The Series of Improbable Events That Gave Us 'The Star Spangled Banner'

On the 200th anniversary of the national anthem, a look at the forgotten—and arguably awesome—War of 1812
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Poor War of 1812. As far as American history goes, it's in a pretty tight race with the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War for the top spot on the "least remembered" list. Scholars who write about the conflict lead with the fact that it's forgotten. Under the somewhat puzzling Wikipedia entry for "Forgotten Wars," the War of 1812 sits alongside the First and Second Barbary Wars, the Laotian Civil War, and "conflicts involving Finland during World War II."

So how is it that "The Star-Spangled Banner," which is celebrating its 200th birthday this year, came from this conflict—a war that yielded no land gains, a burned-down Capitol, and very little else by way of widely remembered legacy?

Rushern L. Baker III, the executive of Prince George's County, Maryland, says the war gets unfairly undersold. "It was a mystery whether America would survive!" he said in an interview. The revolution had only been won a generation earlier, and Britain had already made moves to restrict trade to the U.S., kidnap American sailors and force them into service in the Royal Navy, and support Indian attacks on American trading outposts, among other things. Yet, after two-and-a-half years of fighting, things pretty much went back to the status quo—the most notable victory, led by Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, happened after the Treaty of Ghent had already been signed.  

That "The Star-Spangled Banner" was written at all was actually kind of an accident, Baker said—but, importantly, one that happened to involve his home of Prince George's County. 

“It was only on their way back [from burning down the Capitol] that the Brits ... got out of hand and trashed the town of Upper Marlboro. The battle was over, the Brits had already won," he said. It was at this point that British troops arrested a doctor named William Beanes, who was taken to Baltimore. His lawyer, a Georgetown man by the name of Francis Scott Key, was sent to negotiate his release.

But, on their way home, they were detained by the British—and it was here, stuck on a boat, waiting for the outcome of the Battle of Baltimore, that Key wrote the famous lyrics that are still belted at baseball games across America:

And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

“Had it not been for us, Prince George’s County—if Dr. Beanes had not been captured and taken on a ship to Baltimore, then … there would not a be a 'Star-Spangled Banner,'" Baker said. "That’s what we tell everybody."

Which is actually a charming point. This little piece of American culture, one that defines sporting events and fourth-grade classrooms and high-school choir, was the result of a series of accidents: The British decided to trash a town in the "middle of nowhere" Maryland, as Baker called it; the troops happened to arrest a client of Francis Scott Key; they happened to get stuck on a boat; Key happened to be feeling poetical after a long day of war-time lawyering. History feels more real when it's personal: When you can look at the grave of the man who "inspired 'The Star-Spangled Banner,'" the War of 1812 doesn't seem so irrelevant anymore.

Then again, Baker and his fellow history buffs have a tough task ahead in convincing others that this is true. To mark the 200th anniversary of the national anthem this year, they're hosting a—what else could it be called—"Star-Spangled Summer" to commemorate Maryland's role in this history. His staff has found that a lot of people think the War of 1812 is connected to the Revolutionary War, or they don't know what the War of 1812 is at all. It's a bold move to launch a tourism campaign pegged to a war no one remembers, but perhaps it's a noble move, too.

Americans "kind of like the underdog, the 'us vs. the established, big people' narrative," Baker said. "'The Star-Spangled Banner' is that. We're fighting against the greatest military power on earth, and we win the battle. ... People forget about the War of 1812 itself and just think about America in general—this is us, this is what it means to be an American."

America, you've had your Fourth of July, Revolutionary War-privileging fun. Just for this summer, to celebrate the birthday of an unexpected anthem, maybe it's time for a little 1812 love. 

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also oversees the National Channel and writes about religion and culture.

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