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Not All Americans Know The Star-Spangled Banner's Origins

  • Enming Liu

The American national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, is played at sports events, religious ceremonies, and many other important occasions. But not all Americans know the song's origins. VOA's Liu Enming takes a trip to the birthplace of the anthem. Elaine Lu narrates.

The American national anthem was inspired by the valiant defense of Fort McHenry. It is now a national park about an hour outside Washington D.C. It was the site of fierce fighting during the War of 1812 between the Americans and the British.

Ben Kreshtool is a park ranger at Fort McHenry. He tells us, "Fort McHenry was built in 1798. It was designed as part of the coastal fortification along the east coast. Fort McHenry was finished in 1803. It was named for James McHenry who was the secretary of war under President George Washington. Britain's Royal Navy attacked Fort McHenry in September of 1814. The ships later withdrew. That led Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner, our national anthem"

The British burned down the White House and the Capitol in August of 1814. They headed toward Baltimore Harbor, a strategic east coast port 64 kilometers outside Washington. Fort McHenry is the main military post there. Commanding officer Major George Armistead made a statement of their readiness by hanging what he called "a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance."

September 12th, 1814 -- British troops launched their land incursion. The Royal Navy began its bombardment of Fort McHenry the next day. One thousand American soldiers held on at the fort.

Park ranger Kreshtool continues the story. "Out here you can see the green buoy, which is the approximate location the Royal Navy had come in close to do the bombarding of the fort itself."

The bombardment lasted 25 hours. It was estimated that some 1800 bombs, rockets and shells were fired, burning over the sky above Fort McHenry. Native Marylander and lawyer Francis Scott Key witnessed it all.

"Francis Scott Key is on a ship, a flag of truce vessel way down the river behind the British fleet. He was there to negotiate the exchange of a friend of his, Dr. William Beanes who had been taken prisoner by the British. So he was there to exchange with Colonel John Skinner, who was the prisoner of war exchange agent. They would not release everybody to come to Baltimore until the battle was over. They feared they knew too much of the plans."

Francis saw the American flag flying proudly throughout the night. He was inspired to write the Star-Spangled Banner on an envelope he found in his pocket.

Madeleine Halfner is visiting Fort McHenry from West Virginia. She said, "I think what hits me most is how emotional it must have been for Francis Scott Key to be writing The Star Spangled Banner. I mean, I can imagine what Key felt like when he looked through all the bombardment and everything and see the flag still standing. I would think that would be very emotional moment."

The Star-Spangled Banner became the official national anthem in 1931.

The original flag that flew over the fort was given as a gift to the family of Major George Amistead. It was in the family for a long time until it was donated to the Smithsonian Museum in 1909. The 15 stars on the flag have become 50. And Fort McHenry continues to stand tall to tell the story of the birth of the American national anthem.