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Americana Corner: Our National Anthem
tom hand new

Our National Anthem O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, What so proudly we hail’d 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 rocket’s 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?

The Star Spangled Banner, our national anthem, is a beautiful song. It was written as a poem entitled “The Defence of Fort M’Henry” by Francis Scott Key on September 14, 1814, the day after a terrible bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor by British forces in the War of 1812.

The war, being fought over the impressment of sailors on American ships (the British navy took sailors who were British subjects off American ships and forced them to work on British ships) and freedom of the seas, had been raging for two years.

Recently, the war had taken a turn for the worse when on August 24, British forces led by General Ross had captured and burned much of Washington, DC, including the White House (at the time called the Presidential Mansion) and the Capital building, causing President Madison to briefly flee the city.

Key, a young lawyer and aspiring poet, had been sent to Baltimore by the President to work on a prisoner exchange with the British and arrived when the attack on Baltimore was imminent. Consequently, he was being held aboard the British ship HMS Minden when the attack on Fort McHenry began on September 13.

Key awoke on September 14 by the dawn’s early light concerned if the flag he had so proudly hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming would still be visible.

He worried whether the flag with its broad stripes and bright stars that he had seen during the perilous fight was still gallantly streaming above the ramparts of the fort. Key remembered how the rocket’s red glare and the bombs bursting in air, had given proof through the night that our flag was still there.

He saw America as the land of the free, a nation based of the concept that all men are created equal, and the home of the brave, those courageous men who fought and died during the American Revolution to create this land of opportunity, as well as those that had died in the current conflict.

Further, he wondered if the country could endure the war with England. What Key and others in Baltimore Harbor saw that morning flying over Fort McHenry was the Star-Spangled Banner, or the Great Garrison Flag, the largest battle flag ever flown at the time. Fort McHenry and America had survived the test.

Key’s poem was soon set to the tune “Anacreon in Heaven”, a popular song of the day, and soon became a patriotic favorite. It was authorized for official use by the Navy in 1889 and President Wilson in 1916, and finally became our national anthem by an act of Congress on March 3, 1931 and signed into law by President Hoover.

This grand American song, written during a time of national peril and recalling the sacrifices of our Forefathers, sacrifices that helped make America the beacon of hope for much of the world, is one of our nation’s true treasures.

SUGGESTED READING Typically, we only sing the first stanza of Francis Scott Key’s poem. If you get a chance, you should read it in its entirety (four stanzas). I think you will enjoy it. If you want a copy, please e-mail me at and I will send you a pdf copy.

PLACES TO VISIT Fort McHenry National Historic Site and Shrine in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is a must see for all Americans. It is one of the best-preserved 19th century forts in America. It has an incredible Visitor and Education Center that is well worth a visit.

WHY IT MATTERS So why should the Star Spangled Banner matter to us today and why should all Americans revere it? Every country has a national identity which is largely formed by things that bring the nation together as a people. Our national anthem is one of those things.

More importantly, the words call to mind the sacrifices our Forefathers endured so that their posterity, you and I, and the nation might prosper.

Until next time, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae”, Love of country leads me.

Hand is a West Point alumnus and Ford Plantation resident. Write him at You can also now check out his blog at

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