I had no idea. "The Star-Spangled Banner” was first written as poetry and then, soon after, set to music — an English drinking song, to be precise. Yes, the tune behind our national anthem, before Francis Scott Key applied his poem “The Defence of Fort McHenry” to it in 1814, was popular in English pubs.
It’s a quirky historical fact that I never would have imagined, especially given the seeming majesty of the song. I learned of its origin during a three-day business trip last week to Baltimore, where I finally visited Fort McHenry, on the Patapsco River, which I had longed to see since I learned the story behind “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a child. Key put his poem’s first three verses to paper while he was detained by the British four miles downriver from the fort, after the redcoats had pounded the hell out of it with cannon fire but failed to take control of it.
I had three hours to spare Thursday morning, so I squeezed in a visit to the hastily constructed fort (much of it was — and still is — made of big dirt mounds). The history of the outpost, at the head of Baltimore Harbor, was fascinating. Every American should visit this national shrine at least once, if only to gain a little perspective before joining in all the hoopla over America’s anthem.
Standing on the fort’s massive red-brick ramparts, gazing southeast down the Patapsco, I imagined for a moment the fear, if not terror, that American soldiers must have felt as they stared at 19 mighty British warships lined up, ready to attack Baltimore. The British outnumbered the Americans five to one. At the time, the United States didn’t have a navy to speak of.
It was September 1814, two years into the War of 1812, which erupted because the British navy kept plundering American cargo ships, impressing (kidnapping) their crews and confiscating (stealing) their goods. The war was exactly what the British had wanted — a reason to reinvade what the empire still considered the colonies, but which was now a sovereign nation struggling to secure its place on the world stage.
The battle for Baltimore Harbor was a decisive victory for America — and among the most important of the war. Only three weeks earlier, the British had burned the nation’s capital, including the President’s House (not yet called the White House). Before Baltimore, the U.S. was in a very precarious place.
Fort McHenry withstood a full frontal assault by the British that lasted 27 hours. In all, the British launched 1,500 cannonballs and rockets at the fort. They fell at a pace of one per minute. Yet McHenry stood. Eventually, the British gave up and moved on.
Key, who opposed the war because he preferred diplomacy to battle, witnessed the melee by chance. He was a prominent attorney representing a prominent American doctor, William Beanes, who had been arrested by the British, despite having tended to enemy combatants wounded in battle. Why? Beanes had resisted when the British plundered his Maryland home.
Key made his way to the HMS Tonnant, flagship of the British fleet, to negotiate Beanes’s release, explaining that the doctor had aided British soldiers, whose officers wrote letters testifying to Beanes’s kindness, according to Smithsonian magazine. Thus Key was able to secure the doctor’s release — but only after, Key was told, the fleet blew Fort McHenry to smithereens.
So Key sat watching from the Tonnant as the fort was attacked, powerless to aid in its defense. Thick clouds of cannon smoke hung over the Patapsco. When the air finally cleared and Key first glimpsed the battered but unbroken fort, with the American flag flying high, he was so inspired that he started scribbling poetry. Thanks to Key, the battle for Baltimore Harbor will surely still be spoken about hundreds of years from now as the critical moment when the U.S. defended its very existence against the planet’s most formidable foe.
When Key finished his poem, he brought it to a publisher in Baltimore, who had the brilliant idea to set it to music. Many Americans were illiterate then. If it was to become a hit, so to speak, it had to be a song that people could sing, set to familiar music. Enter the English drinking song “To Anacreon in Heaven.”
Within weeks of its publication, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” describing the end of the battle for Fort McHenry, had spread up and down the Eastern Seaboard, stoking patriotic fervor and emboldening fearful Americans. Suddenly, it seemed, the U.S. might win the war. Most everyone wanted a flag. Key’s poem had gone viral.
America prevailed four months later, in January 1815.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” did not officially become the national anthem until 1931, so declared by President Herbert Hoover after a lobbying campaign by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
The next time you hear it, take a moment to reflect on its meaning. It’s about unity behind a single flag. Whether you kneel or stand while it’s played, it makes no difference.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.