On Sept. 14, 1814, a 33 year old American patriot peered through the dark sky at daybreak anxious to see a sign of hope following the fierce 25 hour attack by British forces upon Fort McHenry. All through the night, he had been sequestered aboard a British ship, HMS Tennant.
Francis Scott Key had boarded the ship along with John Stuart Skinner, a British Prisoner Exchange Agent, on a risky and possibly dangerous mission authorized by President James Madison. The task ahead was daunting as Key hoped to negotiate the release of Americans imprisoned by the British during what became known as the War of 1812.
One of the prisoners was Dr. William Beanes, a well-respected Maryland physician and a colleague of Francis Scott Key. However, the timing of Key’s mission was fraught with danger.
Who was this brave lawyer who would risk his own safety to negotiate the release of American prisoners aboard a British warship?
Key had been born into a wealthy family in Maryland in 1779 during the Revolutionary War. He was, at age 10, an exceptional child. He was a pious and devout Episcopalian who, after first considering a career as a minister, chose to pursue studies in the law. At the age of 17 he graduated from St. John’s College in Annapolis and passed the bar in 1801.
Key established a successful law practice and married. Key was such a skilled lawyer that he appeared many times in cases before the Supreme Court. In one of those cases, he defended two men who where associates of Aaron Burr and, like the disgraced former Vice President, had been charged with treason.
Due to his moral convictions, Key was opposed to the War of 1812. He did, however, serve briefly with the Georgetown militia at a battle outside Washington in the summer 1814.
The tensions between America and Britain had flared due to conflicts with American ships and U.S. sailors being seized by British ships who were keen on disrupting trade between the United States and France.
When British forces took control of Washington, D.C., burning the White House and forcing President Madison to flee the city, many Americans were captured including Dr. William Beanes. Beanes had been arrested as he was instrumental in apprehending British solders who had been looting farms.
On September 13th, Key found himself restrained aboard HMS Tennant. Once onboard the ship to plead for the release of Dr. Beanes, Key could only watch helplessly as the battle to seize Fort McHenry began.
Certainly, the British Admiral would not allow the prisoner Dr Beanes nor the lawyer Francis Scott Key to leave the ship. Having been onboard, they had seen firsthand the position and strength of the British Navy – so it would be unthinkable to let the Americans leave the ship.
As cannons blazed and the sky darkened with smoke and haze over Baltimore’s harbor, Francis Scott key’s heart was filled with dread. What would he find when the first glow of daylight illuminated Fort McHenry?
With the dawn breaking on September 14th, Key’s eyes searched the horizon toward Fort McHnery. His heart filled with pride and relief as the light rose to unveil the American flag still flying above the fort.
Finally allowed to leave the Tennant, Key returned to Baltimore, his spirit lifted and giving thanks to God. Key was so inspired by this remarkable experience that he sat down and penned a poem entitled, “Defense of Fort McHenry”.
Francis Scott Key submitted his patriotic poem to the publisher of the “American and Commercial Daily Advertiser”. The poem, published just one week after that tense night when Key had been witness to the battle, lifted the spirits of those who read his inspiring words.
One year later, Thomas Carr adapted Keys poem into song lyrics to the music of composer John Stafford Smith. Smith had written a tune that was a favorite of Key’s called, "To Anacreon in Heaven”.
While Key’s musical tribute to America would remain popular for decades, it was not until 1916, just over 100 years later, that President Woodrow Wilson issued an Executive Order requiring military bands to play the tune on important occasions. Then, in 1931, Congress voted, and President Herbert Hoover signed, the order to make “The Star Spangled Banner” our National Anthem.