Cold Open - The White House Burns
It’s the afternoon of August 24th, 1814 in Washington D.C. at the President’s House.
In the dining room of what will come to be known as the White House, Paul Jennings, a 15-year-old black teen, is hard at work. Paul is enslaved by America’s fourth president, James Madison. And today, he works feverishly to prepare the dinner table for the president’s wife, the first lady, Dolley Madison.
As Paul makes sure the plates are spotless and that table linen is crisp, he hears the sound of hoofbeats outside… followed by the frantic cries of a messenger riding up on horseback. The rider warns everyone to clear out because The British are coming.
Paul sets down the plate. He runs to the window… and sees a mob approaching but they aren't British soldiers, they are looters, desperate people hoping to take advantage of the chaos of the moment as Washington citizens flee.
Before Paul has a chance to his own escape… the front door to the president’s house flies open… and the mob pours inside.
Paul turns to run in the other direction nearly colliding with the first lady, her arms filled with precious silverware. She directs Paul’s attention to a lifesize portrait of George Washington hanging on the wall and orders him to save the painting.
Paul and another enslaved servant get to work trying to unfasten the 8-foot-tall framed portrait. But they can’t pry it free. So Paul thinks on his feet. He fetches a penknife…
Soon, the portrait is free from the frame, and Paul rolls it up and rushes for the door.
Outside, Paul hands the portrait off for safekeeping and watches Dolley Madison’s carriage ride away as more looters flood inside the President’s House. In the distance, Paul spies a sea of soldiers in red approaching. As he runs for safety, he can hear the sound of the British troops swarming into the city, determined on burning Washington to the ground.
At the time that Paul Jennings rescues George Washington’s portrait, the War of 1812 has been raging for over two years. But in the summer of 1814, the British devised to put a swift end to the conflict with America. In August, a British fleet sailed into Chesapeake Bay and landed thousands of troops on the shores of Maryland, less than fifty miles from Washington. American troops attempted to fight back at the town of Bladensburg, just to the east of D.C. But they were routed in a humiliating defeat, leaving the path clear for the British to march on Washington and raze the capital.
Heartened by their victory, the British turned north, and set their sights on Baltimore; a strategically important port city. The British hope that the loss of both Washington and Baltimore will cripple the American war effort. But to sack Baltimore, the British will first have to conquer the imposing American stronghold, Fort McHenry, which guards the city’s harbor.
During the ensuing Battle of Baltimore, as it comes to be known, the British unleash a relentless assault on the fort - by land and sea. The naval bombardment will last more than 24 hours; and when it finally ends, the Americans’ resilience will inspire one lawyer, author, and poet - Francis Scott Key - to write some of the most famous - and complicated - words in American history on September 14th, 1814.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is September 14th, 1814: Francis Scott Key Writes “The Star Spangled Banner”.
Act One: Preparing for Battle
It’s September 7th, 1814, at the mouth of the Potomac River; two weeks after the British burned down Washington D.C.
On the deck of a 200-foot-long British gunship, stand two Americans: Colonel John Skinner, and a lawyer named Francis Scott Key. Francis nervously fidgets as he and the Colonel wait for a British officer to arrive. They’re here, on board this British ship, to argue for the release of a prisoner.
Recently, British troops arrested Francis’ friend, an American doctor. So a few days ago, Francis and the Colonel set sail from Baltimore on a truce boat, hoping to broker a deal with the British to secure the doctor’s release. And after what seems like a purposefully long wait, Francis finally glances up to see a British officer approaching, with a second officer trailing close behind. After exchanging pleasantries, the British officers ask Francis his business.
Francis knows how to craft an argument. He’s a skilled lawyer, but also an author and poet with a natural gift for words. And normally, he can persuade almost any audience. But today, the British officers seem unmoved. They tell Francis they have no intention of releasing their prisoner.
Francis reminds the officers that his friend, the doctor, treated the wounds of several British soldiers. These soldiers were so grateful, some of them even wrote letters on the doctor’s behalf. Francis insists that the letters are proof the doctor is an honorable man deserving of his freedom. Francis gives his word that they will not regret letting him go. And as Francis finishes his pitch, he thinks he sees a hint of pity in the officer’s eyes.
Eventually, the British officers do decide to show mercy. They inform Francis that they will release his friend. But not yet. In fact, the officer says, none of them are going anywhere.
