It was on this day in 1814 that Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that became “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The British had invaded and captured Washington on August 24th. After successfully destroying the White House, the Capitol building, and a lot of Washington, the British moved on to Baltimore, and had no interest in occupying it — they just hoped to destroy as much as possible, as a symbolic victory.

The British made their headquarters in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, and took over the plantation of the town doctor, Dr. William Beanes, who was elderly and well-liked. A young lawyer, Francis Scott Key, was incensed when he heard that Beanes had been captured and was being held on a ship, so he set off to rescue him.

Key was accompanied by John S. Skinner, an agent for prisoner release whom President Madison had sent along. The British commander, General Robert Ross, finally agreed to release Beanes after the Americans showed them some letters written by wounded British prisoners saying that Dr. Beanes was taking good care of them. But he wouldn’t let the three men leave until after the attack on Baltimore. They had to get on a sloop behind the British fleet and wait to see what would happen.

At Fort McHenry in Baltimore, there was a huge flag, 30 feet by 42 feet, easily visible from the British ships. Each of the 15 stars measured two feet between the points, and the stripes were two feet wide. A Baltimore seamstress and her 13-year-old daughter had sewn the flag by spreading it all out on the malthouse floor of a local brewery.

The British attacked Baltimore throughout the day on September 13th, and that night they sent more than 1,500 bombs, rockets, and cannon balls across the water at Fort McHenry. But Baltimore had been preparing for war for the past year, and it was well defended. Suddenly, the British stopped firing. From their boat, Francis Scott Key and the other men had no idea whether the British had succeeded or given up and retreated, and they could no longer see the harbor now that the sky was dark. So they had to wait all night, until the sky was light enough to see which flag was flying over the fort. And of course, the next morning the American flag was there.

Francis Scott Key scribbled down some ideas for a poem on the back of a letter that he was carrying. He was released later that day, and the next day, September 14th, he finished writing “Defense of Fort M’Henry,” which would later become the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” in a room at the Indian Queen Hotel.

Within five days, the poem was printed and circulated all over Baltimore with the directions that it should be sung to the tune of an English song, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” No one is sure exactly who figured out that the lyrics fit the tune of this popular drinking song. A well-known actor, Ferdinand Durang, stood on a chair and belted it out to an appreciative crowd at Captain McCauley’s tavern and became the first person to publicly sing what is now the national anthem of the United States.

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