History of The Star-Spangled Banner

Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

Today we sing The Star-Spangled Banner as the National Anthem of the United States. But it wasn't originally a song; learn its unique history and tradition in this lesson.

A Poem and a Song

When hearing the national anthem, many people tend to get a tingling sensation of pride down their spine. The Star-Spangled Banner is a patriotic song that was written during the War of 1812. Its author, Francis Scott Key, drafted it after he witnessed the American flag still waving after a night of intense bombardment by the British. Originally a poem, it was later set to music and became the national anthem of the United States. In this lesson, let's explore the history of this famous song from its roots as a poem through its formal adoption and its contemporary use.

By the Dawn's Early Light: Origins

In 1814, the United States once again squared off with the British, just as they had in the American Revolution. The young United States fought many battles in the conflict. One such skirmish was at Baltimore Harbor's Fort McHenry, located in Maryland. On the night of September 13, 1814, two major things took place.

First, the British Navy in the harbor pounded the post with a steadfast combination of nearly 2,000 bombs and shells. Many landed inside the fort and killed or wounded American soldiers. Imagine being there; nothing but destruction and misery are raining down on you with an uncertain fate.

The Battle of Fort McHenry, 1814
Fort McHenry

Second, a young lawyer named Francis Scott Key was in the area. He originally came from Washington to negotiate the release of a companion held by the British. Overhearing their plans, Key was kept under a watchful eye by the British and witnessed the salvo, convinced Britain would be victorious.

The flag which flew over Fort McHenry (restored)
American Flag

But the next morning, September 14, Key discovered something that likely made his spine tingle: The American flag, not the British banner, waved over Fort McHenry. The Americans had won and were proudly displaying their flag, albeit torn and tattered.

Key was inspired. He took out an envelope and began to draft what would later become a poem called The Defence of Fort McHenry.

Francis Scott Key
Francis Scott Key

The Rocket's Red Glare: Becoming the Anthem

Key's poem became immensely popular first in the Baltimore area and later to further parts of the country. It was printed over and over and was renamed The Star-Spangled Banner after the flag it describes. Key's words rose in popularity, and a musical number soon accompanied the patriotic verse. Ironically, the theme was a British tune by John Stafford Smith called To Anacreon in Heaven.

The setting of Key's words to Smith's tune caused The Star-Spangled Banner to become a popular patriotic tune. It was used, for example, during the Civil War (1861-1865) by the Union. But the key thing to remember is that it was not the national anthem at that time. In fact, there was then no official national anthem of the United States. There were many songs that were patriotically popular, such as Yankee Doodle and America the Beautiful.

World War I (1914-1918) saw a resurgence of the song's popularity. President Woodrow Wilson issued an executive order proclaiming it the official anthem, but it was then limited only to military use. President Herbert Hoover signed into a law a bill proclaiming The Star-Spangled Banner the official national anthem of the United States of America on March 3, 1931.

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