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5 things you probably didn't know about "The Star-Spangled Banner"

The American flag blows in the wind.
The American flag blows in the wind.
(Wouter de Bruijn/flickr)

A recent study conducted by Rasmussen Reports found that 90 percent of Americans know the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner," which turned 200 over the weekend. That's pretty good, but, seriously, 10 percent of American adults don't know them?

Even if the words of the song are well-known, less known is the history behind it. Here are five things you might not have known about our national anthem.

1) Francis Scott Key watched the bombing that inspired the song onboard a British ship

An amateur poet, Key penned the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the age of 35. He was a Maryland-area attorney, associated with both the American Bible Society and the American Colonization Society.

During the War of 1812, Key, along with a prisoner exchange agent, boarded the British ship HMS Tonnant to negotiate the release of American prisoners. Key was invited onto the ship as a guest of British officers, so he was safe. But because he learned of an impending British attack on Baltimore while he was in the company of the British, Key was not permitted to leave the ship until the bombardment was carried out.

On the rainy evening of September 13, 1814, a British fleet of about 20 ships attacked Baltimore's Fort McHenry with mortars and rockets. Key, still aboard the HMS Tonnant, watched from afar as the Battle of Baltimore raged on. The rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air — the images he saw the night of September 13 all came together in a poem he later wrote called "Defence of Fort M'Henry."

2) There was an actual star-spangled flag

By the dawn's early light on September 14, Key was able to see a battered American flag flying over the ramparts at the fort. According to accounts, when Key saw the flag, he knew the British hadn't overpowered his countrymen.

The Star-Spangled Banner flag was commissioned at the request of George Armistead, commander of McHenry, who wanted a flag "so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance." Baltimore flagmaker Mary Young Pickersgill sewed the flag of 15 stars and 15 stripes, which she ended up crafting to be 30-by-42 feet. The flag is on display at the National Museum of American History.

Even though legend holds that the flag Pickersgill created was the one Key watched waving over Fort McHenry the night of the attacks, historians aren't so sure. Writes Christopher Klein for History.com:

The fort's 30-by-42-foot garrison flag was so massive that it required 11 men to hoist when dry, and if waterlogged, the woolen banner could have weighed upwards of 500 pounds and snapped the flagpole. So as the rain poured down, a smaller storm flag that measured 17-by-25 feet flew in its place.

Regardless of which of these two flags rose above the fort, some US flag flew high during the evening of the bombardment and the morning after, inspiring Key's poem.

3) There's a bridge near where Key watched the bombing

The Francis Scott Key Bridge spans the Patapsco River in Baltimore and was opened in March 1977. Historians think the bridge is located near the place from which Key watched the bombing of Fort McHenry in 1814. There is a ceremonial buoy emblazoned with stars and stripes located on the harbor side of the bridge to commemorate Key's verse.

4) The music for the national anthem is actually … British

The melody of the national anthem is set to the tune of To Anacreon in Heaven, which was the official song of the Anacreontic Society, a London gentlemen's club. Historians are torn over whether or not Key wrote "Defence of Fort M'Henry" with this song in mind.

What's clear, however, is this: ever since the Baltimore Patriot and Advertiser published Key's poem on September 20, 1814, along with the note that it should be sung to the tune of Anachreon in Heaven, the tune and the lyrics have become inextricable.

5) "Star-spangled" is a Shakespearean invention

Yet another very English fact about our national anthem is that the phrase "Star-spangled" wasn't actually invented by Key, though he definitely helped to popularize it. The original phrase comes from Shakespeare, as historian Marc Ferris points out in Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America's National Anthem. The Bard, says Ferris, used the turn of phrase twice:

  • In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Robin says that Oberon and Tatiana refuse to speak to each other, either "by fountain clear or spangled starlight sheen."
  • The phrase is used as a compliment in The Taming of the Shrew:
  • Hast thou beheld a fresher gentlewoman?
    Such war of white and red within her cheeks!
    What stars do spangle heaven with such beauty
    As those two eyes become that heavenly face?

But if Key didn't invent "star-spangled," he is responsible for another of our national mottos: In God We Trust. As Ferris points out, the line, which is printed on US currency, is a direct reference to the fourth verse of Key's poem:

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."

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