13 Facts About the War of 1812

The Constitution, a.k.a. "Old Ironsides," captures the British vessels Cyane and Levant during the War of 1812.
The Constitution, a.k.a. "Old Ironsides," captures the British vessels Cyane and Levant during the War of 1812.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though no territory changed hands after the War of 1812, the conflict was a defining struggle for Canada, the United States, and indigenous peoples across North America. Here are 12 things your history teacher might not have told you about the war that transformed a continent.

1. The War of 1812 was caused by repeated violations of U.S. Naval rights.

Before the War of 1812, Britain was mired in a series of wars against France, and both countries issued various orders to try to keep the United States from trading with the other that resulted in merchant ships being captured. Great Britain also used impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy to keep its ships fully staffed. After years of conflict, President James Madison finally decided that enough was enough and asked Congress for a formal declaration of war.

2. The War of 1812 almost didn't happen.

Article I, Section Eight of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the sole power to declare war, and it was the first time the legislative body had exercised that power. But it was an extremely close vote: Madison's party, the Democratic-Republicans, was divided over the prospect of starting a war with a global superpower like Great Britain. Across the aisle, the rival Federalist party was uniformly against the idea.

Federalists dominated New England, whose seafaring communities depended on trade with the British. (The party also had some strong reservations about France's government and its leader, Napoleon Bonaparte.) So when the Madison-backed war resolution came up for a vote in Congress, not a single Federalist supported it. The measure passed anyway: On June 4, the House of Representatives voted 79 to 49 in favor of going to war. The Senate responded in kind on June 17, with 19 yes votes and 13 nos. No other declared war in U.S. history has ever been approved by such a narrow margin in Congress.

3. At the beginning of the War of 1812, America's Navy had just 16 ships.

On paper, the U.S. Navy was no match for the gigantic Royal Navy, which had hundreds of active warships. The U.S. Navy had just 16 ships, including the 12-gun USS Viper and the 44-gun USS Constitution.

But Great Britain's maritime forces were stretched thin by the Napoleonic Wars, and since defeating Napoleon was a bigger priority than embarrassing James Madison, the British initially sent just nine frigates to fight the Americans. According to Canadian naval historian Victor Suthren, the chosen vessels were "not [Great Britain's] best ones and not manned by their most experienced crews, many of whom had been forced or impressed into service." Conversely, the American frigates were newer, larger, and well-manned.

The U.S. Navy had some morale-boosting victories early in the war. On August 19, 1812, the USS Constitution met and defeated the HMS Guerriere 400 miles east of Nova Scotia. Very little damage was done to the American vessel, which earned the nickname "Old Ironsides." That December, the ship scored another win, this time over the HMS Java frigate. But Old Ironsides didn't steal all the glory in battle: The USS United States beat the HMS Macedonian on October 25, 1812.

America's naval victories became scarcer after the British blockaded the eastern seaboard in mid-1813, but water battles continued to break out. For example, nine U.S. ships memorably defeated six British vessels at the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813.

4. The War of 1812 confirmed that Canada didn't want to be part of the United States.

In April 1812, Thomas Jefferson wrote that "The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching; & will give us experience for the attack of Halifax the next, & the final expulsion of England from the American continent." Secretary of War William Eustis concurred, saying "We can take [Canada] without soldiers. We have only to send officers into the provinces and the people, disaffected towards their own government, will rally round our standard." The plan was to invade Canada in three waves, striking the country from Detroit, the Niagara border, and Lake Champlain.

But instead of being greeted with open arms, American troops met strong resistance from the locals, a hodgepodge of French-Canadians, Native Americans, and British loyalists who'd fled the U.S. after the Revolutionary War. The fact that U.S. forces—like their transatlantic counterparts—tended to loot captured villages did not endear them to the citizenry. Canadians were especially appalled by the invasion and burning of York (present-day Toronto) on April 27, 1813, as well as the burning of Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) in December. Resistance to the American military became a nation-defining cause for Canada's people, who celebrate the War of 1812 to this day.

