What Happened in the War of 1812:
Scholars often see the War of 1812 as a second war of independence, or as a last attempt by Britain to secure her colonies. It is a difficult war to describe in terms of chronology, for there are multiple battlefronts during the war — in America, England, and Canada, as well as in the Atlantic Ocean. Also, it is the first time in history that the United States officially declared war upon another nation.
The cause of the war is not easily pinned down to one event, but rather a build-up of injustices imposed upon American trade by the British. England, still fully engaged in the Napoleonic Wars with France, exploited the United States’ dependency on trade, specifically overseas shipping. To protect her interests in war and prevent the other side from receiving any aid, the British Parliament prohibited trade with its former American colonies and America’s economy plummeted. As a result, the newly-formed nation pulled together to assert its independence. An American desire for expansion fueled other frontier actions in Louisiana, Florida, and Canada. The war revealed itself as the growing pains of the young nation, indignant and desirous for an identity.
The Naval Campaigns:
Naval skirmishes and hijacks comprised the primary fields of operations during the war, with Great Britain flaunting her naval superiority. As early as 1807, incidents between English and American ships added to the strained tension between the two countries. British troops raided American ships, press ganging their sailors into service with England under false accounts. They also prevented America from trading with France by prohibiting them from reaching French ports.
At the beginning of the war, the United States had an insignificant number of ships compared to England’s grand navy. The American navy was composed of “five frigates, three sloops, seven brigs, and an assorted collection of gunboats,”i and only 106,757 registered sailorsii. However, despite the odds, America saw many naval victories in the War of 1812.
Two of the most famous naval victories during the War of 1812 were the battle of the USS Constitution versus the HMS Guerriere and the USS United States versus the HMS Macedonian. In both of these instances, American success boosted the morale of the people and the ships remained victorious icons of the war. Today, the USS Constitution is still proudly displayed in Boston and open to the public for viewing.
The Canadian Frontier:
There was no hiding the fact that the United States, with its westward expansion thwarted by Native Americans, had been eyeing Canada as a potential new territory, and had been trying, unsuccessfully, to conquer Canadian lands since the American Revolution.
The War of 1812 presented an opportunity to expand United States borders northward. With men such as Aaron Burr and James Wilkinson, both familiar with Canada, in charge of military forces, the desire was renewed to capture both Upper and Lower Canada from the British.
The United States was unsuccessful in its campaigns in Canada, cutting its losses and retreating, humiliated by the consistent failures there. Areas of Canada remained under British control until the later formation of the country.
The Burning of Washington, D.C.:
One of the most memorable events of the War of 1812 was the burning of the United States capital by British troops. In August 1814, with the Battle of Bladensburg behind them, Great Britain, flushed with success, marched its troops up to Washington, D.C.
Led by General Ross, they set aflame the public buildings, including the President’s House and the Treasury Building. The attack had caught the nation completely unaware, and Britain considered it retaliation for the recent damage the U.S. Army inflicted in Canada. It was quite a coup for Britain to burn its former colony’s capital, the very place where Madison had declared this war.
Not since the War of 1812 has the capital been attacked and occupied by foreign troops.
The Star-Spangled Banner:
Our country’s national anthem originated from the War of 1812 when the American victory at Fort McHenry inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem which would ultimately become known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
After Washington, D.C. was captured and burned, British troops moved north and set their sights on Baltimore. American forces in Fort McHenry repelled their attack, boosting the American spirit after the recent horrors. During this turn of events, Francis Scott Key was aboard the HMS Tonnant arranging for the release of an American sailor when he saw the fight for Baltimore occurring near the harbor on the skirts of the city.
The flag flying at Fort McHenry had been commissioned by Major George Armistead, who desired a flag large enough to intimidate and impress approaching British soldiers. After the war was over, the flag at Fort McHenry was saved, remaining to this day an inspiration for the United States.