When Francies tries to protest, the officer cuts him off. He explains that during their time aboard the British ship, they have seen too much. The officers simply cannot risk letting them go. They might give the Americans information about the size or location of the British fleet. Francis and his doctor friend, as well as the Colonel and his crew, will have to remain in British custody until the British assault on Fort McHenry is over.
Days later, on September 10th, a young American private marches toward Baltimore with the rest of the 38th Infantry. He and his fellow troops are on their way to help defend Fort McHenry from an impending British attack.
About a month ago, the British landed in Chesapeake Bay, marched into Washington, and set fire to the capital. Now, the British have turned their attention to Baltimore. From a military standpoint, Baltimore and its thriving port in a strategic location are far more important than Washington D.C. But none of that matters to this particular private. All he cares about is keeping his freedom. Because, unlike the rest of his fellow infantrymen, he is a former slave.
Just five months ago, this private was enslaved here in Baltimore, under the name Frederick Hall. But, back in April, he managed to escape and pass as a free man by joining the US Army under a new name; possibly a name he chose himself: William Williams.
William has no doubt heard the British are promising freedom to any enslaved person who escapes and joins their side; it’s less about magnanimity and more about undermining America’s war effort. But it is still a path to freedom, and America isn't making any such promises. In fact, in 1814, Black Americans are not allowed to enlist in the Army at all. But William is a fair-skinned man, with freckles. And it’s possible the American officer who enlisted him did not realize he was black. Regardless of William - or the officer’s - intentions, though, William is a soldier now. And he has his orders.
Soon, William sees Fort McHenry in the distance; a large fortress built in the shape of a star. As he and the rest of the 38th Infantry close in on the Fort, adrenaline courses through William’s veins. He knows the British are coming. Word has it they’ve already amassed a formidable fleet in Chesapeake Bay. Soon, they’ll dispatch thousands of troops to the fort. And from the sea, they’ll pummel the Americans with bombs and artillery. From land, they’ll launch a vicious assault, and they won’t stop until the American defenses fall.
Act Two: Bombs Bursting in Air
It’s September 10th, 1814, on board a British gunship near Baltimore Harbor.
On deck, Francis Scott Key nervously listens as his fellow prisoner, Colonel Skinner, pleads with the officer in charge to let them go. Baltimore is in sight. The bay is packed with British ships. The Americans already know they’re here, he insists, there’s no more need for secrecy. The Colonel begs the officer to please release them.
The officer sighs and considers the request for a moment. Then, he finally agrees to allow the Americans to return to their sloop nearby; but he says they must remain under the guard of British marines, and they will not be permitted to sail away until the assault is over.
Francis’s heart sinks. He knows the British are aiming to seize Fort McHenry and turn its guns on Baltimore. Francis fully understands the stakes of the moment. If the city falls, it could very well mean the end of the United States. But for Francis, this is personal, too. He has friends and family in Baltimore. He has a brother-in-law stationed inside the fort.
He wishes there was something he could do to help. But as it is, he’s forced to remain a prisoner. Eventually, Francis and the rest of the Americans are escorted back to their sloop anchored in Baltimore Harbor; about 8 miles from Fort McHenry. And there, Francis will be forced to wait for the assault to commence.
On September 12th, the British troops make land and advance on the fort. The next morning, the British fleet begin their bombardment. Francis walks onto the deck of his sloop and pulls out a spyglass. He closes one eye and squints into the handheld telescope with the other. The sky turns to fire as the British ships pummel Fort McHenry with an endless barrage of artillery rockets and enormous, 190-pound cast iron bombs. It’s a breathtaking, and terrible sight. To Francis, it seems as if the sky has opened up in a never-ending rain of fire and brimstone.
But the British ships are well out of range of the Fort’s defensive artillery. So instead of firing back, the Americans largely hold their fire. Francis is concerned by the lack of resistance; and for a moment, he wonders if the Americans have already surrendered. But then he looks back toward the fort, and through his spyglass, he can still see the American flag waving above the ramparts. As long as that flag is there, it means the brave men on the ground have not yet surrendered.
Meanwhile, just outside the fort, Private William Williams hunkers down in a dry moat with his rifle ready. He and 600 of his fellow infantrymen are here to repel the impending British land assault. William keeps his courage, even with the terrifying stream of bombs and rockets exploding in the sky. But with each blast, the ground quakes beneath his feet. And the explosions grow closer and closer until one impact blows William to the ground and knocks the breath from his lungs.
