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The Star-Spangled Banner

198 years ago, our national anthem was born. A lawyer by the name of Francis Scott Key 
was so moved by his experience of the previous night that he put pen to paper. The result 
was an almost instant success and has endured for nearly two centuries: The 
Star-Spangled Banner.

On September 14, 1814, Key found himself on a British prison ship in the outer harbor of 
Baltimore. He was there to negotiate the release of a friend who had been arrested by the 
British. But after he arrived on board, the British opened fire on Fort McHenry which stood 
guard over the city. The British had already captured and burned Washington. Only a severe 
storm saved the city from destruction. 

As Key watched the battle, he could make out the oversized flag which flew over the fort by 
the illumination of exploding cannon shells. The flag had been specially commissioned by the commander of the fort, George Armistead, to dare the British. He said he wanted, "a flag so large that the British would have no difficulty seeing it from a distance. Key knew that as long the flag flew over the fort, it remained in American hands. So with each burst of light, Key strained to make out the flag.

When the fighting ended, Key anxiously awaited the dawn. Had the British given up? Or had the fighting stopped because the fort had fallen? The flag would tell. And as those rays fell upon the harbor, Key could see that tattered as she was, the flag still flew.

Later that day Key checked into a Baltimore hotel. There, on this day, he wrote the first lines of the poem he called “Defense of Fort McHenry."? The poem was set in a popular song of the day and within a month had been published in 17 newspapers and broadsides of the poem were selling out. The Star-Spangled Banner contains four stanzas, though on the first is commonly sung.



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 watched, 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 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, O! 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.

O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation.
Blest with vict'ry 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!


Additional Civil War period lyrics
In indignation over the start of the American Civil War, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. added a fifth stanza to the song in 1861 which appeared in songbooks of the era.

When our land is illumined with liberty's smile,
If a foe from within strikes a blow at her glory,
Down, down with the traitor that tries to defile
The flag of the stars, and the page of her story!
By the millions unchained,
Who their birthright have gained
We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained;
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave,
While the land of the free is the home of the brave.