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Remembering the War of 1812

National Museum of American History
Guest blog post by Sir Peter Westmacott, the British ambassador to the United States Fort McHenry is hallowed ground in United States history. It is of course best known as the scene of a siege during the War of 1812, a siege witnessed by a Washington lawyer called Francis Scott Key, whose eloquent impressions later became known as the 'Star Spangled Banner.' (It's perhaps less well known that, when he first wrote those famous lines, Key was on a mercy mission to the opposing fleet, and actually witnessed the bombardment from behind the British lines.)

War of 1812 Battle Scene

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Circular disk, moulded rim; relief decoration of river god and soldier in ancient Roman costume; inscription at bottom (in Russian): "The Flight of Napoleon across the Nemen River 1812."

War of 1812 Battle Scene

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Circular, with moulded rim; relief decoration of battle scene with soldiers in ancient Roman dress; inscription underneath (in Russian): "The Liberation of Moscow 1812."

Remembering the War of 1812

National Museum of American History

Fort McHenry is hallowed ground in United States history. It is of course best known as the scene of a siege during the War of 1812, a siege witnessed by a Washington lawyer called Francis Scott Key, whose eloquent impressions later became known as the 'Star Spangled Banner.' (It's perhaps less well known that, when he first wrote those famous lines, Key was on a mercy mission to the opposing fleet, and actually witnessed the bombardment from behind the British lines.)

Fireworks explode over the HMS Argyll in Baltimore, Maryland, during the Star-Spangled Spectacular. Photo by Leading Airman Stephen Johncock. Used with permission.
Fireworks explode over the Royal Navy's HMS Argyll in Baltimore, Maryland, during the Star-Spangled Spectacular. Photo by Leading Airman Stephen Johncock. Used with permission.

So it was a real honour to be present at Fort McHenry this weekend to commemorate the 200th anniversary of that engagement and celebrate the anthem that emerged from it. Together with the Governor of Maryland, most of the Old Line State's congressional delegation, my Canadian colleague, and a host of other dignitaries, I enjoyed music from the President's Own Marine Band and the Pipes and Drums of the Scots Guards, a rousing speech from Vice President Joe Biden, and a magnificent fireworks display.

The Star-Spangled Banner flag, which inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the song that would become our national anthem, on display at the National Museum of American History
The Star-Spangled Banner flag, which inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the song that would become our national anthem, on display at the National Museum of American History

It was a moving and enjoyable celebration. But the events of September 1814 also carry a broader significance for both Brits and Americans. The War of 1812 was the last time Britain and America came to blows. It was the conflict that convinced us to be friends. The Battle of Baltimore was a turning point in that war, and the Siege of Fort McHenry was itself the decisive moment in the battle.  So it could be said, without too much exaggeration, that the seeds of the special relationship were sown at Fort McHenry.

We've seen a number of events recently marking key points in the War of 1812—the Burning of Washington, the surrender at Alexandria and, now, the Battle of Baltimore.

This piece of White House timber is thought to be from the British burning of Washington on August 24, 1814. President James and First Lady Dolley Madison fled before the structure went up in flames. Only the exterior walls survived the attack.
This piece of White House timber is thought to be from the burning of Washington on August 24, 1814. President James and First Lady Dolley Madison fled before the structure went up in flames. Only the exterior walls survived the attack.

But as with every War of 1812 event, what we're really celebrating is not the war itself—it's the peace that followed, and the extraordinary friendship, alliance and special relationship that blossomed from that peace.

The war's final battle took place at New Orleans in January 1815. It was a famous American victory, spearheaded by future President Andrew Jackson. Ironically, most of the battle took place after peace had already been agreed, at Ghent in modern-day Belgium. In an age when messages had to be carried by ship and on horseback, word of the accords had not yet reached either army.

Andrew Jackson's uniform coat with epaulets from the Battle of New Orleans
Andrew Jackson's uniform coat with epaulets from the Battle of New Orleans, in the collection of the National Museum of American History

Not long after the dust settled, Britain and America began forging a new relationship. We have never stopped building it. In the 1940s, we faced down fascism with a joint effort largely coordinated through the Embassy where I now work. Today, our cooperation remains vital in fighting terrorism, confronting dangerous diseases like Ebola, and standing up to Russia's dangerous aggression in Ukraine.

