President James Madison signed a declaration of war against Great Britain on June 18, 1812. President Madison charged the British with violating the nation’s sovereignty by restricting American trade with Europe and by removing seamen from American merchant ships and forcing them to serve in the Royal Navy. The War of 1812, known to its critics as “Mr. Madison’s war,” was fought to a stalemate, but when it ended in 1815 the nation took pride from having stood up to the mighty British Empire.
In addition to maritime grievances, a desire among frontier settlers to force the British out of Canada and end their support of Indians in the Old Northwest fueled the War of 1812. Many Americans, including expansionist “War Hawks” in Congress, alleged that the British supplied arms to Indians and incited to raid settlements on the frontier.
At the outset of the war, President Madison approved a plan for a three-pronged invasion of Canada. The westernmost prong, commanded by Brigadier General William Hull, would jump off from Fort Detroit; the central one under Major General Stephen Van Rensselaer of the New York militia would cross over the Niagara River; and the easternmost one under Major General Henry Dearborn would move up Lake Champlain toward Montreal. Hull quickly lost heart and retreated back to Fort Detroit, which he surrendered without a fight in August 1812. The other two attempted incursions into Canada also failed.
While the U.S. Army’s land campaigns were proving disastrous, surprising early victories at sea helped sustain American morale. An untested U.S. Navy faced seemingly impossible odds against a Royal Navy that ruled the world’s seas. In August, just two months into the war, the powerful frigate USS Constitution stunned the Britain by defeating HMS Guerriere, and in December added to its sore with a victory over HMS Java. Thus was born the legend of “Old Ironsides,” a nickname USS Constitution acquired during its battle with HMS Guerriere.
The war, however would continue for another two years. Sometimes called “the forgotten conflict,” the War of 1812 is notable for the stunning successes of “Old Ironsides” and for such episodes as the burning of the White House in August 1814, the defense of Fort McHenry the following month (inspiring Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner”), and Andrew Jackson’s lopsided victory over the British at New Orleans in January 1815. Although the young republic barely escaped defeat, disunion, and bankruptcy, it survived the conflict and in the crucible of war forged a national identity.
This information is from the United States Postal Service and can be found on the sheet of Forever Postal Stamps “USS CONCTITUTION, The War of 1812”