As we prepare for the bicentennial of the Battle of Baltimore next week, a decent respect for historical accuracy demands attention to a few details.
They are drawn from Steve Vogel's well-researched and eminently readable Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks That Saved the Nation (Random House, 534 pages, $30).
Admiral Alexander Cochrane, anchored about two miles down the bay from Fort McHenry, ordered the bombardment to begin at 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday, September 13, 1814. It continued, with two brief intermissions, for twenty-five hours.
Francis Scott Key had secured the release of Dr. William Beanes of Upper Marlboro, whom the British had taken prisoner, but was not allowed to leave until the bombardment had concluded. He witnessed the bombardment from a truce ship anchored with the British flotilla.
A nor'easter roared in that afternoon and continued with lightning and thunder for hours, ending during the night.
During the bombardment, the flag flying above the fort, the one that Key glimpsed at dawn on September 14 as the bombardment was brought to an end, was not the 30-by-40-foot garrison flag sewn by Mary Pickersgill and her team of seamstresses (the one now displayed at the Smithsonian). At fifty pounds, it would have been too heavy soaked with rain during the nor'easter. Instead, the fort would have displayed the 17-by-25-foot storm flag sewn by Pickersgill.
The garrison flag was ceremoniously raised at 9:00 a.m. that Thursday, and would have been visible to the departing British ships.
At dawn on September 14, after seeing clearly that the American flag still waved above the fort, Key began making notes on the back of a letter. He made further notes for a song to the tune of "To Anacreon in Heaven," a melody to which he had composed verses some years previously.
But he was not allowed to return to Baltimore until Friday, September 16, on the evening of which he took at room at the Indian Queen Tavern at Market and Hanover streets and wrote out a fair copy of what came to be titled "The Star-Spangled Banner."
He showed it to friends, it was quickly published as a handbill under the title "The Defence of Fort M'Henry," and it was immediately, and enduringly, popular.