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Freedom first
Freedom first

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It was the dawn that inspired a song, in September 1814, and surely the most famous sunrise in American history. The man responsible for its far-reaching inspiration was young Francis Scott Key, a handsome and wealthy young man of Maryland prone to scribbling bits of poetry whenever the mood struck him. For hours he had been anxiously pacing in the dark aboard the British HMS Tonnant, waiting for the morning light and expecting it to reveal the worst.

Key was not a prisoner of war. An acquaintance of his, Dr. William Beanes, had been taken prisoner in a recent battle and his friends had gone to Key for help in his release. The Keys were an old family in Maryland with Tory connections, and Key was permitted to board the British flagship and negotiate for his freedom. Dr. Beanes, he argued, had treated wounded British soldiers with far more humanity than he was currently being shown as a prisoner, the degrading conditions of his confinement having absolutely appalled Key’s gentlemanly sensibilities. The British agreed to the doctor’s release, but were preparing to attack Baltimore’s Fort McHenry and could not release the Americans until the battle was finished.

No one expected the Americans to win. The commanding officer Major Armistead had already sent his wife into the country, but he was still determined to fight honorably and to the last. He commissioned a gigantic flag to fly over the fort, as a symbol of the men’s resolve, one thirty feet high and forty-two feet long. It was probably the largest the country had ever seen, and Key could see it from eight miles away. Then the bombardment began. For most of the night the British relentlessly shelled the little fort, then attacked by boat in the small hours of the morning. Key could only hear the gunfire, smell the smoke, and glimpse an occasional firey glow, but knew nothing about the course of the battle. Frustrated, he paced and kept watch.

The men of Maryland were able to hold their own. Militia met the British infantry and fought ferociously, killing the commanding officer and forcing back the advance. “These Americans are not to be trifled with,” one officer groused. The admiral ordered a retreat. And when the dawn finally came, its rosy light illuminated the still-waving flag. Even the British were moved by the proud sight, and Key’s romanticism could not contain itself. He scribbled the famous words on a notepad and called it ‘The Defense of Fort M’Henry.’ A week later he published it in the Baltimore Patriot. Maryland militiamen sang it over their mint juleps, and the song’s popularity spread. Eventually it was renamed the Star-Spangled Banner, and is still sung today in honor of American freedom.