On September 14, 1814, 35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key began writing a poem he called “Defence of Fort M’Henry” after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by British ships of the Royal Navy in Baltimore Harbor during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. Key was inspired by the large American flag known as the Star-Spangled Banner flying triumphantly above the fort during the American victory. Soon after completing the poem, it was was set to the tune of a popular British song written by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, a men’s social club in London. “To Anacreon in Heaven” (or “The Anacreontic Song”), with various lyrics, was already popular in the United States. Set to Key’s poem, it received its first public performance in October 1814.
Renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner”, it soon became a well-known American patriotic song. With a range of one octave and one fifth (a semitone more than an octave and a half), it is known for being difficult to sing. Although the poem has four stanzas, only the first is commonly sung today.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” was recognized for official use by the United States Navy in 1889, and by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. It was made the national anthem of the United States of America by a congressional resolution on March 3, 1931 (46 Stat. 1508, codified at 36 U.S.C. § 301), which was signed by President Herbert Hoover.
Before 1931, other songs served as the hymns of American officialdom. “Hail, Columbia” served this purpose at official functions for most of the 19th century. “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”, whose melody is identical to “God Save the Queen”, the British national anthem, also served as a de facto anthem. Following the War of 1812 and subsequent American wars, other songs emerged to compete for popularity at public events, among them “The Star-Spangled Banner”, as well as “America the Beautiful”.
On September 3, 1814, following the Burning of Washington and the Raid on Alexandria, Francis Scott Key and John Stuart Skinner set sail from Baltimore aboard the ship HMS Minden, flying a flag of truce on a mission approved by U.S. President James Madison. Their objective was to secure an exchange of prisoners, one of whom was Dr. William Beanes, the elderly and popular town physician of Upper Marlboro and a friend of Key’s who had been captured in his home. Beanes was accused of aiding the arrest of British soldiers.
Key and Skinner boarded the British flagship HMS Tonnant on September 7 and spoke with Major General Robert Ross and Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane over dinner while the two officers discussed war plans. At first, Ross and Cochrane refused to release Beanes, but relented after Key and Skinner showed them letters written by wounded British prisoners praising Beanes and other Americans for their kind treatment.
Because Key and Skinner had heard details of the plans for the attack on Baltimore, they were held captive until after the battle, first aboard HMS Surprise and later back on HMS Minden. After the bombardment, certain British gunboats attempted to slip past the fort and effect a landing in a cove to the west of it, but they were turned away by fire from nearby Fort Covington, the city’s last line of defense.
Fort McHenry was built on the site of the former Fort Whetstone, which had defended Baltimore from 1776 to 1797. Fort Whetstone stood on Whetstone Point (today’s residential and industrial area of Locust Point) peninsula, which juts into the opening of Baltimore Harbor between the Basin (today’s Inner Harbor) and Northwest branch on the north side and the Middle and Ferry (now Southern) branches of the Patapsco River on the south side.
The Frenchman Jean Foncin designed the fort in 1798, and it was built between 1798 and 1800. The new fort’s purpose was to improve the defenses of the increasingly important Port of Baltimore from future enemy attacks. The new fort was constructed in the form of a five-pointed star surrounded by a dry moat — a deep, broad trench. The moat would serve as a shelter from which infantry might defend the fort from a land attack. In case of such an attack on this first line of defense, each point, or bastion could provide a crossfire of cannon and small arms fire.
Fort McHenry was named after early American statesman James McHenry, a Scots-Irish immigrant and surgeon-soldier. He was a delegate to the Continental Congress from Maryland and a signer of the United States Constitution. Afterwards, he was appointed United States Secretary of War (1796–1800), serving under Presidents George Washington and John Adams.
Beginning at 6:00 a.m. on September 13, 1814, British warships under the command of Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane continuously bombarded Fort McHenry for 25 hours. The American defenders had 18-, 24- and 32-pounder (8, 11, and 16 kg) cannons. The British guns had a range of 2 miles (3 km), and the British rockets had a 1.75-mile (2.8 km) range, but neither guns nor rockets were accurate. The British ships were unable to pass Fort McHenry and penetrate Baltimore Harbor because of its defenses, including a chain of 22 sunken ships, and the American cannons. The British vessels were only able to fire their rockets and mortars at the fort at the weapons’ maximum range. The poor accuracy on both sides resulted in very little damage to either side before the British, having depleted their ammunition, ceased their attack on the morning of September 14. Thus the naval part of the British invasion of Baltimore had been repulsed. Only one British warship, a bomb vessel, received a direct hit from the fort’s return fire, which wounded one crewman.
