The war of 1812 is often forgotten by Americans. Yet it was very significant in our early growth as a nation. We had won the war for Independence in 1783, but our independence was still tenuous until 1815 when we won our independence over again.
Britain had started fighting a war against Napoleon and while the US didn’t get involved directly, we certainly favored the French if for no other reason than that they weren’t the British. The war against Napoleon was long and expensive for all sides involved and it took a great deal of man power, which Britain was struggling to fill. As an answer to their shortages the British began to stop American merchant ships and forcibly impress sailors to serve in the British Navy, claiming that these sailors were British deserters. It is probable that some were just that, but most were either legitimate immigrants or native born Americans. The Americans put up with this reprehensible treatment for a very long time. Of course the government protested, but England still held America very much in contempt and continued on in their course, fearing nothing.
America Declares War and England Burns Washington
Finally it grew too much and James Madison, who was president at the time, asked congress to declare war on Britain. They did and the fighting began. First the Americans marched up to Canada, had some limited success and burned the capitol building in Toronto. But they were pushed back and the British began to have it all their own way. A great many of the battles were fought at sea, where the British out gunned and out manned the Americans many times over. The British also raided, burned, and pillaged towns all along the coast. But for a long time they avoided a land war, having learned at least that much. Finally in August of 1814 the British landed near Washington DC, marched on the capital, met almost no resistance, and burned nearly all the government offices including the White House to the ground. That night a severe storm hit and the next day the British slunk out in fear.
The Battle of Baltimore
But just weeks later their ships were sailing toward Baltimore, Maryland. The city of Baltimore determined to make a stand. The British had an attack by sea and an attack by land planned. They executed both and after lengthy fighting were unable to prevail by either strategy. The fort at the entrance to the harbor, Fort McHenry, withstood a bombardment unequalled in its time. Francis Scott Key witnessed the battle from a British Ship, where he had been detained, and wrote the Star Spangled Banner.
The Battle of New Orleans
The British withdrew and made plans for yet another attack, this time at St. Louis. They hoped to gain control of the Mississippi River Valley, which would surround and cut the Americans off from the outside world. Andrew Jackson was given command of the American forces at St. Louis. He put the city under martial law and coaxed, cajoled and commanded until every able bodied man in the region was enlisted in his forces to defend the city. Black, Mexican, white, Indian, poor and wealthy all stood up together.
Men poured in from Texas and as far away as Tennessee as well. Even so the Americans were outnumbered and they faced trained troops with undisciplined civilians. But Jackson picked the battle ground and entrenched his forces behind earthworks, with the river on one side and a swamp on the other. The British were forced to come at him head on. There were several battles over the course of a few days and the final and decisive battle was fought on January 5, 1815.
The British, brave to the last, marched head on into volley after volley of fire. They were mowed down by the hundreds while Jackson lost less than thirty men. Again the Americans defended an entrenched position and aimed while the British attacked across open ground and only shot volleys in the general direction of the American troops. They hadn’t changed their tactics since the Revolutionary War and their results were therefore the same.
Many people say this last battle was not important because it actually occurred after a treaty of peace had already been signed in Europe. However if the British had won, they would certainly have retained control of the Mississippi River valley and further, the treaty may not have been ratified. The Battle of New Orleans proved for good that America was not to be trifled with.
- Find out more about Dolley Madison, a truly brave and heroic person, and her role at the burning of the Capital.
- Make a timeline of events during the war of 1812. Use Wikipedia for dates to add.
- The History Channel did a great piece called The War of 1812. Check to see if your library has it or whether you can get it by inter library loan. It is well worth watching.
- Early in the war the people of Baltimore had violently protested the war, but when it came time to defend their homes they set to and beat the British. Discuss how circumstances can change our perspective on things (not just war or politics, but many things).
- Reenact the Battle of New Orleans. You need five pieces of paper labeled “New Orleans” American Entrenchments” “British Forces” “Mississippi River” and “Swamp”. Have your American forces shoot and aim at the British forces while they just march madly into the killing fire. Doing a reenactment of a battle makes it forever memorable.
- Practice your aim by throwing balls or beanbags at a target.
- If you want the Battle of New Orleans to stick in your kids heads, play this video along with your lesson. It might not be totally accurate, but it is memorable.