Star-Spangled City

Star-Spangled City

The song is familiar to every American, but the moment and place where it was composed are less so.

On April 24, 2014, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 captured this view of Baltimore, Maryland, and its harbor. Fort McHenry and its star-shaped ramparts—the place where “that star-spangled banner yet wave[d],” on September 14, 1814—stand at the entrance to the city’s Inner Harbor. The area was a pivotal battleground in the War of 1812.

In September 1814, British naval and ground forces advanced on the city of Baltimore, emboldened by the August 24 burning of The White House and the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. On September 12, British forces landed at North Point, 5 miles (8 kilometers) southeast of Baltimore (just off the lower right of this image), and engaged American troops in several small battles. By September 13, the land forces approached the city of Baltimore but were repelled by U.S. Army and Maryland militia forces assembled behind a mile of earthworks and trenches along Hampstead Hill—near what is now known as Patterson Park (image top center).

On the morning of September 13, British naval vessels set up positions roughly at the point where this image is labeled Baltimore Harbor. They began a 25-hour bombardment of Fort McHenry, staying far enough offshore to hit the fort with rockets and cannonballs but out of the range of American artillery. Unable to subdue the fort, and hampered by several merchant vessels that were intentionally sunk in the harbor, the British forces ended their attack on the morning of September 14.

The Battle of Baltimore moved a young American lawyer and negotiator to write a song entitled “Defense of Fort M’Henry.” Francis Scott Key had spent the night of September 13 on a British vessel in the Patapsco River, working to secure the release of American prisoners of war. Local legend in Maryland holds that the HMS Tonnant was anchored roughly where the Key Bridge is now located, giving Key a direct view toward Fort McHenry and “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” that “gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.” On September 14, a clean 30 by 42 foot American flag was raised over Fort McHenry “by the dawn’s early light.”

Key’s four-verse song was published on September 20, 1814, in the Baltimore Patriot and the Advertiser. The battle hymn was eventually renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and was declared the national anthem in 1931.

Beyond its pivotal role in the War of 1812, Baltimore has long been an important sea port on the East Coast of the United States, particularly because of its proximity by road and rail to inland agricultural and industrial hubs in the Midwest. Situated on the Chesapeake Bay, the city is now home to more than 600,000 residents. According to some media reports, nearly one-quarter of the jobs in the Baltimore area are related to science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. It is home to the Space Telescope Science Institute, the operations center for the Hubble Space Telescope.

NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data provided by the U.S. Geological Survey. Caption by Michael Carlowicz.

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