Saturday, September 16, 2023


By Catherine Ulrich Brakefield

         Americans hoped the Revolutionary War of 1776 had shown Britain that the United States was a power to be reckoned with.  Little did anyone dream that thirty-six years later, the United States would be forced to declare war against the British superpower to protect their sailors, ships, and Northwest frontiers in the bloody war of 1812.

         Nor that one man who did not approve of this war would risk his life during a battle. What changed him seemingly overnight? How could one man one night write a song that would weather the protocols of generations, is sung at sporting events, and reverenced by statesmen and every military unit? How could this one man, an amateur poet, become the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” America’s national anthem?

         So was the case for Francis Scott Key. Born August 1, 1779, in Frederick County, Maryland, to an affluent family. He entered St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, at the age of ten.


His dedication for his Lord set his thoughts first to become an Episcopal priest. And though he did pursue a profession as a lawyer, his passion for helping the poor continued throughout his life’s journey. He served as a lay rector for many years, leading services and visiting the sick. Among the poems he wrote, many dealt with religious themes and he wrote several hymns.

         He first practiced law under the guidance of Judge Jeremiah Townley Chase. Key passed the bar in 1801. He had a thriving private practice. He lived in his Georgetown home with his wife Mary Tayloe Lloyd, whom he fondly nicknamed Polly. Little did he know he would be instrumental in the War of 1812, during the height of a military confrontation.  

         The stench of the burning buildings of Washington D.C. was still fresh in his nostrils. He’d served in a Georgetown militia unit at the Battle of Bladensburg. The British were victorious on that August day 1814 against the ill-equipped American units. This victory by the British allowed them to march onto Washington D.C.  and gleefully burn down the Capitol, the president’s house, and other government buildings.

         Now, this early September of 1814 Key was asked to perform a potentially dangerous mission. Bean’s family approached Key and Army Colonel John Skinner to go to the British admiral’s ship docked in Baltimore and negotiate the release of his friend William Beans, a physician from Upper Marlborough, Maryland.

         The feisty 65-year-old physician confronted British soldiers who had broken in and plundered his Upper Marlboro, Maryland, home. One soldier complained to his officer. William Beans was placed under arrest.

         His family hoped that Key, being a prominent Washington attorney, could effectively negotiate his release. Key acquired the necessary authorizations to do so. As Skinner’s and Key’s steps resonated against the ship’s deck, his thoughts revolved like a whirlwind. One of the reasons for entering this war was because Britain captured American vessels and confiscated American sailors for British ships. Would he ever see his beloved Polly again? 

         While being escorted to the captain, waiting for his turn to finalize the prisoner release arrangements, he overheard the British plans to attack Baltimore’s Fort McHenry. They acted as if the fort was in their hands already. After all, the captain hauntingly said that with the British victory at Bladensburg and the consequent burning of Washington, D.C., it would be an easy victory to burn Fort McHenry to embers and capture the port city of Baltimore. Baltimore was far more important than Washington because it was strategically located for their ships.

         Perhaps the thought crossed Key to pretend he didn’t hear, hoping he could warn his fellow Americans. That idea was terminated when the British laid hold of him, Skinner, and Beans. The British refused to release them until after the battle was won. Key knew, as did the British, if the fort fell—so could the nation.

         They were forced to watch the constant bombardment of Fort McHenry. During the daylight hours, it was hard to miss that gigantic flag waving down at them from the fort. History recorded the size to be 30’ high and 40’ wide.

         He watched the sun’s departure and darkness engulfed their ship. Key dreaded seeing the red flames licking hungrily toward the blackened and smoke-filled sky, and the sight of their beloved, but burned, capital awakened in his mind’s eye.

         The bombs lighting up the sky showed the Stars and Stripes bravely waving. How long would it stand before the inevitable happened? The rockets licked the darkness with fevered intensity. And with every burst of red from the British artillery, the Stars and Stripes boldly, tautly waved over the ramparts.

