“The Star-Spangled Banner”


A description of bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British Navy, with hopes for the survival of the United States. Either you already know the song, or you don't care. (Perhaps both.)


For the history of this tune, see the notes to "To Anacreon in Heaven." The folklore about the poem is too widely known (and too exaggerated) to bear repeating here; Spaeth has a sort of debunking, with some less-known details, in _A History of Popular Music in America_, 41-46, and there are a few notes about Francis Scott Key's part in the Battle for Baltimore in the discussion below.

In several senses this is not a folk song (in part because it's so difficult to sing) -- but it is well-enough known that its inclusion is at least understandable....

The War of 1812 showed clearly how much stronger the British Empire was than the then-still-new United States. In 1812 and 1813, the British had been putting all their energy into fighting Napoleon, and given the Americas only the dregs (not only did they send only a bare handful of troops to Canada, they reportedly held sent only second-rate generals, using the best and brightest against Napoleon; see John K. Mahon, _The War of 1812_, Da Capo, 1972, p. 144) -- and they *still* held the Americans to a draw: At the end of 1813, the British still held Canada, and while the Americans had had some success at sea, by 1813 their handful of ships were mostly pinned down in blockaded ports (see Mahon, p. 122, for a list of ships involved).

1814 should have seen the British, now free of Napoleon, settle the American hash -- and they did succeed in permanently occupying some of the coast east of what is now the state of Maine. They set out to do far more, planning three major offensives (at Lake Champlain, Chesapeake Bay, and Louisiana). For the first of these, which was one of the most absurd displays ever put on by the British army, see the notes on "The Siege of Plattsburg."

The Chesapeake Campaign was the best-run of the three British attacks of 1814 -- and, overall, the most successful. The war by this time had turned rather bitter as there had been a series of atrocities along the Canadian border (started, we must note,by the Americans, who destroyed the Canadian settlement of Newark as well as the future Toronto, though the British treatment of American prisoners was bad enough that they had nothing to complain about; the sad thing is that the innocent Canadians suffered for the faults of the English government).

The British had responded to the American war crimes by burning Buffalo, e.g., and had raided Chesapeake Bay in 1813 (the British commander in the area, Admiral Cockburn, did so much damage that the Americans accused him of enjoying looting; see Mahon, p. 115), but this was to be altogether bigger. A large fleet, and an army contingent commanded by Major General Robert Ross (who had served under Wellington) were sent to raid the Bay in the late summer of 1814. Their goal was not conquest; it was to keep the Americans from sending major forces against Prevost's (utterly mishandled) Champlain expedition (see Walter R. Borneman, _1812: The War that Forged a Nation_, pp. 219-220).

On August 19, 1814, Ross took his troops ashore at Benedict, Maryland, southeast of Washington, D.C. (Borneman, p. 222).

The American response showed a level of ineptitude that would make George W. Bush's Iraq planning look good. Faced with an army at the gates of the U. S. capitol, President Madison chose a political general who had already demonstrated his military ineptness to command in the vicinity of Washington (apparently he hoped William H. Winder's political connections would allow him to raise more militia; Borneman, p. 223; Donald R. Hickey, _The War of 1812_, p.196). Winder would show great energy but absolutely no ability to develop plans (Hickey, pp. 196-197).

The weather was dreadfully hot (Borneman, p. 225; Hickey, p. 198), but the Americans made no attempt to harass the overburdened British. On August 24, Ross's troops brushed past the handful of American defenders at Bladensburg, incidentally putting President Madison under fire; he retreated even faster than his soldiers. The battle also saw Secretary of State Monroe giving orders to the soldiers -- something he was not entitled to do, and his orders were in any case bad (Hickey, p. 197). The Americans were so thoroughly routed that the battle was christened the "Bladensburg Races" (Borneman, p. 228). The British promptly entered Washington -- which was so deserted that Ross couldn't even find anyone to offer up a surrender (Hickey, p, 199).

Ross's forces were better behaved than the Americans. They did burn a handful of private buildings -- but, almost without exception, it was because those houses were used for military purposes. Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin's house, for instance, was torched because snipers in the house had slain one British soldier, wounded three others, and killed General Ross's horse under him (Borneman, p. 229). But mostly the invaders concentrated on buildings such as the White House, the Treasury Building, and the Capitol (Borneman, pp. 230-231). Saddest of all was the torching of the Library of Congress, though the invaders were convinced to let the Patent Office stand (Hickey, p. 199).

The British were not there to stay; having done their damage, they headed back to their ships on August 25 (Borneman, p. 232). Even so, Secretary of War John Armstrong was forced to resign (Borneman, p. 234; Hickey, p. 202).

The next day, the British set out for Baltimore, a much more developed port, with a larger population and a more important shipping center -- but defended by Fort McHenry, plus many earthworks and a much more effective force of militia. It was also much more enthusiastic for the war; soon after the conflict began, a newspaper uttered an anti-war statement -- and the city broke out in riots; the paper's equipment was damaged, and a number of Federalists, including even Revolutionary War hero "Light Horse Harry" Lee, were beaten, in some cases to death or permanent injury (see Hickey, pp. 60-67; John K. Mahon, _The War of 1812_, p. 33)

General Ross apparently thought the raid on Baltimore not worth the trouble -- the psychological damage of the attack on Washington could only be dissipated (Borneman, p. 238). He was overruled; on September 11, the British headed north.

