The Star Spangled Banner

by Francis Scott Key (1779-1843)

“O say, can you see by the dawn’s early light…”

As a national anthem, the familiar first verse of Francis Scott Key’s is known to many, but how many know the complete original poem?

history of the star spangled banner

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 rocket’s red glare, the bomb’s 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!

On that shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, now conceals, now discloses?
Now it catches the beam, of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream;
‘Tis the star-spangled banner! O, long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave;
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

O, thus be it ever where freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heaven rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto, “In god is our trust”;
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!


Francis Scott Key

Francis Scott Key was an attorney and an amateur poet and hymnist.  He is
best known as the author of “The Star Spangled Banner”, the national
anthem of the United States.  His poem, which was later set to
the music of the English drinking song “To Anacreon in Heaven”, gave
new meaning to an ordinary garrison flag and is a symbol of pride and
patriotism across the United States.

Key was born on August 1, 1779
in Frederick, Maryland.  He grew up on his family’s estate, known
as “Terra Rubra”, and attended grammar school before graduating form
St. John’s College at seventeen.  Key had established his law
practice by 1805 in Georgetown, Maryland, and had appeared before
the Supreme Court on several occasions by 1814.  Key was a religious
man, and, although opposed to the war, he served for nearly one year
in the Georgetown Light Field Artillery. 

Key wrote “The Star Spangled
Banner ” in 1814, following Britain’s attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore. 
As the twenty-five-hour bombardment on the fort ended with the British
retreat, Key looked out a porthole found that the American flag “was
still there.”  This image along with America’s victory over the
British inspired him to pen the poem that would become our national
anthem.

Following the war, Key returned
to the legal profession, serving as the United States District Attorney. 
He continued to write poems occasionally, and he wrote several hymns for
the Episcopal church.  He died of pleurisy on January 11, 1843.


The History of the Real Star Spangled Banner

The creation of the original flag is still a debated subject. 
However, the general story accepted by most historians is that Mary
Pickersgill was commissioned to make the flag by Major George Armistead
for $405.90.  Armistead is reported to have requested a garrison
flag that was so big that “the British would have no trouble seeing
it from a distance.”  The completed flag, made from 400 yards of
wool bunting, measured 30 feet by 42 feet and had fifteen stars, representing
the fifteen colonies that existed at that time, eight  red stripes
and seven white stripes. 

Following the victory at Fort McHenry, the flag was preserved
by Col. Armistead and it remained in the Armistead family. Some say the
flag was altered at one point.  A red chevron was added to one of
the white stripes on the flag and one of the stars is missing, as is the
fly edge.  The significance of the chevron has never been fully understood,
but is is suspected that it was sewn on by a member of the Armistead family
with the intention of the symbol representing an “A” for Armistead. 
The missing pieces are believed to either  have been given away as
momentos by the Armistead family or that they are simply damage from the
battle at Fort McHenry. 

The nature of the possible battle damage to the flag
varies among witnesses and has led historians to theorize that there
were actually two flags present at Fort McHenry.  A smaller one
which was flown during the actual battle, and a larger one that was
flown as a replacement immediately after the British retreat. 
This was a common wartime practice of the period.  While no one
can say for sure what really happened, documents exist that show that
Mary Pickersgill was paid for two separate flags, a small one and
a larger one. If the smaller flag exists, its whereabouts are unknown.

In 1907, George Armistead’s grandson, Eben Appleton, expressed
interest in donating the flag to the state of Maryland or to the city of
Baltimore. After discussions with Maryland’s governor and the Mayor of
Baltimore, Appleton eventually placed the flag on loan to Smithsonian Institution
and it was displayed in the Hall of History at the National Museum of American
History.  The loan was converted to a gift in 1912 and can still be
seen at the National Museum in Washington, D.C.