Our business ties were established long before 1812. In fact, they were so strong in the run-up to the War that some New England businessmen lobbied for their region to secede from the Union rather than stop trading with the UK.

HMS Argyll arrived in Baltimore on 10 Sep 14 to join Americans in a week-long commemorative event to celebrate the 200th birthday of the US National Anthem at the Star Spangled Spectacular event. Photo by Leading Airman Keith Morgan / HMS ARGYLL
The Pipes and Drums of the British Army’s 1st Battalion Scots Guards perform as the Royal Navy's HMS Argyll arrives in Baltimore, Maryland for the Star-Spangled Spectacular festivities. Photo by Leading Airman Keith Morgan. Used with permission.

But perhaps the most important aspect of our relationship—and the secret to its longevity—is our shared set of fundamental values. The principles of free speech, democracy, accountability, and open markets, which both our countries have helped refine, continue to inspire people around the world right up to the present day.

I'm looking forward to celebrating another milestone: the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. Winston Churchill himself placed the 'Great Charter' alongside the Declaration of Independence as one of the "title deeds of liberty". The exhibition of Lincoln Cathedral's unique Magna Carta at the Library of Congress beginning in November will provide an opportunity for our two peoples to remind themselves of the extraordinary heritage we share.

Sir Peter Westmacott, the British ambassador to the United States
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The War of 1812: 200 Years Later

Smithsonian Magazine

Watch this video in the original article

How Canada Celebrates the War of 1812

Smithsonian Magazine

You don’t have to go very far across the border to get the Canadian take on the War of 1812.

At passport control in Toronto’s Preston Pearson Airport, a border agent asks an American traveler the purpose of his visit. When told that he is in Canada on business, and part of that business is the War of 1812, she launches into a concise but remarkably informed summary of the war—invoking the iconic Canadian heroes of the conflict, and even suggesting some significant historical spots around Ontario associated with specific engagements of the war worth visiting.

When it is pointed out to the agent that she seemed to know much more about the War of 1812 than your typical American, she raises her eyebrows and smiles, before stamping the visitor’s passport.

 “Well,” she says. “That’s because you lost.”

Americans—losers in a war? We don’t hear that too often, even in the telling of this vaguely-known chapter of our history. But it’s striking to see the differences in Canada, where the bicentennial of the conflict is being marked by a nationwide program of events, ranging from art exhibits to re-enactments, as well as $20 million worth of capital improvements to various war-related historic sites around Canada.

 “It matters to Canada,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor, author of The Civil War of 1812. “In a way, they can compensate for the great asymmetry of power in our relationship with them by having boasting rights in this obscure war that occurred 200 years ago.”

While boasting about anything outside of hockey prowess is not part of Canadians’ self-effacing nature, they are proud of their version of the war, which has nothing to do with the rocket’s red glare and bombs bursting in air. The Canadian narrative of the War of 1812 is a David-versus-Goliath struggle. Or maybe it’s the Alliance versus the Empire.

And in this version, can you guess who the Imperial Storm troopers were?

 “The Americans are viewed as the aggressors and invaders in that war,” says Wayne Reeves, chief curator for Toronto’s Museums and Heritage Services. “No two ways about that.”

Nowhere is this felt more keenly than in Reeves’s city—which in 1813, when it was known as York, was invaded by the United States. In the battle, outnumbered and retreating British and Canadian forces set off a 30,000-pound cache of gunpowder, rattling windows on the far side of Lake Ontario, and killing many Americans, including their commander, General Zebulon Pike (of Peak’s fame). The American troops then went on a rampage, burning government buildings in the city. A year later, in retaliation for this, the British burned Washington, D.C.

