President James Madison sent Key to attempt to secure the release of Maryland physician Dr William Beanes, who had been captured after the burning of Washington DC for harassing British soldiers. The British agreed to release Beanes, but Key was detained overnight as the British were about to shell the fort which guarded the entrance to Baltimore harbour.
Key was held on one of the frigates participating in the attack during the night of September 13-14, 1814. All through the night, he watched the bombardment and prayed that the fortress would not be captured.
In the morning, he was so delighted to see the American flag still flying over the fort that he began a poem to commemorate the occasion1. Set to the old English song 'To Anacreon in Heaven', Key's composition quickly became a popular patriotic song. Both sides played the song during the American Civil War and the military adopted it as the 'unofficial' national anthem.
Though it contains four stanzas, only the first is usually sung as the National Anthem, in fact, 99% of Americans probably couldn't sing all four verses.
Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
- Francis Scott Key
'The Star-Spangled Banner' was officially made the national anthem by Congress in 1931 with a law signed by President Herbert Hoover.
The British never did capture Fort McHenry and it stands today as a part of the National Park Service and is the only park designated as both a national monument and a national shrine.