The Tale of America's 'Second War of Independence’
The Tale of America's 'Second War of Independence’
The War of 1812 was a conflict steeped in multifaceted tensions that rippled across land and sea, leaving an indelible mark on the fabric of American history which lasted not one year as the name implies, but nearly three. By late 1814, as the toll of prolonged warfare weighed heavily on the young United States and Great Britain, negotiations in the city of Ghent (Belgium) offered a glimmer of hope. The resulting Treaty of Ghent, signed on December 24, 1814, signaled an end to hostilities, but did not quite end the war.
From Grievances to Glory: The Tale of America's 'Second War of Independence’
Central to America’s first conflict as a young sovereign nation were a series of grievances that had simmered between the United States and Great Britain since the American Revolutionary War had ended in 1783. Trade restrictions and embargoes imposed by Britain, who was locked in another war with France, aimed to stifle American commerce and fueled the flames of discontent. Additionally, the specter of Britain seizing ships and threatening impressment—seizing sailors from American ships and subjecting them to British naval service—stirred outrage among Americans, who sought to safeguard their rights and sovereignty. These mounting tensions, coupled with territorial disputes and the desire for westward expansion, culminated in the United States' declaration of war on 18 June 1812.
From 1783 to 1812, the British Parliament had issued twelve orders which declared any ship bound for a French port as subject to search and seizure. Since America traded with France, American ships and, therefore, its traded goods became tangled in a war which was not its own. As a response to these orders, in 1807 Thomas Jefferson signed an Embargo Act which closed all American ports to international trade and sent the already tenuous economy spiraling into a depression. To add fuel to the fire, Great Britain had also been arming Native American tribes in the Northwest Territory (now the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the northeastern part of Minnesota) to combat westward expansion of the United States onto tribal lands.
When James Madison was elected to the presidency in 1808, he instructed Congress to prepare for a second war with Britain. It would take four years, but in 1812 political “war hawks” arrived in Congress, led by the newly minted Speaker of the House Henry Clay of Kentucky and future Vice President John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who stoked the desire for war. How would these war hawks go about gaining Great Britain’s attention? By invading what they believed would be a willing Canada to “free” the colony from the perceived tyranny of Great Britain and use its captured territory as leverage.
Canada, as one might expect, did not take kindly to this invasion or the seizure of its land, and quickly routed American forces back from the modern province of Quebec after a few miles and also seized the city of Detroit adjoining the modern province of Ontario. Battles on the Canadian front took place on land and at sea on the Great Lakes for the next three years. As the conflict unfolded, it sprawled across the nation, marking a theater of conflict spanning from the northern reaches of the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and along the eastern seaboard.
Concurrently, Native American tribes were also fighting against expansion into the lands they were promised and joined in the war. Led by the brothers Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, who rejected ideas of assimilation into Anglo culture and opposed white expansion, tribes allied with Great Britain and began making their own attacks against settlers in Indiana and Illinois. Towards the end of 1813, a war among the Creek nations broke out in Alabama partly influenced by Tecumseh’s ideas, with the Creeks divided on the idea of assimilation. This resulted in the opposition faction, known as the Red Sticks, to attack an American outpost in Fort Mims, Alabama. In response to this attack, Andrew Jackson spent the winter organizing an allied militia consisting of Army regulars, Cherokee, and Creek warriors which would go on to decisively defeat the Red Sticks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in May 1814. After the battle, Jackson would go on to betray his native allies by forcing both sides of the Creek Nation to cede 23 million acres of land in Alabama and Georgia.
In spring 1814, a brief period of peace began in Europe as the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France was forced into his first exile. This allowed Great Britain to devote more of its resources to the fighting in North America. By late summer, some 4,500 British veterans, hardened by their war experiences in France, landed in Maryland and began a fast and furious campaign, which included the burning of the Capitol and White House in Washington, D.C. After success in D.C. the British forces would attempt to take the city of Baltimore. For 25 hours, the Maryland militia held off an attack by land and soldiers at Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor battled back the Royal Navy’s fleet, and Britain abandoned Baltimore for New Orleans. The most famous observation of this battle was penned by a young lawyer and Fort McHenry soldier, Francis Scott Key, who watched the battle from a British ship where he was negotiating a prisoner exchange. Initially a poem called “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” Key set the words to a popular tune of the day and “The Star-Spangled Banner” was born.
While the campaign in Maryland was taking place, a peace negotiation was beginning between the two nations in the city of Ghent (Belgium). Months of negotiation resulted in “status quo antebellum,” returning everything to as it was before the war. Trade restrictions and embargoes had already been lifted, but all land returned to its original owners and Britain stopped arming Native American tribes. The peace treaty, called the Treaty of Ghent, would be signed on 24 December 1814. The war, after two years and eight months, was essentially a draw, but pride and a new nationalistic fervor would lead the Americans of the day to declare they had won their “second war of independence.”
However, word from Ghent was slow to reach American shores, and on January 8, 1815, Andrew Jackson and American troops would engage the British one final time at the Battle of New Orleans. It was a decisive victory. After four hours of battle two thousand British casualties would lay on the battlefield, while, astoundingly in comparison, only thirteen Americans lost their lives. Word from Ghent arrived a few days later, and the British forces would make their final retreat from American shores. The Treaty of Ghent was officially ratified by President Madison on February 18, 1815 and the war was finally ended.