5. Tecumseh and his Native American confederacy had a tremendous impact on the War of 1812.

Born in March 1768, Tecumseh was a Shawnee chief who had lost his father in Lord Dunmore's War. He spent several years building a military alliance of over two dozen Indigenous Nations with the goal of ending the westward expansion of white settlers once and for all. Seven months before the U.S. Congress declared war on Great Britain, Tecumseh's confederacy fought future president William Henry Harrison at the Battle of Tippecanoe in what's now northern Indiana (though Tecumseh himself wasn't there).

After the battle, Tecumseh's confederacy forged on. In a politically expedient move, Tecumseh allied himself with the British once the War of 1812 broke out. Native American forces helped Great Britain take Detroit and repel American invaders from Queenston, Ontario. They also facilitated the capture of over 300 U.S. soldiers at the Battle of Beaver Dams. But after Tecumseh was mortally wounded at the Battle of Thames (1813), his confederacy unraveled.

6. Detroit was captured by the British during the War of 1812—and remained captured for over a year.

Detroit was a rising frontier town with a population of around 800 when the War of 1812 began. Inside, there was a thick-walled fortress where General William Hull—Michigan's territorial governor—set up a base of operations with his son, his daughter, his grandchild, and a force of over 2000 American militiamen and regular army soldiers. On August 16, 1812, Hull surrendered to a numerically inferior contingent of British and Native American men who had surrounded Fort Detroit. The general had been worried about losing his supply lines and falsely believed that he was outnumbered. Plus, Tecumseh flat-out terrified him. "[Hull] had an inordinate fear of the Indians," historian A.J. Langguth explained in the PBS documentary The War of 1812. "He was convinced that … if they were unleashed on his family or his troops, it would be the worst kind of massacre."

Fort Detroit wasn't retaken by the Americans until September 1813. The following year, Hull was court-martialed and found guilty of cowardice, neglect of duty, and conduct unbecoming of an officer. For these crimes, Hull received a death sentence but was then pardoned by President Madison.

7. The White House burned during the War of 1812, but the patent office was spared.

British General Robert Ross and Admiral Alexander Cochrane arrived in Maryland on August 19, 1814 with 4500 veterans fresh from the Napoleonic campaigns. On the 24th, having muscled past 5500 U.S. militiamen, they made it to Washington, D.C., where they torched the White House mere hours after President Madison and his wife left town. They also burned the Capitol Building, which contained the Library of Congress along with the chambers used by the Supreme Court, the Senate, and the House of Representatives.

The only government building the Brits didn't put to the torch was the U.S. Patent Office. Dr. William Thornton, Superintendent of Patents at the time, had hundreds of important documents rushed out of the city prior to the attack. Then, when the British came, he (allegedly) persuaded them not to immolate the Patent Office.

Tradition has it that Thornton put himself in front of a cannon aimed at his building and shouted "Are you Englishmen or Goths and Vandals? This is the Patent Office, the depository of ingenuity of the American Nation in which the whole world is interested. Would you destroy it?" The British backed off. (Sadly, the office burned down anyway 22 years later due to an accidental fire that consumed 10,000 patent documents.)

8. "The Star-Spangled Banner" was written during the War of 1812.

In September 1814, an American lawyer named Francis Scott Key met with Ross and Cochrane to negotiate the release of his friend Dr. William Beanes, who had been taken prisoner. The British higher-ups agreed to let the doctor go, but for the sake of military secrecy, they forbade Key and Beanes from going ashore until after a planned attack on Baltimore had ended.

That's how Key was able to witness the bombardment of Fort McHenry, a star-shaped bastion, completed in 1802, that faced Baltimore Harbor. The fort withstood a massive assault on September 13 and enabled the Americans to successfully defend Baltimore. From his vantage point onboard a truce ship, Key watched as the 42-by-30-foot flag above the fort remained in place even amidst heavy cannon fire. Much to his delight, it was "still there" the next morning (though it's thought that during the actual battle the giant flag was replaced by a smaller "storm flag").

