Don't Know Much

Don’t Know Much About® Field Trip: the National Anthem

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(Video shot, edited and produced by Colin Davis)

Two hundred and one years ago, Francis Scott Key penned the words that later became the national anthem. This video is from my 2009 field trip to Fort McHenry.

It was September 13, 1814. America was at war with England for the second time since 1776. Francis Scott Key was an attorney attempting to negotiate the return of a civilian prisoner held by the British who had just burned Washington DC and had set their sights on Baltimore. As the British attacked the city, Key watched the naval bombardment from a ship in Baltimore’s harbor. In the morning, he could see that the Stars and Stripes still flew over Fort McHenry. Inspired, he wrote the lyrics that we all know –well some of you know some of them.

But here’s what they didn’t tell you:

•Yes, Washington, D.C. was burned in 1814, including the President’s Home which would later get a fresh coat of paint and be called the “White House.” But Washington was torched in retaliation for the burning of York –now Toronto—in Canada earlier in the war.

•Yes, Key wrote words. But the music comes from an old English drinking song. Good thing it wasn’t 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.Here’s a link to the original lyrics of that drinking song To Anacreon in Heaven via Poem of the Week.

•The Star Spangled Banner did not become the national anthem until 1916 when President Wilson declared it by Executive Order. But that didn’t really count. Finally, in 1931, it became the National Anthem by Congressional resolution signed by President Herbert Hoover, on March 3.

Now, here are a couple of footnotes to the Francis Scott Key story—his son, Philip Barton Key, was a District Attorney in Washington. DC. He was shot and killed by Congressman Daniel Sickles. Sickles was acquitted with the first use of the defense of temporary insanity in 1859. And went on to serve as a Civil War general –and not a very good one.

And speaking of the Civil War, Key’s grandson was later imprisoned in Fort McHenry along with Baltimore’s Mayor and other pro-Confederate sympathizers.

Here are some places to learn more about Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key and the Flag that inspired the National Anthem: Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine

The images and music in this video are courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum of American History

This version of the anthem in the video is performed on 19th century instruments also courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum.

Don't Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

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