History Of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ Anthem

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Fireworks (file / credit: RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images)

Fireworks (file / credit: RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Have you ever wondered why our national anthem ends with a question — “Oh! say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

The truth is it doesn’t.

What most people know as “The Star-Spangled Banner” is actually just the first of four stanzas of the hymn.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” – A History

In 1931, Congress passed a law declaring the “Star-Spangled Banner” to be America’s national anthem. Yet it was written over a century earlier, in 1814, and originally called “The Defence of Fort McHenry.”

The inspiration for the hymn was one crucial battle in the War of 1812, that helped preserve American liberty.

America Declares War

With Britain and France locked in the Napoleonic Wars, the British Royal Navy faced a problem — there were British sailors abandoning the fleet, especially for the more lucrative service on American merchant ships. So the Royal Navy began to stop and board American ships, searching for British sailors. They also impressed American merchants, forcing them to serve on Royal Naval ships.

So the U.S. declared war on Great Britain.

D.C. Falls To British

On August 24, 1814, the British took Washington, D. C., torching the city and the White House. Afterwards, the British moved up the Chesapeake Bay and headed to Baltimore, which was defended by the massive Fort McHenry and its 1,000 defenders.

On one of the British ships was William Beanes, an aged physician who was much loved in Maryland. He was taken prisoner, and a young lawyer named Francis Scott Key boarded the ship to try to get the doctor released.

The British captain agreed, but his release would have to wait, because the Royal Navy was about to attack the fort.

Oh! say, can you see…

If Fort McHenry fell, then Baltimore would have been defenseless and the British could have split America in two. If the British retreated, the American forces could rally and lock the British in Baltimore. Fort McHenry’s guns outranged those of the British guns, but victory was not certain.

Key and Beanes proudly hailed the American flag flying over the fort, at the twilight’s last gleaming.

And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air…

Then British guns began firing. The ships also fired a new weapon: a rocket that burned red when launched. Although it was inaccurate, it did outrange the fort’s own guns.

The battle raged for 25 hours, and the “rockets’ red glare” from the exploding British rockets “gave proof through the night” to Key and Beanes “that our flag was still there,” waving over the fort.

By the morning, the guns fell silent. Key and Beans struggled to see the fort through the mist and smoke. The flag atop Fort McHenry would tell who won.

Either the Union Jack flew overhead, and the fort fell, and the country would be divided in half, or the bombardment failed, the British fleet turned back in retreat, and the red, white and blue was still flying over the fort.

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave…

Our flag was still there, on top of Fort McHenry. And as for “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,” the Royal Navy was sailed away in retreat.

After this battle, Key wrote a poem to honor the American victory, both asking if the flag remained atop Fort McHenry, and answering his own question. These are his words:

“The Star-Spangled Banner”

Oh! say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed 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 thro’ the night that our flag was still there.
Oh! 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 thro’ the mist 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 on the stream
‘Tis the star-spangled banner. Oh! 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 washed 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.

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation,
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n – rescued land
Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, for our cause is just,
And this be our motto–“In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

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