Winning Independence
All Over Again

By Tracy Leonard
Published: December 2012

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 Harbor
Photo: National Park Service
The rockets’ red glare over Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor.

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

Photo of USS Constitution docked at Charlestown Navy Yard
Photo: Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress
USS Constitution docked at Charlestown Navy Yard.

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.

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Online Extra!

Chart of Lake Erie
Chart 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 Orleans
Engraving of the Battle of New Orleans.
(Photo: Library of Congress)

 

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