13 Facts About the War of 1812

The Constitution, a.k.a. "Old Ironsides," captures the British vessels Cyane and Levant during the War of 1812.
The Constitution, a.k.a. "Old Ironsides," captures the British vessels Cyane and Levant during the War of 1812.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though no territory changed hands after the War of 1812, the conflict was a defining struggle for Canada, the United States, and indigenous peoples across North America. Here are 12 things your history teacher might not have told you about the war that transformed a continent.

1. The War of 1812 was caused by repeated violations of U.S. Naval rights.

Before the War of 1812, Britain was mired in a series of wars against France, and both countries issued various orders to try to keep the United States from trading with the other that resulted in merchant ships being captured. Great Britain also used impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy to keep its ships fully staffed. After years of conflict, President James Madison finally decided that enough was enough and asked Congress for a formal declaration of war.

2. The War of 1812 almost didn't happen.

Article I, Section Eight of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the sole power to declare war, and it was the first time the legislative body had exercised that power. But it was an extremely close vote: Madison's party, the Democratic-Republicans, was divided over the prospect of starting a war with a global superpower like Great Britain. Across the aisle, the rival Federalist party was uniformly against the idea.

Federalists dominated New England, whose seafaring communities depended on trade with the British. (The party also had some strong reservations about France's government and its leader, Napoleon Bonaparte.) So when the Madison-backed war resolution came up for a vote in Congress, not a single Federalist supported it. The measure passed anyway: On June 4, the House of Representatives voted 79 to 49 in favor of going to war. The Senate responded in kind on June 17, with 19 yes votes and 13 nos. No other declared war in U.S. history has ever been approved by such a narrow margin in Congress.

3. At the beginning of the War of 1812, America's Navy had just 16 ships.

On paper, the U.S. Navy was no match for the gigantic Royal Navy, which had hundreds of active warships. The U.S. Navy had just 16 ships, including the 12-gun USS Viper and the 44-gun USS Constitution.

But Great Britain's maritime forces were stretched thin by the Napoleonic Wars, and since defeating Napoleon was a bigger priority than embarrassing James Madison, the British initially sent just nine frigates to fight the Americans. According to Canadian naval historian Victor Suthren, the chosen vessels were "not [Great Britain's] best ones and not manned by their most experienced crews, many of whom had been forced or impressed into service." Conversely, the American frigates were newer, larger, and well-manned.

The U.S. Navy had some morale-boosting victories early in the war. On August 19, 1812, the USS Constitution met and defeated the HMS Guerriere 400 miles east of Nova Scotia. Very little damage was done to the American vessel, which earned the nickname "Old Ironsides." That December, the ship scored another win, this time over the HMS Java frigate. But Old Ironsides didn't steal all the glory in battle: The USS United States beat the HMS Macedonian on October 25, 1812.

America's naval victories became scarcer after the British blockaded the eastern seaboard in mid-1813, but water battles continued to break out. For example, nine U.S. ships memorably defeated six British vessels at the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813.

4. The War of 1812 confirmed that Canada didn't want to be part of the United States.

In April 1812, Thomas Jefferson wrote that "The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching; & will give us experience for the attack of Halifax the next, & the final expulsion of England from the American continent." Secretary of War William Eustis concurred, saying "We can take [Canada] without soldiers. We have only to send officers into the provinces and the people, disaffected towards their own government, will rally round our standard." The plan was to invade Canada in three waves, striking the country from Detroit, the Niagara border, and Lake Champlain.

But instead of being greeted with open arms, American troops met strong resistance from the locals, a hodgepodge of French-Canadians, Native Americans, and British loyalists who'd fled the U.S. after the Revolutionary War. The fact that U.S. forces—like their transatlantic counterparts—tended to loot captured villages did not endear them to the citizenry. Canadians were especially appalled by the invasion and burning of York (present-day Toronto) on April 27, 1813, as well as the burning of Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) in December. Resistance to the American military became a nation-defining cause for Canada's people, who celebrate the War of 1812 to this day.

