US & World

The story behind the 'Star-Spangled Banner'

American flags at the Rockefeller Center during President Obama's inauguration. What do the stripes and stars mean to you?
American flags at the Rockefeller Center during President Obama's inauguration. What do the stripes and stars mean to you?
Noel Y.C./Flickr

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We sing it at baseball games, bands play it during Olympic medal ceremonies - but what do you really know about the national anthem? It’s the tune with a high note few people can sing and words more than a few have bungled in public. Here's a refresher course on the history of the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

The banner

The poet Francis Scott Key described a giant flag that flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore.

National Park Ranger Jim Bailey points to a replica of that flag that's 30 feet tall and 42 feet wide. "Each of the 15 stripes is 2 feet in width, or as Francis Scott Key would write, 'very broad,' and each of the stars measure two feet from point to point, or as Key would write, 'very bright'.

"So the broad stripes and bright stars of the 'Star-Spangled Banner' are not a poetic exaggeration of Key. He's literally telling us, this is a giant flag."

So giant, that this 6-foot-plus ranger is only about three stripes tall.

The War of 1812

Remember the War of 1812? That’s not quite correct.

"It was actually the war of 1812, 1813, 1814 and 1815," says Bailey. Bailey says the British had torched small towns along Chesapeake Bay for about 18 months.

Finally, in August of 1814, 4,000 reinforcements arrived in 50 English warships. Britannia was ready to deliver a fatal blow against its breakaway colony.

"And one big, juicy target in the Chesapeake Bay is the national capital," says Bailey.

British troops burned the White House and forced the president to flee for his life to northern Virginia. Just down the river from Washington was the nation’s third largest city at the time.

"The city of Baltimore could see an orange glow in the southwestern horizon that night," says Bailey.

The British were coming – again. Only one fort stood in the way of protecting 50,000 Baltimoreans.

But who was Francis Scott Key and why did he write about a giant flag?

Francis Scott Key

Two weeks after the British burned down Washington, Maryland lawyer Key obtained permission from President James Madison to negotiate with the enemy for the return of an imprisoned friend. Bailey says Key boarded the British flagship, where officers invited him to dine with a general and three admirals.

"Think about sitting down and having a nice dinner with your sworn enemy who’s just trashed your national capital and asking them to pass the salt or top off that glass of port, which was what Key was doing," says Bailey. "But 198 years ago, you could be at war with someone and still be a gentleman at the table."

Still, the British were about to attack Baltimore. They agreed to let their prisoner go free, but they detained Key on his American ship. "They were going to let Key go and return to Baltimore – there just wasn’t going to be a Baltimore for Key to return to," says Bailey.

The Battle of Baltimore

Key witnessed the Battle of Baltimore from that ship, waiting to see proof that the American flag "was still there."

The city of Baltimore waited nervously to find out whether the Americans could hold back the British at nearby Fort McHenry.

As the British launched the Battle of Baltimore, Key was stuck on a ship eight miles from town, watching and waiting. But it was hard to see.

"One, it starts to rain," says Bailey. "Two, the British attack and the fort firing back produces an awful lot of smoke."

"The rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air"

Bailey says Key could catch the occasional glimpse of red, tailing from 36-pound rockets, and bursts of white, from 200-pound British bombshells.

"When he talks about the rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in air, he’s not being poetic," says Bailey. "He’s describing the battle."

Key and the 50,000 people of Baltimore endured a harrowing night with one question: who won? "And at dawn’s early light," says Bailey, "at 9 a.m. when that flag is raised and the morning gun is fired, phoom, echoing down the river, the city of Baltimore and Key can see the star-spangled banner."

Key jotted down a verbal snapshot of that battle and set the words to a popular English drinking song. It became an instant hit – and in 1931, it became the official national anthem.