Rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air … Young Adam is witness to one of the most important moments in our country’s history.
Illustrations by Greg Newbold
Smoke stung my eyes. My nose and throat burned. I felt a blow to my chest like a prizefighter’s punch every time one of the big guns went off. Rockets screamed overhead. I clung to our little sloop’s rigging the way a drowning man clings to a lifeline, trying to hold the telescope steady.
“Can you see the flag, Adam?” Mr. Key called from the deck. I could hardly hear him over the battle’s noise. All I could see were rocket trails, exploding bombs, cannons flashing and thick smoke that blanketed everything, turning the night even darker.
“No, sir!” I called down. I saw no flag. Was there a flag to be seen? Did we still have a country?
How did I get here? I was no soldier or sailor. Hadn’t I just turned 14 this past spring, when I came to Washington to begin working for Mr. Francis Scott Key? Mr. Key was one of the best lawyers in the city. I was honored to be his law clerk.
Everyone knew the war with England was not going well, but I never suspected it might come to me. In the summer of 1814 the British fleet sailed into Chesapeake Bay. They burned Washington. The President’s Mansion, the Capitol and so many other buildings were left smoking ruins.
Mr. Key and I barely escaped into Maryland. We had hardly returned home when we were off again. The British had arrested a prominent Maryland patriot, Dr. William Beanes. They were holding him prisoner aboard their warships. His friends hoped that a famous lawyer like Mr. Key could negotiate his release.
“I will do my best,” Mr. Key promised. He asked me to go with him as his assistant.
The British were now sailing north to Baltimore, to do what they had done to Washington.
We sailed out to the British fleet in a small sloop, the Minden. I felt like a minnow among sharks. The British warships towered above us, bristling with cannon. Sailors and soldiers filled their decks.
How could our young country prevail against such power? Mr. Key and I both feared that Baltimore was doomed. And then? What would be left of the United States when the British sailed home?
But luck was with us. After some grumbling, Mr. Key persuaded the British commanders to release Dr. Beanes. However, we would remain their “guests” until they had captured Fort McHenry, the main fort protecting Baltimore’s harbor.
“It won’t be easy, Adam,” Mr. Key remarked to me. He pointed to the huge U.S. flag flying over Fort McHenry. “The men in that fort mean to fight.”
I hoped he was right. If Fort McHenry fell, nothing stood between the British and Baltimore.
We dined with the British officers that night aboard the HMS Surprize. Their carousing kept us awake most of the night. One song went on forever.
To Anacreon in heaven where he sat in full glee,
A few sons of harmony sent a petition …
Endless verses followed. I fell asleep before the end.
And well that I did. Over the next two days, I got no sleep at all.
The siege of Fort McHenry began. Two-hundred-pound bombs exploded in midair, showering the fort with shrapnel. The British tried a new weapon: Congreve rockets. They fired dozens at a time. Their fiery tails whooshed across the sky. We felt the shock as they exploded above and inside the fort.
“How can anyone survive?” I wondered.
Mr. Key handed me a pocket telescope. “Go aloft, Adam. Tell us what you see.”
I climbed into the rigging. Clouds of thick smoke covered the fort. A breeze came up. I briefly saw the flag.
“It still waves,” I shouted. A huge blast nearly knocked me from the rigging. A British bomb blew up one of the fort’s cannons. British sailors cheered. How much longer could Fort McHenry hold out?
The bombardment continued all night. Occasionally, I caught glimpses of the flag, illuminated by the red glare of the rockets and the yellow flashes of the bombs. I peered through the telescope until my eyes burned.
“Can you see the flag?” Mr. Key asked.
“Yes. It still flies,” I answered, hoping it was so.
Suddenly, the bombardment ceased. We saw British soldiers climbing into barges.
“They’ll attack the fort from the rear,” Mr. Key explained.
“Will they succeed?” I asked. Would we still have a flag? A country?
We would know in the next few hours.
Deafening booms ended all conversation. Fiery flashes lit up Fort McHenry’s walls, followed by more flashes on the land side. It went on and on.
The firing ceased. Dead silence followed.
“What does this mean?” I asked Mr. Key.
“Either the British have taken the fort.” He paused. “Or their attack failed, and Baltimore is saved.” The first light of dawn appeared over the horizon.
I searched for the faintest glimpse of star or stripe. Then I saw it — our flag. Torn, tattered, but still flying!
“The star-spangled banner still waves,” I shouted. I started cheering. But not Mr. Key. I noticed him scribbling something on an envelope.
“To celebrate the occasion,” he said. He read the first verse to me.
O, say can you see
By the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed
At the twilight’s last gleaming …
“That’s good!” I exclaimed. “Your words fit that song we heard aboard the Surprize.”
Mr. Key nodded. “Anacreon’s tune deserves better words.”
Stirring words they are. Mr. Key published his poem after we returned to Washington. People sing it every day. It is one of the few good things to come out of this dreadful war.
I expect that Americans will be singing Mr. Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner” for years to come.
And the star-spangled banner
in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the
home of the brave!
May it be so forever!