Francis Scott Key

Francis Scott Key, The Battle For Baltimore, Fort McHenry, The Flag - The Truth

I love history. I love to read about how people lived in the past and the blessings they experienced and the hardships that they had to endure. I am not a historian but more a history buff and am pretty good at ferreting out the truth. One of the things I like to do is debunk false stories that people make up and then post as memes online or send in email. The purpose of this article is to examine one of those internet stories that is about 95% totally made up without any historical documentation or verification. It was circulated online and in email for years and apparently derived from a sermon or article someone wrote that was later used to create a video that is still on YouTube. While the meme and video are extremely inspirational, they are almost completely false according to all trusted documents from that time in history and the archives available today. This article is not to condem anyone, just to present the true facts as compared to that circulated story and video. I'll be as brief as possible and will compare the two stories with the tags Meme and Fact.
The meme and eventual video were created to expand the actual events that did happen to be an inspiration to Christians. This happens a lot with the stories that are sent to friends and we must be careful what we believe that which comes in an email and is posted online. You must do your homework BEFORE you accept something as fact and then resend it. There was another meme I received in email and have heard preachers use when speaking about eagles plucking their feathers out and knocking their own beaks off and it is 100% false in every single "fact" that it states. I've exposed that meme in a separate writing. Now on to the facts and fiction surrounding Francis Scott Key and the flag he immortalized in The Star Spangled Banner.

Background: The story of Francis Scott Key and the writing of The Star Spangled Banner takes place September 5-14 in 1814 involving an attack on Fort McHenry by the British Royal Navy anchored in Chesapeake Bay. I won't go into why the United States was once again at war with England. You can look that up for yourself if you don't know. I'll start the examination and comparison with the British attack on Washington D.C. and the burning of all our government buildings to the ground except for the U.S. Patents Building. The War of 1812 began in July of that year over the British and their kidnapping of American ships and seamen. As a result, the U.S. was considering annexing Canada in 1814 to reduce Britain's influence in North America. British government buildings were set ablaze in York (near where Toronto is today). That act lead to the burning of our Capitol. Next on the Royal Navy's list was to cut off supplies by taking the port of Baltimore which was this country's third largest city at the time. From D.C., British troops raided Alexandria, Virginia and set their sights for Maryland. The British fleet positioned itself in Chesapeake Bay near Fort McHenry just out of range of the fort's guns in order to capture the fort which was protecting Baltimore harbor.
Two weeks earlier British troop defectors had tried to steal things from a house owned by Dr. William Beanes. Beanes and several neighbors and townsmen confronted them and had them arrested. One of the soldiers complained to a British officer, Major General Robert Ross, who arrested Beanes and took him to one of the Royal Navy ships in the Bay. He was scheduled to be hanged when Francis Scott key, a local attorney and friend of the doctor, agreed to act on Beanes' behalf. Let's examine the factual story and the meme from this point on.
Meme: Francis Scott Key was a lawyer in Baltimore.
Fact: False. The meme starts out with incorrect information. Francis Scott Key was a lawyer in Georgetown, just outside of Washington D.C. His practice was not in Baltimore. 1

Meme: The colonies were engaged in vicious conflict with the mother country Britain.
Fact: False. It was September 1814. We were not the 13 colonies anymore but 18 states in the United States of America. We had not been colonies for 38 years. England was our former mother country but that had ended over three decades earlier. 2
Meme: Both sides had accumulated prisoners of war. The United States government went to the British and asked for permission to negotiate for the release of the American prisoners. The U.S. government asked if they could send a man out to discuss this with British military officials as they were holding these prisoners in boats about 1000 yards off of the coast of the United States. The U.S. government said they wanted to send Francis Scott Key to negotiate a mutual exchange for these prisoners. The two governments reached an agreement that all of the prisoners could be exchanged on a one-for-one basis. Francis Scott Key in a row boat went out and went below deck and found "a cargo hold full of humanity". They were the chained prisoners of war. Key told them he had good news that they would be returned to the colonies.
Fact: Most of the account in the above paragraph is fiction or enhanced or just wrong. Of course both sides had prisoners. But Key was not enlisted by the U.S. Government to act on behalf of all prisoners being held by the British. In fact, a prisoner exchange had already happened. Key was a friend and neighbor of the doctor and had family ties to him. Key's wife and other family members and friends of the doctor persuaded him to try to obtain the release of Dr. Beanes, an elderly man with physical needs. Legally, a U.S. citizen could not broker a deal directly with a foreign government, especially one we were at war with. So Key first had to get permission from President James Madison who approved the mission and sent U.S. Prisoner Exchange Agent, Colonel John Skinner, to accompany the lawyer and see if they could free the doctor. 3 

Col. John Skinner
President James Madison

They brought letters from British soldiers who had had their wounds treated by the doctor as testimony. 4 There is no record anywhere that the U.S. Government had made contact with the British for another mass prisoner exchange. Key only represented the doctor and was doing so at the request of private citizens. There were no prisoners being held below deck of the British Flag Ship. Key and Skinner were taken onboard the HMS Tonnant and immediately taken to see Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane and Major General Robert Ross, whom they were with the whole time while on board the British flag ship. 

Major General Robert Ross
Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane


Key would not have been allowed to wander around a British war ship on his own, especially the Admiral's flag ship. There is no record of Key going into a cargo hold to tell anyone they were to be freed. He told no one else that he had good news. This is fiction pure and simple. There is no documentation or testimony that this ever happened. There is nothing in any historical archives and this event in our history is one of the most well documented events ever. And Key and Skinner did not row themselves in a row boat miles out into the bay to meet the British. They traveled on a truce ship, the 60 foot sloop Minden which was under multiple sail with a full crew, for two days before they encountered the British fleet. 5

HMS Tonnant

U.S. Truce Sloop Minden
Meme: Key goes back up on deck to make arrangements for passage of all of the prisoners in the hold and an Admiral tells him there is a problem. They will still honor their agreement but after tonight it won't matter because they've given the colonies an ultimatum. Lower that flag that you so greatly love or we will shell the fort and remove it from the face of the earth. Key asks how they plan on doing that. The Admiral tells Key to scan the horizon of the sea (Atlantic ocean). Key looks and sees hundreds of small dots. Key is told that it is the entire British war fleet. Hundreds of ships on the horizon. The Admiral says that the entire British Navy is being summoned to demolish the fort. He said in about two and a half hours the war will be over and these men would have been free anyway. Key then says you can't shell that fort. It's large and full of women and children and predominately not a military fort. The Admiral then tells Key that there is a way out. If they will lower the giant flag over the fort, they will stop the shelling and the fort will then come under British rule.
Fact: In a short sentence, that conversation above never happened. First of all, the meme keeps calling it Fort Henry instead of Fort McHenry. Key and Skinner negotiated Dr. Beanes' release over what was described as a lavish dinner with Vice Admiral Cochrane and Major General Ross. 6 Again, this attack was in retaliation for the attack of British buildings in Canada, it was not to put the United States (which the meme continues to call colonies) back under British rule. The Admiral had no intention of destroying the fort. He wanted to capture it and the city. Key was there for just one man and was able to finally get his release after hours of talk. According to the commander of Fort McHenry, Major George Armistead, there was no ultimatum delivered to Fort McHenry by Cochran or Ross. And the coming battle was never about a flag. The fort blocked the bay protecting access to Baltimore harbor. 7 When the British tried to land their troops, the fort would decimate them with its firepower. When they tried to sail past the fort, the same thing happened. On September 12, Ross, who had gone ashore with troops, was killed while trying to lead his men to Baltimore. So they had to capture the fort to gain access to Baltimore and it's port, which would cut off supplies and interrupt commerce.
It's never been recorded or documented that Key ever begged for the fort to be spared. And unlike what the meme claimed, Fort McHenry was indeed a strategic military fort with around 1000 soldiers inside, made up of both local militia and army regulars. 8 It was not a refuge for women and children. In fact, the town's women and children were sitting on rooftops in and around Baltimore watching the battle until it started raining. 9 Key couldn't see the sea (Atlantic ocean) from where the HMS Tonnant (the ship that he was originally on for the dinner and negotiations) was anchored. They were way up in the bay at the mouth of Baltimore harbor, 170 miles from the Atlantic. And there were not hundreds of ships as the meme says. There were 16 British war ships and around 30 to 40 or so small rafts/barges that had gunners on them. 10 It was never about the flag. It was about getting past the guns of a well positioned, well armed military fortress on a peninsula in the bay.