The War of 1812, a pivotal conflict that inspired the creation of our national anthem, remains an often overlooked chapter in American history. Despite its relative obscurity, the records left by the American soldiers who served during this period are treasure troves of biographical details, offering a vivid glimpse into the lives and experiences of those who fought in this significant but underappreciated war.
The vast majority of individuals who served in the War of 1812 did so as volunteers or as part of state militias that were federalized for specific durations of the conflict. Additionally, there were volunteer units that were directly recruited and raised by the federal government for this purpose.
The most frequently consulted records from the War of 1812 by family historians are the soldiers’ Compiled Military Service Records (CMSR). These comprehensive documents are transcriptions from original sources like muster, hospital, and pay rolls, along with regimental returns and other records. Initially created to expedite the review process for veterans’ benefit claims, such as pensions, the CMSRs are meticulously organized. Each soldier’s file begins with an outer envelope, commonly known as a jacket, which lists the card numbers enclosed. These cards detail vital information including the soldier’s attendance at roll calls, name, date of enlistment, residence at the time of enlistment, and physical characteristics (age, height, hair color, eye color, and complexion). Further, they provide insights into the soldier's military career, such as pay rate, promotions, records of battle wounds, and hospital stays due to injuries or illnesses. While rarer, some files may also contain original enlistment papers or documents pertaining to capture and release if the soldier was a prisoner of war. However, it’s important to note that CMSRs seldom offer specific information about battles or personal family details. A card index to the CMSRs of volunteer soldiers can be accessed via FamilySearch, which provides the basic details of name, rank and unit(s) in which he served.
Pension application files represent a treasure trove of information that genealogical researchers often overlook. While the payment records themselves can be intriguing, the wealth of details related to the applications is truly invaluable, often providing unique insights unavailable elsewhere. These application files typically include a variety of supporting documents, such as personal narratives describing the applicant’s military service, marriage certificates, birth or death records, and attestations from witnesses. They also contain specific information about the veteran, including military rank, company and regiment, places of residence at the time of enlistment and application, and occasionally, personal correspondence.
Interestingly, pension benefits were not exclusively sought by the soldiers themselves. Widows and children frequently applied posthumously, uncovering further layers of family history. Applications from widows might reveal their maiden names, the date of the veteran's death, and the names and ages of any minor children at that time. Similarly, a child’s application can provide additional details, such as the date and location of the widow's death, as well as the child's own place of residence, birth date, and birthplace at the time of the application. These rich details make pension applications an invaluable resource for delving deeper into the personal histories of those connected to the War of 1812. Pension application index cards can be accessed via Fold3. (Though this is a subscription service, access to this particular collection is free.)
The pension index cards may also show the bounty land warrant, as included in the above image. Applications for bounty land can reveal similar information to the pension applications and is a resource that should be explored when researching a War of 1812 veteran.
These resources represent a portion of the potential records available for researching your War of 1812 veteran ancestors within federal records. The indexes highlighted in this article are crucial tools for discovering family members who served, potentially unlocking a wealth of information in the original federal records compiled during and after the war. Once you have pinpointed your ancestors in these indexes, you can access their records at the National Archives. For those unable to visit the Archives in person, our team of skilled researchers is available to retrieve these records on your behalf. They possess extensive knowledge of the diverse record types specific to the War of 1812 and are adept at navigating the collections efficiently.
Wishing you a fruitful journey in your genealogical research!
The Christmas Train - Since that Christmas Day in 1830, when the Best Friend of Charleston made its debut trip and later became the first regularly scheduled steam locomotive passenger train in the United States, trains have been integral to the American way of life and, therefore, part of the narrative for our ancestors. The advent of trains and newspapers allowed our ancestors to stay connected to one another and have left us a wealth of information that is just waiting to be found, reflected upon and retold.
“US, War of 1812 Pension Application Files Index, 1812-1815” database with images, Fold3 (https://fold3.com : accessed 13 December 2023);citing, Pension Application Index Card, Seth Smith, Sgt., Capt.,29th Regiment U. S. Infantry, New York; Record Group 94; NARA publication no. M313.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 13 December 2023), digital image from original hand-colored lithograph, published by N. Currier, “Perry's victory on Lake Erie: fought Septr. 10th 1813,” between 1835-1856, Digital ID: LC-DIG-pga-09625.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 13 December 2023), digital image from print created from steel engraving, Thomas Phillibrown, engraver, published by Johnson, Fry & Co., New York, “Battle of Lake Erie,” between 1873-1877, Digital ID: LC-USZ62-15550.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 13 December 2023), digital image from original b&w glass negative, “Perry's victory on Lake Erie: fought Septr. 10th 1813The original Star Spangled Banner ‘Museum’,” between 1908-1919, Digital ID: LC-DIG-npcc-19852.
National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/ : accessed 14 December 2023), “Treaty of Ghent (1814).”
National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/ : accessed 14 December 2023), “War of 1812.”
American Battlefield Trust (http://battlefields.org : accessed 18 December 2023), “A Brief Overview of the War of 1812.”
American Battlefield Trust (http://battlefields.org : accessed 18 December 2023), “Francis Scott Key.”
American Battlefield Trust (http://battlefields.org : accessed 18 December 2023), “Treaty of Ghent.”
Encyclopedia Britannica (http://britannica.com : accessed 18 December 2023), “War of 1812.”
National Parks Service (http://nps.gov : accessed 18 December 2023), “Horseshoe Bend National Military Park.”
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.