In 1814, while the War of 1812 was still going on, the people of Maryland were in great trouble, for a British fleet began to attack Baltimore. The enemy bombarded the forts, including Fort McHenry. For twenty-four hours the terrific bombardment went on.
"If Fort McHenry only stands, the city is safe," said Francis Scott Key to a friend, and they gazed anxiously through the smoke to see if the flag was still flying.
These two men were in the strangest place that could be imagined. They were in a little American vessel fast moored to the side of the British admiral's flagship. A Maryland doctor had been seized as a prisoner by the British, and the President had given permission for them to go out under a flag of truce, to ask for his release. The British commander finally decided that the prisoner might be set free; but he had no idea of allowing the two men to go back to the city and carry any information. "Until the attack on Baltimore is ended, you and your boat must remain here," he said.
The firing went on. As long as daylight lasted they could catch glimpses of the Stars and Stripes whenever the wind swayed the clouds of smoke. When night came they could still see the banner now and then by the blaze of the cannon. A little after midnight the firing stopped. The two men paced up and down the deck, straining their eyes to see if the flag was still flying. "Can the fort have surrendered?" they questioned. "Oh, if morning would only come!"
At last the faint gray of dawn appeared. They could see that some flag was flying, but it was too dark to tell which. More and more eagerly they gazed. It grew lighter, a sudden breath of wind caught the flag, and it floated out on the breeze. It was no English flag, it was their own Stars and Stripes. The fort had stood, the city was safe. Then it was that Key took from his pocket an old letter and on the back of it he wrote the poem, "The Star-Spangled Banner."
The British departed, and the little American boat went back to the city. Mr. Key gave a copy of the poem to his uncle, who had been helping to defend the fort. The uncle sent it to the printer, and had it struck off on some handbills. Before the ink was dry the printer caught up one and hurried away to a restaurant, where many patriots were assembled. Waving the paper, he cried, "Listen to this!" and he read:—
"O 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 watch'd were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does the star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?"
"Sing it! sing it!" cried the whole company. Charles Durang mounted a chair and then for the first time "The Star-Spangled Banner" was sung. The tune was "To Anacreon in Heaven," an air which had long been a favorite. Halls, theaters, and private houses rang with its strains.
The fleet was out of sight even before the poem was printed. In the middle of the night the admiral had sent to the British soldiers this message, "I can do nothing more," and they hurried on board the vessels. It was not long before they left Chesapeake Bay altogether,—perhaps with the new song ringing in their ears as they went.