This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections
Frank Key, as his friends knew him, had little use for this war, particularly as he viewed the War of 1812 as an aggressive one directed at Canada. The Georgetown lawyer’s patriotism kicked in, however, with the threat of the British invading the Chesapeake. He enlisted in the militia and threw himself into the role of civilian scout and local advisor.
Francis Scott Key’s mission, to win the release of the elderly American physician, William Beanes, is well-known as the circumstance that found him among the British fleet as Fort McHenry was bombarded and inspired him to write what later became our national anthem. Less commonly recognized in this familiar tale are the stakes: The fall of Fort McHenry would likely have led to the capitulation of Baltimore—where the British intended a much harsher treatment than that inflicted on Washington weeks earlier—and a quite different outcome to the terms ending the war.
The well-connected Frank Key embarked on the mission to save “Old Dr. Beanes” along with the official government agent for prisoners, John Stuart Skinner. The 35-year old Key approached this task with a dutiful gloom about both it and the war’s outcome. Because Key and Skinner had already overheard too much while aboard British warships about the intended bombardment and landing of 4,700 troops , they were detained. After several days, they were allowed to return to the small American sloop that served as a truce ship, but only with a guard of Royal Marines that kept them afloat in the area.
With five special “bomb ships,” the heaviest floating artillery available, stationed at the mouth of the Patapsco River, the British threw virtually all they had at Fort McHenry. The star fort, at the tip of the peninsula guarding the harbor, lacked a bombproof casement and often had little opportunity to reach the British ships with their own fire: “We were like pigeons tied by the legs to be shot at,” was how the militia artillery commander, Joseph H. Nicholson likened it. In commanding the fort, Major George Armistead did much more than order flags for the garrison, and he won praise for his resolve and resourcefulness. Lightning and thunder added dramatic effect to the bombardment, but the rain that fell through the night also aided the American defenders.
Of equal importance as the successful defense of Fort McHenry, was the prior action the Americans took to sink their own vessels at the mouth of the harbor to serve as an effective barrier to British warships. With the resulting failure of the Royal Navy to provide support to their land forces, the British commanders made the reluctant and controversial decision to abandon their plans for a land invasion on the fateful night of September 13-14.
The massive bombardment ceased and Key, Skinner, Dr. Beanes, and the small American crew could only wait until dawn to determine the fort’s fate from their distance of several miles away. Major Armistead’s extra-large garrison flag, the sun, spy glasses, and a slight breeze finally “gave proof” and occasion for Key’s exuberant, thankful, and, at times, scornful poem written as he viewed the enemy’s apparent retreat.
Key had composed in this genre before and was likely writing in meter to the popular tune “To Anacreon in Heaven,” here seen as it was known in Britain.
It was, we believe, either Skinner, Key’s companion on the mission, or Joseph Nicholson, the commander of volunteer artillery at Fort McHenry, who took the poem to the press to be printed as a broadside. Nicholson, an influential judge who also happened to be Frank Key’s brother-in-law, understandably saw to it that the published piece got to the soldiers at the fort. One of the earliest broadside printings is this one in the Historical Society’s collection, but it differs from the poem’s very first publication in inserting Key’s name as author. The devout Key concludes his four verses with “In God is our Trust,” that later derived into the “In God We Trust” appearing on United States
Francis Scott Key went on to a life of accomplishments and tragedy, one full of the contradictions of 19th century America. Flourishing as a lawyer, his politics eventually connected him closely to Andrew Jackson, and he promoted his brother-in-law, Roger B. Taney, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. A slaveholder, Key argued vehemently at times against both slavery and abolitionists. He lost children to illness, accidents, and dueling but did not live to see one son become the victim in one of New York’s most notorious murder trials.
Exhaustion and fever finally disabled fort commander Armistead, and he was replaced by Samuel Smith, the prominent Baltimorean responsible for the overall defense of the city. This letter to Smith, written
four days after the bombardment, about making the powder magazine at Fort McHenry “Bombproof,” comes across in our eyes as “closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.” But the local Committee of Vigilance did indeed respond with building materials and carpenters and brick-layers for the task. It is a reminder of how the citizens of Baltimore were still not certain of their fate, and how similar civilian committees in cities up and down the coast prepared for British attack. The citizens of Baltimore had the distinction of being successful and remain proud of that fact.