5. Tecumseh and his Native American confederacy had a tremendous impact on the War of 1812.

Born in March 1768, Tecumseh was a Shawnee chief who had lost his father in Lord Dunmore's War. He spent several years building a military alliance of over two dozen Indigenous Nations with the goal of ending the westward expansion of white settlers once and for all. Seven months before the U.S. Congress declared war on Great Britain, Tecumseh's confederacy fought future president William Henry Harrison at the Battle of Tippecanoe in what's now northern Indiana (though Tecumseh himself wasn't there).

After the battle, Tecumseh's confederacy forged on. In a politically expedient move, Tecumseh allied himself with the British once the War of 1812 broke out. Native American forces helped Great Britain take Detroit and repel American invaders from Queenston, Ontario. They also facilitated the capture of over 300 U.S. soldiers at the Battle of Beaver Dams. But after Tecumseh was mortally wounded at the Battle of Thames (1813), his confederacy unraveled.

6. Detroit was captured by the British during the War of 1812—and remained captured for over a year.

Detroit was a rising frontier town with a population of around 800 when the War of 1812 began. Inside, there was a thick-walled fortress where General William Hull—Michigan's territorial governor—set up a base of operations with his son, his daughter, his grandchild, and a force of over 2000 American militiamen and regular army soldiers. On August 16, 1812, Hull surrendered to a numerically inferior contingent of British and Native American men who had surrounded Fort Detroit. The general had been worried about losing his supply lines and falsely believed that he was outnumbered. Plus, Tecumseh flat-out terrified him. "[Hull] had an inordinate fear of the Indians," historian A.J. Langguth explained in the PBS documentary The War of 1812. "He was convinced that … if they were unleashed on his family or his troops, it would be the worst kind of massacre."

Fort Detroit wasn't retaken by the Americans until September 1813. The following year, Hull was court-martialed and found guilty of cowardice, neglect of duty, and conduct unbecoming of an officer. For these crimes, Hull received a death sentence but was then pardoned by President Madison.

7. The White House burned during the War of 1812, but the patent office was spared.

British General Robert Ross and Admiral Alexander Cochrane arrived in Maryland on August 19, 1814 with 4500 veterans fresh from the Napoleonic campaigns. On the 24th, having muscled past 5500 U.S. militiamen, they made it to Washington, D.C., where they torched the White House mere hours after President Madison and his wife left town. They also burned the Capitol Building, which contained the Library of Congress along with the chambers used by the Supreme Court, the Senate, and the House of Representatives.

The only government building the Brits didn't put to the torch was the U.S. Patent Office. Dr. William Thornton, Superintendent of Patents at the time, had hundreds of important documents rushed out of the city prior to the attack. Then, when the British came, he (allegedly) persuaded them not to immolate the Patent Office.

Tradition has it that Thornton put himself in front of a cannon aimed at his building and shouted "Are you Englishmen or Goths and Vandals? This is the Patent Office, the depository of ingenuity of the American Nation in which the whole world is interested. Would you destroy it?" The British backed off. (Sadly, the office burned down anyway 22 years later due to an accidental fire that consumed 10,000 patent documents.)

8. "The Star-Spangled Banner" was written during the War of 1812.

In September 1814, an American lawyer named Francis Scott Key met with Ross and Cochrane to negotiate the release of his friend Dr. William Beanes, who had been taken prisoner. The British higher-ups agreed to let the doctor go, but for the sake of military secrecy, they forbade Key and Beanes from going ashore until after a planned attack on Baltimore had ended.

That's how Key was able to witness the bombardment of Fort McHenry, a star-shaped bastion, completed in 1802, that faced Baltimore Harbor. The fort withstood a massive assault on September 13 and enabled the Americans to successfully defend Baltimore. From his vantage point onboard a truce ship, Key watched as the 42-by-30-foot flag above the fort remained in place even amidst heavy cannon fire. Much to his delight, it was "still there" the next morning (though it's thought that during the actual battle the giant flag was replaced by a smaller "storm flag").

The inspired lawyer went on to write a poem set to the melody of "To Anacreon in Heaven," the theme song of a well-known London gentlemen's club. Key's original title for his poem was "Defense of Fort McHenry," but it was later renamed "The Star-Spangled Banner" by a Baltimore music store. In 1931, it officially became America's first national anthem.