Key could not see the sea (the Atlantic Ocean) which was 170 miles away

There were not hundreds of British war ships but 16 many with deep drafts keeping them away

Meme: The meme now continues and says Key went back down to the men in the hold and told them what was about to happen. The men asked how many ships were coming and he replied, hundreds. Key told the men that he would shout down what was happening. As the shelling began at dusk, the men in the hold kept shouting, asking about the flag, what about the flag? Is the flag still flying? When a bomb would explode near the flag and they could see it, Key would shout down to the men that it was still up.
The Admiral told Key that the people in the fort were insane. Key quoted George Washington that "What sets the American Christian apart from all other people in the world is he will die on his feet before he'll live on his knees." The Admiral said that all guns are now to be aimed at the flag to take it down. The Admiral said that their intelligence reports said the flag had been hit over and over and over again and they couldn't understand why it was still flying. Key said all that he could hear was the men in the hold praying to God to keep the flag flying.
Fact: Everything in the above paragraph is false and never happened. Key, Skinner, and Beanes, after the doctor was released to their custody, were immediately transferred off of the flag ship HMS Tonnant to the British frigate HMS Surprise

HMS Surprise

This was the day before the attack began, not during it. So Key and company were taken off the Tonnant and away from the Admiral a full day before the battle even started. The three men were then transferred back to their own sloop and detained under guard so that they could not go to shore and warn of the planned attack that was still a day away. Right there, the story totally falls apart, again. Key could not hear men below deck on the flagship Tonnant praying because he was briefly on the HMS Surprise and then his own boat under guard. He also could not have had a continuing conversation with the Admiral. And Key describes the incredible noise of the guns as so loud you could not hear what the person right next to you was saying, so he certainly couldn't hear men way below a deck softly praying. It's total fiction! The truth of the matter is that Key, Skinner, and Beanes spent the entire battle on their own sloop, not the HMS Tonnant or the HMS Surprise. 11,12
Famous but inaccurate painting of Key and Skinner on British ship watching bombardment of Fort McHenry. Key, Skinner, and Beanes were on their own sloop, a boat of truce with no guns and eight miles from the fort. There were no prisoners or a deck boy. And British canon were not on the top deck. See earlier picture of HMS Tonnant.
British prison ship called a Hulk. Not what an Admiral would use as his flag ship

In the meme, Key supposedly quotes George Washington. The problem is, there is no record of Washington ever saying that quote and Washington's quotes are all well known. The later half of the quote is actually documented as being said by Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata years later, 13 not by George Washington. 19 And Zapata was not even born until 65 years after this battle.
Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata actually made the quote in the meme. He wasn't even born until 65 years after the battle for Fort Henry.

Again, there was no Admiral on the ship that Key and company were on as directly after negotiations were completed and Dr. Beanes freed, the three men were escorted off the Tonnant to the Surprise and then under armed guard onto their own truce ship for the whole battle which was still a day away. No one gave an order to aim at the flag. All volleys were aimed in the general direction of the fort because these were not canon balls they were firing. They were too far away for that.

The British had to stay out of the range of the fort's guns so they fired new weapons like Congreve rockets hoping to set the fort on fire and bombs with lit fuses that would explode in the air and rain down hot, burning shrapnel over the soldiers. 14 Both of these were described in Key's poem verses. 