The Americans, under the command of Major George Armistead, lost four killed — including one African-American soldier, Private William Williams, and a woman who was cut in half by a bomb as she carried supplies to the troops — and 24 wounded. At one point during the bombardment, a bomb crashed through the fort’s powder magazine. Fortunately for the Americans, either the rain extinguished the fuse or the bomb was a dud.
An oversized American flag had been sewn by Mary Pickersgill for $405.90 in anticipation of the British attack on the fort. During the rainy night of September 13-14, Key witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry and observed that the fort’s smaller “storm flag” continued to fly, but once the shell and Congreve rocket barrage had stopped, he would not know how the battle had turned out until dawn. On the morning of September 14, the storm flag had been lowered and the larger flag had been raised.
Key was inspired by the American victory and the sight of the large American flag flying triumphantly above the fort. This flag, with fifteen stars and fifteen stripes, had been made by Mary Young Pickersgill together with other workers in her home on Baltimore’s Pratt Street. The flag later came to be known as the Star-Spangled Banner and is today on display in the National Museum of American History, a treasure of the Smithsonian Institution. It was restored in 1914 by Amelia Fowler, and again in 1998 as part of an ongoing conservation program.
Aboard the ship the next day, Key wrote a poem on the back of a letter he had kept in his pocket. At twilight on September 16, he and Skinner were released in Baltimore. He completed the poem at the Indian Queen Hotel, where he was staying, and titled it “Defence of Fort M’Henry”.
Much of the idea of the poem, including the flag imagery and some of the wording, is derived from an earlier song by Key, also set to the tune of “The Anacreontic Song”. The song, known as “When the Warrior Returns”, was written in honor of Stephen Decatur and Charles Stewart on their return from the First Barbary War.
Key gave the poem to his brother-in-law Judge Joseph H. Nicholson who saw that the words fit the popular melody “The Anacreontic Song”, by English composer John Stafford Smith. This was the official song of the Anacreontic Society, an 18th-century gentlemen’s club of amateur musicians in London. Nicholson took the poem to a printer in Baltimore, who anonymously made the first known broadside printing on September 17; of these, two known copies survive.
On September 20, both the Baltimore Patriot and The American printed the song, with the note “Tune: Anacreon in Heaven”. The song quickly became popular, with seventeen newspapers from Georgia to New Hampshire printing it. Soon after, Thomas Carr of the Carr Music Store in Baltimore published the words and music together under the title “The Star Spangled Banner”, although it was originally called “Defence of Fort M’Henry”. Thomas Carr’s arrangement introduced the raised fourth which became the standard deviation from “The Anacreontic Song”. The song’s popularity increased, and its first public performance took place in October, when Baltimore actor Ferdinand Durang sang it at Captain McCauley’s tavern. Washington Irving, then editor of the Analectic Magazine in Philadelphia, reprinted the song in November 1814.
The song gained popularity throughout the 19th century and bands played it during public events, such as July 4th celebrations. A plaque displayed at Fort Meade, South Dakota, claims that the idea of making “The Star Spangled Banner” the national anthem began on their parade ground in 1892. Colonel Caleb Carlton, Post Commander, established the tradition that the song be played “at retreat and at the close of parades and concerts.” Carlton explained the custom to Governor Sheldon of South Dakota who “promised me that he would try to have the custom established among the state militia.” Carlton wrote that after a similar discussion, Secretary of War, Daniel E. Lamont issued an order that it “be played at every Army post every evening at retreat.”
On July 27, 1889, Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy signed General Order #374, making “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official tune to be played at the raising of the flag.
By the early 20th century, there were various versions of the song in popular use. In 1916, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson ordered that “The Star-Spangled Banner” be played at military and other appropriate occasions. Seeking a singular, standard version, Wilson tasked the U.S. Bureau of Education with providing that official version. In response, the Bureau enlisted the help of five musicians to agree upon an arrangement. Those musicians were Walter Damrosch, Will Earhart, Arnold J. Gantvoort, Oscar Sonneck and John Philip Sousa. The standardized version that was voted upon by these five musicians premiered at Carnegie Hall on December 5, 1917, in a program that included Edward Elgar’s Carillon and Gabriel Pierné’s The Children’s Crusade. The concert was put on by the Oratorio Society of New York and conducted by Walter Damrosch. An official handwritten version of the final votes of these five men has been found and shows all five men’s votes tallied, measure by measure.
