In September, 1814, British forces, having just burned the White House, were marching on Baltimore. Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane was in command of a Royal Navy force whose mission was to beseige Fort McHenry, the key point defense for Baltimore. The ground force commander, Colonel Arthur Brooke, was under orders not to attack American positions around Baltimore unless he was sure they could be taken.
If Fort McHenry could be subdued, the ground forces, supported by the Royal Navy, could march into Baltimore; if Fort McHenry could not be subdued, then the fort's guns would sink any British warships attempting to pass by.
On Semptember 13th, nineteen British warships approached Fort McHenry and exchanged fire with the fort, before retreating out of range of the fort's guns and beginning a bombardment to soften up the fort for a ground assault.
The British ships fired cannon, mortars, and their secret weapon, the Congreve rocket, which was a design from their colony of India consisting of an iron case filled with black powder for propulsion, and a cylindrical-conoidal warhead.
Always accompanied by other artillery fire, the rockets were inaccurate, occasionally turning back toward those who launched them, but had a tremendous psychological impact on the intended targets, partly due to the heavy artillery fire that accompanied them.
During the night of September 13-14, the Royal Navy bombarded Fort McHenry heavily; since the British warships were out of range, all the garrison of the fort could do was take the bombardment and refuse to strike the American flag that was flying overhead.
The fort's defenses were concentrated on the harbor opening; after nightfall, the British landed a small force on the other side of the fort. It was hoped they might slip past the fort and draw Baltimore's defenders away, permitting the British to assault an undefended Baltimore. Instead, Fort McHenry's 1000-man garrison, under command of Major George Armistead, turned their fire on the landing party. Combined with the darkness and the foul weather, Fort McHenry's gunfire caused the diversionary attack to fail.
Meanwhile, the bombardment continued, with the ghostly glare of the rockets visible streaking into Fort McHenry. As dawn approached, men on board the British warships strained their eyes to see whether Fort McHenry had struck her colors.
Among the men on the British warships was Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and amateur poet. On a mercy mission from the American side to secure the release of a prisoner of the British, Dr. William Beanes, Key bore letters attesting to good treatment British officers had received from Dr. Beanes. The British agreed to release him, but since Key had seen British preparations for the assault, neither would be released until after the battle.
Straining his eyes as dawn broke, Francis Scott Key and those around him looked to see what flag flew over Fort McHenry. If the fort surrendered, Baltimore would be burned as Washington had been; if not, Baltimore was safe. Had the garrison been able to withstand the bombardment from the ships against which the garrison could do nothing?
The air was still after the stormy weather and after the battle. The garrison lowered the small storm flag that had been flying, and raised an oversized 30 ft × 42 ft flag which had been made a few months before by local flagmaker Mary Pickersgill and her 13-year-old daughter. Gently, a breeze stirred, and then stirred more; finally, through the haze, the men on the British ships could see it: it was the Star-Spangled Banner.
On the back of the letters he carried, Francis Scott Key began to pen the words to a poem, which he called the Defense of Fort McHenry; eventually, known by another name, these words would be put to the tune of an old British drinking song, and would become the young nation's national anthem.
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 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!
America is again under assault, but just as the night seems darkest right before dawn, so does the threat to America seem greatest right before America rises up to defend truth, justice and freedom. Though others focus on the darkness, I can already see that Star-Spangled Banner proudly waving over the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave by the early light of the dawn of an America renewed, whose greatness is founded on the principles which have always made this country special, a beacon of hope for all the world for all time: a dedication to the fact that We the People are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that in our Creator we trust to help us find our way through the darkness.
God bless America.