9. More than 4000 former slaves were set free by the British during the War of 1812.

Escaped slaves fought on both sides of the war. Some, like Charles Ball—who escaped bondage, declared himself a free man, and became a member of the American Chesapeake Flotilla before fighting in the Battle of Bladensburg—chose to join the U.S. ranks. Andrew Jackson later commanded almost 900 black troops, a group that consisted of both slaves and free men, at the Battle of New Orleans.

But the British rallied far more ex-slaves to their cause than did the Americans. In 1814, Cochrane issued a proclamation stating that "all those who may be disposed to emigrate from the United States … with their families" could join the British military or become "free settlers to the British possessions in North America or the West Indies." Over 4000 former slaves took him up on that offer. Around 600 emancipated black people served in the British Colonial Marines, taking part in the Burning of Washington and the Battle of Baltimore. Once the war ended, thousands of African Americans who'd fled to Great Britain's military were given land in places like Nova Scotia or Trinidad.

10. Uncle Sam was born during the War of 1812 (according to Congress).

There are a few different explanations for where Uncle Sam came from. The most popular story says he was named after Sam Wilson, a real-life meat packer who lived in Troy, New York. He did business with the American military during the War of 1812, shipping barrels off to hungry soldiers. To designate the containers as United States government property, they were labeled "U.S." Troy residents joked that the "U.S." really stood for "Uncle Sam," which was—supposedly—Wilson's nickname.

Many historians don't buy this particular yarn (evidence has been uncovered for Uncle Sam being a nickname since 1810), but in 1961, Congress passed a resolution acknowledging Sam Wilson as "the progenitor of America's national symbol of Uncle Sam." He received another posthumous honor in the late '80s. September 13, 1989—the 223rd anniversary of Wilson's birth—was proclaimed "Uncle Sam Day" by then-President George H.W. Bush.

11. The War of 1812 led to a permanent split between Maine and Massachusetts.

Even today, Mainers and Bay Staters don't always see eye to eye. The seeds of their rivalry were planted in the late 1640s, when Maine was absorbed into the more populous colony of Massachusetts. Changing demographics put this merger to the test. Following the American Revolution, an influx of new settlers came pouring into the District of Maine. These transplants tended to vote Democratic-Republican while their counterparts down in present-day Massachusetts were mostly Federalists. A rift soon emerged between the state government in Boston and the Mainers under its protection.

The War of 1812 deepened the divide. In July 1814, the Royal Navy captured Eastport, Maine. And that was just the beginning: Within a few short weeks, all of eastern Maine found itself under British occupation. Massachusetts Governor Caleb Strong then made the controversial decision to withhold military relief. Due to an international boundary dispute over Moose Island and surrounding areas, the British continued to occupy eastern Maine until 1818—three years after the war ended. The following summer, Mainers voted to secede from Massachusetts. As a condition of the Missouri Compromise, the free state of Maine was admitted to the Union on March 15, 1820.

12. The War of 1812 ended in February 1815—but one important battle was fought after the Treaty of Ghent was signed.

That would be the Battle of New Orleans, which occurred on January 8, 1815, and launched the political career of future president Andrew Jackson. Though he was outnumbered (and struggling with dysentery), the Major General notched a victory for the United States when he met and defeated 8000 British troops with his 5700-man force of Gulf Coast pirates, Choctaw warriors, free blacks, and American militiamen. The fight is famous for having started after British and U.S. representatives signed the Treaty of Ghent, which officially ended the war when it was ratified that February. Regardless, American voters saw Jackson's triumph as a nationwide cause for celebration.

The Tennessean went from being a little-known southern lawyer and military figure to a national icon almost overnight. When Jackson ran for president in 1824 and 1828, his supporters made sure to emphasize his achievements in NOLA. At Jacksonian campaign events, musicians would play "The Hunters of Kentucky," a popular folk song about the militiamen at the Battle of New Orleans.

13. "Old Ironsides" took a victory lap in 2012.

To honor the 200th anniversary of its victory over the HMS Guerriere, the USS Constitution set sail out of Charlestown, Massachusetts on August 19, 2012, manned by a crew of roughly 65 people along with 150 additional sailors. After a 17-minute trip into Boston Harbor, the ship returned to its home at the Charlestown Navy Yard.