When he opens his eyes, the air is filled with smoke and the muffled cries of his fellow soldiers. With blurred vision, he looks down and sees one of his legs torn from his body. He tries to cry out in pain, but no sound comes. His eyelids droop, and all fades to darkness.
Meanwhile, the Battle for Baltimore rages on. From his vantage point in the harbor, Francis Scott Key holds his breath as the British move their ships closer to the fort, hoping to put a swift end to the conflict. But once they’re within range, the Americans unleash, pummeling the British fleet with gun and artillery fire, and forcing the ships to retreat to a safe distance once again.
But the British don’t give up. From the sea, they continue their long-range bombardment. On land, they attack the Fort with wave after wave of troops; mostly British soldiers, but also escaped slaves, promised their freedom and fighting in an all-Black corp called the Colonial Marines. But the American defenses hold strong; even as a terrible nor’easter blows into Baltimore, drenching troops on all sides. The storm continues well into the night, as do the screams of hissing rockets, and the bellows of explosions indistinguishable from thunderclaps.
Using his spyglass, Francis Scott Key peers out into the darkness. But he can’t see much. The citizens of Baltimore have extinguished all lights to keep the British from identifying valuable targets. Francis feels a sense of dread and awe as the rockets and thunderbolts take turns lighting up the night sky. Through the swirl of smoke, rain, and fire, it’s difficult for Francis to make out the American flag. But he knows it’s still there. As terrible as the explosions are, as long as the British onslaught continues, it means the Americans are still holding strong.
Act Three: Star Spangled Banner
It’s the morning of September 14th, 1814 in the waters of Baltimore Harbor.
Francis Scott Key stands on deck of his sloop and nervously looks out over the fog-covered waters. For the first time since the bombardment began, all is quiet.
The American guns stopped firing at 4:30 this morning, but the British bombardment lasted for another three hours before everything finally ceased. Now, Francis fears the worst: that Fort McHenry has fallen, that his brother-in-law is dead, and that the American Flag has been lowered, and replaced by the Union Jack.
Francis cranes his neck and squints his eyes, but the fog is too thick to see through. He’s just about to give up hope when a fluttering thing catches his eye through the mist: the stars and stripes of the American flag.
Soon, the fog lifts, and Francis watches stunned as the British ships retreat from the harbor. The Americans have held the fort, and Francis feels a swelling pride.
He’s inspired by the fortitude and sacrifice of his countrymen, so Francis finds a quill and a piece of paper. He puts down his thoughts:
“O! say can you see, by the dawn's early light…”
Two days later, Francis returns to Baltimore, the place where his adventure began. And there, he finishes the poem, crafting four verses in total.
Francis’ work is promptly published under the name "Defence of Fort McHenry." And soon, it’s printed by a local newspaper, the Baltimore Patriot, this time under a new name, "The Star-Spangled Banner" Before long, Francis’ piece appears in newspapers all over the country, making his words immortal, and forever enshrining America’s victory over the British at Fort McHenry.
The Battle of Baltimore is a turning point in the War of 1812. Three months later, on December 24th, 1814, the British and the Americans sign a treaty ending the conflict. At the time, many Americans claim victory, but in truth, the war ended in a stalemate. Thousands were killed or wounded during the costly contest, and both countries were forced to give up territory. Neither was a clear winner.
The legacy of “The Star Spangled Banner” is just as murky. In 1931, Francis Scott Key’s poem becomes the lyrics to the official national anthem of the United States. But today, centuries later, some question the message of the poem and its author, a man who owned slaves and knew enslaved persons were fighting not necessarily against America, but for a chance at freedom. In the little-known third stanza, Francis writes, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave, From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.”
While the intended meaning of that line might be lost to history, “The Star Spangled Banner” endures as a symbol of American bravery and victory in a conflict that helped the nascent country further solidify its American identity. But it was a victory that came at a cost, paid for in blood by brave American soldiers, and enslaved persons like William Williams and those others he fought against, even as both groups sought only their freedom. This legacy of the poem, however complicated, is something Francis Scott Key could not have predicted when the fog of the Battle of Baltimore lifted, inspiring him to write down the first words to the “Star Spangled Banner” on September 14th, 1814.
Next onHistory Daily: September 15th, 1762. The British win the Battle of Signal Hill, the final skirmish of the French and Indian War, which makes Great Britain the prominent European power in North America.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Ruben Abrahams Brosbe.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.