John Stuart Skinner was born on February 22, 1788 in Calvert County, Maryland. Skinner showed intellectual promise at a young age, entering into an elite academy at Charlotte Hall, in St. Mary’s County. Studying at one of the best classical academies in Maryland, Skinner acquired the background knowledge and connections that landed him a job as an attorney at the age of 21, in 1809.
Several years later, at the beginning of the War of 1812, Skinner was appointed by President Madison to look after packets of communication between the British and the United States at the American port of Annapolis. His experience as an attorney helped him serve in this role as mediator.
Just weeks after this appointment, however, his assignment grew when he was appointed as agent for prisoners of war. Later in the conflict, he was offered a purser’s commission by the Secretary of the Navy, where he was responsible for the selling and distributing of all the goods on board the ships.
Skinner’s most famous moment of the War of 1812 took place during the British attacks on Washington and Baltimore. Upon the arrival of the British and their approach towards Washington, Skinner rode ninety miles in the night to warn President Madison of their invasion. Much like Paul Revere during the Revolutionary War, Skinner rode in the night warning the armies and government of the British arrival, earning him the nickname of “Maryland’s Paul Revere”.
Several weeks after the British burned Washington, Skinner was sent on a mission to negotiate the exchange of some men who had been captured from their plantations. Alongside Francis Scott Key, the two men went aboard a British ship, successfully secured the release of Dr. William Beanes, but then were informed that they would not be able to return home until after the fleet had taken Baltimore.
However, after bombarding Ft. McHenry for two days, in an effort to get into the city’s harbor, the British halted their attack. Seeing the flag still flying high after the British assault, Francis Scott Key wrote the “Star Spangled Banner.” Yet it was Skinner, not Key, who publicized the song in order to rally support for the war effort by celebrating the victory in Baltimore. Indeed, were it not for Skinner, Key’s lyrics might not have become the National Anthem.
Ben Perley Poore. “Biographical Notice of John S. Skinner.” Spirit of the Times: A Chronicle of the Turf, Agriculture, Field Sports, Literature and the Stage (1835-1861), July 22, 1854. 267. http://www.proquest.com/ (accessed March 3, 2012).
Picture: “By Dawn’s Early Light” by Edward Percy Moran, drawn in 1912. Found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:By_Dawn%27s_Early_Light_1912.png#file