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William Beanes, a well respected Maryland doctor, was captured by the British for his role in arresting and jailing British deserters and stragglers. Following his capture, Georgetown lawyer Francis Scott Key and U.S. Agent for Prisoner Exchange John S. Skinner were charged with securing Bean’s release from the British. Before leaving on this mission, Skinner acquired letters from wounded British prisoners of war describing their good treatment at the hands of Americans. British Major General Robert Ross, who had ordered the seizure of Dr. Beans, was initially unwilling to release the doctor. He was later persuaded after reading the letters from the wounded British prisoners.

Although they had accomplished their mission, Beans, Key and Skinner’s return home was postponed when the British decided to attack Baltimore. They were placed on a flag-of-truce ship, anchored at Old Roads Bay on the Patapsco River, eight miles below Fort McHenry.

The first phase of the attack on Fort McHenry began on the morning of September 13th and ended about 9:00p.m. At midnight, 20 boats carrying 300 men set out from the British ships and headed for the Ferry Branch of the Patapsco River, west of Fort McHenry. About 1:00a.m., to divert attention from the boats, the British bomb ships resumed their attack on Fort McHenry. At about 2:00a.m., the boats were detected by U.S. forces deployed at nearby Forts Babcock and Covington, and they opened fire. The bombardment of Fort McHenry came to an end about 4:00a.m.

Onboard flag-of-truce ship, Key, Skinner, and Beanes spent a restless night. They had heard the bombs, rockets and fire in the darkness, but in the predawn interval they did not know how to interpret the period of quiet. At dawn Key used a telescope to see the U.S. flag still flying over the fort and was inspired. Taking a letter from his pocket, he began to write verses on the back of it. His poem would later be named the Star-Spangled Banner and would be coined the national anthem in March 1931.

Related Sites:
Fort McHenry National Monument

From Zabecki, David. “Encyclopedia of the War of 1812.” Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1997, pp. 43.

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