Music for a New Nation
From a war front far from the Great Lakes emerged a poetic account of a battle that shaped Americans’ memories of the War of 1812 and became the United States’ national song. Francis Scott Key (1779-1843), an American lawyer from Baltimore, was with the British fleet on Chesapeake Bay negotiating for the release of an American prisoner when the British began their campaign against the city by bombarding the fort that guarded it. Key wrote “Defense of Fort M’Henry” just after dawn on September 14, 1814, when he realized the American garrison had held through more than a day of fierce attack. His poem was immediately published and became popular when it was set to the tune of a British drinking song and renamed “The Star Spangled Banner.” The song was adopted as the national anthem in 1931.
This sheet music, published near the end of the nineteenth century, uses an illustration to tie “The Star Spangled Banner” to the War of 1812. A young sailor (note the anchor tattoo on his forearm) attaches an American flag to a pole topped with a liberty cap. The sailor represented widespread anger along the eastern seaboard toward British impressment of American sailors in the Royal Navy, while the liberty cap, a traditional symbol of freedom used in the American and French revolutions, reminded Americans of the war’s significant antecedents.