03/06/2011 12:17 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

'The Star-Spangled Banner' Goes on Tour

Traveling in an armored vehicle with a two-car, six-motorcycle police escort, the original manuscript of "The Star Spangled Banner" cruised in style down a Maryland highway last week. It was headed for a Wednesday appearance in Annapolis before moving on -- and heading home, in a way -- to Fort McHenry to be displayed temporarily for public viewing.

The trip marks the first time the manuscript has traveled since 2003. And moving it is, apparently, quite an ordeal. It is usually displayed at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, where it's kept in an argon gas-filled case and unveiled for viewing for only a few minutes of each hour. To transport the poem, experts remove it from its case and place it in a traveling frame, which is locked numerous times, strapped down, and carefully lowered into a specially cushioned armored vehicle.

Yes, Marylanders are very proud of this little piece of history. Dan Esmond, founder of the National Anthem Celebration Foundation, even talked a little historical document smack. "To me," he told The Washington Post, "this is like the Constitution, but this you can actually read."

Now, for the first time, you will be able to read the poem at the very place that inspired it. As the story goes, 35-year-old amateur poet Francis Scott Key wrote the lines after witnessing the British attack on Fort McHenry in 1814 during the Battle of Baltimore. Key had been on board a British ship negotiating the release of American prisoners and was held until after the battle to prevent him from passing on intelligence. As a result, he had to watch (painfully, no doubt) the battle unfold from the deck of a British ship. After 25 hours of shelling, Key was unsure of the battle's outcome, but the dawn revealed that not only was the American flag still flying over the fort, but that the stubborn garrison had replaced the fort's small flag with a larger one. The British soon retreated. That big flag, in case you're curious, is displayed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

Immediately following the battle, Key wrote what we now know as "The Star Spangled Banner," which he entitled "Defence of Fort McHenry." The poem was set to music and it quickly became popular, though it wouldn't become the national anthem until 1931.

The poem has four stanzas, though only the first is regularly sung. Here it is in its entirety:

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?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
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.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation.
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave

You can view the poem on display at the brand new visitor's center at Fort McHenry through May, before it returns to Baltimore.