* * *
Key and Skinner paced the deck of their truce ship in painful suspense early Wednesday morning, anxiously awaiting the return of day. Finally, the first pale signs of dawn brightened the sky. They trained their glasses on the fort, as Key later told his brother-in-law, Roger Brooke Taney, “uncertain whether they should see there the stars and stripes, or the flag of the enemy.”
Through the morning mist, the Americans finally could make out a flag, towering over the grassy knoll of the ramparts. But the banner hung limply from the flagpole, and it was impossible to tell if it was American or British.
A slight breeze blew fitfully from the northeast, scattering the mist. The flag stirred with a tantalizing hint, but Key and Skinner remained unsure. Finally a beam of sun illuminated the flag, revealing it to be American.
As the morning brightened, Key’s hopes soared at every sign of British retreat. The bombardment squadron sullenly sailed downriver. A stream of small boats came down Bear Creek, carrying wounded British Army soldiers and Royal Marines from the Patapsco Neck, where they had fought a land battle with Maryland militia defending the city.
Inspiration, Key told Taney, came “in the fervor of the moment.” For a man who had spent his life scribbling poems and verse for every occasion, it was a natural impulse. “[I]n that hour of deliverance, and joyful triumph, the heart spoke,” Key recalled many years later.
He pulled a letter from his pocket and wrote some notes on the back.
Patapsco River, Sept. 16
As the truce ship sailed toward Baltimore that evening, Key worked on his composition. He was writing a song, not a poem.
Later, the myth would take hold that Key’s words were adapted to song by an alert singer who noticed that the words coincidentally matched “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a well-known tune of the day. Yet the evidence is clear that Key had that tune in mind from the start.
Written in London around the time of the American Revolution, “Anacreon” was an old American standard by 1814. It is often referred to dismissively as “a drinking song,” a misleading label. The Anacreontic Society was a popular and convivial gentleman’s club in London named after the sixth-century B.C. Greek poet Anacreon, whose verse celebrated the joys of wine and women.