Did you know that there was a war in our nation’s history which was the only time that an enemy fought into the capital and burned the president’s dwelling? If the US had won, Canada, which was then a British territory, would most likely now be part of our country. Had the British won, we would have possibly rejoined the nation after 30-some years of independence. It’s been called “Mr. Madison’s War," “The silliest damned war we ever had," and even the “Second War for Independence." All three of these descriptions are quite accurate. The term “The War of 1812” is rather inaccurate, as it only refers to the first of the two-and-a-half years spanned by this struggle. Strangely enough, the conflict ended in an expensive and complicated tie.
“What is the War of 1812?” you may be wondering. Simply put, the war was American retaliation for three major issues: British kidnapping of American sailors, trade restrictions because of the war between Britain and France, and the British support of Native American tribes against westward expansion of the United States. The ongoing war between the British and the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was causing Britain to stop American ships from trading with their enemies. I’m going to describe for you three important events during the War of 1812: the burning of the White House, the writing of the Star-Spangled Banner, and the treaty which ended the conflict.
“Save that painting!” were the words of First Lady Dolley Madison when she remembered the iconic picture of George Washington while evacuating the White House. The British were reported to be fast approaching, but Dolley had refused to leave until her husband returned. Finally, after a whole morning of peering through a spyglass with no results, she decided to start packing. In a letter to her sister, Dolley reports: “At this late hour a wagon has been procured, and I have had it filled with plate and the most valuable portable articles…I insist on waiting until the large picture of General Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall…I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvas taken out.” At the last moment, Dolley grabbed a few last items, including the red velvet curtains in the drawing room, and left.
It was nearly midnight when a detachment of British soldiers led by the courageous but cautious Major General Robert Ross & the infamous Rear Admiral George Cockburn entered the White House. They found the untouched Dining Room set for the President and his 39 guests. After devouring the wine & meat on the table, the soldiers spread throughout the building to look for souvenirs, including the President’s sword & hat. Next was the burning of the White House. The furniture was stacked and then lighted. According to one account, approximately 50 soldiers carried poles which had balls fixed onto the end. These flammable balls were set on fire and then thrown inside the president’s dwelling. Within minutes, the blazes had engulfed the entire building. But soon, mighty winds began to howl and torrents of rain began to pour—beginning what may have been the most violent storm in the history of Washington, D.C. The British became so frightened that they gave up trying to burn the city—and just left.
A more well-known incident during the war was the writing of the Star-Spangled Banner, which began in a not-so-well-known way. Francis Scott Key, the author of our national anthem, boarded the British ship HMS Tonnant along with John Stuart Skinner in order to negotiate the release of some American prisoners. One of the prisoners was Dr. Beanes, an elderly, popular man who helped jail British soldiers because they were looting local farms. The two Americans sat down to dine with the previously mentioned Admiral Cockburn & General Ross. Cockburn & Ross refused to release the prisoners until Key & Skinner showed them a few letters from wounded British soldiers praising Dr. Beanes & other Americans for their kindness. The Americans had accomplished their task—but they weren’t allowed to leave. Key, Skinner, & Beanes now knew too much about the position & strength of the British ships and about their plans to attack Baltimore, Maryland. Soon after, General Ross left the ship to lead an army of 4,000 men to Baltimore by land—but he was shot and died soon after, much to his soldiers’ horror.
Just before dawn on September 13, the British Admiral Cochrane ordered the bombardment of Baltimore to begin. Standing on the deck of his ship, he watched as rockets & cannons flew towards the city. The inhabitants of Baltimore were dodging debris as best as they could while putting out fires & rebuilding shelters. The 24-hour attack even caused the ground to shake and buildings to fall, but after both sides stopped shooting and there was an eerie quiet, the fort was intact and the flag was still there. Why didn’t the fort collapse under the enemy’s 24- & 32-pound cannonballs? Well, the Americans had one important value that the British didn’t have—they believed strongly in their country. Those who fought in Her Majesty’s Name, however, were homesick and tired of fighting in a foreign land. So as the smoke cleared in the morning of September 14 and Francis Scott Key was straining to see if the American flag was still flying above the fort, the commander of the Fort McHenry ordered a colossal flag to be raised above the city. As the fabric unfurled, the residents of Baltimore gave a loud cheer, and Francis scribbled down the lines which would become our national anthem 117 years later. Ironically, the tune we use in the “The Star-Spangled Banner” was a British drinking song.
After approximately 19,900 deaths from both sides and aggressive opposition from nearly everybody, the United States & Britain were ready to end the pointless conflict. In the city of Ghent, Belgium, a group of diplomats from both countries began negotiating. It was August 1814, and the British had failed to capture Baltimore, the New England area, and Louisiana. The British Duke of Wellington pointed out that it would not be wise to demand for uti possidetis—a Latin term, which in English means “as you possess,” meaning that territories currently under the control of a certain country would remain under their control after the war. At the end, the treaty was signed under one straightforward term: all prisoners, ships, & lands captured would be returned to the original country in what is called status quo ante bellum, a Latin term which means “the state existing before the war." As one historian put it, “It was as if no war had been fought, or to put it more bluntly, as if the war that was fought was fought for no good reason. For nothing has changed; everything is as it was in the beginning save for the graves of those who, it now appears, have fought for a trifle.” It was true: everything was nearly back to the same condition as before the war, except for all the dead soldiers. But more died before news of the treaty reached the United States, and then the Senate had to approve of the treaty, which was done on February 16, 1815, approximately half a year after the treaty was first signed. Just a few days later, Napoleon escaped from exile and started the war with Britain all over again; this kept the British busy for a few months.
The War of 1812 was puzzling: it was useless, yet an important part of United States history. It killed many and destroyed whole cities, yet many great American leaders were developed through this conflict. America believed that they had won, Canada thought the same of itself, and Britain was too busy to comment, yet nobody really won. Albert Gallatin, the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, gave a thoughtful, insightful remark about the war: “The people...are more American; they feel and act more as a nation; and I hope the permanency of the Union is thereby better secured.”
This Original Oratory (a 10-minute-long prepared speech) was the first speech I wrote after joining Stoa Christian Homeschool Speech and Debate.