Last Saturday, September 13, 2014, marked the 200th anniversary of America’s National Anthem. Had it not been for the actions of a prominent doctor from Maryland, however, the song may never have been written.
A well respected citizen of Upper Marlboro, Dr. William Beanes had been captured by the British for his role in arresting and jailing British deserters. Francis Scott Key, a Georgetown lawyer, was approached by friends of Beanes with the permission of President James Madison, and dispatched to travel along with John S. Skinner, a US Agent for Prisoner Exchange, to negotiate Bean’s release from the British. British Major General Robert Ross, who had initiated the arrest of Dr. Beanes, was reluctant to let him go. Skinner produced letters, however, from wounded British prisoners of war who described their good treatment at the hands of Dr. Beanes and Ross agreed to his release.
The group’s return home, however, coincided with the British attack on Baltimore, and they sought temporary safety on a ship just a few miles from Fort McHenry. Onboard, the group could hear the rockets in the distance as the fighting continued through the night until early morning brought an eerie quiet. With the sun rising in the distance, Key used a telescope and spied the U.S. flag still flying.
Inspired by the sight, Key began composing on the back of a letter found in his pocket what would later be known as “The Star Spangled Banner”. Set to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven”, a popular drinking song at the time, the song was originally published in a Baltimore newspaper on September 20 using the title “Defence of Fort M’Henry”. On March 3, 1931, a proclamation by Congress immortalized the song as our country’s national anthem.