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Francis Scott Key, Frederick's Favored Son

Dawn’s light brings forth anthem

Francis Scott Key loved the rhythmic song and dance of poetry. As a lad, he was happiest sitting on his mother’s lap listening to Shakespeare sonnets and Bible stories. Before long, he was writing poems at his family home, nestled along the blue ridge of the Catoctic Mountains near Frederick, MD. The budding poet would one day become the father of America’s national anthem.

Francis Scott Key
Key was born in 1779, the son of a Revolutionary War veteran who fought under General George Washington. During the War of 1812, often called the “second war of independence,” he was a respected lawyer in Georgetown, a few miles from Washington, D.C., where he lived with his wife and six children. Although Key strongly opposed the war, he ended up playing a major role in its historical significance.

Negotiating prisoner’s release

When the British stormed Washington, D.C., in August 1814, they torched the White House, Capitol and other buildings. As the invaders left the city, they took Key’s good friend Dr. William Beanes as prisoner. Then, they set sail for Fort McHenry, the main defense to Baltimore Harbor.

President James Madison feared the elderly doctor would be hanged and asked Key and Col. John Skinner to negotiate his release. They boarded a truce ship and sailed to the British flagship which was anchored a few miles from the fort. The British agreed to free the doctor after learning he tended their wounded troops during the Washington attack. But the Americans were detained on the truce ship after overhearing plans to attack the fort. It was during Key’s mission of mercy that he witnessed the “rockets’ red glare” and “bombs bursting in air.”

The battle behind the anthem

Cannon ball displayed at Fort McHenry
At first light on Sept. 13, the British opened fire on Fort McHenry. During the 25-hour bombardment, lightning flashed and thunder rolled in as they lobbed more than 1,500 bombs and rockets, most of which were beyond the fort’s reach and exploded in midair. At dawn on Sept. 14, the British ceased fire.

“The British had been at war with France for more than 20 years and were tired. When they realized that America wasn’t going to give up lightly, they finally withdrew,” according to Alan Gephardt of the Baltimore City Heritage Society.

Meanwhile, Key paced the deck. During the night, he had heard the fort return fire. Then the onslaught tapered off, followed by a long silence. “He didn’t know the outcome until ‘dawn’s early light’ when he heard the fort fire the morning gun, signaling that all was well,” Gephardt said. “He placed a telescope to his eye and trained in on the flagpole where the American flag was catching the wave of a morning breeze. Relieved to see the flag still flying and inspired by the valiant defense of his fellow patriots, he took an envelope from his pocket and started writing the poem, “Defence (sic) of Fort McHenry,” which later became known as ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’”

ImageTwo days later, the British released Key, Skinner and Beanes. The poem was sent to a printer and distributed through the city as a handbill. Within a few days, it was set to the English tune “Anacreon in Heaven.”

National identity

A peace treaty was signed on Christmas Eve 1814, but the war didn’t end until the spring of 1815. While there was no established winner, the war was an important one for the new country. “Britain had the world’s largest navy, and America was able to keep them at bay,” Gephardt said. “It created a sense of national unity and gave America its national anthem and our flag, both known as ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’”

Francis Scott Key pointing to flag
When the war ended, Key returned to his family, practiced law, and enjoyed his garden. He and his wife Mary had five more children. “They had a garden for each child with foliage arranged so their names appeared when the flowers bloomed,” Gephardt said.

Key went on to serve as U.S. District Attorney in Washington and helped found the American Colonization Society, a group that attempted to end slavery by returning Africans to the land of their forefathers. He never returned to Fort McHenry where the flag is permitted to fly continuously as a reminder of the events that gave birth to our nation’s anthem.

The Francis Scott Key Monument stands over the legendary songwriter's grave in Mount Olivet Cemetery.
Key died in 1843 and is buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick where he requested to be laid to rest “beneath the shadows of the everlasting hills along the blue ridge of the Catoctin Mountains.” A monument has been erected in his honor with Key at top pointing to the Star-Spangled Banner which also flies there day and night.

This feature first appeared in The Daily Journal, Kankakee, IL

To read more about the Star-Spangled Banner, see “Baltimore’s Fort McHenry” and “Baltimore’s Star-Spangled Banner” in Maryland’s destinations.

Where to stay

Hollerstown Hill Bed & Breakfast, hosted by Betty and Phillip LeBlanc, is a charming Victorian home graced with period antiques, carved mantels and a variety of collectibles. Ask if the Cottage Garden room is available. The cozy room has numerous windows overlooking the garden and a private, full length porch. Betty serves a scrumptious breakfast with fresh fruit and homemade pastries and casseroles. Prepare to be pampered! Guests can easily walk to quaint shops, restaurants, and museums in the downtown historic district. For more information, call (301) 228-3630 or visit www.hollerstownhill.com

Hollerstown Hill Bed & Breakfast



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