Key was in British custody due to an incident that had occurred two weeks earlier, when a 65-year-old physician, William Beanes, confronted some British soldiers who had tried to plunder his Upper Marlboro, Maryland, home. One of the soldiers complained to his officers, who had the doctor placed under arrest. He was escorted to one of their vessels in the Chesapeake Bay. Learning of the incarceration through Richard West, his wife’s brother-in-law, Key agreed to act on Beanes’ behalf and received permission from President Madison to try to negotiate his release.
On the face of it, Key seemed an unlikely candidate to write what would become the national anthem. He had referred to the conflict as “abominable” and a “lump of wickedness,” siding with the many Americans—a majority, according to Republican South Carolina congressman William Lowndes—who believed that a diplomatic accommodation with Britain could have avoided hostilities altogether.
The senate vote in favor of a declaration of war, taken on June 17, 1812, had split 19 to 13, reflecting fundamental differences between members of the largely pro-war Republicans and the largely antiwar Federalists. In the House of Representatives, the vote had been 79 to 49, with Republicans once again in favor. It was the closest vote on any declaration of war in American history.
Opposition had been particularly vehement in the Northeast. In New York that autumn of 1812, antiwar Federalist candidates made major electoral gains in Congressional contests. By the waning months of that year, the Massachusetts legislature passed a resolution urging citizens to resist the war effort. Antiwar sentiments ran deep in other parts of the country as well. Key’s friend, maverick Republican congressman John Randolph of Virginia, said the war would be financed by the “blood and treasure of the people.” Critics charged, too, that Congressional “war hawks”—Southern for the most part—were promoting the cause of settlers and speculators who eagerly eyed land in British-held Canada and Spanish Florida. The War of 1812, says historian Hickey, was, even given Vietnam, the most “vigorously opposed war with a foreign power in our history.”
When news of the war reached New England, a few days after the June 17 vote in Congress, church bells in many Northeastern towns and villages tolled slowly in mourning, and shopkeepers closed their businesses in protest. By the time hostilities had dragged on for an inconclusive year and a half, delegates from New England convened in Hartford, Connecticut, to debate whether the Northeastern states should secede from the Union and establish a separate American nation. Massachusetts governor Caleb Strong made overtures to the British commander in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Sir John Coape Sherbrooke, to consider prospects for a separate peace. Historian Egerton believes that had the war gone on much longer, that “process of separation would surely have begun.” At the time, he says, “it seemed as if the war could continue indefinitely. From the [New Englanders’] point of view, they had a president who had destroyed their maritime economy and was also getting Americans killed in an unnecessary war.”
However opposed to America’s entry into the war he had been, Key had been outraged by British incursions up the Chesapeake, the attack on the nation’s capital and the capture of Beanes. On September 7, 1814, Key, accompanied by American prisoner-of-exchange officer John Skinner, boarded the Tonnant, flagship of the British fleet, where Beanes was being held. They carried with them letters from British officers who had been treated by Beanes after being wounded during a skirmish in Bladensburg, Maryland. Within hours, the Americans had persuaded a British commander, Maj. Gen. Robert Ross, to release the doctor. By then, however, the assault on Baltimore was imminent; the three Americans, guarded by British marines, were obliged to wait out the battle aboard the British sloop some eight miles upriver from Fort McHenry.
From the vessel, they anxiously watched the bombardment of the fort through the daylight hours of September 13. According to Key, “It seemed as though mother earth had opened and was vomiting shot and shell in a sheet of fire and brimstone.” But as darkness descended, Key could see little more of the battle than the “red glare” of the enemy’s newly designed gunpowder-propelled Congreve rockets tracing fiery arcs across the sky. “The heavens aglow were a seething sea of flame,” he later wrote to his friend John Randolph. In the “angry sea,” as Key described conditions on that stormy night, the flag-of-truce sloop was “tossed as though in a tempest.” Key was alarmed by the sound of “bombs bursting in air”—British shells detonating short of their target.
It seemed unlikely, Key would later recall, that American resistance at the fort could withstand such a pounding. Not until the mists dissipated at dawn September 14 did he learn the outcome of the battle. “At last,” he later wrote, “a bright streak of gold mingled with crimson shot athwart the eastern sky, followed by another, and still another, as the morning sun rose.” Gradually he was able to discern not the British Union Jack that he had feared, but still, defiantly, an American flag, enormous in its dimensions, fluttering in the breeze from the flagpole of an undefeated Fort McHenry. The fort had not fallen: Baltimore remained safe. It was, he later wrote, a “most merciful deliverance.”
Major Armistead, the fort commander, could take credit for the flag’s spectacular size, 30 by 42 feet. Leaving no detail to chance in his preparations for the fort’s defense, he envisioned a dramatic emblem, commissioning Baltimore flag maker Mary Young Pickersgill to stitch a banner so large that the enemy would “have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.” Mrs. Pickersgill had duly supplied the massive flag, sewn of wool bunting. Each of its 15 stars was about two feet across; its 15 stripes were about two feet wide.
History does not record with certainty whether the flag Key saw that fateful morning was the one flown during the bombardment itself. Some historians suggest that a 17- by 25-foot storm flag also sewn by Mrs. Pickersgill may have been run up the flagpole during the downpour, consistent with common practice. The famous Star-Spangled Banner—today one of the greatest treasures of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History—may not have been raised until first light on September 14. “At dawn on the 14th,” wrote militiaman Isaac Monroe of the Baltimore Fencibles, “our morning gun was fired, the flag hoisted, [and] Yankee Doodle played. . . . ”