At the beginning of the 19th century, the United States was a developing nation. Although twenty years had passed since the end of the American Revolution, the country had not yet achieved economic independence. The French Empire, ruled by Napoleon Bonaparte, controlled most of mainland Europe. Great Britain was among the few nations free from French domination. With trade suspended between the warring countries, neutral America had a commercial advantage: her merchants could supply both sides.
Closely entwined with the questions about the rights of neutrals to trade with European belligerents, the British practice of impressing American merchant sailors stands as one of the central grievances leading up to the War of 1812. By 1811, the British Royal Navy had impressed at least 6,000 mariners who claimed to be citizens of the United States. In addition to impressments, Americans were dismayed by British agitation of the native population on the western frontier. Congress declared war on June 18, 1812.
Constitution and the War
USS Constitution fought and won three major engagements during the war. Her most famous battle was against HMS Guerriere. Two months after the declaration of war, Constitution, commanded by Captain Isaac Hull, sailed from Boston to harass British shipping near Halifax. On August 19, 1812, Constitution approached Guerriere, holding her fire until she was along side, then fired a devastating broadside. After a few short minutes, Guerriere’s masts were shot away and plunged into the sea. It was during this battle, a sailor saw a British shot bounce off Constitution‘s hull and cried, “Huzza! Her sides are made of iron!” Thus her famous nickname was born.
Other Major Moments of the War
• The White House and Capitol were burned to the ground during the invasion of Washington, D.C. First Lady Dolley Madison garnered fame for saving a portrait of George Washington before flames engulfed the president’s home.
• In 1814, Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star Spangled Banner” while watching the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor.
The End of the War
The War of 1812 ended in a stalemate. The treaty of Ghent signed on December 24, 1814 returned all territorial conquests made by the two sides. It did not address the issue of impressment, one of the major causes of the war. However with the downfall of Napoleon and peace in Europe, the Royal Navy no longer needed so many sailors. Despite the inconclusive ending, later-day Americans often regarded the post war period as prosperous. With the advent of peace came decades of stability, improved diplomatic relations and economic growth, the so-called “Era of Good Feelings.” A sense of self-confidence pervaded the nation, and it inspired the western expansionism that characterized the rest of the nineteenth century. The War of 1812 allowed the new nation to break free of its colonial past, and told the nations of Europe that a new player had emerged on the world stage. As British diplomat Augustus J. Foster acknowledged at war’s end, “The Americans . . . have brought us to speak of them with respect.”