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 Must-Have Trivia Games for Any Interest

Amazon
Amazon

Whether you’re a TV lover, serial killer aficionado, or a history buff, there’s a trivia game out there to suit your interests (even if those interests are as niche as wild turkey hunting). Check out these 10 trivia games you can enjoy with your friends and family, no matter how specific your tastes may be.

1. Inspirational Women Trivia Game; $10

Inspirational women trivia card game
Uncommon Goods

Accomplished women have often gone overlooked in history books. This game brings attention to the women you may not have known, spotlighting inspirational figures like Junko Tabei, the first woman to climb Mount Everest; Emmeline Pankhurst, a leader of the British suffrage movement; and Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of one of the first-ever private schools for African-American girls. With three levels of difficulty, you can either play with a younger audience eager to learn or test the knowledge of some of your history buff friends.

Buy it: Uncommon Goods

2. Friends Trivia; $33

Friends trivia.
Lacesi/Amazon

Friends is one of the most quotable series from the '90s, but if you think your knowledge of the classic sitcom is on another level, it's time to put it to the test. In The One With All the Questions, Friends fans will have 342 questions to prove who the real Geller expert is. This one should fill the Central Perk-shaped hole in your heart while you wait for the show to return to streaming on HBO Max later this year.

Buy it: Amazon

3. The Logo Game; $45

Logo Game on Amazon.
Spin Master Games/Amazon

With more than 1200 questions about brand logos, slogans, and television commercials, this game is for anyone who knows their Taco Bells from their Del Tacos. Race around the board to beat up to five other players in a challenge to see who knows the most about modern brands.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Cinephile; $20

Illustrated Cinephile game cards
Cory Everett and Steve Isaacs/Amazon

Movie lovers, look out for Cinephile, a card game that challenges players with five different gameplay options. In the easiest version of the game, called Filmography, you simply have to name more of an actor’s past movie roles than your opponent. But take the chance to brush up on your film trivia before you tackle the hardest method of gameplay—Six Degrees. In this mode, you’ll play a version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon in order to connect any two random actors from different eras.

Buy it: Amazon

5. ... I Should Have Known That! Trivia Game; $16

I Should Have Known That! trivia game
Hygge Games/Amazon

How do you say Japan in Japanese? What does GPS stand for? What side of the boat is starboard? This game quizzes you on things you feel like you should know—but often don’t. Challenge your friends with 400 questions about everything from Facebook to fairy tales. Want an extra edge when you go to play the game? Prepare yourself by reading these amazing facts that we think everyone should know.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Wine IQ; $19

Wine IQ trivia game
Helvetiq/Amazon

To most of us, a $15 bottle of wine tastes exactly the same as a $100 bottle. But if you’re one of those few people who can actually tell the difference, this might be your game. With tricky multiple-choice questions like “What is a raisined grape?” and “What should be avoided while tasting wine?” (answer: wearing perfume), this trivia game will challenge even the most avid vino buffs. Wine not your thing? Don’t worry—Amazon also sells a trivia game for beer lovers.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Trekking the National Parks: The Family Trivia Game; $30

Trekking the National Parks trivia game
Underdog Games/Amazon

Even if you know absolutely nothing about national parks, you can still enjoy this trivia game that’s kind of like The Price Is Right meets Jeopardy! meets a Patagonia store. All the answers are numerical, so even if you don’t know the exact year that Yellowstone was established as a national park (1872) or the elevation of the tallest mountain in the United States (20,308 feet), you still have a shot at winning if your guess comes closest to the actual answer.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Sussed Lifeology; $13

SUSSED Lifeologies self-exploration trivia game
SUSSED/Amazon

To win this game, you’ll have to prove you know the most about your fellow players. Does Uncle Frank prefer poetry, biographies, or fiction? Would your friend Abby rather be a Formula One racer, a top-seeded tennis player, or a chess grandmaster? Mix things up with the All Sorts and Wonderlands expansion packs, which offer 1000 additional questions suitable for both adults and young children.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Hella '90s; $15

'90s trivia game on Amazon.
Buffalo Games/Amazon

Finally, an excuse to proudly flaunt your knowledge of Nintendo 64 controllers, Bill Clinton’s cat, and Tamagotchis. With 400 questions on the cringey fashion, music, and social trends of the time, this game isn’t for novices—you’ve got to be fully immersed in all things ‘90s to stand a chance. And if you want to set the right mood, you can scan a code on the box to listen to the game’s decade-appropriate soundtrack on Spotify.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Death By Trivia; $24

Death by Trivia game on Amazon.
Headburst/Amazon

What was the American folklore-inspired name for the operation conducted in response to the ax murder of two U.S. soldiers by North Korea in 1976? If you answered Paul Bunyan, you're correct! You're also probably full of more macabre knowledge perfect for Death by Trivia, a game that actually rewards you for knowing all about ax-murderers, mad scientists, serial killers, and other grisly bits of history. So grab a couple like-minded friends and see who comes out on top in this twisted test of trivia.

