By Community Submission
Sep 04, 2014

“Oh Say Can You See…”

star spangled banner

Star Spangled Banner as it looks today in the Smithsonian

This month marks the 200th anniversary of the fateful night which inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the words that became our national anthem. The story of how our national anthem came to be is not well-known and has even been fic­tion­al­ized in strange ways. It is an old story and research can only reveal what his­tory has pre­served, but in honor of the day I would like to share with you the story as I have come to know it.

Fort McHenry Reinactment
Fort McHenry Rein­act­ment

The War of 1812 was a hard time for the newly formed United States of Amer­ica. Less than 50 years after the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion there was still uncer­tainty in how the “great exper­i­ment” in democ­racy would turn out. For rea­sons not com­pletely clear to his­to­ri­ans today the United States declared war on Britain and attacked the British ter­ri­tory that is now Canada, burn­ing a large city and cap­tur­ing ter­ri­tory in the begin­ning of the war. On another front US ships were sent to attack British ships because of dis­putes over US trade with France, an enemy of Britain at that time.

By 1814 the war was not going well for the US. The British burned the national cap­i­tal, Wash­ing­ton D.C, and British troops were mov­ing through the 300px-War_of_1812_Montagecoun­try­side harass­ing the cit­i­zens almost with­out resis­tance. Dr. William Beanes who was a well loved US cit­i­zen had been cap­tured and taken pris­oner by British sol­diers because of mis­chief he com­mit­ted. The British impris­oned Dr. Beanes on one of the British ships, and his friends asked Pres­i­dent James Madi­son to send Fran­cis Scott Key, a well-known lawyer, to nego­ti­ate the good doctor’s release. The pres­i­dent agreed and Key was taken to a British ves­sel for nego­ti­a­tions on Sep­tem­ber 5th.

In Sep­tem­ber of 1814 the British focused their attack on the port city of Bal­ti­more, Mary­land. This was an impor­tant city to the United States and the home of many of the ships which had attacked British ships. A British leader was killed in a land attack early in the month and left the British cau­tious to make another land-only attack against the mili­tia that pro­tected the city. They deter­mined to attack first by sea with a large  naval force and then the troops would attack by land. The date for the attack came on Sep­tem­ber 13, 1814.

fort mchenryThe British attack was well planned with 4500 troops and as many as 20 war ships. The British were known around the world for their mighty navy and the force gath­ered against Bal­ti­more included 5 bomb ketches, 10 smaller ships for close com­bat with land tar­gets and a rocket launcher ship. Their first tar­get would be Fort McHenry guard­ing the Bay of Bal­ti­more with 20 guns and 1000 men.

Key was treated well by the British and was suc­cess­ful in nego­ti­at­ing the release of Dr. Beanes but they were not allowed to return to shore until after the attack on Bal­ti­more and they were forced to watch the bat­tle from a ship posi­tioned 8 miles from Fort McHenry. For per­spec­tive that is a lit­tle far­ther than the width of Utah Lake.

Fort McHenry returning fire
Fort McHenry return­ing fire

The attack lasted 25 hours and began with British ships fir­ing more than 1000 can­non balls, mor­tars, bombs and rock­ets while care­fully stay­ing out of range of the canons of Fort McHenry. With­out see­ing suc­cess the ships moved closer to the star-shaped fort in an attempt to increase their accu­racy and pro­vide cover for 1200 troops in row boats attempt­ing to move past the fort under a cover of dark­ness and smoke.

Bom­bard­ment from both sides shred­ded the night sky with flashes of explo­sions and bil­lows of smoke. By morn­ing the British accepted their defeat at Bal­ti­more and backed out of range again to sur­vey the dam­age.

Flag over Fort McHenry
Flag over Fort McHenry

If you had been there stand­ing beside Fran­cis Scott Key on the morn­ing of Sep­tem­ber 14, 1814 you would have seen, with him not the smaller storm flag that flew through the night, but the mag­nif­i­cent star-span­gled ban­ner that fort com­man­der, Lieu­tenant Colonel George Armis­tead had com­mis­sioned for a morn­ing like this. Fly­ing 90 feet above the fort the 42 foot by 30 foot ban­ner was proudly wav­ing, show­ing in defi­ance its’ 15 stripes and 15 stars rep­re­sent­ing each of the 15 states of this new repub­lic.

The bat­tle was won, and when a count was made the British had lost 330 men, killed, wounded or cap­tured. Fort McHenry on the other hand found only 4 dead and 25 wounded.

I do not see any great strat­egy at work here. I do not see supe­rior defenses or train­ing. I do not see tech­nol­ogy advances to jus­tify the pro­tec­tion offered Fort McHenry that fate­ful night. In every case the argu­ment could be made that the vic­tory should have been to the British by a wide mar­gin.

Could you have slept through that night safe in your ship at sea if you had been there with Dr. Beane and Mr. Key?

Painting (by LTJG James Murray) of Francis Scott Key penning the Star Spangled Banner, NHHC Photo NH 86765-KN - See more at:

No, you would have been watch­ing and won­der­ing as each bomb or rocket lit up the walls of the lit­tle fort. You would have been strain­ing to mea­sure the dam­age of each British strike against your home­land and fel­low cit­i­zens. When morn­ing came you would look search­ing for signs of life. Could any­one sur­vive such an over­whelm­ing attack?

I see, oh yes Mr. Key, I see with you the hand of God pro­tect­ing the lit­tle fort through the night and send­ing a breeze on that glo­ri­ous morn­ing to clear away the smoke and dis­play that beau­ti­ful sym­bol of our coun­try; the inspi­ra­tion for those words that we sing so proudly and hold so dear.

Here are the com­plete lyrics to our National Anthem, 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 thru 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 through 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 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! 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 foot­steps’ 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 home and the war’s des­o­la­tion!
Blest with vic­tory and peace, may the heav’n res­cued land
Praise the Power that hath made and pre­served 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!

*His­tor­i­cal note: The spelling of “defence” in the orig­i­nal title of Key’s song is cor­rect for the period.

Ency­clo­pe­dia Smith­son­ian,
National Parks Ser­vice,
National Museum of Amer­i­can His­tory,

edagr tooleyAuthor:  Edgar Tooley | Scribe, Wood Badge Committee, Utah National Parks Council, BSA, August 2012

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4 thoughts on ““Oh Say Can You See…”

  1. AvatarLinda Hanks

    Thanks for sharing your presentation. I love having t as reference. It’s so great to be a part of when you do your presentation. Thanks for sharing your talents.

  2. AvatarMary

    Thank-you Edgar! I loved your presentation at Family Odyssey and the feelings you brought to life for us!
    I shared this with my Webelos yesterday in way I have not been able to do in the past and they were all ears.

    1. Darryl AlderDarryl Alder

      We visited Fort McHenry and took it in first hand and then on to the Smithsonian, where the tears flowed. It was a great reminder to read about it all again

  3. Pingback: Remembering 9/12 | Voice of Scouting

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