O! say can you see by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming
Wait, what does "hailed" mean, and what time of day is it?
Francis Scott Key was going for poetry, not for easy readability, so the language can be a little tricky to understand. Key uses "hailed" to mean, "saw or took note of." The "twilight's last gleaming" is the very last bit of light before night falls, and "dawn's early light" is the first sunlight the next morning.
Basically, then, these lines ask, "Hey, look over there! Now that it's light again, can we still see what we saw yesterday before it got dark?"
What Key was looking for was the American flag flying above Fort McHenry. The British and Americans were fighting each other in the War of 1812, and Key happened to be on a British ship as an American representative, hoping to negotiate the release of American hostages. He was watching the fighting at Fort McHenry, near Baltimore, Maryland, when the sun went down, and at that point, the American flag was still flying. If the flag had been gone the next morning, it would have meant that the British had won the battle.
Understandably then, Key was anxious to see what the morning light revealed. Was the American flag still flying? Would the “dawn’s early light” reveal the defeat or survival of the American fort?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
If you hadn’t figured it out in the first two lines, now you know for sure: Key is talking about the American flag.
People these days often refer to the American flag as simply the "stars and stripes," and Francis Scott Key also picked up on how important and recognizable those features of the flag are.
In fact, two flags were actually flown over Fort McHenry during the battle on September 13th and 14th, 1814. One was a relatively small "storm flag" that was during poor weather, and it was this flag that Francis Scott Key observed flying through the rainy day and night of the battle. By the following morning, the weather was better, so when Key got his first chance to see if McHenry had survived the British shelling, the fort was flying its much larger "garrison flag."
The big flag was really, really big. It measured 30 feet by 42 feet. To give you an idea of how big that is, keep in mind that an average yellow school bus is usually something like 35 to 45 feet long. This flag had been specially commissioned by the fort's commander, Major George Armistead. A local craftswoman, Mary Pickersgill, was hired to make both the larger flag and the storm flag. Assisted by her teenage daughter and niece and a black indentured servant, Pickersgill spent seven weeks constructing the flags.
The stars on the large garrison flag measured two feet from point to point, and each of the 15 red and white stripes was two feet wide. "Broad stripes and bright stars," indeed.
O'er the ramparts we watch’d, were so gallantly streaming?
Ramparts are protective walls, and Fort McHenry's, which were made of earth, had recently been repaired and strengthened.
This line and the one before it are phrased in a weird sequence, so let's break it down: Key and whoever else was with him were watching the flag from "o'er the ramparts," or walls of the fort, and the flag kept "gallantly streaming" "through the perilous fight."
Fort McHenry and its ramparts were in a good position to keep the British away. Baltimore patriots built the fort in 1776. Situated on Whetstone Point, at the mouth of Baltimore Harbor, it was designed to protect the city in case the British tried to attack up the Chesapeake Bay. During the 1790s, there were a lot of maritime conflicts with Britain and France, so Congress allocated money to expand Fort McHenry. It got its name from Secretary of War James McHenry, who lived in Baltimore.
After war broke out with Britain in 1812, a local committee raised close to half a million dollars for the city's defenses, and $40,000 was spent improving Fort McHenry. The old earth ramparts were repaired, and new gun platforms were constructed to house heavy artillery borrowed from a French warship.
When the British got to Baltimore at the time this song was written, they had just defeated U.S. forces at Washington, D.C. They had even been able to enter the city and burn the Capitol building and the White House. Luckily for the Americans, Fort McHenry was in much better shape and in a much better position to hold out against the British, so they were stopped at Baltimore.
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
In this line, Key tells us how he caught glimpses of the American flag through the night: the rockets flying at the fort gave off a "red glare" that lit things up momentarily.
The British deployed 16 battleships for their attack on Fort McHenry. Five of these ships carried heavy artillery, and one was armed with a rocket launcher (a 19th-century rocket launcher, though, not an Arnold Schwarzenegger rocket launcher). The ships were anchored two miles from the fort, and from there they unleashed a steady barrage of mortars and rockets. When they fired rockets, they lit up the night, allowing Key to see, in flashes, that the American flag was still flying. (The "red glare" from the rockets also helped the American artillerymen know where to aim their guns.)
The Americans had weapons too, but their guns were much smaller than what the British had. Because the British were able to shoot from farther away, for a lot of the battle they were able to attack without getting hit back.