Image by Mark Spowart / Demotix/Demotix / Corbis. Reenactors recreate a battle in Ontario, Canada in 2011. The Canadian government has added questions about the War of 1812 to the citizenship test. (original image)

Image by Mark Spowart / Demotix/Demotix / Corbis. Canadian reenactors recreate a battle from the War of 1812 in London, Ontario. (original image)

Image by Harry Teitelbaum. In 1812, Fort York was on the shores of Lake Ontario. Landfill has since placed the battlefield site in the middle of Toronto. (original image)

Image by Harry Teitelbaum. American troops went on a rampage in the city after the battle, setting fire to government buildings. (original image)

Image by Harry Teitelbaum. Interpreters clad in costumes lead visitors around the Fort York battlefield site. (original image)

The battle was contested at Fort York, located then on the shores of the lake. Today, thanks to landfill as the city has grown, the old fort sits incongruously amidst skyscrapers and an elevated expressway, almost a kilometer from the water. Here, interpreters clad in period costumes lead visitors around a 43-acre facility housing Canada’s largest collection of buildings from the War of 1812. It is at Fort York Historic Site, as much as anywhere else in this country, that the Canadian narrative of the war is articulated again and again during this bicentennial observation.

 “We were outnumbered,” says Thom Sokolski, a Toronto artist who is organizing a bicentennial art exhibit at the Fort called The Encampment. “We were refugees, American Loyalists, British soldiers, First Nations [Native Americans]…a mixed bag of people who realized they had a common land to defend.”

 “We showed the Americans of the time that we weren’t just these quiet, timid people of the North,” says Phillip Charbonneau, a resident of nearby Kitchener who was visiting the Fort with a friend on a sunny Saturday afternoon in mid-May. “I think we should take some pride in that.”

 “We’re a small country,” says Torontonian Al Leathem, at Fort York with his wife Neisma and nine-year-old son Liam. “This is a nice victory to have, beating the Americans back then, right? It’s important for our identity.”

Indeed, identity-building and bonding is a big part of all this. Americans often forget that our neighbors to the north are in some senses as much a patchwork as we are, which is one reason the current Conservative government of prime minister Stephen Harper  is putting renewed emphasis on the War of 1812.

 “This is, in their view, a teachable moment,” says Taylor. “The Harper government is trying to define Canadian patriotism in a way that builds upon this moment in the past.” Part of the re-telling, Taylor says, emphasizes “this perceived unity between French- and English-speaking Canadians in the hopes it will translate into the present.”

With a few notable exceptions, however, French-speaking Canada did not see much fighting during the war. Ontario, then known as Upper Canada, and now the largest province, is where much of the action took place. Other parts of this vast nation—most notably the lands that now encompass the western provinces—were as removed from the hostilities as Australia.

 “If you’re from British Columbia, the War of 1812 means almost nothing,” says Fort York’s historian Richard Gerrard.

It’s hoped that the bicentennial may change that; as will some other new initiatives including, as of April, 2011, the inclusion of questions about the War of 1812 in the Canadian citizenship test.

 “I knew there was a War of 1812, but that’s about it,” says Laura Riley, with a laugh. Riley, visiting the Fort to learn more about this chapter of her adopted nation’s history, is a native of Great Britain who now lives in Toronto.

David Howe, another Toronto transplant in town for a visit (he has since moved back to Europe), is a native of Belfast in Northern Ireland and hence, takes with a grain of salt the claims of both sides on who won or was in the right in some long-ago war. “The Canadians and the Americans have different perspectives on a lot of things,” he says with a grin.

Still, one of the lessons of the War of 1812 up here is that three years of hostility can be followed by nearly two centuries of harmonious relations. “People ask, ‘didn’t we beat the Americans in that war?’” says interpreter Peter Gibbins, who portrays a Canadian militiaman at Fort York. “I reply, ‘sort of, but they’re still there.’”

Even in this part of the country where the War of 1812 matters, all—or most—is forgiven. It’s doubtful that there are many Canadians who walk out of Fort York Historic Site urging an attack on Buffalo.

 “For us it was a defensive war,” says Reeves. “We may have had some victories, but we didn’t take any [American] territory. That part, I think, appeals to the Canadian character. We’re people who have persevered, and from our point of view, this was a war of perseverance.”

Medal, War of 1812 Centennial Medal

National Air and Space Museum
War of 1812 Centenial Medal; Obverse: relief profile bust of Tsar Alexander I depicted; Reverse: relief of palm leaf branch depicted, embossed Cyrillic text; red silk ribbon with black edge stripe.

Ballads of the War of 1812 [sound recording] : [1812-1836] / sung by Wallace House

Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
Program notes by Moses Asch, including song lyrics, (27 p. : ill.) in container.

