The 10 Things You Didn’t Know About the War of 1812

Why did the country really go to war against the British? Which American icon came out of the forgotten war?

A lithograph of the Battle of New Orleans, circa 1890 (© Corbis)

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3. The Rockets Really Did Have Red Glare

Francis Scott Key famously saw the American flag flying over Fort McHenry amid the “rockets’ red glare” and “bombs bursting in air.” He wasn’t being metaphoric. The rockets were British missiles called Congreves and looked a bit like giant bottle rockets. Imagine a long stick that spins around in the air, attached to a cylindrical canister filled with gunpowder, tar and shrapnel. Congreves were inaccurate but intimidating, an 1814 version of “shock and awe.” The “bombs bursting in air” were 200 pound cannonballs, designed to explode above their target. The British fired about 1500 bombs and rockets at Fort McHenry from ships in Baltimore Harbor and only succeeded in killing four of the fort’s defenders.

4. Uncle Sam Came From the War Effort

The Star-Spangled Banner isn’t the only patriotic icon that dates to the War of 1812. It’s believed that “Uncle Sam” does, too. In Troy, New York, a military supplier named Sam Wilson packed meat rations in barrels labeled U.S. According to local lore, a soldier was told the initials stood for “Uncle Sam” Wilson, who was feeding the army. The name endured as shorthand for the U.S. government. However, the image of Uncle Sam as a white-bearded recruiter didn’t appear for another century, during World War I.

5. The Burning of Washington was Capital Payback

To Americans, the burning of Washington by British troops was a shocking act by barbaric invaders. But the burning was payback for a similar torching by American forces the year before. After defeating British troops at York (today’s Toronto), then the capital of Upper Canada, U.S. soldiers plundered the town and burned its parliament. The British exacted revenge in Aug. 1814 when they burned the White House, Congress, and other buildings.

Long-term, this may have been a blessing for the U.S. capital. The combustible “President’s House” (as it was then known) was rebuilt in sturdier form, with elegant furnishings and white paint replacing the earlier whitewash. The books burned at Congress’s library were replaced by Thomas Jefferson, whose wide-ranging collection became the foundation for today’s comprehensive Library of Congress.

6. Native Americans Were the War’s Biggest Losers

The United States declared war over what it saw as British violations of American sovereignty at sea. But the war resulted in a tremendous loss of Native American sovereignty, on land. Much of the combat occurred along the frontier, where Andrew Jackson battled Creeks in the South and William Henry Harrison fought Indians allied with the British in the “Old Northwest.” This culminated in the killing of the Shawnee warrior, Tecumseh, who had led pan-Indian resistance to American expansion. His death, other losses during the war, and Britain’s abandonment of their native allies after it, destroyed Indians’ defense of their lands east of the Mississippi, opening the way for waves of American settlers and “Indian Removal” to the west.

7. The Ill-Fated General Custer Had His Start in the War


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