Ship mounted Congreve rockets
Unexploded fused bomb from British ship at Fort McHenry
 And both of these types of weapons could not be aimed at a skinny flag pole over two miles away with any precision. Also, the meme says the battle began at dusk. It actually began in the morning just after dawn, September 13, 1814.
Meme: At sunrise, Key says he saw the flag still flying though it was in shreds and the pole was at a crazy angle. The flag was in shreds almost unrecognizable.
Fact: False. Key could not see the flag at first light because of the haze and clouds of smoke from the guns and bombs that still hung over the fort. There was also an early morning mist that was normal for the area. When he finally did see the flag, because he was eight miles away, he had to peer through a mariners looking glass to see that the 90 foot wooden flag pole was still standing straight up, not at a crazy angle. All paintings and art that were done immediately following the event and described by Key have the flag pole straight up. Also, the Smithsonian Institute has the flag that flew that morning in the mist. It was not in shreds because the flag that flew overnight during the battle was not the 30' by 42' giant garrison flag made by Mary Young Pickersgill, but the storm flag which was 17 by 25 foot, due to the fact that it had violently rained all night and during the torrential downpour the storm flag was raised. 15 This was documented by Militiaman Isaac Monroe of the Baltimore Fencibles who was in the fort that morning and wrote that as the sun came up, they took down the storm flag and raised the garrison flag while they played Yankee Doodle. 16 The larger flag would not have seen any of the overnight action at all because of the fierce wind and rains so it would not have been in shreds. If the storm flag had been hit, it would have been the one in shreds, not the one that Key finally saw in the morning light. The large flag is still in the Smithsonian Institute having gone through restoration from wear, improper storage and dry rot. It hung there for years with no evidence that it was ever hit by the British volleys, nor was it in unrecognizable shreds as the meme describes. 17 The storm flag disappeared. The 90' flag pole at Fort McHenry was still upright with no evidence of having taken even one hit during the battle of Baltimore. Today a replacement pole stands after having been hit by lightning. Park rangers joke that "nature had a better aim than the British" 18 confirming that the pole had not been hit one time during the 25 hours battle.

30' by 40' Garrison flag that Key wrote about but was not up during the overnight battle. The right edge has been restored after friends and family for years snipped bits to keep as collectibles

Meme: Francis Scott Key immediately went into Fort Henry to see what had happened. He found that the flag and pole had suffered repetitious direct hits. Key saw that the reason the flag pole was still up was that men knowing that all the British guns were aimed at the pole, would hold the pole up, even though they knew they would die doing so. Their bodies were removed as others took their place. Key said that it was patriots bodies that were holding the flag pole at that unusual angle so it wouldn't fall. 
Fact: Total and complete fiction. Key did not go into Fort McHenry, or Henry as the meme continues to misspell it. When Key, Skinner, and Beanes were finally released from custody, they took their sloop, which they had spent the last two days on, directly to Baltimore. Key never went into the fort but surely saw the large garrison flag was flying as they passed the fort, not knowing that it had only been raised a short while prior and had not seen any battle action the entire night. When they got to Baltimore, Key went to The Indian Queen Hotel and continued to work on his poem verses which he had started while still detained on the his own sloop for two days. 

Francis Scott Key's handwritten poem manuscript

He had a letter in his coat pocket on which he had started to make notes of what he was seeing during the battle such as "the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air...". There were no reports of bodies piled around the 90' flag pole holding it up. The pole weighed hundreds of pounds. That would have been impossible anyway considering the height and weight of the pole and giant garrison flag. This was never mentioned in any recounting of the battle. Isaac Monroe would certainly have described pulling bodies away so they could hoist the large garrison flag and I seriously doubt they would play a joyful song like Yankee Doodle with the remains of people at their feet. Not to mention the bottom line: that only four people died inside the fort during that battle. 19 There were no piles of bodies

Reenactment of Fort McHenry Fife And Drum corp at flag raising
Another insight into Key's poem/song is overlooked. His sloop was eight miles away and he could not see the flag in the mist and dark to know if it was still there. That is why he starts his song "Oh say, can you see, by the dawn's early light?" It's a question and that's how he wrote it down. So Key couldn't even see the flag and that's how he scribbled down his a question. Key's poem was published in a local newspaper and slowly caught on later as a song after it had been put to the music of "Ancreon In Heaven". 