Ballads of the War of 1812, 1791-1814 is FA 2163.

Wallace House, vocals and lute accompaniment.

Previously issued as Folkways FP 48-4 (1954).

Also Issued as record two of Folkways FP 5002 (1954).

Sword, Inscribed "B.H. Moores Lt. US Army War of 1812"

National Museum of American History

Commemorate the War of 1812 With These Bicentennial Events

Smithsonian Magazine

Grab your fife and drum because your next four weekends are booked solid with historical reenactments, fireworks and 19th-century-themed festivals commemorating the War of 1812. For people living in and around Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland, as well as other key sites of the war, history will come alive. Check out the events below for hearty celebrations.

Historic demonstrations will be varied and plenty at the Battle of Bladensburg Encampment (Courtesy of the Undaunted Weekend)

Battle of Bladensburg Encampment, Bladensburg, MD ​(August 23)

Kick off the bicentennial with a commemoration of the Battle of Bladensburg. Hosted by the Prince George’s County Committee on the War of 1812 and the Battle of Bladensburg Task Force, the day begins with a dedication of a new monument, followed by an 1812-era festival at the Waterfront Park, including reenactments, demonstrations, family activities and an evening of music and fireworks. 

Washington is Burning, Washington, D.C. (August 23)

Walk in the footsteps of the British soldiers who set fire to D.C. on a two-part walking tour with Washington Walks.  Highlights of the tour include the Sewall-Belmont House, U.S. Capitol, Rhodes Tavern, U.S. Treasury building, the Dolley Madison house (where you meet the former First Lady herself!) and the Octagon. 

Flee the British 5k, Washington, D.C. (August 24)

For those interested in a more adrenaline-inducing commemoration of the burning of Washington there is the Flee the British 5k at the Historic Congressional Cemetery. Run alongside "Dolley Madison" as she rescues the Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington and pick out the graves of some of the war’s figures. Worried the kids won’t be able to keep up? Not to worry—immediately following the 5k is a 2k Kids' Run.

Enjoy a dinner that is equal parts historical and delicious (Courtesy of Martin's Tavern)

“The Dinner that was Never Served” at Martin’s Tavern, Washington, D.C. (August 24)

Indulge yourself after that 5k with “the dinner that was never served” at Martin’s Tavern, a Georgetown establishment that has served every president from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush. The menu draws from President Madison’s favorite foods, including apple pie and Virginia ham, but it wouldn’t be a proper Madison meal without ice cream, a dessert Dolley Madison was known to serve.  

Fredric March as pirate Jean Lafitte and Franciska Gaal as Gretchen in the 1938 film The Buccaneer (© John Springer Collection/Corbis)

The War of 1812—The Hollywood Version, Alexandria, VA (August 27 & 28)

Catch Hollywood’s version of the War of 1812 with the 1938 and 1958 versions of The Buccaneer at the Lyceum, Alexandria’s History Museum. The former was only recently released to DVD, and both bear illustrious director Cecil B. DeMille’s unique filmmaking style, though he received no film credit for the 1958 release. 

Celebrate Charles! March from Benedict, Benedict, MD (August 30)

Surrounded by historically famous fields and the Patuxent River, Benedict creates an immersive experience of the British Army’s landing with music from the time period, walks to the historic burial site, a performance of the Star-Spangled Banner and tobacco demonstrations. Other activities include hayrides, authentic oxen cart rides and a petting zoo, as well as the opportunity to purchase locally-produced meats and vegetables from Harvest House. 

1814 Battle of Credit Island Bicentennial Event, Davenport, IA (August 30)

The site of the last battle for control of the upper Mississippi, Credit Island invites visitors to recognize the historic battlefield by hosting a nature walk, exhibitor booths, presentations and, in honor of this event’s significance in Native American history, a lacrosse demonstration. 

Ft. McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Baltimore Maryland (© Paul A. Souders/Corbis)

Ft. McHenry Helicopter Flights, Baltimore, MD (June 30-September 30)

Since June 30, Monumental Helicopters has offered tours of Ft. McHenry, which explain the role geography played in this important battle. The tour highlights Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, Fells Point and Patterson Park in particular, because of how instrumental these positions were in the daylong assault.

