltimore which was one of the major shipping ports of the United States. It was a large important city and the British considered it to be a great prize if they could capture it so, after destroying Washington D.C. they made plans to attack Balitmore. Their plan was to attack it by both land and sea and in preparation they sailed a large number of their warships into the Chesapeak Bay.
From the bay, the ships had to go through a narrow passageway to get into Baltimore's harbor but right where the passageway was the narrowest, sat Fort McHenry that had twenty-two cannons that could easily fire down on any ships going through that inlet.
The British tried to sail their warship past this point but couldn't do it. The cannons from Fort McHenry could be angled down to hit the ships but the cannons on the warships could not be pointed upward towards the fort. Without being able to sail into Balimore harbor, Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, commander of the British fleet, decided to set up a blockade in Chesepeake bay. This not only prevented ships from sailing into Baltimore harbor with supplies for the city, but it also prevented ships from leaving Baltimore.
During this conflict, the British and Americans had both captured a number of prisoners. The British held their captives in the cargo holds of their warships which were now anchored about 1,000 feet from from Fort McHenry. President James Madison was concerned for the American prisoners and approved having Francis Scott Key and Col. John Stuart Skinner talk with Admiral Chochran to see about making a prisoner swap.
On September 3, 1814 these two men rowed out in a small boat flying the white flag of truce to the British warship, HMS Minden, which was the flagship of the naval forces and there they negotiated with the British officials. After several days of talks they eventually reached an agreement to have a one-for-one swap of prisoners, but, during their time on the HMS Minden Mr. Key and Mr. Skinner had over heard other British officers talking about the upcoming attack on Baltimore. However, when the British officials realized that these two Americans had learned of their plans they held them, along with their prisoners, on the ship, refusing to let them leave.
The plan was a classic military maneuver and one which General George Washington and Pierre Lafayette had used successfully against General Cornwallis at the battle of Yorktown in 1786. It was to be a two pronged assault. Five thousand British troops were put ashore about ten miles south of Baltimore and would march nortward to attack the city by land. Their goal was to fight their way to Fort McHenry and take possession of it. Once that was accomplished then the British warships could sail into Baltimore harbor and shell the city from the sea. But, to aid in this attack, Admiral Cochran would have his ships fire on Fort Mchenry to pin down the soldies stationed there to make it easier for the British ground troops to capture the fort.
Previously,Major George Armistead, the commander of Fort McHenry, had ordered that an extremely large American flag, with fifteen stars, be made and when it was completed he had it fly over the fort. The flag measured 30 feet high and was 42 feet long. Each of the red and white stripes on the flag were two feet wide and each of the five-pointed stars on the flag were two feet from tip to tip. Major Armistead wanted the flag to be so large that it could be easily seen from a long distance away at sea. The name that had been given to this particular flag was "the star spangled banner."
However, this now worked to Admiral Cochran's advantage because during the naval bombardment, he kept watching to see if the American flag at Fort McHenry was no longer flying and if the British flag had been raised in its place. That would be the sign that they had taken the fort.
The British had two different types of weapons on their ships. The first was Congreve rockets that were fired from the deck of the ships that left a red, glowing trail as it streaked through the air. The second weapon they used was exploding cannonballs. Each weighed 220 pounds and had a fuse that was set to explode in the air above their target that would send out 190 iron balls to rain down from the sky. By comparison, all that the soldiers at Fort McHenry had to defend themselves with were 22 regular cannons that fired tweny pound balls. To make matters worse, the British gunboats positioned themselves far enough away that the cannons at Fort McHenry couldn't reach them.
In the early morning hours of September 7, 1814 the British ships in the Chesapeake Bay began firing on Fort McHenry. The cannon barrage, which was relentelss and unmerciful in its ferocity, went on continuously for 25 hours. By the time it was over the British had fired somewhere between 1,800 and 2,000 bombshells and around 700 to 800 rockets. To make matters worse for the Americans, by mid day a thunderstorm moved in and caused a heavy rain to fall through the rest of the day. This made fighting conditions miserable for those at Fort McHenry whose guns were out in the open, unlike the British sailors whose cannons were kept dry under the deck.
During the entire battle, Francis Scott Key and John Skinner had stood on the deck of a British warship watching the unrelenting bombardment of Fort McHenry, their ears ringing from the sounds of cannon fire and the exploding bombshells. In the city of Baltimore, some ten miles away, homes shook from the concussion of the naval guns. Standing on the deck of a British ship, Mr. Key was already aware that the British had captured the city of Washington, D.C. and now he watched in dread, fearing that his own city would fall into the hands of the British.
All through the long night Francis Scott Key kept watching to see if Fort McHenry had fallen. Although, during the night, it was pitch dark, the red glare of the Congreve rockets and the cannon bombs that exploded in the air lit up the sky enough that he could see the fort. Like the British officers, he too kept looking to see which flag was flying over the ramparts of Fort McHenry.
What the British navy couldn't know at that time was that their army had been successfully repelled by the Baltimore militia and were not able to storm Fort McHenry and capture it. On the morning of September 8th the shelling stopped as the first gleaming ray of sunlight came over the horizon and the dark sky changed from twilight to sunrise. The rain had stopped but now a heavy mist hung over the water. From the deck of a British naval ship, Francis Scott Key looked through the misty fog and could see that the star spangled banner was still there. It was torn in places and looked ragged but it still waved in the morning breeze. That's when he knew for certain that Fort McHenry had not fallen and that the British had failed to capture Baltimore.
As he stood on the deck of that British ship that morning, gazing cheerfully at Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key took out a letter he had in his pocket and on the back of it he wrote a few lines of poetry about what he had just witnessed. A little later that morning Francis and the other American prisoners were allowed to go ashore as had been agreed upon. Later Mr. Key added a few more stanzas to his poem which he entitled, "Defense of Fort McHenry" but the first stanza, which he wrote that fateful morning said:
O! say can you see by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
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?
Whenever we sing our national anthem we should always remember what those words mean and whenever we see the American flag we should never forget the price that our brave soldiers paid to keep it flying and our country free.