No one calls the War of 1812 America's finest hour. But it had its moments.
Resentful over treatment by the British and determined to enhance national sovereignty, Henry Clay and a small group of "War Hawks" in the Twelfth Congress pushed an unprepared country into war.
There was reason for resentment. For years, Britain, desperate for sailors in its mortal battle with Napoleon, had stopped American ships and impressed their seamen. Though in theory only British subjects were to be seized, an estimated 6,000 Americans were taken between 1803 and 1812.
Moreover, Britain restricted American trade with Europe in an effort to weaken Napoleon, and the British were also thought to be agitating among the Indians in the Northwest Territory.
The War Hawks may have harbored an additional reason to go to war. John Randolph of Roanoke stood up in the House of Representatives and denounced the war as no more than a land grab: "We have heard but one word — like the whip-poor-will, but one eternal monotonous tone — Canada! Canada! Canada!"
Clay insisted that the aims of the war were free trade, sailors' rights and national sovereignty. Attacking Canada, he said, was a means to get redress from the British, not a goal. But there was widespread talk of annexation, and the government never disavowed the intention.
Enthusiasm was not universal. New England opposed the war, and in Baltimore, Alexander Contee Hanson, publisher of the Federal Republican, a Federalist paper, denounced President James Madison's declaration of war. ABaltimore mob, very much pro-war, destroyed the newspaper offices on June 22, 1812.
Hanson recruited fellow Federalists, put out another edition and was attacked in a house on Charles Street on July 28. The Federalists fired, killing a man, and soldiers eventually escorted the beleaguered Federalists to the city jail, where the mob broke in, beat them and left them for dead. Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, a hero of the Revolutionary War and father of Robert E. Lee, suffered permanent injuries.
Thus the start of the War of 1812 was marked by two days of rioting in Baltimore, an early example of the behavior that won the city the nickname "Mobtown."
Once begun, the war was a fiasco. Gen. William Hull attempted to attack Canada from Detroit, retreated, was attacked in turn and surrendered the city. (Under the peace treaty we got Detroit back.)
A later American attack on York (now Toronto) was a success, but the explosion of a powder magazine killed more Americans than the battle, and the troops looted the city and burned the government buildings. This, the British said, was their justification for subsequently burning Washington.
More successful efforts came out of Baltimore. Then the nation's third-largest city, it was a center of maritime activity. Baltimore Clippers built here and dispatched as privateers — legalized pirates — made the war costly for Britain. Baltimore's 126 privateers seized more than 550 British prizes in the war, with a value of $16 million.
It was to deal with this "nest of pirates" that Adm. Sir George Cockburn sailed into the Chesapeake Bay in the spring of 1813. On May 3, in one of many raids throughout the bay, his forces attacked Havre de Grace. Displeased at encountering resistance, the troops looted and burned down 40 of the town's 60 houses.
A much more menacing force appeared in the summer of 1814, when Sir Alexander Cochrane's squadron sailed up the Patuxent.
On Aug. 24, British infantry attacked American volunteers and militia under William Winder at Bladensburg. Despite a brave stand by Commodore Joshua Barney's men, the terrified militia broke and fled, one observer saying, "The militia ran like sheep, pursued by dogs." The defeat came to be referred to sardonically as "the Bladensburg races."
The disaster at Bladensburg left the capital exposed. President Madison and the Cabinet skedaddled. British regulars marched in and burned the White House and the Capitol.
Cochrane proceeded toward Baltimore, and British Gen. Robert Ross, marching to North Point, vowed to dine in Baltimore or in hell that night. He did not dine in Baltimore. American sharpshooters — Daniel Wells and Henry G. McComas have been credited with the deed — under the command of Gen. John Stricker mortally wounded Ross, and the British infantry lost both heart and steam. They never reached the line of defense that Gen. Samuel Smith had drawn up on Hampstead Hill (now Patterson Park).
Anchored near where the Key Bridge now stands, Cochrane's squadron subjected Fort McHenry to an extended bombardment witnessed by a young lawyer named Francis Scott Key. But the fort withstood the attack, and, unable to get any nearer to Baltimore, Cochrane sailed away.
By then peace negotiations were under way at Ghent, in Belgium, and a treaty was signed Dec. 24 and submitted for ratification.
But before word of the treaty could reach all the belligerents, British troops commanded by Gen. Edward Pakenham attacked New Orleans. The British suffered nearly 2,000 casualties to Gen. Andrew Jackson's 13, in one of the most remarkable battlefield victories in American history.
The War of 1812 gave Americans a confirmed sense of national sovereignty. It gave the Navy a motto, the dying Capt. James Lawrence's "Don't give up the ship" (though his Chesapeake was compelled to surrender outside Boston). It gave Andrew Jackson a hero's reputation and propelled him to the presidency.