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The Star Spangled Banner
“Let the praise, then, if any be due, be given, not to me, 
who only did what I could not help doing, not the writer, 
but to the inspirers of the song!”—Francis Scott Key
The Star Spangled Banner was born out of the Battle of 
Fort McHenry. The song consists of three questions – 
fear-based, urgency-driven questions and repetitive in nature – 
questions piercing the hearts and minds of three American 
hostages being held on a British enemy ship of war in 1814. 
 Identifying the nationality of the flag above the fort is crucial. 
If the Stars & Stripes still fly, then the Americans are victors 
and the United States of America remains a free and sovereign 
nation. But if the British colors fill the sky above the fort, then 
all is lost – the battle, and likely the war. 

Each time we sing The Star Spangled Banner, we take a step 
back in time - to September 14, 1814 – to the deck of the 
massive British Warship, Tonnant – to the Battle of Fort 
McHenry. And there we find three Americans – Francis Scott 
Key, John Skinner, & Dr. William Beanes. They are weary, 
stressed, and worn. 

The previous day, and now night has been long - 25 hours of relentlessly pounding by British bombs and rockets against their beautiful homeland, the shores and fortress of Fort McHenry. Exhausted and helpless to change the severity of the moment, their bodies refuse to rest.  

But then - all goes silent. Cannons no longer send forth mortars of fire and shrapnel. Though the rain has well dampened their clothing, the three men prayerfully refuse to surrender their faith - in God - and that He has “preserved us a nation.” Finally… finally, the first rays of sunlight fill the eastern sky. But still they must wait – wait for a strong gust of wind – as if God’s own breath - to unfurl the colors atop the pole. 

Oh, say can you see, By the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming?

Yesterday’s day-long battle blurs in their thoughts. But the memory of the Stars & Stripes banner still “gallantly streaming” (flying) “o’er the ramparts” (the high walls) of the fort, “at twilight last gleaming,” (as the sun set) encourages them to remain vigilant. 

Whose broad stripes and bright stars, Thro’ the perilous fight,
O’ver the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?

The 17’ x 25’ flag was likely flying above the fort at the onset of the battle. Each red and white stripe and each white star measured more than 12 inches - impressive when viewed through a spyglass. At some point in the battle, Major Armistead ordered the massive 30’ x 42’ garrison flag to be hoisted on the 90’ pole. The stars measured 2 feet from point to point and the stripes measured 2 feet in depth! So… when we sing today of the “broad stripes” and the “bright stars,” that is exactly what Francis Scott Key saw through a spyglass at “dawn’s early light.”  

And the rockets’ red glare, The bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro’ the night that our flag was still there.

Key, Skinner, and Beanes cling to the sight, the sound and the smell of “the rockets’ red glare and the bombs busting in air.” Terrifying as the bombardment is, the rockets and the bombs “gave proof thro the night” that “our flag was still there.” But then, in the wee hours of the morning, all goes silent. As the three men stand in the oppressive darkness, they are left with one unanswerable question – 

Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

The chances of the Militia holding Fort McHenry through the night are slim to none. However, “at dawn’s early light,” a huge American Flag is seen through a spyglass miles from the fort. Miraculously, the fighting men have persevered – have refused to strike the colors - have refused to surrender in defeat. 

Francis Scott Key is so deeply touched upon seeing his country’s beloved flag - the proof of victory - that he takes an envelope from his pocket and pens the first verse of a poem he titles, The Defense of Fort McHenry.  

Later that day, Key writes three additional verses. In the 2nd verse, Key joyously describes the sight of the Stars & Stripes and knowing for sure that victory belongs to the Americans. In the last verse, Key gives God the glory for victory won and freedom secured. 

As the King’s Royal Navy sails away in shameful defeat, the Americans fire their guns and sing “Yankee Doodle” – a taunting ridicule to the British sailors. In this moment of celebration, the defenders of the fort are following in the footsteps of their ancestors, the American Army who fired their guns and sang “Yankee Doodle” when Cornwallis surrendered to General George Washington following the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. 

The words to Key’s poem were set to the tune of “Anacreon In Heaven,” a well known song of a popular gentlemen’s club in England where the men enjoyed the drinking of good wine. The song was renamed The Star Spangled Banner. It quickly gained in popularity and boosted a much needed patriotic spirit throughout the land. 

The Star Spangled Banner

Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light 
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thro’ the perilous fight, 
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming? 
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro’ the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave! 

Francis Scott Key, 1814

War, God, victory in battle, singing patriotic songs,
and the American Flag go hand in hand!
God Bless America!!!

Mary Pickersgill, Flagmaker

Major George Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry, knew that due to its strategic location the British would eventually attack the fort. Added to this, the British viewed the citizens of Baltimore as “a nest of pirates” as ship owners (privateers) had for two years been highly successful in raiding and capturing British merchant ships. 

Armistead’s words in a letter to General Samuel Smith can be found on a plaque at Fort McHenry, “We, sir, are ready at Fort McHenry to defend Baltimore against invading by the enemy. That is to say, we are ready except that we have no suitable ensign to display over the Star Fort and it is my desire to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.” 

In June 1813, Armistead contracted with Mary Pickersgill, a highly skilled maker of ship flags, to make two Stars & Stripes banners – the smaller storm flag measuring 17’ by 25’ and the grand garrison flag measuring 30’ by 42’. With the addition of Vermont and Kentucky to the Union in 1795, the design of the flag consisted of 15 stars and 15 stripes.  

The garrison flag (about ¼ the size of a basketball court) was larger than Mary Pickersgill’s house. She, along with her daughter, Caroline, her nieces, Eliza and Margaret, a servant girl, Grace Wisher (all teenagers), and her mother, Rebecca Young (who made many flags during the Revolutionary War), assembled the flag on the floor of a local brewery in a six weeks time span between June and August. Mary was paid $405.95 for sewing the garrison flag and $168.54 for sewing the storm flag. 

The stripes and the blue union were made of the finest dyed English wool bunting and the stars were made of white cotton – totally some 400 yards of fabric. It is estimated that there are 350,000 hand-sewn stitches and it is believed that Mary Pickersgill did most of the sewing herself.  

The garrison flag weighted about 50 pounds and took 11 men to hoist on the 90 foot pole.  

Today, the remains of the garrison flag, approximately 
28’ x 34,’ are preserved in an $18 million climate and 
light controlled conservation lab at the Smithsonian
 Institution’s National Museum of American History, 
Washington D.C. 

In 1933, Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, was 
transferred to the U.S. Department of the Interior, 
National Parks Services.  In 1939, Fort McHenry was 
given the status of National Monument and Historical 
Shrine. It is the only Federal property to hold the 
distinction of both National Monument and Historical 

Mary Pickersgill, widowed in 1805, became president 
of Impartial Female Humane Society in 1828 – a group 
of women who helped other widows or women 
abandoned by their husbands. In 1849, the group built a 
home for the elderly which is known in Baltimore today 
as the Pickersgill Retirement Community.  

During World War II, a Liberty ship was named in her honor – the SS Mary Pickersgill. A flower also bears her name – Mary Pickersgill Rose.

(Historical interpretation of Star Spangled Banner done by Shelley G. Jones – 
historical details presented on this page were gathered from a variety of resources.)