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Origins of the Star Spangled Banner

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The Star Spangled Banner is an iconic symbol of America, and is also our national anthem. But, where did it originate?

In September 1814, the British had captured Washington and had taken a physician, William Beanes, prisoner. He was being held aboard a ship in their fleet off the Baltimore shore. 

Francis Scott Key, a prominent 34-year-old lawyer/poet from Washington, D.C was persuaded by friends of Beanes to negotiate his release, so went out to the British fleet and managed to successfully do this. But, because the British planned to attack Baltimore at that time, both men were detained. 

That night, Key watched the bombardment of Baltimore from the deck of a British ship. Although rain obscured the fort during the night, at daybreak he could see the American flag still flying from Fort McHenry. The fort still stood after the British had fired some 1,800 bombs, rockets and shells at it, about 400 of them landing inside. Four defenders were killed and 24 wounded. The American detainees were sent ashore and the British fleet withdrew.

Key was inspired to write a poem on the back of an envelope, which he finished and made a good copy of it in a Baltimore hotel the next day. 

It is said that Key showed the poem to relatives of his wife in Baltimore who had it printed immediately and distributed throughout the city on a handbill, entitled “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” Within a few weeks, Baltimore newspapers published the poem. 

It was an instant hit and was renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner.” An actor sang it to a popular British tune at a public performance in Baltimore. 

When the Civil War started, “The Star-Spangled Banner” became a nationally popular song. During World War I, a drive began in Congress to make it the official anthem of America’s armed forces, but there were other contenders for the title, including “America the Beautiful” and “Yankee Doodle.” 

Finally, on March 3rd, 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed the bill that made “The Star-Spangled Banner” America’s national anthem.