         The three men waited helplessly, praying for a miracle. Upon that morning’s first beam—as dawn’s early light appeared across the horizon, is that the Stars and Stripes? Half concealed, half disclosed—their flag was still there! Dauntlessly it stood, tattered and frayed, it caught the gleam of the morning’s light—waving down to them as if to say, “This is my home and I’m not leaving!”


The very sight of those broad stripes and bright stars sent his fingers plunging into his pockets for paper and pen as he hurriedly scratched down the immortal words of what we now know as the United States national anthem. 

         By sea and by land, that brave band of American patriots weathered every attack. The odds of them winning were insurmountable, and the ending looked dismal; the rockets and bombs burst the air in a mighty roar of consuming hatred. Still, American forces refused to admit defeat and the Stars and Stripes sang out vauntingly amidst the havoc of war and hopelessness—and turned a defeat into a victory!

          Americans proved they could withstand a great world power. The enemy’s foot soldiers, its shells, and mortars were no match against that type of determination, faith, and fortitude of the American spirit, a benevolent spirit, that “blessed the power that has made and persevered us a nation. Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, and this be our motto—‘in God is our Trust.’” (See below “Star-Spangled Banner”)

         The British had to abandon their land and sea assault on the crucial port city of Baltimore. This became a turning point in the War of 1812.

         In a Baltimore hotel, the amateur poet Key rewrote the poem and printed it anonymously under the title “Defense of Fort M’Henry.” On September 20 it was published by the Baltimore Patriot and set to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven.” It became one of several popular patriotic songs.

         Key never knew it became America’s national anthem. It took more than a hundred years for that to evolve. During the Civil War it became a powerful expression of patriotism, with its emotional and enduring symbol of a still-new nation marching forever forward for truth and freedom for all Americans. Irish Immigrants, which I tell in Swept into Destiny. “No refugee could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave. And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” (See Star-Spangled Banner below)

         In 1889, the song was recognized by the U.S. Navy who sang it when raising and lowering the flag. It was proclaimed in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson to be the national anthem of the armed forces. It did not become the nation’s official anthem until March 1931.

         Through the years, the song has seen variations in both words and music. In 1917 an official arrangement was prepared by Walter Damrosch and John Philip Sousa for the army and navy. The third stanza is customarily omitted out of courtesy to the British. Key’s original lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner” are written below:


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 strips and bright stars through the perilous fight

O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?


And the rocket’s red glare, the bomb 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?


On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep

Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,

What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,

As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?

Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,

In full glory reflected now shines in the stream,

’Tis the star-spangled banner—o long may it wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!


And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,

That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion

A home and a Country should leave us no more?

Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.


O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand

Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!

Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land

Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

And this be our motto— “In God is our Trust,”

And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.


         This September and every day after, never forget Key’s words and those valiant patriots who attributed their victory to the blessings of God. “Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!” (See above Star-Spangled Banner)

         Nothing is impossible when your motto is, “In God is our trust.”

Swept into Destiny   
One brave decision leads to serious consequences. A new republic looms on the horizon as Maggie secretly educates the slaves at Spirit Wind Manor. With the fires of civil war glowing on the horizon, Maggie is swept into its embers. The handsome Irish immigrant Ben McConnell joins the Union Army, and Maggie is forced to call him her enemy… As the battle between North and South rages, Maggie wonders if Ben is right. Had the Irishman perceived the truth of what God had predestined for America?

Catherine says, "My readers inspire me to write." She is an award-winning author of inspirational historical romances Wilted Dandelions, Swept into Destiny, Destiny’s Whirlwind, Destiny of Heart, and Waltz with Destiny. Love’s Final Sunrise is her first Amish suspense.

Catherine lives with her husband of 51 years and has two adult children and four grandchildren. See for more information about her books. 


  1. Thank you for telling the history of this beautiful song!

    1. Connie, I am so happy you enjoyed the history behind the song! God Bless!