The inspired lawyer went on to write a poem set to the melody of "To Anacreon in Heaven," the theme song of a well-known London gentlemen's club. Key's original title for his poem was "Defense of Fort McHenry," but it was later renamed "The Star-Spangled Banner" by a Baltimore music store. In 1931, it officially became America's first national anthem.

9. More than 4000 former slaves were set free by the British during the War of 1812.

Escaped slaves fought on both sides of the war. Some, like Charles Ball—who escaped bondage, declared himself a free man, and became a member of the American Chesapeake Flotilla before fighting in the Battle of Bladensburg—chose to join the U.S. ranks. Andrew Jackson later commanded almost 900 black troops, a group that consisted of both slaves and free men, at the Battle of New Orleans.

But the British rallied far more ex-slaves to their cause than did the Americans. In 1814, Cochrane issued a proclamation stating that "all those who may be disposed to emigrate from the United States … with their families" could join the British military or become "free settlers to the British possessions in North America or the West Indies." Over 4000 former slaves took him up on that offer. Around 600 emancipated black people served in the British Colonial Marines, taking part in the Burning of Washington and the Battle of Baltimore. Once the war ended, thousands of African Americans who'd fled to Great Britain's military were given land in places like Nova Scotia or Trinidad.

10. Uncle Sam was born during the War of 1812 (according to Congress).

There are a few different explanations for where Uncle Sam came from. The most popular story says he was named after Sam Wilson, a real-life meat packer who lived in Troy, New York. He did business with the American military during the War of 1812, shipping barrels off to hungry soldiers. To designate the containers as United States government property, they were labeled "U.S." Troy residents joked that the "U.S." really stood for "Uncle Sam," which was—supposedly—Wilson's nickname.

Many historians don't buy this particular yarn (evidence has been uncovered for Uncle Sam being a nickname since 1810), but in 1961, Congress passed a resolution acknowledging Sam Wilson as "the progenitor of America's national symbol of Uncle Sam." He received another posthumous honor in the late '80s. September 13, 1989—the 223rd anniversary of Wilson's birth—was proclaimed "Uncle Sam Day" by then-President George H.W. Bush.

11. The War of 1812 led to a permanent split between Maine and Massachusetts.

Even today, Mainers and Bay Staters don't always see eye to eye. The seeds of their rivalry were planted in the late 1640s, when Maine was absorbed into the more populous colony of Massachusetts. Changing demographics put this merger to the test. Following the American Revolution, an influx of new settlers came pouring into the District of Maine. These transplants tended to vote Democratic-Republican while their counterparts down in present-day Massachusetts were mostly Federalists. A rift soon emerged between the state government in Boston and the Mainers under its protection.

The War of 1812 deepened the divide. In July 1814, the Royal Navy captured Eastport, Maine. And that was just the beginning: Within a few short weeks, all of eastern Maine found itself under British occupation. Massachusetts Governor Caleb Strong then made the controversial decision to withhold military relief. Due to an international boundary dispute over Moose Island and surrounding areas, the British continued to occupy eastern Maine until 1818—three years after the war ended. The following summer, Mainers voted to secede from Massachusetts. As a condition of the Missouri Compromise, the free state of Maine was admitted to the Union on March 15, 1820.

12. The War of 1812 ended in February 1815—but one important battle was fought after the Treaty of Ghent was signed.

That would be the Battle of New Orleans, which occurred on January 8, 1815, and launched the political career of future president Andrew Jackson. Though he was outnumbered (and struggling with dysentery), the Major General notched a victory for the United States when he met and defeated 8000 British troops with his 5700-man force of Gulf Coast pirates, Choctaw warriors, free blacks, and American militiamen. The fight is famous for having started after British and U.S. representatives signed the Treaty of Ghent, which officially ended the war when it was ratified that February. Regardless, American voters saw Jackson's triumph as a nationwide cause for celebration.