The playing of the song during the seventh-inning stretch of Game One of the 1918 World Series, and thereafter during each game of the series is often cited as the first instance that the anthem was played at a baseball game, though evidence shows that the “Star-Spangled Banner” was performed as early as 1897 at opening day ceremonies in Philadelphia and then more regularly at the Polo Grounds in New York City beginning in 1898. In any case, the tradition of performing the national anthem before every baseball game began in World War II.
On April 10, 1918, John Charles Linthicum, U.S. Congressman from Maryland, introduced a bill to officially recognize “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. The bill did not pass. On April 15, 1929, Linthicum introduced the bill again, his sixth time doing so.
On November 3, 1929, Robert Ripley drew a panel in his syndicated cartoon, Ripley’s Believe it or Not!, saying “Believe It or Not, America has no national anthem”.
In 1930, Veterans of Foreign Wars started a petition for the United States to officially recognize “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. Five million people signed the petition. The petition was presented to the United States House Committee on the Judiciary on January 31, 1930. On the same day, Elsie Jorss-Reilley and Grace Evelyn Boudlin sang the song to the Committee to refute the perception that it was too high pitched for a typical person to sing. The Committee voted in favor of sending the bill to the House floor for a vote. The House of Representatives passed the bill later that year. The Senate passed the bill on March 3, 1931.
President Herbert Hoover signed the bill on March 4, 1931, officially adopting “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem of the United States of America. As currently codified, the United States Code states that “[t]he composition consisting of the words and music known as the Star-Spangled Banner is the national anthem.”
The song is notoriously difficult for nonprofessionals to sing because of its wide range — a 12th. Humorist Richard Armour referred to the song’s difficulty in his book It All Started With Columbus:
“In an attempt to take Baltimore, the British attacked Fort McHenry, which protected the harbor. Bombs were soon bursting in air, rockets were glaring, and all in all it was a moment of great historical interest. During the bombardment, a young lawyer named Francis Off Key [sic] wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner”, and when, by the dawn’s early light, the British heard it sung, they fled in terror.“
— Richard Armour
Professional and amateur singers have been known to forget the words, which is one reason the song is sometimes pre-recorded and lip-synced. Other times, the issue is avoided by having the performer(s) play the anthem instrumentally instead of singing it. The pre-recording of the anthem has become standard practice at some ballparks, such as Boston’s Fenway Park, according to the SABR publication The Fenway Project.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” is traditionally played at the beginning of public sports events and orchestral concerts in the United States, as well as other public gatherings. The National Hockey League and Major League Soccer both require venues in both the U.S. and Canada to perform both the Canadian and American national anthems at games that involve teams from both countries (with the “away” anthem being performed first) . It is also usual for both American and Canadian anthems (done in the same way as the NHL and MLS) to be played at Major League Baseball and National Basketball Association games involving the Toronto Blue Jays and the Toronto Raptors (respectively), the only Canadian teams in those two major U.S. sports leagues, and in All Star Games on the MLB, NBA, and NHL. The Buffalo Sabres of the NHL, which play in a city on the Canada–US border and have a substantial Canadian fan base, play both anthems before all home games regardless of where the visiting team is based.
Two especially unusual performances of the song took place in the immediate aftermath of the United States September 11 attacks. On September 12, 2001, the Queen broke with tradition and allowed the Band of the Coldstream Guards to perform the anthem at Buckingham Palace, London, at the ceremonial Changing of the Guard, as a gesture of support for Britain’s ally. The following day at a St. Paul’s Cathedral memorial service, the Queen joined in the singing of the anthem, an unprecedented occurrence.
The 200th anniversary of the “Star-Spangled Banner” occurred in 2014 with various special events occurring throughout the United States. A particularly significant celebration occurred during the week of September 10–16 in and around Baltimore, Maryland. Highlights included playing of a new arrangement of the anthem arranged by John Williams and participation of President Obama on Defender’s Day, September 12, 2014, at Fort McHenry. In addition, the anthem bicentennial included a youth music celebration including the presentation of the National Anthem Bicentennial Youth Challenge winning composition written by Noah Altshuler.
United States Code, 36 U.S.C. § 301, states that during a rendition of the national anthem, when the flag is displayed, all present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart; Members of the Armed Forces and veterans who are present and not in uniform may render the military salute; men not in uniform should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold the headdress at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart; and individuals in uniform should give the military salute at the first note of the anthem and maintain that position until the last note; and when the flag is not displayed, all present should face toward the music and act in the same manner they would if the flag were displayed. Military law requires all vehicles on the installation to stop when the song is played and all individuals outside to stand at attention and face the direction of the music and either salute, in uniform, or place the right hand over the heart, if out of uniform. A law passed in 2008 allows military veterans to salute out of uniform, as well.
