The Defence of Fort McHenry and the Star-Spangled Banner

On this day in 1814, attorney Francis Scott Key pens a poem originally titled “The Defence of Fort McHenry.” It was written after Key witnessed the Maryland fort being bombarded by the British during the War of 1812. Key was present on a truce ship to negotiate for the return of a prisoner. He was so inspired by the sight of a lone U.S. flag still flying over Fort McHenry at daybreak, he put the vision to words immediately.

Fort McHenry was built on the site of the former Fort Whetstone, which had defended Baltimore from 1776 to 1797 on Whetstone Point peninsula, jutting into the opening of Baltimore Harbor. The Frenchman Jean Foncin designed the new 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.

A bastioned pentagon, the structure featured a dry, broad trench; this 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.

Authorities named the fort after early American statesman James McHenry (1753-1816), a Scots-Irish immigrant and surgeon-soldier. A delegate to the Continental Congress from Maryland and a signer of the United States Constitution, he was later 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 ships continuously bombarded Fort McHenry for 25 hours. The poor accuracy on both sides resulted in very little damage to either combatant before the Brits, 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.

Key’s work was printed in newspapers and eventually set to the music of a popular English drinking tune called “To Anacreon in Heaven” by composer John Stafford Smith. In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson announced that it should be played at all official events and it was adopted as the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner” on March 3, 1931.

Now, play ball.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.

What say you, the people?