Brookeville War of 1812 Bicentennial Commemoration, Brookeville, MD (August 30-31)

Two hundred years after acting as the United States capital for a day, Brookeville will transport festival attendees back to that time in August 1814 with the (re)arrival of James Madison, costumed living history demonstrations, a traditional Quaker supper, exhibits, a military encampment, craft demonstrations and time-period-appropriate food and drink. 

Attend a formal military ceremony honoring fallen American and British soldiers with the dedication of a new monument (Courtesy of Kent County)

200th Anniversary of the Battle of Caulk’s Field, Kent County, MD (August 30-31)

The number of events Kent County has managed to pack into just two days is astonishing. The first day acts as the prelude to Sunday’s reenactment, offering several educational presentations and exhibits, a parade and march to the river featuring reenactors, and the opportunity to explore the Pride of Baltimore II. The formal battle reenactment the following day (after an American artillery demonstration) is capped off with a music performance by Lions of Bluegrass. Plus, should you need help convincing family and friends who aren’t quite the history buff you are to join you, there’s a drawing for Baltimore Ravens tickets that could make for a great incentive. 

War of 1812 Signature Event, Alexandria, VA (August 30-31)

Alexandria takes a slightly more whimsical approach to the bicentennial by hosting events that pit Team Alexandria against Team Britain (as represented by the British Defence Staff of the UK Embassy), from a cricket match to a yacht race to a good old-fashioned tug of war. The two-day event also includes a wreath laying ceremony at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House Cemetery & Columbarium, a U.S. Navy Band concert and a festival at Waterfront Park. 

Battle of North Point by Don Troiani (Courtesy of The National Guard)

Defenders Day at North Point, Fort Howard, MD (September 6-7)

If the three reenactments of the Battle of North Point are any indication, this weekend celebration aims to transform attendees into an active militia by offering troop assemblies, drill demos and even junior militia induction exercises. But equally important are the artistic representations of the time, as portrayed by performances of Women’s Voices—The Battle of North Point by Sky’s The Limit Players and music of 1812 by David Hildebrand Colonial Music Institute. 

The Blue Angels flying in formation (© Bernard Thouanel/Sygma/Corbis)

O Say Can You See! Star-Spangled Spectacular, Baltimore, MD (September 9-16)

Perhaps the longest-running event associated with the bicentennial, the Star-Spangled Spectacular spans eight days of maritime merriment, civilian and military reenactments, and aerial maneuvers by none other than the Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy’s flight demonstration squadron. But the main attraction has to be the Star-Spangled Spectacular: Bicentennial of our National Anthem. This two-hour concert at Pier Six Pavilion that will be broadcast live on PBS features performances from Kristin Chenoweth, Smokey Robinson and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, among many others. 

The Story of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Washington, D.C. ​(September 11)

For the more musically inclined, the Society of Cincinnati will be hosting an event about Francis Scott Key and what inspired him to pen the lyrics to the “Star-Spangled Banner” at Anderson House. David and Ginger Hildebrand of the Colonial Music Institute will lead the program, treating audience members to a performance of the popular song that would become the tune for the anthem. 

Break out your best bonnet for various reenactments and historical exhibits in Plattsburgh (Courtesy of

200th Anniversary of the Battle of Plattsburgh, Plattsburgh, NY (September 12-14)

To commemorate 200 years of peace, Plattsburgh offers reenactments on both land and sea, historical exhibits (including a quilt exhibit at City Hall), a lecture by local author Keith Herkalo, an appearance by the Gratto Family Stilt Walkers and an Old-Time Village Fair for children. But more impressive is the diversity of musical performances on tap. Standard fife and drum fare aside, the weekend’s lineup incorporates folk music, classic rock, country, jazz and concert band music, so there’s something for everyone.

The man of the hour, James Madison (Courtesy of Gadsby's Tavern Museum)

Presidential Salon with James Madison, Alexandria, VA (September 13)

Who better to speak on the political and personal issues of 1814 than James Madison himself? Join President Madison at Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, a tavern he—as well as presidents George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe—frequented in his lifetime, for a stimulating discussion of the War of 1812.