However, this statutory suggestion does not have any penalty associated with violations. 36 U.S.C. § 301 This behavioral requirement for the national anthem is subject to the same First Amendment controversies that surround the Pledge of Allegiance. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not sing the national anthem, though they are taught that standing is an “ethical decision” that individual believers must make based on their “conscience.”
The flag that flew during that episode in history became a significant artifact. It remained in the possession of Major Armistead, who was promoted to brevet lieutenant colonel, and his family for many years. Eben Appleton, Colonel Armistead’s grandson, inherited the flag in 1878. In 1907, he lent it to the Smithsonian Institution, and in 1912 it was made a formal gift. Today it is permanently housed in the National Museum of American History, one of the Smithsonian Institution museums on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The flag was given to the museum in 1912, and has undergone multiple restoration efforts after being originally restored by Amelia Fowler in 1914.
Due to environmental and light damage a four phase restoration project began in May 1999. In the first phase, the team removed the linen support backing that was attached to the flag during the 1914 restoration. The second phase consisted of the most comprehensive, detailed examination of the condition and construction of the Star-Spangled Banner to date, which provided critical information for later work. This included scientific studies with infrared spectrometry, electron microscopy, mechanical testing, and determination of amino acid content by a New Zealand scientist, and infrared imaging by a NASA scientist. Planning and executing a cleaning treatment for the flag following scientific analysis was the third phase. In the fourth and final phase of the project, curators, scientists and conservators developed a long-term preservation plan. The restoration was completed in 2008 at a total cost in excess of $21 million.
Following the reopening of the National Museum of American History on November 21, 2008, the flag is now on display in a two-story display chamber that allows it to lie at a 10-degree angle in dim light. The Smithsonian has created a permanent exhibition to document the flag’s history and significance, called “The Star-Spangled Banner: The Flag that Inspired the National Anthem”. Visitors are allowed a clear view of the flag, while it remains protected in a controlled environment.
The National Museum of American History produced an online exhibition in conjunction with the reopening of Flag Hall in 2008. An interactive component allows site visitors to closely explore features of the flag in detail, download an audiodescriptive tour of the exhibition for the visually-impaired, and hear the song performed on original instruments from the National Museum of American History’s collection.
Scott #1320 was released on October 26, 1966, in Sioux City, Iowa, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Savings Bond program and to honor the servicemen fighting the wars the bonds are designed to support. The 5-cent stamps was designed by Stevan Dohanos, a member of the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee. Mr. Dohanos based his design on a photograph of the flag and the Statue of Liberty by Bob Noble that appeared in the New York Herald Tribune on October 29, 1961. The stamp was lithographed and engraved by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, printed on the Giori press and issued in panes of fifty stamps each, perforated 11. An initial printing of 120 million stamps was authorized of which 115,875,000 were issued. It was first placed on sale on in Sioux City, where students of North Junior High School conceived the idea for a patriotic stamp in tribute to our service members.
United States Savings Bonds are debt securities issued by the U.S. Department of the Treasury to help pay for the U.S. government’s borrowing needs. U.S. Savings Bonds are considered one of the safest investments because they are backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government.
On February 1, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation that allowed the U.S. Department of the Treasury to sell a new type of security, thus the savings bond was born. One month later, the first Series A savings bond proceeded to be issued with a face value of $25. At first, the main purpose was to help finance World War II. These were referred to as Defensive Bonds. On April 30, 1941 Roosevelt purchased the first bond from Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr.. The next day, they were made available to the public.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Defensive Bonds were informally known as War Savings Bonds, citizens could buy the bonds for a dime. All the revenue coming in from the bonds went directly to support the war. Even after the war ended, savings bonds became popular with families. Unlike before, people started to just wait to cash them so the bonds would grow in value. To help sustain post-war sales, they were advertised on television, films, and commercials. When John F. Kennedy was president, he encouraged Americans to purchase them, which stimulated a large enrollment in savings bonds.
In 1990, Congress created the Education Savings Bond program which helped Americans finance a college education. A bond purchased on or after January 1, 1990, is tax-free (subject to income limitations) if used to pay tuition and fees at an eligible institution.
In 2002, the Department of the Treasury’s Bureau of the Public Debt made savings bonds available for purchasing and redeeming online. Finally, on January 1, 2012 banks and other financial institutions terminated their sales of bonds. Currently, Americans can only buy U.S. savings bonds online at http://www.treasurydirect.gov/.