June 18, 2012: 200 years ago, Congress declared war on the British Empire. Our history books call it the War of 1812, even though it lasted into 1815. Here are three of the fascinating stories from this time.
August 19, 1814: British warships anchored at Benedict, Maryland and dispatched more than 4,500 British soldiers. Their mission: To capture Washington and seek revenge for the burning of the British capitol building in Canada.
A force of 7,000 untrained American volunteers hastily assembled to defend Washington, but the more disciplined and experienced British troops made quick work of them. The soldiers, government officials and city residents fled, allowing the British to walk right into our nation’s capital
VIDEO: How Dolley Madison Saved George Washington [2:41]
August 24, 1814: The British set fire to the White House, the Capitol Building, and many other public buildings and homes. The glow from the conflagration could be seen on the horizon from fifty miles away. Throughout the morning of August 25th, British soldiers continued to set fires; it was reported that the smoke could be seen in Baltimore.
But then an amazing thing happened. A huge storm swept into the city.
At its center was a small tornado that tore directly into the British occupation. The winds were so sudden that many of the soldiers did not have time to take cover, but laid face down in the streets. One British officer on horseback was slammed violently, horse and rider, to the ground. Cannons were tossed into the air. Several soldiers were killed by flying debris.
These sudden, violent winds subsided quickly. They were followed by a torrential, two-hour rain that put out all the fires.
Shaken by the harsh weather, the British decided to return to their warships. The violent storm had knocked trees down across their route back, making the trip difficult. When they arrived, they learned the storm had also damaged their ships, even driven two on to the shore.
Despite the Americans having no army tough enough to defend the capital from them, the British were only able to occupy Washington for 26 hours.
A few weeks later, the British attempted to take Baltimore. For 25 hours, warships pounded Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, firing approximately 1,500 loud and lethal projectiles on the Americans.
A 35-year-old American lawyer named Francis Scott Key watched the barrage from a ship 8 miles away. “It seemed as though mother earth had opened and was vomiting shot and shell in a sheet of fire and brimstone,” he wrote later.
The “rockets’ red glare” came from British rockets called Congreves that exploded in midair. Congreves were the 1814 version of “shock and awe”, inaccurate but intimidating. The kill shots came from the “bombs bursting in air”, which were 200 pound cannonballs that exploded above the target and rained down deadly shrapnel.
September 14, 1814: Given the scale of the attack, Keys was certain the British would win. But then, in the clearing smoke of “the dawn’s early light”, Keys saw the Stars and Stripes flying over the fort, announcing an American victory. And, despite the massive bombardment by the far superior British force, only four Americans were killed!
America was a young nation, barely finding its feet. The storm that drove the British out of Washington and our amazing victory at Fort McHenry stirred the nation. Keys’ poem was set to a popular tune and quickly became one of the nation’s best-loved patriotic songs.
In the War of 1812, our rag tag military defeated one of the world’s super powers. But we won more important than a military victory. We won our national identity.
The Dolley Madison clip above is part of the documentary on Disk One of “History Channel: War of 1812”, a 2-DVD series that Netflix carries. I’ve still got Disk Two in my queue.
Besides the documentary, Disk One also has a piece that was filmed in the 90s about the Smithsonian’s restoration of the Star Spangled Banner, the original flag that Francis Scott Key wrote about in the poem that became our National Anthem.
There is lots of information about the flag and the restoration at the Smithsonian’s website: