O, Say Can You See?
The War of 1812
Who: The U.S. against Great Britain and its American Indian allies.
Why: The U.S. wanted to end British attacks on merchant ships and British support of American Indians around the Great Lakes. The British wanted to block U.S. trade with France, its longtime enemy.
Started: June 1812
Ended: December 24, 1814. The Battle of New Orleans took place two weeks later because news of the peace treaty had not arrived.
If you have ever been to a U.S. sporting event—professional, college, or high school—you know the routine. People stand, some place right hands over their hearts, men take off their hats, soldiers salute, maybe fighter jets roar overhead. Then, six of the most recognizable musical notes in American culture are played, and the crowd belts out the first five words: “O say can you see …”
Most people then mumble through the rest of the song. A recent poll reports that two-thirds of Americans do not know all the words to the first verse of their own national anthem.
Perhaps if people know the amazing history of how this song came to be, they might find it easier to remember. Here is the story behind the “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Francis Scott Key
The commander of Fort McHenry, George Armistead, ordered “a flag so large that the British would have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.” The giant 42-foot by 30-foot banner was sewn by Mary Pickersgill.
This 15-star flag, the Star-Spangled Banner that inspired Francis Scott Key’s poem, has been carefully preserved. Today it hangs in the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
Francis Scott Key was an American lawyer and an amateur poet. He and many other Americans were not all that happy when the U.S. declared war on Great Britain, starting the War of 1812. The British war machine greatly outgunned the young U.S. army and navy. The war was also bad for American business, since Great Britain had been the biggest trading partner of U.S. merchants.
U.S. forces struggled to match the British on land, sea, and the Great Lakes. Then in August 1814, British forces raided Washington, D.C. They torched the White House, the buildings that housed Congress, and other government buildings. The destruction of the U.S. capital was a huge blow to American morale. But it also fired up a lot of Americans, including Francis Scott Key, to get behind the U.S. war effort.
It was against this backdrop that “The Star-Spangled Banner” got its words. On September 13, 1814, Key and a U.S. official rowed over to a British warship at the mouth of the Patapsco River outside of Baltimore, Maryland. Their mission was to seek the release of some American prisoners.
The meeting with the British officers went well, and they even dined together. But when it came time for Key and his companions to paddle home, their hosts said hold your rowboats.
The Americans had seen too much. British ships were moving into position to blast the daylights out of Fort McHenry, about eight miles away. Once they captured the fort, British troops would then raid the city, like they had in Washington. The British could not let Key and the others report on what they had seen.
Meanwhile, the Americans had very good seats for the fireworks. British ships let loose with their cannon as night fell. Hour after hour, they lobbed rockets and shells at the fort, more than 1,500 ka-booms in all.
As dawn neared, Key squinted through the gloom and smoke. He prepared himself to see his fears fulfilled: the British flag flying over Fort McHenry. But wait. Was that …? Was it …? It sure was. A huge American flag still waved there. The British attack had failed and Baltimore was saved.
During World War II, Major League Baseball began the tradition of performing the “The Star-Spangled Banner” before games. Other sports soon followed suit.
As soon as Key was released, he pulled an envelope from his pocket and began writing on the back. Out poured a poem about how the U.S. had withstood Great Britain’s armed might:
Oh 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?
Interestingly, Key put the words to a (gasp) familiar drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” written by (gasp) British composer John Stafford Smith. Also, Key—the man who described the U.S. as “the land of the free”—owned slaves, an ugly truth of the time. History is often weirder than fiction.
Key’s poem/song became a big hit almost immediately. Within a week of the battle, it was printed up under the title of “Defence of Fort McHenry.” Newspapers up and down the U.S. included the heroic verses in their pages. But a music printer soon took the liberty of changing the title to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” That, of course, was the name that stuck.
The song remained popular throughout the 1800s and was often played at military ceremonies. But it was not yet the national anthem. That had to wait until 1931, when Congress passed the bill making it so, and President Herbert Hoover signed it into law. Americans have been standing up and singing it—at least the first five words—ever since.
The National Anthem Project promotes the learning of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Every year, it encourages schools to celebrate National Anthem Day on September 14th. For more information, check out their Web page at thenationalanthemproject.org.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” has its critics. Some Americans complain that it celebrates war and should be reserved for military ceremonies. Others simply grumble that it is too hard to sing with a range that is out of reach for the average vocalist. Suggested replacements have included “America the Beautiful,” “God Bless America,” and “This Land is Your Land.”
Francis Scott Key penned four verses to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Only the first verse is sung at most occasions. Occasionally, though, a performance will include the fourth verse, too.