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MarketInsight | Star Spangled murder



In September 1814, Francis Scott Key huddled below decks on a British warship peering out through a porthole as a great battle raged in Baltimore harbor. The British were attempting to capture the city. Fort McHenry stood in their way. The next day, Key penned a poem on the back of an envelope. Key’s poem, set to music, would become our National Anthem in 1931, although it was purportedly played at baseball games as early as 1867. Through the long night, “the bombs bursting in air,” proved to Key that the fort still stood firm. The danger was real. A month earlier the Brits had captured Washington and burned both the Capitol and the White House. First Lady Dolley Madison is credited with loading a cart with various national treasures, including a portrait of George Washington and the White House silver, before fleeing just ahead of the Red Coats.

The battle in the harbor was part of what we now call the War of 1812. At the time, it was more commonly known as “Mr. Madison’s War.” The war was ended in our favor in Europe and no one knew that the Treaty of Ghent had been signed when American troops commanded by Andrew Jackson annihilated British veterans at the battle of New Orleans. Jackson’s storied victory would ultimately propel him into the White House. The victory remained so important that a reenactment was once featured as part of a Super Bowl halftime show.

Later, Francis Scott Key was named the United States Attorney for the District of Washington. Forty-five years later, his son had the same job. Philip Barton Key was a widower and known as “the most handsome man in Washington.” He became involved with a married woman, the wife of Congressman Daniel Sickles. Sickles was a noted philanderer with many mistresses. Sickles neglected his pretty young wife, leaving her open to the advances of the flirtatious Key. Sickles even travelled to England in the company of a notorious prostitute and shockingly introduced her to Queen Victoria. Sickles was so involved with the other woman that he was unaware of what was going on at home. He became aware of his wife’s infidelity only when he received a “poison pen letter” from an anonymous detractor. Sickles flew into a rage.

Shortly thereafter, Sickles saw Philip Barton Key outside his home in Washington. He ran to fetch a gun and then raced outside to kill the Virginian in cold blood. “Key, you scoundrel,” he exclaimed as he fired multiple shots into the unarmed lothario, “you have dishonored my home, you must die!” The scandal caught the attention of the nation. It was the trial of the century. Sickles was defended in court by future secretary of state, Edwin Stanton and others. They argued Sickles was not guilty by reason of “temporary insanity.” The jury agreed. It was the first time the temporary insanity defense was used successfully in the United States. Sickles became a celebrity. Many supported his actions. 

Two years later, the country was at war with itself. Sickles left Congress to fight for the Union. In 1863, he was commanding a corps at the Battle of Gettysburg. It was there that he infamously bungled, advancing his troops from the heights down into the “wheat field” and the “peach orchard” against orders. This action left the Union flank exposed and vulnerable. On July 2, the Rebels attacked. Sickles’ corps was destroyed. Had the Confederates pressed the attack more vigorously, the history of the nation may have been different. It was their last, best chance to win the war. The Rebel attack stalled and then regained momentum. Only the timely arrival of a regiment from Maine saved the day for the Union. Many on the Union side must have lamented that the jury had not reached a different verdict four years earlier and convicted Daniel Sickles. For the rest of his life, Sickles insisted he was the true hero of the Battle of Gettysburg. 

Scott A. Grant is a local author, historian, columnist, and speaker. He is president of Standfast Asset Management in Ponte Vedra Beach. He welcomes your comments or questions at


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