A History of the War of 1812 and The Star-Spangled Banner

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Lesson on the often-forgotten War of 1812. Using this activity, students will be able to cite the origins and outcome of the War of 1812 and place the creation of the Star Spangled Banner in a chronological framework. Includes background, vocabulary, discussion questions, and extension activities. Part of the online exhibit The Star Spangled Banner: The Flag that Inspired the National Anthem.

The 10 Things You Didn’t Know About the War of 1812

Smithsonian Magazine

1. The War Needs Re-Branding

“The War of 1812” is an easy handle for students who struggle with dates. But the name is a misnomer that makes the conflict sound like a mere wisp of a war that began and ended the same year.

In reality, it lasted 32 months following the U.S. declaration of war on Britain in June 1812. That’s longer than the Mexican-American War, Spanish-American War, and U.S. involvement in World War I.

Also confusing is the Battle of New Orleans, the largest of the war and a resounding U.S. victory. The battle occurred in January, 1815—two weeks after U.S. and British envoys signed a peace treaty in Ghent, Belgium. News traveled slowly then. Even so, it’s technically incorrect to say that the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the war, which didn’t officially end until February 16, 1815, when the Senate and President James Madison ratified the peace treaty.

For roughly a century, the conflict didn’t merit so much as a capital W in its name and was often called “the war of 1812.” The British were even more dismissive. They termed it “the American War of 1812,” to distinguish the conflict from the much great Napoleonic War in progress at the same time.

The War of 1812 may never merit a Tchaikovsky overture, but perhaps a new name would help rescue it from obscurity.

2. Impressment May Have Been a Trumped-Up Charge

One of the strongest impetuses for declaring war against Great Britain was the impressment of American seamen into the Royal Navy, a not uncommon act among navies at the time but one that incensed Americans nonetheless. President James Madison’s State Department reported that 6,257 Americans were pressed into service from 1807 through 1812. But how big a threat was impressment, really?

 “The number of cases which are alleged to have occurred, is both extremely erroneous and exaggerated,” wrote Massachusetts Sen. James Lloyd, a Federalist and political rival of Madison’s. Lloyd argued that the president’s allies used impressment as “a theme of party clamour [sic], and party odium,” and that those citing as a casus belli were “those who have the least knowledge and the smallest interest in the subject.”

Other New England leaders, especially those with ties to the shipping industry, also doubted the severity of the problem. Timothy Pickering, the Bay State’s other senator, commissioned a study that counted the total number of impressed seamen from Massachusetts at slightly more than 100 and the total number of Americans at just a few hundred.

Yet the Britons’ support for Native Americans in conflicts with the United States, as well as their own designs on the North American frontier, pushed Southern and Western senators toward war, and they needed more support to declare it. An issue that could place the young nation as the aggrieved party could help; of the 19 senators who passed the declaration of war, only three were from New England and none of them were Federalists.

3. The Rockets Really Did Have Red Glare

Francis Scott Key famously saw the American flag flying over Fort McHenry amid the “rockets’ red glare” and “bombs bursting in air.” He wasn’t being metaphoric. The rockets were British missiles called Congreves and looked a bit like giant bottle rockets. Imagine a long stick that spins around in the air, attached to a cylindrical canister filled with gunpowder, tar and shrapnel. Congreves were inaccurate but intimidating, an 1814 version of “shock and awe.” The “bombs bursting in air” were 200 pound cannonballs, designed to explode above their target. The British fired about 1500 bombs and rockets at Fort McHenry from ships in Baltimore Harbor and only succeeded in killing four of the fort’s defenders.

Image by The Granger Collection, NYC. Cartoon by William Charles, satirizing Thomas Pickering and the radical secessionist movement discussed at the Hartford Convention, a series of secret meetings held by New England Federalists in 1814. (original image)

Image by The Granger Collection, NYC. Washingtonians fleeing the city during the burning of the White House and the Capitol by the British on August 24, 1814. (original image)

Image by The Granger Collection, NYC. Equestrian portrait of Major General Harrison surrounded by vignettes illustrating his military career during the War of 1812. (original image)

Image by The Granger Collection, NYC. Bound American seamen forced to leave their ship and board a British vessel prior to the War of 1812. (original image)

4. Uncle Sam Came From the War Effort

The Star-Spangled Banner isn’t the only patriotic icon that dates to the War of 1812. It’s believed that “Uncle Sam” does, too. In Troy, New York, a military supplier named Sam Wilson packed meat rations in barrels labeled U.S. According to local lore, a soldier was told the initials stood for “Uncle Sam” Wilson, who was feeding the army. The name endured as shorthand for the U.S. government. However, the image of Uncle Sam as a white-bearded recruiter didn’t appear for another century, during World War I.