A Nellie Bly Memorial Is Being Planned for New York City’s Roosevelt Island

The infamous asylum on Blackwell's Island that Nellie Bly infiltrated in the late 1880s.
The infamous asylum on Blackwell's Island that Nellie Bly infiltrated in the late 1880s.
New York Public Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Nellie Bly, the 19th-century journalist renowned for her six-part exposé on Blackwell’s Island’s asylum in New York City—which she infiltrated by feigning insanity—will soon be honored with a memorial on the island itself, now called Roosevelt Island.

Her 1887 investigation, Smithsonian.com reports, uncovered cruel conditions for the female "lunatic" patients, like freezing baths, violence, and solitary confinement in rooms overrun with vermin. Its publication resulted in a series of improvements including increased funding, translator assistance for immigrants, termination of abusive staff, and more. It also facilitated a national discussion about the stigma of mental illness, especially for women.

All we know about the monument so far is that it’ll be some kind of statue—maybe a traditional sculpture, something more modern or even digital—and construction will take place between March and May of next year with a budget of about $500,000. The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) announced an open call for artists to submit their designs, and by August 2, it will choose five finalists who will then create conceptual proposals for the memorial.

The monument’s precise location is still up in the air, too. It could be around the Octagon, the only remaining portion of the asylum building that now forms the entrance to a luxury apartment complex on the northern half of the island, or in Lighthouse Park, a 3.78-acre space at the island’s northern tip.

Portrait of Nellie Bly
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Until the mid-20th century, Roosevelt Island, located in the East River between Manhattan and Queens, was a rather undesirable place to visit. Along with the women’s asylum, it housed a prison, a charity hospital, a smallpox hospital, and a workhouse, The New York Times reports.

The city changed the name of the island (originally called Blackwell’s after the family who farmed there for generations) to Welfare Island in 1921. In 1935, it relocated the prison to Rikers Island (where it remains today). And in 1971, the city established a middle-income residential community on the island, renaming it Roosevelt Island, after Franklin Roosevelt.

Though Bly’s work in the island’s asylum may be her most famous, it was far from her only contribution to the worlds of journalism and industry. She also sailed around the world in 72 days, investigated baby trafficking, and ran her late husband’s manufacturing company. You can read more about her here.

“She’s one of our local heroes,” RIOC president Susan Rosenthal told The City about the choice to honor Bly. “The combination of who she was, the importance of investigative journalism and the fact that it happened here just made it perfect for the island.”

[h/t Smithsonian.com]

10 Fascinating Facts About Anne Boleyn

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Anne Boleyn was one of England’s most controversial queens. In 1533, King Henry VIII annulled his first marriage (to Catherine of Aragon) and was in the process of breaking with the Catholic Church to wed the charming noblewoman. But their happiness was not to last: Just three years later, Anne was executed. It’s a compelling story, one that’s been dramatized in plays, novels, movies, and TV shows. But today, we’re setting the pop culture depictions aside to take a look at the real Anne Boleyn.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s formative years were spent in France and Belgium.

Born in the early 16th century (possibly in 1501 or 1507), Anne was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, an English diplomat. As a child, she went abroad to study in Margaret of Austria’s court, located in present-day Belgium, and later continued her education as a member of Mary Tudor’s elegant household in Paris. By the time she returned to her native England in the early 1520s, Boleyn had mastered the French language—and she carried herself like a Parisian, too. “No one,” wrote one of Boleyn’s contemporaries, “would ever have taken her to be English by her manners, but [instead] a native-born Frenchwoman."

  1. Anne Boleyn played the lute.

Even Boleyn’s harshest critics had to admit that she was a good dancer. She was also fond of music, and reportedly played the lute (a guitar-like instrument popular at Tudor gatherings) quite well. A songbook that bears her inscription can be found at London’s Royal College of Music. It’s unclear if Boleyn ever owned this book, but its selection of tunes is historically significant.

  1. Anne Boleyn almost married someone other than King Henry VIII.

In 1522, Thomas Boleyn and his cousin, Sir Piers Butler, were both trying to claim some Irish land holdings that had belonged to one of their mutual ancestors. To settle the dispute, Anne's uncle suggested marrying Anne to Butler’s son, James, so that the factions could be unified in the future. By the time Anne returned to England, the marriage was already in the works. King Henry VIII—whose mistress at that time was Anne's sister Mary—supported the match, but the marriage never went through. Anne also had a romantic relationship with one Henry Percy, a future Earl of Northumberland who wound up marrying the Lady Mary Talbot.

