The War of 1812 holds a peculiar place in history. It’s often overlooked, and it’s probably most noteworthy for verses written by an amateur poet and attorney who witnessed one of its battles.
Three weeks before the British Navy attacked Baltimore and inspired the "Star-Spangled Banner," troops from the same fleet landed in Maryland, battled outgunned American forces, marched into the young city of Washington and torched federal buildings.
The War of 1812
As Britain battled Napoleon, the British Navy sought to cut off trade between France and neutral countries, including the United States. The British began a practice of intercepting American merchant ships, often taking sailors off the ships and “impressing” them into the British Navy.
The British restrictions on trade had a very negative impact on the American economy, and the practice of impressing sailors inflamed American public opinion. Americans in the west, sometimes called “war hawks,” also wanted a war with Britain which they believed would let the US annex Canada.
The US Congress, at the request of President James Madison, declared war on June 18, 1812.
The British Fleet Sails for Baltimore
The first two years of the war consisted of scattered and inconclusive battles, generally along the border between the US and Canada. But when Britain and its allies believed it had thwarted the threat posed by Napoleon in Europe, more attention was paid to the American war.
On August 14, 1814, a fleet of British warships departed from the naval base at Bermuda. Its ultimate objective was the city of Baltimore, which was then the third largest city in the US. Baltimore was also the home port of many privateers, armed American ships which raided British shipping. The British referred to Baltimore as a "nest of pirates."
One British commander, Rear Admiral George Cockburn also had another target in mind, the city of Washington.
Maryland Invaded By Land
By mid-August 1814, Americans living along the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay were surprised to see the sails of British warships on the horizon. There had been raiding parties striking American targets for some time, but this appeared to be a considerable force.
The British landed at Benedict, Maryland, and began marching toward Washington. On August 24, 1814, at Bladensburg, on the outskirts of Washington, British regulars, many of whom had fought in the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, fought poorly equipped American troops.
The fighting at Bladensburg was intense at times, but the Americans could not hold. The federal troops retreated, along with observers from the government including President James Madison.
A Panic in Washington
While some Americans tried desperately to battle the British, the city of Washington was in chaos. Federal workers tried to rent, buy, and even steal wagons to cart off important documents.
In the executive mansion (not yet known as the White House), the president's wife, Dolley Madison, directed servants to pack up valuable items.
Among the items taken into hiding was a famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. Dolley Madison instructed that it had to be taken off the walls and either hidden or destroyed before the British could seize it as a trophy. It was cut out of its frame and hidden in a farmhouse for several weeks. It hangs today in the East Room of the White House.
The Capitol Is Burned
Reaching Washington on the evening of August 24, the British found a city largely deserted, with the only resistance being ineffective sniper fire from one house. The first order of business for the British was to attack the navy yard, which they burned.
British troops next arrived at the US Capitol, which was still unfinished. According to later accounts, the British were impressed by the fine architecture of the building, and some of the officers had qualms about burning it.
According to legend, Admiral Cockburn sat in the chair belonging to the Speaker of the House and asked, "Shall this harbor of Yankee democracy be burned?" The British Marines with him yelled "Aye!" Orders were given to torch the building.
British Troops Attack Government Buildings
The British troops worked diligently to set fires inside the Capitol, destroying years of work by artisans brought from Europe. With the burning Capitol lighting the sky, troops also marched to burn an armory.
At about 10:30 pm, approximately 150 Royal Marines formed up in columns and began marching westward on Pennsylvania Avenue, following the route used in modern times for inauguration day parades. The British troops moved quickly, with a particular destination in mind.
By that time President James Madison had fled to safety in Virginia, where he would meet up with his wife and servants from the president's house.
The White House Is Burned
Arriving at the president's mansion, Admiral Cockburn reveled in his triumph. He entered the building with his men, and the British began picking up souvenirs. Cockburn took one of Madison's hats, and a cushion from Dolley Madison's chair. The troops also drank some of Madison's wine and helped themselves to food.
With the frivolity ended, the British Marines systematically set fire to the mansion by standing on the lawn and hurling torches through the windows. The house began to burn.
The British troops next turned their attention to the adjacent Treasury Department building, which was also set on fire.
The fires burned so brightly that observers many miles away recalled seeing a glow in the night sky.
The British Carry Off Supplies
Before leaving the Washington area, British troops also raided Alexandria, Virginia. Supplies were carried off, and a Philadelphia printer later produced this poster mocking the perceived cowardice of the merchants of Alexandria.
With the government buildings in ruins, the British raiding party returned to its ships, which rejoined the main battle fleet. Though the attack on Washington was a grave humiliation to the young American nation, the British still intended to attack what they considered the real target, Baltimore.
Three weeks later, the British bombardment of Fort McHenry inspired an eyewitness, attorney Francis Scott Key, to write a poem he called "The Star-Spangled Banner."