During the War of 1812, 35-year-old Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and amateur poet, met with British military leaders aboard the British ship HMS Tonnant to plead for the release of a close friend who had been taken prisoner. Unfortunately, Key overheard certain details of the British plans for an impending attack on Baltimore. The British decided to hold him captive until after the battle.

As a temporary prisoner, Key could do nothing but watch the American forces at Fort McHenry be bombarded by the British on the night of September 13, 1814. Throughout the night, he saw that the fort’s small storm flag continued to fly. Although the British bombed the fort for 25 hours, they weren’t able to destroy it.

When the smoke cleared in the morning, Key looked toward Fort McHenry to see if the flag was still there. He was overjoyed to see that the smaller storm flag had been replaced with a larger American flag, which was still triumphantly waving.

Surprised and inspired by the sight of the American flag still flying above the fort, Key began writing a poem called “Defence of Fort McHenry” on the morning of September 14. He scribbled the first verses on the back of an envelope. After returning to Baltimore, he finished the poem in his room at the Indian Queen Hotel on September 16.

He then showed his poem to his brother-in-law, Judge Joseph H. Nicholson. Nicholson recommended putting the words to the tune of “The Anacreontic Song,” also called “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a popular British song composed by John Stafford Smith.

On September 20, 1814, the Baltimore Patriot and The American printed the song. Soon afterward, Thomas Carr, the owner of a music store in Baltimore, published the words and music together with the name “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Although “The Star-Spangled Banner” quickly became popular with Americans, it did not receive official recognition as the national anthem until many years later. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that it be played at all military functions.

On March 3, 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed a law that made “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official national anthem of the United States. Some people celebrate March 3 each year as unofficial National Anthem Day.

The song is known for being difficult to sing because of its wide range — an octave and a half. Singers have also been known to forget the words occasionally, which has led some to choose to prerecord and lip-sync the song rather than perform it live.

It has become a longstanding tradition to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the beginning of public sports events and other public gatherings in the United States.


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  1. Dear Wonderopolis,
    Today I was thinking about what to write about one of the things you post. This website is the best thing right now to something about the topic. I like most of your things that you say on this website.
    I was wondering about how you can make a lot of things come to be cool to other people.

    • We really appreciate all the nice things you said about Wonderopolis in your comment today, Hallie! It makes us super happy to know that you like exploring Wonders and learning new things each day…SO DO WE! We really like hearing all the WONDERful ideas our Wonder Friends share for things they WONDER about! We have a lot of FUN turning those ideas into Wonders of the Day and sharing them with all of our friends (like YOU!)! :-)

    • It’s so much fun to learn new things, Ruthantoine! Thanks for sharing your comment- we’re glad you have been WONDERing about the National Anthem with us! :)

  2. We love Wonderopolis. Learning about Francis Scott Key was like traveling back in time. Everyone has probably heard the national anthem many times, but not very many people understand the concept of the song. You taught us a lot of things we have WONDERED about.

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Have you ever wondered…

  • Who wrote the national anthem?
  • What inspired the lyrics of the national anthem?
  • When did “The Star-Spangled Banner” become the U.S. national anthem?

Wonder Gallery

Try It Out

Whether at a sporting event or a Fourth of July celebration, you have probably heard the national anthem many times. But have you ever really thought about what the words mean?

Take some time today to discuss why Francis Scott Key wrote these words. What did they mean to him in the context of witnessing the British attack on Baltimore during the War of 1812? What do they mean to you today?

Here are the lyrics of the first stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner”:

O! say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

If you are feeling inspired, make your own American flag with this fun and easy “hands-on” craft idea.


Still Wondering

Visit the Smithsonian National Museum of American History to see the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that would become the national anthem. The Smithsonian’s The Star-Spangled Banner: The Flag That Inspired the National Anthem online exhibit features many fun and interesting resources to learn more about this unique treasure of American history.

Here are some more fun activities you might enjoy:


Wonder What’s Next?

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