Buy it: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

9 Royally Interesting Facts About King Cake

iStock
iStock

It’s Carnival season, and that means bakeries throughout New Orleans are whipping up those colorful creations known as King Cakes. And while today it’s primarily associated with Big Easy revelry, the King Cake has a long and checkered history that reaches back through the centuries. Here are a few facts about its origins, its history in America, and how exactly that plastic baby got in there.

1. The King Cake is believed to have Pagan origins.

The king cake is widely associated with the Christian festival of the Epiphany, which celebrates the three kings’ visit to the Christ child on January 6. Some historians, however, believe the cake dates back to Roman times, and specifically to the winter festival of Saturnalia. Bakers would put a fava bean—which back then was used for voting, and had spiritual significance—inside the cake, and whoever discovered it would be considered king for a day. Drinking and mayhem abounded. In the Middle Ages, Christian followers in France took up the ritual, replacing the fava bean with a porcelain replica engraved with a face.

2. The King Cake stirred up controversy during the French Revolution.

To bring the pastry into the Christian tradition, bakers got rid of the bean and replaced it with a crowned king’s head to symbolize the three kings who visited baby Jesus. Church officials approved of the change, though the issue became quite thorny in late 18th century France, when a disembodied king’s head was seen as provocation. In 1794, the mayor of Paris called on the “criminal patissiers” to end their “filthy orgies.” After they failed to comply, the mayor simply renamed the cake the “Gateau de Sans-Culottes,” after the lower-class sans-culottes revolutionaries.

3. The King Cake determined the early kings and queens of Mardi Gras.


A Mardi Gras King in 1952.

Two of the oldest Mardi Gras krewes (NOLA-talk for "crew," or a group that hosts major Mardi Gras events, like parades or balls) brought about the current cake tradition. The Rex Organization gave the festival its colors (purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power) in 1872, but two years earlier, the Twelfth Night Revelers krewe brought out a King Cake with a gold bean hidden inside and served it up to the ladies in attendance. The finder was crowned queen of the ball. Other krewes adopted the practice as well, crowning the kings and queens by using a gold or silver bean. The practice soon expanded into households throughout New Orleans, where today the discovery of a coin, bean or baby trinket identifies the buyer of the next King Cake.

4. The King Cake's baby trinkets weren't originally intended to have religious significance.

Although today many view the baby trinkets found inside king cakes to symbolize the Christ child, that wasn’t what Donald Entringer—the owner of the renowned McKenzie’s Bakery in New Orleans, which started the tradition—had in mind. Entringer was instead looking for something a little bit different to put in his king cakes, which had become wildly popular in the city by the mid-1900s. One story has it that Entringer found the original figurines in a French Quarter shop. Another, courtesy of New Orleans food historian Poppy Tooker (via NPR’s The Salt), states that a traveling salesman with a surplus of figurines stopped by the bakery and suggested the idea. "He had a big overrun on them, and so he said to Entringer, 'How about using these in a king cake,'" said Tooker.

5. Bakeries are afraid of getting sued.

What to many is an offbeat tradition is, to others, a choking hazard. It’s unclear how many consumers have sued bakeries over the plastic babies and other trinkets baked inside king cakes, but apparently it’s enough that numerous bakeries have stopped including them altogether, or at least offer it on the side. Still, some bakeries remain unfazed—like Gambino’s, whose cinnamon-infused king cake comes with the warning, "1 plastic baby baked inside."

6. The French version of the King Cake comes with a paper crown.


iStock

In France, where the flaky, less colorful (but still quite tasty) galette de rois predates its American counterpart by a few centuries, bakers often include a paper crown with their cake, just to make the “king for a day” feel extra special. The trinkets they put inside are also more varied and intricate, and include everything from cars to coins to religious figurines. Some bakeries even have their own lines of collectible trinkets.

7. There's also the Rosca de Reyes, the Bolo Rei, and the Dreikönigskuchen.


"Roscón de Reyes" by Tamorlan - Self Made (Foto Propia).

Versions of the King Cake can be found throughout Europe and Latin America. The Spanish Rosca de Reyes and the Portugese Bolo Rei are usually topped with dried fruit and nuts, while the Swiss Dreikönigskuchen has balls of sweet dough surrounding the central cake. The Greek version, known as Vasilopita, resembles a coffee cake and is often served for breakfast.

8. The King Cake is no longer just a New Orleans tradition.

From New York to California, bakeries are serving up King Cakes in the New Orleans fashion, as well as the traditional French style. On Long Island, Mara’s Homemade makes their tri-colored cakes year round, while in Los Angeles you can find a galette de rois (topped with a nifty crown, no less) at Maison Richard. There are also lots of bakeries that deliver throughout the country, many offering customizable fillings from cream cheese to chocolate to fruits and nuts.

9. The New Orleans Pelicans have a King Cake baby mascot—and it is terrifying.

Every winter you can find this monstrosity at games, local supermarkets, and in your worst nightmares.

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