The War of 1812: The White House Burns and 'The Star-Spangled Banner' Is Born

War of 1812
War of 1812 reenactors commemorate the bicentennial of the writing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland. Written by Francis Scott Key during the British naval bombardment of Fort McHenry in Sept. 1814, it was adopted as the U.S. official national anthem in 1931. Mark Makela/Getty Images

Americans tend to be pretty interested in the Civil War, World War II and Vietnam. But ask someone about the nation's second big armed conflict, the one that occurred just a quarter of a century after the Revolution, and you may get just a perplexed shrug in response.

"I think that what most people know about it — if they know about it — they know just two or three things," explains Willard Sterne Randall, a Professor Emeritus and distinguished scholar of history at Champlain College in Vermont, in an email exchange. "They think of 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' Dolley Madison saving Washington's portrait from the British and Andrew Jackson winning the battle of New Orleans."


And that's a pity. As Randall details in his 2017 book "Unshackling America: How the War of 1812 Truly Ended the American Revolution," the largely-forgotten conflict actually was one of the pivotal moments in American history. It was a war in which the Americans brashly took on the British Empire in a rematch, partly to resolve lingering grievances but also with the ambitious aim of seizing Canada, and instead came perilously close to a catastrophic defeat that would have endangered the very future of the United States. Fortunately, though, the Americans — despite suffering the indignity of having invaders torch the capital city — managed to fight the British to a stalemate. The conflict ended with a peace treaty in which the U.S. didn't have to give up any territory and retained the ability to expand westward, and the British had to accept the U.S. as a truly separate nation and trading power.

As Randall explains, the War of 1812 really was the culmination of one long conflict that had started with the Revolution. "They're connected, because the Revolution only assured political independence," he says. "It did not guarantee the economic survival of the United States." As a result, "there was a long period of confrontation, before it broke out into actual warfare again."

Even after the Treaty of Paris was signed in September 1783 to end the Revolutionary War, relations between the U.S. and Great Britain remained tense, with the British viewing the Americans as commercial rivals. In the early 1800s, Americans' grievances crystalized into several main points. First was freedom to trade. The U.S. became caught in the war between the British and Napoleon's French empire, with both powers trying to restrict the Americans from trading with the other. Eventually, the French relented, but the British wouldn't. "[The U.S.] wanted to stay a neutral country, so we could trade with anybody," Randall says. "But the British did not believe in neutrality."

Second, the Americans also were angered by the Royal Navy's practice of impressment — that is, boarding American merchant ships and seizing sailors who it claimed were British deserters. Americans saw impressment as a sign that the British didn't respect the U.S. as an equal among nations, but instead as a former colony that it could bully. To add to the insult, the British also didn't respect the right of sailors to give up being British subjects and choose U.S. citizenship. Finally, the British also supported the American Indians who were resisting U.S. expansion along the western frontier, in part to protect themselves against Americans gaining control of the fur trade.

But in addition to settling those differences with an armed conflict, Americans also saw an opportunity to seize Canada from the British and make it part of the U.S. It was an American aim that had first surfaced during the Revolutionary War, when Benedict Arnold helped to lead an unsuccessful 1775-76 invasion of Canada. Unfortunately, the lesson of that debacle hadn't sunk in. One vociferous advocate of a Canadian invasion was former President Thomas Jefferson, who proclaimed that taking the lightly-defended British colonial possession "will be a mere matter of marching."


The U.S. Declares War on Great Britain

With these issues in mind, Congress passed a declaration of war against Great Britain in June 1812, which President James Madison quickly signed into law. But while the U.S. had plenty of chutzpah to take on the British, it was woefully underprepared from a military standpoint. "We had 3,000 soldiers, and they had 250,000 in Europe alone," Randall explains. "We had 20 ships. They had 900."

Additionally, the timing of the U.S. declaring war — it came about a week before British adversary Napoleon launched an invasion of Russia — further enraged the British. "The British felt we had stabbed them in the back," Randall says.


On land, things went badly for the Americans pretty quickly, when Gen. William Hull's initial foray into Canada in June 1812 failed, and he withdrew to Detroit, where he soon found himself under siege by the British and Indian allies under the leadership of Tecumseh. The British and Indians fooled Hull into thinking that they had a much larger force, and in August 1812 he surrendered, giving the Americans a humiliating defeat, as the Detroit Historical Society details. A second U.S. attack on Canada in October 1812 led to another disastrous defeat in the Battle of Queenston Heights, in which 300 Americans were killed and almost 1,000 were taken prisoner.

