On June 1, 1812, President James Madison sent a message to the Congress, recounting American grievances against Great Britain. After Madison’s message, the House of Representatives quickly voted a declaration of war, and the Senate agreed. The conflict formally began on June 18, 1812 when Madison signed the measure into law. This was the first time that the United States had declared war on another nation, and the Congressional vote would prove to be the closest vote to declare war in American history.
Thus began the War of 1812.
As the war progressed, England’s Royal Navy blockaded much of the Eastern coastline, though it was allowing substantial exports from New England, which traded with Canada in defiance of American laws. The American strategy of using small gunboats to defend ports was a fiasco, as the British raided the coast at will. The most famous episode was a series of British raids on the shores of Chesapeake Bay, including an attack on Washington that resulted in the British burning of the White House, the Capitol, the Navy Yard, and other public buildings.
On September 3, 1814, Francis Scott Key and John Stuart Skinner set sail from Baltimore aboard the ship HMS Minden, flying a flag of truce on a mission approved by President James Madison. Their objective was to secure the exchange of prisoners, including a friend of Key’s who had been captured in his home. Key and Skinner boarded the British flagship HMS Tonnant on September 7 and spoke with Major General Robert Ross and Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane over dinner while the two officers discussed war plans.
Because Key and Skinner had heard details of the plans for the attack on Baltimore, they were held captive until after the battle. The subsequent Battle of Baltimore began with the British landing at North Point, where they were met by American militia. An exchange of fire began, with casualties on both sides. General Ross was killed by an American sniper as he attempted to rally his troops. The sniper himself was killed moments later, and the British withdrew. The British also attempted to attack Baltimore by sea on September 13 but were unable to capture Fort McHenry, at the entrance to Baltimore Harbor.
The British fleet bombarded the fort for 25 hours. With no land back-up, they finally withdrew. The only light that night was given off by the exploding shells over Fort McHenry, illuminating the flag that was still flying over the fort. At dawn, the storm flag was lowered and the larger American flag was flown in its place.
During the rainy night, Key witnessed the bombardment and observed that the fort’s smaller “storm flag” continued to fly. Key was inspired by the American victory and the sight of the large American flag flying triumphantly above the fort. This flag, with fifteen stars and fifteen stripes, came to be known as the Star Spangled Banner Flag.
Aboard the ship the next day, Key wrote a poem on the back of a letter he had kept in his pocket. At twilight on September 16, he and Skinner were released in Baltimore. He completed the poem at the Indian Queen Hotel, where he was staying, and entitled it “Defence of Fort McHenry.”
Key gave the poem to his brother-in-law, Judge Joseph H. Nicholson. Nicholson saw that the words fit the popular melody “The Anacreontic Song”, of English composer John Stafford Smith, which was the official song of the Anacreontic Society, an 18th-century gentleman’s club of amateur musicians in London. Nicholson took the poem to a printer in Baltimore, who anonymously printed broadside copies of it—the song’s first known printing—on September 17, 1814.
September 20, both the Baltimore Patriot and The American printed the song, with the note “Tune: Anacreon in Heaven.” The song quickly became popular, with seventeen newspapers from Georgia to New Hampshire printing it. Soon after, Thomas Carr of the Carr Music Store in Baltimore published the words and music together under the title “The Star-Spangled Banner,” although it was originally called “Defence of Fort McHenry.” The song’s popularity increased and its first public performance took place in October, when Baltimore actor Ferdinand Durang sang it at Captain McCauley’s tavern. Washington Irving, then editor of The Analectic Magazine in Philadelphia, reprinted the song in November 1814.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” was recognized for official use by the Navy in 1889 and the President in 1916, and was made the national anthem by a congressional resolution on March 3, which was signed by President Herbert Hoover.