Francis Scott Key Is Detained In Baltimore Harbor

As the evening of September 13, 1814, approached, Francis Scott Key was detained in Baltimore harbor on board a British vessel.

A young lawyer, he had come to negotiate the release of an American physician from British forces—they were released to their ship. Throughout the night and into the early hours of the next morning, Key watched as the British bombed nearby Fort McHenry with military rockets. As dawn broke, he was amazed to find the Stars and Stripes, tattered but intact, still flying above the fort.

British forces had disembarked on September 12 at the mouth of the Patapsco River to begin an assault on the city of Baltimore. The following day, British Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane commenced a naval bombardment of the fort, the last remaining barrier to the city. The siege of Baltimore, which came close on the heels of the British occupation of Washington, D.C., was a turning point in the War of 1812.

Turned back on land and at sea, the British abandoned their attempt to capture Baltimore on September 14. Four months later, they signed the Treaty of Ghent, which brought an end to the war.

Key's experience during the bombardment of Fort McHenry inspired him to pen the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner." He adapted his lyrics to the tune of a popular drinking song, "To Anacreon in Heaven," and the song soon became the de facto national anthem of the United States of America, although Congress did not officially recognize it as such until 1931.

During the War of 1812, Key, accompanied by the American Prisoner Exchange Agent Colonel John Stuart Skinner, dined aboard the British ship HMS Tonnant, as the guests of three British officers: Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn, and Major General Robert Ross. Skinner and Key were there to negotiate the release of a prisoner, Dr. William Beanes. Beanes was a resident of Upper Marlboro, Maryland and had been captured by the British after he placed rowdy stragglers under citizen's arrest with a group of men. Skinner, Key, and Beanes were allowed to return to their own sloop, but were not allowed to return to Baltimore because they had become familiar with the strength and position of the British units and with the British intent to attack Baltimore. As a result of this, Key was unable to do anything but watch the bombarding of the American forces at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore on the night of September 13–September 14, 1814.

O! say does that star-spangled
banner yet wave,
O'er the land of the free
and the home of the brave.”

— Francis Scott Key, "The Star-Spangled Banner"