March 3 commemorates National Anthem

It was the War of 1812; a conflict fought between the United States, Great Britain, and their respective allies, primarily over freedom of the seas. The British took Washington, D.C. in August of 1814, then moved up the Chesapeake Bay to take Baltimore. On September 12, they arrived at Fort McHenry, whose guns controlled the harbor. The British would have to take the fort before they could take Baltimore.

William Beans, a prominent physician and friend of Francis Scott Key, had been arrested by the British for allegedly aiding the capture of British soldiers and was being held prisoner aboard a British ship. Key, a Washington, D.C. lawyer and amateur poet, had been dispatched along with John Skinner by President Madison to negotiate the release of Beans in exchange for British soldiers. The British Captain was willing to make the exchange but would not allow Key and the others to leave the ship until after the impending battle since Key had heard details of the plans for the attack on Baltimore.

Back in 1813 Major George Armistead had commissioned Baltimore flag maker Mary Pickersgill to make two flags for Fort McHenry. The garrison flag was to be large enough to ensure that the British would see it from several miles away. The 30-foot-by-42-foot flag representing the 15 states of the Union consisted of 15 two-foot-wide stripes and 15 stars, each star measuring two feet from point to point. The second flag, a 17-foot-by-25-foot storm flag was designed to withstand the worst possible weather and thus be flown during inclement weather to save wear and tear on the larger garrison flag.

The battle for Fort McHenry lasted about 24 hours. The storm flag was flown through the rainy night during which Key witnessed the bombardment along with Beans and Skinner. They could hear the bombs bursting, see the glare from the exploding rockets, and see the storm flag still flying above the Fort.

Toward morning the bombardment ceased, a dread silence fell upon them. They wondered whether the Fort had withstood the attack or fallen to the British. As dawn began to light the morning sky, they looked to see which flag flew over the fort, the American or the British? The storm flag had been lowered and the larger garrison flag raised. Key was inspired by the sight of the large American flag, and the next day wrote a poem describing his feelings upon seeing the American flag after the bombardment and entitled it “Defense of Fort M’Henry.”

The first printing of Key’s poem was just days after the battle, noting that it should be sung to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Later a Baltimore music store printed the patriotic song under the title “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Today, some believe Key wrote it as a poem while others believe he wrote it as a song since the rhyme and meter of the four verses fit the melody of “To Anacreon in Heaven” perfectly, a tune Key had reportedly used to accompany a poem he had written in 1805.

The song “The Star-Spangled Banner” was recognized for official use as an anthem by the US Navy in 1889. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order designating the song be sung for all military ceremonies.

Although there are records dating back to 1897 of “The Star-Spangled Banner” being sung at baseball games, the song came into prominence for use at sporting events when it was sung during the 7th inning stretch of the first game of the 1918 World Series in Boston. Boston Red Sox third baseman Jackie Fred Thomas, on leave from the Navy, stood and saluted the flag during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” After that, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee decided to have the anthem played before the start of each game. Thus, begin the tradition we still have today.

In 1929 Robert Ripley published an article in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” pointing out that America did not have a national anthem. This led to the Veterans of Foreign Wars starting a petition in 1930 for the United States to officially recognize “The Star-Spangled Banner” as its national anthem. The petition was signed by 5 million people and presented to the United States House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 31, 1931. On March 3, 1931, Congress passed a resolution declaring “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the official anthem of the United States of America.

Major Armistead acquired the Star-Spangled Banner flag sometime after the war and it remained with his family after his death. Throughout the years that followed, his family received many requests for pieces of the flag. They chose to give away fragments of the flag only to veterans, government officials, and honored citizens; giving away over 200 square feet of the flag including one star. Eventually the family donated the flag to the National Museum of American History where it is displayed today, preserved for future generations. (Reference:

Lois Schaefer, State Americanism Chairman is VFW Auxiliary Department of North Dakota