“At this time our morning gun was fired, the flag hoisted, and Yankee Doodle played…” Private Isaac Munroe, U.S. Volunteers, Sept. 1814.
The words of Francis Scott Key still echo over the Patapsco River and Baltimore, when literally “by the dawn’s early light,” the American ensign was hoisted over the walls of Fort McHenry to the tune of Yankee Doodle, a young nation’s national air. What actually happened at that moment on September 14, 1814? Was the flag hoisted in victory as the British sailed away?
These are the questions that often have been misrepresented in telling this compelling story that occured two hundred years ago. The answer lies not in the national anthem, nor in the “retreat” of the Royal Navy before Baltimore, but in the U.S. Army Regulations of 1813 and 1821 and eyewitness’ of the battle.
The Dawn’s Early Light – On the early morning hours of September 14, 1814, following a 25 hour naval bombardment at 4:30 a.m., the American batteries at Fort McHenry fell silent. Three hours later the British ships ceased firing. The tumultuous night of thunderstorms had now stopped. The sun had been up since 5:40 a.m. The bombardment smoke reflected the morning mists drifting along the shores of marsh grass and river surfaces.
The British fleet that had unleashed its armaments bombs and rockets against Fort McHenry, hoisted their sails and one by one began to sail down river – the Battle for Baltimore had ended. The garrison within, while overwhelmed of having survived the bombardment, now unexpectedly viewed the sudden withdrawal of the British navy from Baltimore.
At 9 a.m. four fifers and drummers of the U.S. Corps of Artillery lined up within the Star Fort parade ground for the raising of the morning colors. The 17’x 25’ storm flag that had flown during the tumultuous night was lowered. The great garrison flag measuring 42′ x 30′ was then ceremoniously raised over the star fort “In full glory reflected how shines in the stream,…” as remembered by Francis Scott Key. A month earlier a newspaper correspondent witnessed at Fort McHenry:
“Who that has ever heard the Reveille played at Fort McHenry by the skillful performers of that Garrison, but who will be ready to acknowledge the power of the “ear-piercing fife and spirit stirring drum,” when touched by the hand of a master? And who has not witnessed the effect produced on an audience at the Theatre, when some favorite air was struck up? Of National Airs we have as yet but few; but we have two that are sufficient for our purpose – Yankee Doodle and Hail Columbia – are as soul-aspiring airs as ever were composed…”
U.S. Army regulations make it very clear that daily at 9 a.m. the sentries of the Fort were changed, the fort’s cannon, a 6-pdr. is fired, and the fifes and drums played. However, amidst the celebration, remained a trepidation of another attack. Any clear celebration would have to wait. The star-spangled banner that Key had witnessed was not raised in victory – but of U.S. Army regulations. It so happened the British departed on the very hour the U.S. regulations stated the flag be raised!
So much for the romantic nature of writers.
For the first time, an American had composed the words that gave the American flag new meaning and symbolism that had never been expressed before. From this moment, Americans began to refer to the flag as the star-spangled banner, so to the present day.
The flag that so inspired Francis Scott Key with the words that became a new national song is displayed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Histiry in Washington, D.C.
Sources: “National Music,” Baltimore American and Commercial Daily Advertiser, August 17, 1814; Rules and Regulations of the U.S. Army, 1812;