Winning Independence All Over Again

By Tracy Leonard

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the start of the War of 1812, and some of the most dramatic naval battles in our country's history. For the next couple of years, hop on your boat and take a trip through time.

Often called the second war for American independence, the War of 1812 resulted from lingering tensions between the United States and Great Britain. While America had won her independence 30 years earlier, she had not won respect. Great Britain and France, at war with each other, regularly seized American ships and cargo on the Atlantic. The Royal Navy had made a habit of impressing American merchantmen into service. On the western frontier, Americans believed British forces in Canada backed Indian raids on new settlements.

Photo of the rockets’ red glare over Fort McHenry in Baltimore HarborThe rockets' red glare over Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. (Photo: National Park Service)

Rallying around the slogan "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights," President James Madison declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812. The next two-and-a-half years saw numerous land and naval battles, thwarted invasions of Canada, changing control of the Great Lakes, the defeat of Tecumseh's Confederacy, daring American privateers, the burning of Washington, D.C., the spirited defense of Baltimore, and the decisive American victory at New Orleans. When the war ended, neither side emerged as a clear winner, yet many of the war's legacies have proven positive and long-lasting. The United States and Great Britain made peace, have kept it for 200 years, and become each other's strongest allies. With her democracy tested, and her sovereignty of the seas protected, America emerged stronger, and has taken her place among the nations of the world.

A Trip To Old Ironsides

Victories of frigates such as USS Constitution brought welcome news to Americans early in the war when the United States was suffering defeat along the Canadian border. Among many memorable exploits, USS Constitution fought a duel with HMS Guerriere off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in September 1812. During the fighting, British cannonballs bounced off USS Constitution's live-oak hull, causing one sailor to exclaim, "Huzza! Her sides are made of iron!" Old Ironsides captured HMS Guerriere and three other British warships in stunning victories as she patrolled the seas over the course of the war.

USS Constitution can be toured at Charlestown Navy Yard across the Charles River from Boston. The nearby USS Constitution Museum recently opened the War of 1812 Discovery Center, which explains the causes and outcomes of the war. Another exhibit describes what life was like as a sailor in the early 19th century. USS Constitution embarks on her annual turnaround and 21-gun salute each July 4th. Transient dockage is available at a number of private marinas in Boston Harbor while sheltered moorings and anchorages around the Boston Harbor Islands offer a respite from the city. Water taxis and ferries connect Charlestown with points throughout Boston Harbor.

Remembering The Battle Of Lake Erie

Towering steadfastly 350 feet above Lake Erie on South Bass Island, Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial today stands in stark contrast to the fiery come-from-behind naval victory won by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry over the British fleet in 1813. Around midday on September 10, the two fleets engaged when the British flagship Detroit opened fire on Perry's flagship Lawrence. Within three hours, Lawrence was destroyed. Refusing to surrender, Perry boarded her sister ship Niagara. From there, he hoisted his battle flag, and with the remaining American gunboats, sailed straight for the British line, where he captured the entire British fleet.

The memorial honors the men who fought and fell in the Battle of Lake Erie and the long-lasting peace that has followed. The National Park Service plans to commemorate the battle's bicentennial in 2013. More information can be found at Dockage and moorings are available; boaters must hail and register with the Put-in-Bay harbormaster when they arrive. A number of launches dot the Ohio shoreline.

Retracing The Chesapeake Campaign Of 1814

Following the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, the British turned their full attention to the war with the Americans and planned a three-pronged offensive to: 1) cut New England off from the rest of the country; 2) control the Mississippi River by seizing New Orleans; and 3) attack towns along the Chesapeake corridor, with particular attention directed toward Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Only the Chesapeake campaign achieved some degree of success.

 Photo: Library of Congress Engraving of the White House after the invading British troops set fire to itEngraving of the White House after the invading British troops set fire to it. (Photo: Library of Congress)

In the summer of 1814, the British executed their plan to capture Washington, D.C. Some of the British fleet sailed up the Potomac River while the main British force sailed up the Patuxent River. Along the way, Commodore Joshua Barney's flotilla of gun barges offered fiery resistance in two battles on St. Leonard's Creek. Despite damaging the British fleet, neither there nor later at the Battle of Bladensburg could Barney and the other Americans stop the British march into Washington. Representatives of the United States government had already fled, including First Lady Dolley Madison, taking with her Gilbert Stuart's painting of George Washington and a copy of the Declaration of Independence. The British burned the White House, the Capitol, and other buildings as they ransacked the town. The burning of Washington, D.C., while marking the low point of the war for the Americans, also galvanized patriotic support and helped turn the tide of the war against the British. After Washington, D.C., the British didn't win another major battle throughout the war.

Scorches from the burning still mark the walls of the Capitol while the National Museum of American History has the Star-Spangled Banner (check, Mike? Flag? Paper?) on permanent display. Marinas with transient dockage and public-access boat ramps line the shores of the Potomac and Patuxent, enabling boaters to follow the British fleet's path along both rivers. Some interesting stops include Alexandria, Fort Washington, and Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, which hosts a reenactment of Barney's engagement with the British fleet at St. Leonard's Creek every September.