Tavern patrons singing "Ancreon In Heaven"

But it would be 100 years more before it became our national anthem. The battle of Baltimore doesn't need fiction or embellishment. Let's tell the real story of how the British gave it everything they had and still lost.
So, this meme, taken from an almost totally fictionalized account of that 25 hour day, that was part of an inspirational sermon or article , should never be forwarded to anyone. And never used as a basis for anything, including dramatic presentations. Yet, it was never researched or verified, but just taken for granted as historical fact which it is not. This type of rewriting of history is condemned all the time by Christians when the liberals try to take God out of our past. Yet Christians are doing it too and it discredits God's people and de-legitimizes everything else we say. David Barton has his own YouTube video about the Star Spangled Banner and it includes none of the fiction found in the meme. Pastor Dudley Rutherford found the false video on YouTube and decided to create his own with that fiction in it. It went viral and soon historians, including a couple who were born again, came out of the wood work showing him how it was all false information. He took down his video and created another one apologizing for his mistake. Then he created another video on the real story about the flag and the song using just historical fact, not fiction and that video is still online as of this writing.


*Francis Scott Key was a lawyer in Washington D.C. not Baltimore.
*He was asked to obtain the release of one man, his friend and neighbor, Dr. William Beanes, not a ship's hold full of prisoners.
*He was asked by the doctor's friends and family, not the U.S. Government.
*With President Madison's permission, Key, along with Col. John Skinner (who is not mentioned in the video or meme at all) were given use of a 60' sloop with crew, not a row boat. It took two days to find the British fleet's flag ship with the sloop so Key never could have reached the fleet in a row boat.
*Key and Skinner met over dinner with Vice Admiral Cochran and Major General Ross and spent hours in negotiation for Beanes release, not for a ship full of prisoners. Prisoners would never have been on the Admiral's flag ship.
*After the negotiations were complete, the Dr. was released and Key, Skinner, and Beanes were immediately taken from the Admiral's ship to a frigate briefly before being placed back on their sloop minus their sails so they couldn't leave and warn of the British plans.
*This took place a full day prior to the beginning of the attack so Key could not have a continuing conversation with the Admiral since he was on his own boat a full day prior to the battle.
*Key, Skinner, and Beanes stayed on their sloop for the next two days until the British attack ceased. Key never engaged in a continuring conversation with the Admiral. He was under guard the whole time after the doctor's release on his own boat.
*An ultimatum was never given to the fort.
*The British never aimed at the flag.
*There were not hundreds of war ships involved.
*There were 16 war ships along with 30 to 40 small rafts and larger barges that contained gunners.
*The British did not want to destroy the fort, they wanted to capture and occupy it. This was a major military fort, not a refuge for women and children as the video and meme says. There were no women or children in the fort during the battle.
*When the British stopped the attack, Key and company were given their sails back and sailed directly back into the port of Baltimore where they disembarked and went to the Indian Queen Hotel. Key did not ever go into Fort McHenry.
*There were no piled bodies around the flag pole.
*Only four soldiers died in the attack along with 24 wounded.
*The flag pole was not an a crazy angle and it had taken no direct hits from the British. It was 90 feet tall and weighed hundreds of pounds so a person could not have held it up as depicted in the video. There are many drawings and paintings showing the pole standing straight.
*The flag seen by Key that morning was not in shreds as it had only been raised just before Key saw it. The large garrison flag had been lowered and the storm flag rasied the evening before when a violent rain storm began. The storm flag remained during the battle until just before sunrise of Sept. 14 1814.

5 spangled-banner/




9 Salem Gazette, Massachusetts, September 28, 1814


11 british-ship/
12 spangled-banner/2014/09/11/aa2cab5c-3830-11e4-bdfb-de4104544a37_story.html


17 spangled-banner/2014/09/11/aa2cab5c-3830-11e4-bdfb-de4104544a37_story.html 
19 The site reads "There is no known quote from Washington in any of his writings or papers that reflected this sentiment." Historians at the Mount Vernon Presidential Library publicly state on their website that there is NO WRITTEN EVIDENCE that can attest to the authenticity of [this] claim.

© 2018-2020 Robert Whitehurst - All rights reserved

May not be duplicated without permission

Copyrights to all artwork belong to each copyright holder