For more than a century the "Star Spangled Banner," written by Francis Scott Key in 1814, was sung as a popular patriotic air. From time to time Army and Navy leaders designated it as the national anthem for official occasions. In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed it the national anthem. Continuous lobbying by the Veterans of Foreign Wars led to Congress designating the membership song as the official national anthem of the United States on March 3, 1931.
Francis Scott Key practiced law in Baltimore during the War of 1812. In 1814 one of Key's friends, Dr. Beanes, was held prisoner by the British aboard the ship Minden in Baltimore harbor. Key decided he would try to obtain his friend's release. Carrying a flag of truce and a letter from President James Madison, Key rowed out to the ship. His request for the friend's freedom was granted, but both men were detained onboard because the British were about to bombard Fort McHenry.
During the bombardment, Key watched the Stars and Stripes flying over the fort. Darkness fell, and he no longer could see the flag. But the fort kept on firing back at the British, so Key knew the American stronghold had not surrendered.
When daylight returned Key was overjoyed to see that "the flag was still there." Taking an old envelope from his pocket he wrote the stirring opening words," O say, can you see by the dawn's early light, what so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming, whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight, o'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?"
After he returned ashore, Key completed the verse, which was later published in the Baltimore American, September 21, 1814. It became popular immediately. Later the words were set to the English "Anacreon in Heaven," which is the tune we sing today.