“Oh Say Can You See, By the Dawn’s Early Light…”
Almost exactly 199 years after Francis Scott Key wrote the immortal words that would become the U.S. national anthem, the poet, lawyer, and American icon, has been reunited – briefly – with the original document on which he penned the verse.
During a remarkable ceremony Saturday at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, Md., Key's burial place, not far from where he was born in 1779, a procession that included the U.S. Army Old Guard and a horse-mounted regiment, carried the manuscript to his gravesite.
Hundreds of visitors watched as the Star Spangled Banner anthem was sung, and the American flag was raised above the cemetery’s Francis Key Monument. It was only the second time that the hand-written document – four stanzas and 312 words – has left its home at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. After the ceremony it was returned to Baltimore, where visitors can see it on permanent display.
“This is the closest the manuscript has been to its author since he wrote the words,” said Michelle Kershner, marketing manager of Frederick County Tourism. The ceremony was attended by Vince Hull, a 99-year-old veteran of the D-Day landings.
Frederick – an hour north of Washington D.C. is famous for its Top Chefs, historic old town, and Monocacy Civil War battlefield – but it is bringing awareness of Key, its favorite son, as the region gears up for next year’s Bicentennial of The Battle of 1812. A series of historic markers around the city – including one at the minor league Frederick Key ball field – now tell the story of Key’s time in Frederick. The manuscript was on public at City Hall on Saturday, and side events included an exhibit featuring a fragment of one of the British bombs that “bursting in air” over Fort McHenry in 1814.
For many Americans, the story behind the song is as powerful as the words themselves. Key wrote them on board the British ship HMS Tonnant the day after the British bombardment of Fort McHenry from Baltimore Harbor. Key had boarded the vessel to negotiate the release of two Americans, and had to watch helplessly as the ship lay siege to the fort. Observing at dawn that the flag – its “broad stripes and bright stars” - had been gallantly raised through the night – Key wrote notes on the back of a letter he had with him on deck. He completed the poem – always intended as a song, historians have now determined – at Baltimore’s Indian Queen Hotel on September 16th, when he was released from the ship. It was published four days later and within weeks – more than a century before mass communication – became a national rallying cry. But by then Key had already given the manuscript to his brother-in-law, and would never see it again. Until - in a sense - now.
The Frederick “Anthem & Author Reunited” event was part of a three-year series of commemorations that will lead up to the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 next September. Frederick forms one part of an historic tourist triangle that tells the story of Key, the battle and the flag. The latter is now displayed at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.
“Three key elements came together on that fateful day in September of 1814…the fort under bombardment, the flag, and the eyewitness who would pen our future National Anthem,” said Maryland Historical Society president Burton Kummerow.
“Today, Baltimore, Washington and Frederick hold these pieces of the story, with Fort McHenry and the manuscript in Baltimore, the flag at the Smithsonian in Washington, and the author’s grave and monument in Frederick. During this bicentennial of the War of 1812, we are pleased to be able to temporarily display the document at the other points on that triangle.”
Douglas Rogers was born and raised in Zimbabwe. He is the author of "The Last Resort: A Memoir of Mischief and Mayhem on a Family Farm in Africa" (Broadway Books 2010).