The Battle That Birthed the Star Spangled Banner
For most of the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key wanted no part of the dispute between Great Britain and her former colonies. But then the British went and wrecked his hometown.
Wednesday, the seventh of September 1814, was a fine day for sailing out of Baltimore harbor and into the Chesapeake Bay. The shallow hull and sloop rigging of the boat fairly sliced through the water with a following wind, her boom swung well out and her canvas filled with power thrusting her down the Patapsco River. Hoisting a fair amount of sail, she whipped along once clear of the headland. This was a “packet sloop,” custom made for these waters. She was designed to quickly deliver passengers and light cargo across the bay and up into the shallow inlets on the other side, or down the Bay and to Norfolk. She did her job well. With her sails set along the length of her hull instead of square across, she was one of the most maneuverable and versatile boats around. The civilians who had hired her would make good time, wherever they were going. The problem was that they did not yet know their exact destination. “Generally south” was the best they could guesstimate.
On the deck of the boat was a man with curly brown hair and a long face. He had turned thirty-five just the month before, on the first of August he celebrated his birthday in Georgetown. It must have seemed a lifetime away. He was by any measure successful, well-respected, and in the prime of his life. A lawyer who called Georgetown home, (it was then a separate town, though technically within the boundaries of the District of Columbia) he had opposed the politicking that led to the war that now consumed his nation, a conflict we now know as the “War of 1812.” But circumstances now thrust him into the epicenter of the conflict. He could not know that the events of the next seven days would make him immortal. At the moment he was intent on finding the British, as he had a bone to pick with them and a mission to accomplish.
At the top of her mast the sloop flew a white flag. This was no warship. And since the skipper intended to close up with a British warship, he wanted to make sure there were no mistakes about his intent. Yes, the packet sloop was fast and maneuverable, particularly in comparison with some of the lumbering warships lurking out on the bay. But the warships carried massive banks of huge cannon, and the sloop had no guns at all. Flying the biggest, whitest flag from the top of the mast was a simple precaution.