Q&A: The Star Spangled Banner, Francis Scott Key and the War of 1812


On Aug. 11, 2010, visitors walk past the main attraction of "The Star-Spangled Banner Gallery", the almost 200-year-old, 30-by-34-foot flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the National Anthem, at the Smithsonian Institutions American History Museum in Washington, D.C. The "Star-Spangled Banner" flag is displayed in a special environmentally-controlled chamber and the first stanza of the national anthem is projected prominently on the wall above. (TIM SLOAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

As the Washington area marks the bicentennial of the War of 1812, Steve Vogel answers questions about the war, the Star Spangled Banner and Francis Scott Key. Leave questions and comments for Vogel to respond to in the comments section, and read an excerpt from Vogel’s book, “Through the Perilous Fight:Six Weeks That Saved the Nation.”

Where was Francis Scott Key during the bombardment? What could he see?

That’s one of the great mysteries of this story. The exact location of the truce ship he was aboard has never been pinpointed. It’s certainly possible the vessel moved over the course of the bombardment. One likely spot is near the mouth of Bear Creek, about four miles from the fort. From that distance, the flag would have been visible, particularly with a spyglass. But there’s also a letter suggesting that the British admiral commanding the attack wanted Key closer at hand to help negotiate the fort’s surrender. There’s also a very intriguing contemporary sketch of the bombardment done by a Maryland militia officer watching from the bombardment from American lines at Hampstead Hill. The sketch clearly shows the American truce ship positioned on the edge of the bombardment squadron.

Over the years some have questioned whether Key could have seen the flag, but in my mind, there’s very little doubt.

Why did the bombardment of Fort McHenry fail?

The British unleashed an astonishing amount of firepower at Fort McHenry. They had five bomb ships firing a constant barrage, including explosive shells as big as 200 pounds. The British predicted it would only take a couple of hours before the fort surrendered. Over the course of 25 hours, they fired at least 1,500 shells, more than 133 tons, not to mention 700 to 800 rockets.

A big reason the bombardment failed was the heavy rain that was falling, which doused the fuses on some of the bombs. Many of them didn’t explode. The pitch of the swells whipped up by the wind made it difficult to aim the shells. Few buildings at the fort suffered direct hits, and the garrison, scattered behind sunken walls, held firm.

There was more than a little luck involved. Early in the bombardment a shell crashed on the fort’s magazine, which was packed with about 300 powder barrels. If it had exploded, the fort would likely have been destroyed and the garrison decimated, but somehow, the shell did not go off.

What might the consequences have been if Baltimore had fallen?

Baltimore’s fate would likely have been quite grim. The British held a real grudge against the city, which was a center of pro-war sentiment and home port to many of the privateers who regularly tormented English shipping. The British commanders were determined that Baltimore get none of the relatively gentle treatment given three weeks earlier to Washington, where only public buildings were burned and private property was by and large left alone. Key had heard the British officers talking about their intentions, and that’s one of the reasons watching the bombardment was such an emotional experience for him.

Beyond that, the consequences for the U.S. were potentially very severe. In the aftermath of Washington’s capture, the country was facing its gravest crisis since independence. If Baltimore, then the nation’s third largest city, fell, the fear was that Philadelphia and New York would not be far behind. Instead, British attacks were turned back simultaneously at Baltimore and in upstate New York. These American victories turned the tide at peace negotiations underway in Ghent, and allowed the U.S. to emerge from the war with unquestioned sovereignty in North America and a sense of union that hadn’t existed before.

Is the Star Spangled Banner on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History the flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the bombardment?

Very likely, it is not. The garrison flag, measuring 30 feet high and 42 feet long, was too big to fly in that kind of weather-- the weight of such a large, sopping-wet wool flag could have snapped the flagpole. It’s much more likely the fort’s smaller storm flag would have been flying. That flag, which incidentally was made by Mary Pickersgill, the same seamstress who made the larger banner, has long since disappeared.

To my mind, that doesn’t make the Star Spangled Banner any less of an icon than it is. There’s no doubt the banner was raised again after the bombardment, and Key would have seen it.

Why did Key’s song strike such an immediate chord around the country?

There was no photography then, obviously, but Key’s song, which was soon printed in newspapers around the country, nonetheless painted an indelible picture for a nation at a time Americans were quite shaken. The image of the flag flying over Fort McHenry is similar to that of the Marines raising the flag atop Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima, or the flags displayed by firefighters at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon after 9/11. Key’s song gave the flag a new meaning to Americans.

If you have other questions you’d like to ask Vogel, post them in the comments section. He will be interacting with readers in the comments section Monday and Tuesday.

Related:

- ‘Through the Perilous Fight’: An excerpt from the book on a pivotal time in the War of 1812

- ‘Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks That Saved the Nation’ by Steve Vogel

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