The Star-Spangled Banner and Francis Scott Key at Home in Georgetown

As the 10th anniversary of September 11 is upon us, we remember another anniversary of a foreign power attacking the U.S. It was the War of 1812. Sept. 14 is Star-Spangled Banner Day.

After the burning of public buildings in the new capital, Washington, D.C., in August 1814, the Royal Navy and British army prepared to attack the bigger city of Baltimore in the days before Sept. 14. Meanwhile, as the British roamed around Chesapeake Bay and Maryland, they had captured a town leader, Dr. William Beanes, from Upper Marlboro, prompting a presidential group to seek his release. President James Madison had asked Georgetown lawyer Francis Scott Key to meet the British and negotiate. While with British officers on their ship near Fort McHenry, which guarded Baltimore harbor, Key could not leave and witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry. After the British push on land to Baltimore City was stymied, the navy stayed out of range of the fort and hit it repeatedly but failed to pass its defense.

Ending an evening of terrible explosions, lights and sounds, the British gave up the fight and withdrew in the morning. As “the dawn’s early light” revealed that Fort McHenry had stood its ground, Key was elated to see “that our flag was still there.” A large American flag – the Star-Spangled Banner – waved atop the fort. It was a moment of profound relief for the Americans to know that their former rulers would not split the young nation in two with the demise of Baltimore. This war revealed one of the first times that Americans had acted as Americans – a fresh national identity – and not as Marylanders, Virginians or New Yorkers. Key wrote these sentiments into his poem, “The Defense of Fort McHenry,” quickly renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It become an instant hit, an army musical standard and finally the national anthem.

Key lived with his large family in Georgetown, D.C., from 1804 to around 1833 with his wife Polly and their six sons and five daughters. Their land was across from what is now the Car Barn (3500 block of M Street) and their backyard went all the way to the Potomac River (the C&O Canal did not yet exist). The accomplished lawyer, truly a gentleman, scholar and fine orator, was involved in church and community in the small town of 5,000 Georgetowners. He was the district attorney for Washington under the Jackson and Van Buren administrations.

Years later, business leaders and the Georgetowner newspaper founded “Star-Spangled Banner Days” to celebrate the flag, the anthem and its author, a hometown hero. On Sept. 14, 1993, the Francis Scott Key Foundation paid for, completed and dedicated the park on M Street – one block from his famous home, demolished in 1947 – between 34th street and Key Bridge. The Francis Scott Key Foundation is still active providing additional maintenance of the park, such as a fresh flag periodically. It plans more events for the park, now part of the National Park Service, and history lessons for Mr. Key’s neighborhood.

Francis Scott Key Park and the Star-Spangled Banner Monument is a D.C. and national salute to the flag, the anthem and the man with its percola, bust of Key and a flag pole which flies a Star-Spangled Banner. That original flag, which inspired Key’s song, is on display about 25 city blocks away at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Passers-by can rest and meet at this Georgetown oasis and recall a time when a young city and country had confronted its own years of war and lived through it to thrive and create a great nation.


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