The writing of
The Star Spangled Banner

First: The Official Story

Now, what really happened:

During the Revolutionary War, the British forces had, on rare occasions, burned government administration buildings in their sweeps through the rebellious colonies, destroying all the public records for the locality. During this war and the War of 1812, the government of the State of Maryland considered itself a likely target for British aggression, and so both times it had the state records transported from Annapolis to Upper Marlboro for safe keeping. As it turned out, Annapolis was spared during both campaigns, but, during the War of 1812, the town of Upper Marlboro was invaded by British forces, not once, not twice, but three times!

During the War of 1812, a local government official, Dr. William Beanes, was responsible for the safety of the state records while they were stored in Upper Marlboro.

During the time that the British forces were in Prince George's County, they were so taken by the beauty of the towns and the countryside, that they tried to have as small an impact on the area as any invading army could. As the army passed through Upper Marlboro on their way to Bladensburg and Washington, and on their return, they caused no damage to the community (with the singular exception of butchering a large quantity of livestock).

As the British forces were withdrawing from the town of Upper Marlboro, two drunken stragglers were arrested by Dr. William Beanes, and thrown into jail. One escaped, caught up to his unit and reported what had happened. A detachment of British soldiers returned to Upper Marlboro to free the imprisoned soldier and to arrest Dr. Beanes. This detachment, again, preserved the beauty of the area, and the state and county records survived.

In order to obtain the release of Dr. Beanes, the townspeople of Upper Marlboro enlisted the help of Mr. Francis Scott Key of Georgetown, and Colonel John Stuart Skinner of Croom. The two men travel to Baltimore to meet with Major General Robert Ross and Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn to request the release of Dr. Beanes. After he was released, the three men witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry, and Mr. Key was inspired to write The Star Spangled Banner.

No doubt, Dr. Beanes was a true patriot, and the sight of an invading army marching through his community on its way to invade his nation's capital gave him great pain. No doubt, seeing two of its soldiers drunk on the streets of his community was more than he could stand, so, without much thought to the possible reaction of the invading army, he placed them under arrest. No doubt, it hadn't occurred to him that he was exposing the records of the Maryland State Government, not to mention the records of Prince George's County, to the wrath of an unopposed force with a penchant for leaving flames in its wake.

The fact remains that the writing of our national anthem is a direct result of the ill-conceived acts of an over-zealous public official.

Dr. William Beanes later attained the military rank of Major.

For more information on the Star Spangled Banner, check out:

  • Fort McHenry - Absolutely, positively everything (OK Gene?) on the web related to the Star Spangled Banner (the song and the flag) is available from links on the Fort McHenry page.
  • "The Burning of Washington" by Anthony S. Pitch - Entertaining and filled with as much historical detail as you could want. If you have even the slightest interest in the history of the Washington region or the War of 1812, you're missing something if you haven't read this book.

For more information, see The Road to Washington - British Army Style, my FAQs page, or send e-mail to Tom Cavanaugh

Copyright 1997-2004 Tom Cavanaugh.