The Bugler

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O say can you see by the dawn's early light,

In September of 1814 a young Maryland lawyer, Francis Scott Key, penned the words to what ultimately came to be known as "The Star Spangled Banner." The inspiration for the flag however came earlier. According the National Park Service website, George Armistead was a young artillery officer who actively participated in the American attack on Fort George in upper Canada on May 18, 1813. He was awarded the honor of delivering the captured British flags to President James Madison. On his taking command of Fort McHenry in June 1813, Armistead ordered a flag made "so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance."

But, let us back up a couple of years. The War of 1812 was important because Britain continued to have forts in the northwest territories of America as well as colonies in Canada. The British were also continually forming alliances with the Native American tribes to stop American settlers from moving West. However, President Jefferson and later President Madison tried to remain neutral and instead tried a trade embargo. Unfortunately, a trade embargo was the last thing the northeastern states wanted because so much of the region's income was dependent on trade with Europe.

The British strategy was multipronged, but one of the most important aspects was a blockade of the eastern seaboard. One of the most important cities in the United States in 1812 was Baltimore, Maryland. Baltimore was the fourth largest city and was a center for international shipping. According to The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects, Baltimore was "a staunchly anti-British city, and it harbored hundreds of privateers who had been granted the right by Madison to attack and take British ships."

By the late summer of 1814, Baltimore was the young nation's last hope. In early August the British had torched Washington D.C. and "only Fort McHenry, guarding the city's harbor, stood in the way of British victory." (Smithsonian)

The ensign flying over the fort had been made by a Baltimore seamstress, Mary Pickersgill, who was charged with the duty of making two flags. According to Smithsonian, Mary "had learned her craft from her mother, who had sewn flags and uniforms for George Washington's Continental Army. The large, thirty-by-forty-two-foot garrison flag was made from worsted-wool bunting, with fifteen stars against an indigo background, eight red stripes and seven white ones. Each stripe was twenty-three inches wide and the stars were two feet across. The flag cost $405.90."

On September 13, 1814, the bombs and shrapnel started falling over Fort McHenry. Young Francis Scott Key, who for religious and other reasons had not been an advocate of the war, had still done his duty and enlisted. On the day of the battle he was in a boat in the harbor, in British custody, because he had been traded in exchange for the release of an American civilian in custody. This young man, who was considered an amateur poet, spent the night in the harbor waiting to see what the fate of the nation would be.

Did you Know that the First Stanza Ends with a Question Mark?

As dawn broke and the large garrison flag was still flying he quickly penned the famous words that have been sung countless times in America and was designated the national anthem by Congress in 1931.

The first stanza ends:

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

When the song is sung it definitely sounds like a statement is being made, that the banner is still waving over the land. We have no way of knowing what Key was thinking as he ended this stanza with a question mark - it is hard to believe that after a night in the harbor he questioned whether Americans were brave but as a slaveholder himself he may have questioned whether it truly was the land of the free.

The poem was set to the music of a popular British song and was entitled "Defence of Fort M'Henry." The poem described his experience and was published in the Patriot on September 20, 1814. Ironically, it was Key's brother-in-law and law partner, Roger B. Taney, who helped popularize the account of the song's writing. Taney went on to become chief justice of the United States and the author of the infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857, which solidified the legal status of slavery and let it spread into the western territories and helped spur the War Between the States.

For further information on the young Maryland lawyer, Francis Scott Key, see

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