The Tennessean went from being a little-known southern lawyer and military figure to a national icon almost overnight. When Jackson ran for president in 1824 and 1828, his supporters made sure to emphasize his achievements in NOLA. At Jacksonian campaign events, musicians would play "The Hunters of Kentucky," a popular folk song about the militiamen at the Battle of New Orleans.

13. "Old Ironsides" took a victory lap in 2012.

To honor the 200th anniversary of its victory over the HMS Guerriere, the USS Constitution set sail out of Charlestown, Massachusetts on August 19, 2012, manned by a crew of roughly 65 people along with 150 additional sailors. After a 17-minute trip into Boston Harbor, the ship returned to its home at the Charlestown Navy Yard.

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

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2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

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3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

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4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

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9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

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Newly Discovered Letter From Frederick Douglass Discusses the Need for Better Monuments

"What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man," Frederick Douglass wrote in response to this memorial in 1876.
"What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man," Frederick Douglass wrote in response to this memorial in 1876.
Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress Photographs and Prints Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

The removal of Confederate monuments across the country has prompted debates about other statues that misrepresent Civil War history. One of these is Washington, D.C.’s Emancipation Memorial, or Freedman’s Memorial, which depicts a shirtless Black man in broken shackles crouching in front of Abraham Lincoln.

As historians Jonathan W. White and Scott Sandage report for Smithsonian.com, a formerly enslaved Virginian named Charlotte Scott came up with the idea for a monument dedicated to Lincoln after hearing of his assassination in April 1865. She started a memorial fund with $5 of her own, and the rest of the money was donated by other emancipated people.

Sculptor Thomas Ball based the kneeling “freedman” on a photograph of a real person: Archer Alexander, an enslaved Missourian who had been captured in 1863 under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Ball intended the sculpture to depict Alexander breaking his chains and rising from his knees, symbolizing the agency and strength of emancipated people.

But in a newly unearthed letter, Frederick Douglass acknowledged the shortcomings of the scene and even offered a suggestion for improving Lincoln Park, where the statue stands. According to The Guardian, Sandage came across the letter in a search on Newspapers.com that included the word couchant—an adjective that Douglass used often.

“The negro here, though rising, is still on his knees and nude. What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man,” Douglass wrote to the editor of the National Republican in 1876. “There is room in Lincoln park [sic] for another monument, and I throw out this suggestion to the end that it may be taken up and acted upon.”

In 1974, another monument did join the park: a statue of Mary McLeod Bethune, a civil rights activist and teacher who founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute (later Bethune-Cookman College) and the National Council of Negro Women. The Emancipation Memorial was even turned around so the monuments could face each other, though they’re located at opposite ends of the park.

mary mcleod bethune monument
Mary McLeod Bethune depicted with a couple young students in Lincoln Park.
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The new addition might be a much better representation of Black agency and power than Ball’s was, but it doesn’t exactly solve the issue of promoting Lincoln as the one true emancipator—a point Douglass made both in the letter and in the address he gave at the Emancipation Memorial’s dedication ceremony in 1876.

“He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country,” Douglass said in his speech. In other words, while Lincoln definitely played a critical role in abolishing slavery, that goal also took a back seat to his priority of keeping the country united. Furthermore, it wasn't until after Lincoln's death that Black people were actually granted citizenship.

The rediscovered letter to the editor reinforces Douglass’s opinions on Lincoln’s legacy and the complexity of Civil War history, and it can also be read as a broader warning against accepting a monument as an accurate portrait of any person or event.

“Admirable as is the monument by Mr. Ball in Lincoln park [sic], it does not, as it seems to me, tell the whole truth, and perhaps no one monument could be made to tell the whole truth of any subject which it might be designed to illustrate,” Douglass wrote.

[h/t Smithsonian.com]