Behind The Lyrics Of America’s National Anthem

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The Star-Spangled Banner is motivational and moving. It’s a connective thread from one American to another and is known to inspire the world over. Although it became the official national anthem of the United States on March 3, 1931, the story of how it came to be and why it represents Americans begins nearly a century earlier during the War of 1812 – another victory for America.

It all started on Sept. 12, 1814 when Francis Scott Key, a well-connected skilled attorney and John Stuart Skinner, an American Prisoner Exchange Agent set out to negotiate the release of a U.S. citizen from the British.

Attorney Key and Agent Skinners’ mission was to meet in Baltimore and together board a British vessel, coined a “truce ship,” to collect a prisoner – 65-year-old physician, Dr. William Beanes, who was also a hero warrior of the War of Independence.

When Key and Skinner met with British soldiers, they were told that although Dr. Beanes would be released into their custody, it would not be immediate. Why? The British were in the throes of an attack on nearby Fort McHenry and the Brits feared the three Americans would alert the soldiers at the Fort if the prisoner transfer occurred.

Over the course of the next 36 to 48 hours, Key and the others watched helplessly as the attack on Fort Henry was executed. Historic records note that throughout the night of Sept. 13, 1814, and into the early morning hours of the next day, there were piercing sounds and images of “rockets and bombs… intense gunfire” that could be heard and viewed from miles away.

After an agonizing night and right after dawn on September 14, Key and the others “[could] see the Fort and the American flag.” Their view of the raised American flag coupled with the “eerie silence that had settled over the [Baltimore] harbor” left no doubt the attack on Fort McHenry was over and the British were in retreat.

Once released with prisoner in hand, Key is reported to have stayed at the Indian Queen Hotel, where he wrote the four stanzas that eventually became our national anthem – a collection of feelings and words grounded in faith, patriotism and love of country enjoyed by generations of Americans on the Fourth of July and so many, many other occasions. To read the words of the Star-Spangled Banner, click here.

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