BALTIMORE - At dawn's early light Sunday, exactly at 9 a.m., Soldiers from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Regiment "Old Guard" raised a replica of the American flag to commemorate the fateful moment the Star-Spangled Banner was raised, inspiring District of Columbia Militiaman 1st Lt. Francis Scott Key to write the immortal words 200 years ago that would become the national anthem of the United States.
The "Dawn's Early Light Flag Raising Ceremony," hosted by the National Park Service was part of a series of events to commemorate the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812 and the birth of the national anthem.
"This is an incredible story of American resolve, and of the role played by Citizen-Soldiers," said Army Lt. Col. Jeffrey C. Larrabee, National Guard Historian. "Many people have heard the story about Key, the young lawyer who witnessed the bombardment of Ft. McHenry during the War of 1812 and penned the national anthem. But few people know that he was also a member of the District of Columbia militia, or that Maryland militia contributed significantly to McHenry's defense."
On Sept. 14, 1814, at 7:30 a.m., a British fleet of 19 warships ceased fire after a 25-hour barrage of more than 1,500 Congreve rockets and exploding shells on Fort McHenry in order to lay siege to the city of Baltimore.
Expecting the American forces to be decimated and the fort reduced to rubble, Key was astonished to see that not only was the flag defiantly still there, but his fellow countrymen had held the fort and would thwart the attack on the city.
The Maryland militia, predecessor of the Maryland National Guard, manned more than half the guns of Fort McHenry and of the supporting batteries. Had the British succeeded, Baltimore and perhaps Philadelphia and New York would meet the same fiery fate as Washington just three weeks before.
Over 400 members of the Maryland Army National Guard, Maryland Defense Force, and other services, also marched in the 200th March of the Defenders, one of the events honoring the battle.
During the battle, Key was detained by British marines on an American ship the President, anchored eight miles from Fort McHenry at the mouth of the Patapsco River. A storm raged through the night and rocked the vessel to and fro. He and Col. John Skinner, an American prisoner-exchange agent, had just negotiated the release of Dr. William Beans, a prominent Maryland physician. Beans was arrested for jailing British Soldiers who ransacked his farm in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
After receiving instructions from Gen. George Mason, the commissary general of prisoners, Key and Skinner departed the District of Columbia on Sept. 3 and sailed for three days looking for the flagship of the British fleet.
Under a flag of truce, they were given permission to board the British man-o-war class warship, the H.M.S. Tonnant where Beans was being held. After showing the fleet commander letters from British Soldiers praising Dr. Beans for his medical care at the Battle of Bladensburg, Key secured his release.
As a friend of Dr. Beans, Key asked President Madison to sanction his effort to assist Skinner in obtaining Beans' release by the British. Madison readily approved Key's mission.
During the War of 1812, 1st Lt. Francis Scott Key served with the District of Columbia Militia in the Corps of Georgetown Field Artillerists.
Like many National Guard members, Key served in a part time capacity and served his community and nation when called upon. Although not initially in favor of the war, Key felt compelled to serve his country and help his neighbors. He enlisted as a gunners mate in the summer of 1813 and earned a commission nine months later as a Quartermaster officer.
While with the Georgetown Artillery, Key was mustered into federal service twice in response to British raids in Maryland. In 1813, he performed garrison duty at Fort Washington, and in June, 1814, he served with his company near Benedict, Maryland, along the Patuxent River.
Key had also been at Bladensburg three weeks earlier. Although he was not mustered in at the time, he served as the volunteer aide de camp to the commander of the District of Columbia's militia contingent during the battle. Key therefore experienced the defeat of the American Army at Bladensburg on a very personal level, and witnessed the aftermath of the burning of the capitol by British that followed.
"The certainty of British arms must have weighed heavily on Key's mind during the bombardment of Ft. McHenry," Larrabee said. "While the defeat at Bladensburg and the burning of Washington was a national disgrace, they did not significantly impact American military or economic capacity. But if Baltimore, the trading center of the country, fell to the British, the United States may well have had to sue for peace. At McHenry, the life of the young American republic hung in the balance."
Key's poem "In Defence of Ft. M'Henry" solidified an intangible connection Americans have with the American flag, defining what it means to be American and making it a banner symbolic of freedom throughout the world.
"Every time we stand at attention for the Star Spangled Banner, our national anthem, you cannot help but feel a great sense of pride in being an American. It evokes a spirit of service and sacrifice that can overcome adversity, even at the darkest moments of our history," Larrabee said. "Our enemy today is much different but our resolve is the same today. As Key wrote 200 years ago, ‘conquer we must, when our cause it is just.'"
Editor's Note: The story's author, Capt. Kyle Key, is an 8th generation descendant of the Francis Scott Key family and a military officer like his ancestor. Capt. Key currently serves in the Army National Guard.