The Defense Of Baltimore

After Washington, D.C., the British headed for Baltimore, home to pro-war fervor, innovative clipper-ship builders, and privateers responsible for capturing more than 500 British merchant ships. Long expecting an attack, Baltimoreans had fortified land approaches to the city with earthworks, guns, and cannons. Lieutenant Colonel George Armistead and his troops readied Fort McHenry, which protected Baltimore's harbor, for a naval assault.

Antique mapPhoto: Wikimedia Commons and Geographicus Rare Antique Maps

Early on September 11, lookouts spotted 50 British warships approaching Baltimore. The British were preparing a two-pronged attack that would unfold over the next three days. Ships anchored just out of range of Fort McHenry's guns would pound the fort with cannons, mortars, and rockets. Another force would land at North Point to take Baltimore. On September 12, those troops met fierce resistance. The British commander was killed, and facing American defenders numbering 10,000 strong, his troops later withdrew.

The bombardment of Fort McHenry fared little better for the British. Armistead flew an enormous flag with 15 stripes and 15 stars above the fort. As long as it swayed in the wind, no one doubted that Fort McHenry remained in American hands. Anchored not far away were Americans detained by the British, among them Francis Scott Key. They watched the bombardment all day, heartened at the site of the large flag above the fort. Then nightfall came and with it suspense: Would the flag be flying in the morning? At daybreak, Key not only saw the stars and stripes still flying above the fort, but the British weighing anchor. The city of Baltimore remained free. Key was so moved he wrote a poem on "The Defense of Fort McHenry," and our national anthem was born.

The Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail links historic sites important to the Battle of Baltimore and the Chesapeake campaign. Among them are North Point State Park and the star-spangled buoy that marks the spot where Francis Scott Key spent the night at anchor, just north of the Key Bridge. Boat ramps at Turner Station Park and Southwest Area Park offer access to the Patapsco River. Marinas in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, Fells Point, and Canton provide transient dockage. Water taxi service is available to Fort McHenry. The Chesapeake campaign will be the focus of events around the bay in 2013 and 2014, culminating with a 10-day celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Star-Spangled Banner in September 2014.

The Battle Of New Orleans

At the end of 1814, British and American forces began fighting for control of New Orleans. American forces under General Andrew Jackson dammed bayous and posted gunboats in Lake Borgne to defend New Orleans, unfortunately to little avail. On December 13, the Royal Navy captured the American fleet at Lake Borgne, making it possible for the British to take the Americans upriver by surprise. This they accomplished with the arrival of British regulars at Chalmette Plantation on December 23. That night, Jackson countered with a swift attack on the British camp. By morning, the Americans had dug in at Rodriguez Canal, four miles south of New Orleans. A series of frontal assaults on Jackson's position over the next week failed. The final battle for New Orleans occurred on January 8, 1815. At the end of the day's fighting, the outnumbered Americans had delivered the crown a mighty blow: more than 2,000 British casualties including the death of General Pakenham, the commanding officer.

Every year in early January, the National Park Service commemorates the battle at Chalmette Battlefield, part of the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve, with living history activities and a wreath-laying ceremony honoring the peace between the two former adversaries. Paddleboat cruises departing from the French Quarter stop daily at Chalmette Battlefield. More information is available at

The waters and shores of Lake Ontario, Lake Champlain, and the Gulf of Mexico have their own stories to tell as well. A full timeline of events in the war and other historical sites to visit can be found at 

Tracy Leonard is a contributor to SpinSheet and Chesapeake Family. She, her husband Greg, and their two children can be spotted on the Chesapeake aboard their J/120 Heron out of Back Creek in Annapolis, Maryland.

— Published: December 2012

Chart of Lake ErieChart of Lake Erie. The battle occurred west northwest of South Bass Island. (Photo: NOAA's Office of Coast Survey Historical Map & Chart Collection)

Engraving of the Battle of New OrleansEngraving of the Battle of New Orleans. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Map showing British route to Washington DCMap showing British route to Washington, DC. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Print of bombardment of Fort McHenryPrint of bombardment of Fort McHenry. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Chart of Chesapeake and Delaware Bays from 1840Chart of Chesapeake and Delaware Bays from 1840. (Photo: NOAA's Office of Coast Survey Historical Map & Chart Collection)

Map showing movements of British fleet in Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi RiverMap showing movements of British fleet in Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi River. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Engraving of Washington DC burningEngraving of Washington, DC, burning. (Photo: Library of Congress)


BoatUS Magazine Is A Benefit Of BoatUS Membership

Membership Also Provides:

  • Subscription to the print version of BoatUS Magazine
  • 4% back on purchases from West Marine stores or online at
  • Discounts on fuel, transient slips, repairs and more at over 1,000 businesses
  • Deals on cruises, charters, car rentals, hotel stays and more ...
  • All For Only $24 A Year!

Join Today!