The British fired 1,800 shells at Fort McHenry during those 24 hours, of which about 400 landed inside the defensive perimeter (inside the "ramparts"). Amazingly, only four Americans were killed.
O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?
Francis Scott Key loved drama. With this line, he keeps us guessing as to whether the American flag has survived the British attack.
It’s sort of unfortunate that we sing only the first verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” because it really doesn’t complete the story. By closing with this line, which Key wrote as a question, we are left uncertain if the flag has survived the night’s attack.
Think back on the earlier lines: Key began the verse by asking question—“hey, now that it’s dawn, can you the see the flag?”—and he teased us a bit by revealing that he caught glimpses of the flag through the night whenever an exploding shell cast light on the fort; but he closes the verse with the big question still unanswered—“does that star-spangled banner yet wave?”
If we stick with the song long enough, we get our answer. In the second, rarely sung, verse, he finally puts our minds at ease:
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream,
'Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Perhaps we’re just in a hurry to get on with the baseball game, but cutting the song short does change its meaning quite a bit. Rather than end with a reassuring, “Yes, the flag still waves over the land of the free,” we close with a question: “Does it?” And maybe that’s a good thing, because it forces us to constantly revisit the question. Does the American flag still fly over a land of freedom and bravery?
On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes
Wait, wait—isn't the song over already?
Nope. "The Star-Spangled Banner" has four verses, but people only sing the first verse these days. We may have reached the end of the familiar part of this song, but Shmoop is going to press forward.
These lines teach us more about what went on in the battle. The "foe's haughty host" is just the British army, so don’t be scurred. On September 12th, 1814, the British fleet of ships positioned itself to the southeast in preparation for bombardment of Fort McHenry. At the same time, British soldiers landed at North Point and began marching toward Baltimore from the east.
The force advanced rapidly on the city until it encountered the main part of the American ground forces, led by General John Stricker. This American force, however, was only able to slow the British advance, not stop it entirely. By the morning of the September 13th, the British were within two miles of the city. There the British decided to stop and wait to see how the attack on Fort McHenry went.
The naval barrage of the fort began on the morning of September 13th and proceeded into the night (that's the night Francis Scott Key was watching). Shortly after midnight, the British troops renewed their advance against what they hoped was a softened American defense, but they quickly ran into heavy fire from both the fort and the American ground troops positioned to the east of the city. By early morning, the assault had failed, and British officers called off the attack. The British ground force returned to their ships and retreated down the Chesapeake.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave,
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave
Here’s another line that we just don’t sing anymore, perhaps because it refers to an embarrassing part of American history.
Key says some pretty dramatic things here; he’s ready to send some “hireling and slave” to the “gloom of the grave.”
But over 200 years later, it’s hard to embrace Key’s anger. Americans caught a break during the War of 1812; the British were able to deliver relatively few troops to North America. A far more difficult war with France required the British to send most of their troops there. To strengthen their forces in America, British commanders enlisted Native American allies and mercenaries. They also encouraged slaves to flee their masters and join British ranks. If they did, the British promised that they would be rewarded with their freedom.
Today, it's easy to understand why both Native Americans and African slaves might have been willing to join the British. Native Americans were treated poorly in their dealings with the American government and white settlers during these years. And what slave could be faulted for trying to overthrow the masters that denied them their freedom?
But at the time, Americans heartily condemned the British for reaching out to both populations. They argued that the British were unleashing Indian "savages" against a Christian people, and they charged the British with trying to incite a race war in the country whose freedom they still begrudged.
And this be our motto—"In God is our trust"
Sound familiar? It should.
Although we usually don’t sing this line, it left us a pretty familiar phrase. It’s not quite “In God we trust,” but it’s close. It would take more than 100 years for the phrase to gain its “official” status.
Until 1956, the phrase e pluribus unum was generally acknowledged as the nation's motto. Although not expressly adopted as a "national motto," the phrase, which means “out of many, one,” was part of the first national seal approved by Congress under the Articles of Confederation in 1782.
In 1956, however, Congress adopted a variation on Francis Scott Key’s phrase to serve as the official motto of the United States of America. In the following year, the phrase, "In God we trust" was printed on American paper money for the first time. Those advancing these measures argued that the changes would better differentiate "godless communism" from "Christian America." This goal was also advanced by introducing the phrase "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance and inserting the phrase "so help me God" to the federal oath of office.