What was the first ‘Star Spangled Banner’?

On 13 September 1814, during the Anglo-American War of 1812, a British naval force bombarded the American stronghold, Fort McHenry in Baltimore

American Flag

A day after the bombardment, a US lawyer and amateur poet named Francis Scott Key looked out to the fort. He was on board a ship in Chesapeake Bay and could see “by the dawn’s early light” that an American flag – the “star spangled banner” – was still flying, having survived the assault.


The British attack had failed as Fort McHenry remained in American hands. Key was so moved by what he saw that he wrote the poem that now forms the lyrics for the national anthem of the USA. The banner in question was an enormous 100 square metre flag, sewn the previous year by 37-year-old widow Mary Pickersgill, and a team of helpers at a cost of $405.90. The remains of this giant standard are now on display in the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History in Washington DC.

A smaller flag, also sewn by Pickersgill, had probably flown during the bombardment itself.

The music of the anthem comes from an 18th-century English drinking song and Key probably had the melody in mind when he wrote the poem. The Star Spangled Banner soon grew in popularity but it wasn’t formally adopted as the anthem until 1931.


Answered by one of our Q&A experts, Julian Humphrys. For more fascinating questions by Julian, and the rest of our panel, pick up a copy of History Revealed! Available in print and for digital devices