The attack on Baltimore was to come from both land and sea, with the navy attacking Fort McHenry while the army came around the other side. Both prongs of the attack came to grief. Ross was killed by a sharpshooter on September 12 (Borneman, pp. 242-243), and his second-in-command wasn't nearly as inspiring.

The naval assault was a matter of sound and fury and not much else. Fort McHenry was dirt over masonry, hard to subdue by cannon -- and the waters around it were very shallow (Borneman, p. 239; Hickey, p. 203). The navy could not get close to the fort. In fact, they had to stand out so far that the fort's short-range guns could not even reach them. So, on the night of September 13, British mortar vessels fired wildly at the fort, and the bomb _Terror_ (of future Franklin Expedition fame; see the notes to "Lady Franklin's Lament (The Sailor's Dream)" [Laws K9]) fired her rockets (Borneman, p. 244). The fort could not answer, but she suffered only four killed and a couple of dozen wounded; she was still perfectly capable of holding off the British army (Borneman, pp. 244-246).

That was pretty much the end of the siege of Baltimore, though it was a month before the last British forces left the vicinity. The naval commander, Admiral Cochrane, headed for Halifax with part of the fleet; the rest, plus the army, retreated to Jamaica, refitted, took on a new commander by the name of Pakenham, and headed toward a place called New Orleans.

It is sometimes stated that Francis Scott Key was a prisoner on the British fleet. He was not. He was in fact a Baltimore lawyer trying to negotiate the release of a doctor-turned-spy named William Beanes. Beanes was not popular with the British, who considered his behavior particularly egregious (and, if the description in Borneman, pp. 240-242, is accurate, it appears they had a point). The British finally agreed to let him go -- but by that time, they were committed to the attack on Baltimore, so Key, his colleague John S. Skinner, and Beanes had to wait beside H.M.S. _Tonnant_ until it was over (Hickey, pp. 203-204).

The bombardment started during the day, but continued well into the night, and with the fort unable to fire on the British ships, the only way to tell it was still resisting was to observe its flag -- hard to do at night. Apparently Beanes was constantly pestering Key, who had a telescope, to find out if the famous oversize flag was still flying (Borneman, pp. 245-246). Hence Key's song, which he scribbled that night, and elaborated later, was first published as "The Defense of Fort McHenry." Since this event, combined with the victory at Plattsburg two days sooner, caused the British to decide for peace, the siege, and the song associated with it, because immensely popular, and came to be seen as a great American victory -- even though the British had suffered no real casualties except Ross and had done the Americans far more damage at Washington than the Americans caused at Baltimore.

The conflict could not have gone on much longer. The American government was flat broke (had there been someone to force it into bankruptcy, it would surely have done so; loans went unsubscribed and Treasury notes were depreciating fast. To raise such money as it could, the govenment ended up having to pay $16 for every $10 raised! -- see Hickey, pp. 165-167. By late 1814, the government was defaulting on its notes -- Hickey, p. 224 -- and its notes were discounted 25-40%. At one point the interest on the debt exceeded the government's entire estimated income -- Hickey, p. 247).The Americans for a time were actually seeing their credit financed by a British bank! (Hickey, pp. 223-224). Hickey?s final estimate is that the government borrowed a total of $80 million, but because of the way the loans were subscribed, picked up only $34 million in specie. The rest was lost to interest, depreciated notes, and peculiarities of the method of borrowing.

The situation was so bad that Federalist New England was making noises about secession and nullification (Borneman, pp. 255-256; Hickey, pp. 270-280, devotes most of a chapter to the "Hartford Convention," which was called to consider withdrawing from the Union; in the end, it did not do so, but it did propose seven constitutional amendments to make it harder to declare war [where was that in 2003?], to end re-election of presidents, to bar consecutive presidents from the same state, to open up trade, and to stop counting slaves toward the totals for congressional representation. The amendments were actually passed by Massachusetts and Connecticut).

Luckily for the Unites States, the British were tired of fighting, too -- due more to Napoleon than to anything the Americans had done, but it was still war-weariness. The British, knowing they had most of the cards, dragged their feet in the negotiations (Borneman, pp. 264-267), but two sides eventually made peace essentially on the basis of the status quo -- no territory handed over by either side, not changes in law, no changes in anything.

Theoretically, that meant the grievances that started the war were still there. But the Americans were ironically successful: They had survived the first two years of the war mostly because Britain was distracted. In 1814, Britain was no longer distracted -- but with Napoleon gone, the British again wanted free trade, and with the navy shrinking, they didn't need to impress sailors, so they didn't have to do any of the things that had offended the Americans. (The Americans would later use this as a justification for dropping their demands on the issue; Hickey, p. 289.) Peace was possible mostly because no one really wanted to continue the war. - RBW

Historical references

  • Sept 13, 1814 - Battle of Fort McHenry. Key allegedly wrote this poem the following morning, when he saw the flag still waving

Same tune

  • The National Grass Plot (Greenway-AFP, p. 63)

Cross references


  1. Krythe 2, pp. 15-39, "The Star-Spangled Banner" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. Silber-FSWB, p. 300, "The Star Spangled Banner" (1 text)
  3. Fuld-WFM, pp. 529-534+, "The Star Spangled Banner"
  5. BI, MKr015


Author: Words: Francis Scott Key/Music: John Stafford Smith (?)
Earliest date: 1814
Found in: US(All)