The Americans did better on the water. The U.S.S. Constitution, a frigate, pursued and defeated the British HMS Guerriere off the coast of Nova Scotia in August 1812, damaging the British ship so badly that after its captain surrendered, it had to be sunk. The British, who had been confident of their naval superiority, were stunned. "Never before in the history of the world did an English frigate strike to an American," the London Times lamented.

But even more punishment was inflicted by the large U.S. force of privateers — ships owned by U.S. businessmen, to whom Congress gave the authority to wage a for-profit war on British ships. In the course of the war, the privateers captured 1,500 British ships. Blockade runners daringly did their best to keep the U.S. economy going, slipping through the British naval vessels in fog, storms and night darkness to transport flour, tobacco and cotton.


The British Set Fire to the White House

After Napoleon was defeated and forced into exile in the spring of 1814, the British could afford to send more troops across the Atlantic, and the situation got scary for the Americans. In August, a British force invaded Maryland and then marched on Washington, D.C. As detailed in this article by British journalist and historian Peter Snow, the invaders ate food and drank wine from the table of President Madison, before setting fire to the White House and numerous other public buildings. The arson was in retaliation for a similarly brutal American sacking of York (now Toronto) in Ontario. But even so, British Rear Adm. George Cockburn, who orchestrated the arson, took such pride in the savagery that his official portrait later depicted him with Washington burning in the background.

"Nobody imagined the British would try to destroy our capital," Randall explains. "Most Americans didn't know what we had done in Canada. And Madison and his cabinet were clueless about war. They didn't even try to defend Washington." Fortunately, the president's wife, Dolley Madison, had a bit more on the ball. As she prepared to flee the White House just before the British arrival, she had an enslaved teenager, Paul Jennings, break the frame of Gilbert Stuart's full-length portrait of Washington, so the painting could be removed and carried away to safety.


'The Star-Spangled Banner'

But another British target, Baltimore — home port to many privateer vessels — was much better prepared. Fort McHenry, which protected the harbor, withstood an intense 25-hour-long attack in mid-September by British warships, who eventually had to withdraw. That victory inspired Francis Scott Key, who was on a ship several miles away, to compose a song, "The Star-Spangled Banner," to celebrate the American resistance.

Meanwhile, a British attempt to invade New York that September was thwarted in the battle of Lake Champlain, where U.S. naval forces defeated British ships. That put an end to a British strategy of driving a wedge into middle of the U.S. and possibly taking back northern New England as a British possession. Randall calls it "the most decisive battle of the war."


That led Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington and the British commander who had defeated Napoleon, to conclude that the war was unwinnable, and decline to take over command of British forces in the U.S. "It was Wellington who said, get out of there, you can't win it unless you control the lakes, and they couldn't," Randall says.

And by that point, "the bottom line was that England was broke," Randall says. "The ministry didn't want to go to Parliament against and say we need more money to continue fighting in America. The taxpayers wouldn't go for it."


The Treaty of Ghent Ends the War

In the peace talks that already were underway, British negotiators abandoned their hardball territorial demands and started looking for a quick way out. They even abandoned a key British demand for creation of a sanctuary for their Indian allies in the U.S. Midwest, which would have made it difficult for the U.S. to expand westward. (If the U.S. had been forced to grant that concession, "we would have been a small country," Randall says.

In December, the signing of the Treaty of Ghent ended the war. But because instantaneous electronic communication didn't exist in those days, word didn't get back to America soon enough to prevent British troops from attacking New Orleans in January 2015. They were repulsed by Gen. Andrew Jackson's forces in a short but brutal battle that saw 2,000 British soldiers become casualties in less than 30 minutes. Jackson "had hundreds of trained frontier marksmen," Randall explains. "They killed off the British officers, from the commanding general all the way down. The British soldiers who weren't killed were trying to hide under the bodies." The bloody victory had no effect on the war's outcome, but it made Jackson into a legend, and eventually helped elect him president.


The war, in which 2,260 American service members lost their lives, ended in a stalemate, but surviving it was a larger victory for the U.S., and was able to grow into a world power. "I think what we came away with is that we now feel free to go or do anything, without accepting controls by any other country on Earth," Randall says. "...from that time on, nobody is going to be able to bully us."