5. The Burning of Washington was Capital Payback

To Americans, the burning of Washington by British troops was a shocking act by barbaric invaders. But the burning was payback for a similar torching by American forces the year before. After defeating British troops at York (today’s Toronto), then the capital of Upper Canada, U.S. soldiers plundered the town and burned its parliament. The British exacted revenge in Aug. 1814 when they burned the White House, Congress, and other buildings.

Long-term, this may have been a blessing for the U.S. capital. The combustible “President’s House” (as it was then known) was rebuilt in sturdier form, with elegant furnishings and white paint replacing the earlier whitewash. The books burned at Congress’s library were replaced by Thomas Jefferson, whose wide-ranging collection became the foundation for today’s comprehensive Library of Congress.

6. Native Americans Were the War’s Biggest Losers

The United States declared war over what it saw as British violations of American sovereignty at sea. But the war resulted in a tremendous loss of Native American sovereignty, on land. Much of the combat occurred along the frontier, where Andrew Jackson battled Creeks in the South and William Henry Harrison fought Indians allied with the British in the “Old Northwest.” This culminated in the killing of the Shawnee warrior, Tecumseh, who had led pan-Indian resistance to American expansion. His death, other losses during the war, and Britain’s abandonment of their native allies after it, destroyed Indians’ defense of their lands east of the Mississippi, opening the way for waves of American settlers and “Indian Removal” to the west.

7. The Ill-Fated General Custer Had His Start in the War

In 1813, by the River Raisin in Michigan, the British and their Native American allies dealt the U.S. its most stinging defeat in the War of 1812, and the battle was followed by an Indian attack on wounded prisoners. This incident sparked an American battle cry, “Remember the Raisin!” 

William Henry Harrison, who later led the U.S. to victory in battle against the British and Indians, is remembered on his tomb as “Avenger of the Massacre of the River Raisin.”

George Armstrong Custer remembered the Raisin, too. He spent much of his youth in Monroe, the city that grew up along the Raisin, and in 1871, he was photographed with War of 1812 veterans beside a monument to Americans slaughtered during and after the battle. Five years later, Custer also died fighting Indians, in one of the most lopsided defeats for U.S. forces since the River Raisin battle 63 years before.

8. There Was Almost a United States of New England

The political tension persisted as the war progressed, culminating with the Hartford Convention, a meeting of New England dissidents who seriously flirted with the idea of seceding from the United States. They rarely used the terms “secession” or “disunion,” however, as they viewed it as merely a separation of two sovereign states.

For much of the preceding 15 years, Federalist plans for disunion ebbed and flowed with their party’s political fortunes. After their rival Thomas Jefferson won the presidency in 1800, they grumbled sporadically about seceding, but mostly when Jefferson took actions they didn’t appreciate (and, worse, when the electorate agreed with him). The Louisiana Purchase, they protested, was unconstitutional; the Embargo Act of 1807, they said, devastated the New England shipping industry. Electoral victories in 1808 silenced chatter of disunion, but the War of 1812 reignited those passions.

Led by Senator Thomas Pickering, disaffected politicians sent delegates to Hartford in 1814 as the first step in a series to sever ties with the United States. “I do not believe in the practicality of a long-continual union,” wrote Pickering to convention chairman George Cabot. The North and South’s “mutual wants would render a friendly and commercial intercourse inevitable.”

Cabot and other moderates in the party, however, quashed the secessionist sentiment. Their dissatisfaction with “Mr. Madison’s War,” they believed, was merely a consequence of belonging to a federation of states. Cabot wrote back to Pickering: “I greatly fear that a separation would be no remedy because the source of them is in the political theories of our country and in ourselves.... I hold democracy in its natural operation to be the government of the worst.”