  1. Anne Boleyn was pregnant at her coronation.

King Henry VIII’s marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was annulled on May 23, 1533. He’d been courting Anne Boleyn for years; many of his love letters survive to this day. As the king’s infatuation grew, so did his desire for a healthy male heir—which Catherine never gave him. But Pope Clement VII refused to dissolve the royal marriage. So the Archbishop of Canterbury went ahead and annulled it. Henry VIII would soon be declared “Supreme Head of the Church of England,” severing its ties with the Vatican. Boleyn was crowned queen on June 1, 1533. Her first child, Princess Elizabeth, was born a little over three months later.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s emblem was a white falcon.

The Boleyns took a white falcon from the traditional Butler family crest. For Anne’s coronation ceremony, poet Nicholas Udall wrote a ballad that likened the new queen to this elegant bird of prey. “Behold and see the Falcon White!” declared one verse. “How she beginneth her wings to spread, and for our comfort to take her flight” [PDF]. The new queen also used a white falcon badge as her personal emblem; at some point, a graffitied version of this was carved into the Tower of London.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s religious views are hard to pin down, but she appeared to sympathize with reformers.

At a time when Latin-language Bibles were the norm in Catholic Europe, Boleyn consistently supported the publication of English translations—a controversial notion at the time. As queen, she and her husband arranged for the release of Nicholas Bourbon, a French humanist whose criticisms of saint-worship and other theological matters had landed him in jail. Bourbon went to England, where he tutored Boleyn’s nephew (at her request).

  1. Anne Boleyn was the first of Henry VIII’s queens to get beheaded.

Like Catherine before her, Anne Boleyn failed to deliver Henry VIII’s long-sought male heir. In 1536, she found herself on trial, accused of high treason, adultery, and incest. (Rumors circulated that she was having an affair with her brother, George.) Though many historians dismiss these allegations, they sealed her fate nevertheless. Boleyn was beheaded on May 19, 1536. Henry VIII wed his third wife, Jane Seymour, that same month. Two spouses later, history repeated itself when the king had queen number five—Catherine Howard—decapitated in 1542.

  1. It has been claimed that Anne Boleyn had 11 fingers.

When you replace a popular monarch and spur the change of the religious fabric of an entire country, you're bound to make enemies. One of Boleyn’s detractors claimed that she had a “devilish spirit,” while another famously called her a “goggle-eyed whore.”

And then there’s Catholic propagandist Nicholas Sander, who wrote an unflattering description of the former queen many years after she died. According to him, Boleyn had “a large wen [wart or cyst] under her chin,” a “projecting tooth under the upper lip” and “six fingers” on her right hand. But his claims are highly suspect. There’s no proof that Sander ever laid eye on Boleyn—plus, her contemporaries didn’t mention any of these physical traits in their own writings about the queen. At worst, she might have had a second nail on one finger—which is a far cry from saying she possessed an extra digit.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, ruled England for decades.

Coronated at age 25 on January 15, 1559, Queen Elizabeth I defeated the Spanish Armada, promoted exploration, and foiled multiple assassination plots during her 44-year reign. She held the throne right up until her death in 1603.

  1. There’s only one surviving portrait of Anne Boleyn (that we know of).

When Henry VIII executed her, most Anne Boleyn likenesses were intentionally destroyed—and now, there's just one contemporary image of the queen known to exist: a lead disc—crafted in 1534—with Boleyn’s face etched on one side, which is held at the British Museum in London. It’s the only verified portrait of the former queen that was actually produced during her lifetime.

But there may be at least one more image of the queen out there: In 2015, facial recognition software was used to compare the image on the disc to a 16th-century painting currently housed at the Bradford Art Galleries and Museums. The picture’s subject, a young woman, has never been identified, but according to the program, the figure looks an awful lot like Boleyn’s portrait in that lead disc—though the researchers cautioned that their results were inconclusive due to insufficient data.

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