DC at Night

DC at Night

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Story of The Star Spangled Banner

On this date 199 years ago, Washington DC attorney Frances Scott Key was being held aboard a British ship in Baltimore harbor. For 25 hours, he witnessed a fierce barrage of cannon shot pummel Fort McHenry, a stone fort being held by an American garrison determined not to allow a British victory like the one in Washington a month earlier. By the dawn's early light of Sept. 14th, Key viewed an astonishing sight - the fort had withstood the red glare of the rockets and the bursting of the bombs.  And there, high above the fort, still waved a giant American flag.

"There in that hour of deliverance and joyful triumph, my heart spoke," Key later said.

Inspired by what he had seen, Key, an amateur poet, used the back of a letter to begin composing the 4 stanzas of what would become America's national anthem - "The Star Spangled Banner". On September 20, both the Baltimore Patriot and The American printed the lyrics, with the note to be song to "Tune: Anacreon in Heaven".

The song spread across the young country. Its popularity increased in the North during the Civil War, and, by the 1900s, it was a fixture at public ceremonies and celebrations. In 1931, Congress made Key's tribute to the victory of Fort McHenry the official national anthem of the United States.

But what of the 30-by-42-foot flag that served as Key's inspiration? It was constructed by a Baltimore flag maker, Mary Pickergill, in the summer of 1813. She was assisted by her daughter, 2 nieces, and an African-American indentured servant. Pickford was paid $405.90 for her work, which was more than most Baltimore residents earned in a year.

For almost 100 years after the battle, the flag remained with the family of George Armistead, who had been the commander of Fort McHenry at the time of the British attack. The family would periodically display the famous flag and did give out a few snippets for treasured keepsakes. The flag was first photographed in the Boston Navy yard in 1873, and that photo greatly increased interest in the historic banner.

In 1907, Armistead's grandson donated the flag to the Smithsonian. Visitors flocked to see the historical item, prompting a journalist to report that the display "aroused enthusiasm and veneration as has no other object in the institution." Today, the flag remains under dark light in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, where it is seen by more than a million visitors annually.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
"The Star Spangled Banner" is sung countless times Every single day. Here one music critic selects what he believes are the 10 best versions ever performed by major stars in public.

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