Watch this video in the original article

9. Canadians Know More About the War Than You Do

Few Americans celebrate the War of 1812, or recall the fact that the U.S. invaded its northern neighbor three times in the course of the conflict. But the same isn’t true in Canada, where memory of the war and pride in its outcome runs deep.

In 1812, American “War Hawks” believed the conquest of what is today Ontario would be easy, and that settlers in the British-held territory would gladly become part of the U.S. But each of the American invasions was repelled. Canadians regard the war as a heroic defense against their much larger neighbor, and a formative moment in their country’s emergence as an independent nation.  While the War of 1812 bicentennial is a muted affair in the U.S., Canada is reveling in the anniversary and celebrating heroes such as Isaac Brock and Laura Secord, little known south of the border.

“Every time Canada beats the Americans in hockey, everybody’s tremendously pleased,” says Canadian historian Allan Greer. “It’s like the big brother, you have to savor your few victories over him and this was one.”

10. The Last Veteran

Amazingly, some Americans living today were born when the last veteran of the War of 1812 was still alive. In 1905, a grand parade was held to celebrate the life of Hiram Silas Cronk, who died on April 29, two weeks after his 105th birthday.

Cronk “cast his first vote for Andrew Jackson and his last for Grover Cleveland,” according to a newspaper account from 1901.

After nearly a century of obscurity as a farmer in New York State, he became something of a celebrity the closer he came to dying. Stories about his life filled newspaper columns, and the New York City Board of Aldermen began planning Cronk’s funeral months before he died.

When he did, they marked the event with due ceremony. “As the funeral cortege moved from the Grand Central Station to the City Hall it afforded an imposing and unusual spectacle,” reported the Evening Press of Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Led by a police escort of mounted officers, a detachment from the United States regular Army, the Society of 1812 and the Old Guard in uniform, came the hearse bearing the old warrior’s body. Around it, in hollow square formation, marched the members of the U.S. Grant Post, G.A.R. Then followed the Washington Continental Guard from Washington, D.C., the Army and Navy Union, and carriages with members of the Cronk family. Carriages with Mayor McClellan and members of the city government brought up the rear.”

Ballads of the War of 1812 [sound recording] : [1791-1814] / sung by Wallace House

Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
Program notes by Moses Asch, including song lyrics, (27 p. : ill.) in container.

Ballads of the War of 1812, 1812-1846 is FA 2164.

Wallace House, vocals and lute accompaniment.

Previously issued as Folkways FP 48-3 (1954).

Also Issued as record one of Folkways FP 5002 (1954).

Ballads of the War of 1812 [sound recording] : [1791-1836] / sung by Wallace House

Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
Program notes (30 p. : ill.) inserted in container.

Wallace House, vocals and lute.

Compilation release of FA 2163 and FA 2164 (1954).

37.5c double War of 1812 letter rate for 90-150 miles forwarded stampless cover

National Postal Museum
PHI (Philadelphia) 30 JL postmark; to Gen'l Floyd Late of the U. S. Army Savannah, Geo.; forwarded to St Marys (GA), SAVAN. GA. JUL 12 postmark; 56-1/4 cent triple letter war rate for 90-150 miles apparently was applied in Savannah at the time of forwarding. The war rate in effect from Feb. 1, 1815 to March 31, 1816 was a 50% surcharge to defray the costs of the War of 1812. The base single letter rate without the surcharge, established by the postal rate act of 1799, was 12-1/2 cents for 90-150 miles.

The docketing indicates that the letter contained addresses of the disbanded officers of the US Army, and includes the date 15th June 1815. There is no specific indication on the cover of free frank privilege, but since no rate was applied in Philadelphia, and given that a number of War Department officials had the privilege, it seems likely that this is a free frank cover. However, the privilege apparently did not apply to the forwarding, hence the postage calculation in Savannah.

The three dates seen are not mutually consistent if all are in the same year. It is likely that one of the two postmarks had the wrong month slug inserted.

Loyalist Commission of Joseph Taylor

National Museum of American History

Hand-list of an exhibition of naval and other prints, portraits and books relating to the war of 1812, ... November 7th to ... 23d, 1912

Smithsonian Libraries
Cover title: Exhibition of naval and other prints, portraits and books relating to the War of 1812.

Francis Scott Key

National Museum of American History
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