War Of 1812: The Last Time The Capitol Was Stormed In A Coup

By | January 8, 2021

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The British burning Washington. (Paul M. Rapin de Thoyras/Wikimedia Commons)

Despite its catchy title, the War of 1812, when Americans watched as their capitol was stormed for the first time, is one of America's least-discussed moments in history. Covering ground as far south as Florida and as far west as the Mississippi, the British armed America's indigenous people in the fight against the United States, boxing in American forces from all sides and finally burning Washington, D.C. on August 24, 1814, after briefly occupying the capitol. The eerie similarities between the storming of the capitol in 1814 and the more recent incident on January 6, 2020 is just one of the parallels between this 19th-century battle and the modern era.

The War Of 1812

At the beginning of the 19th century, the newly christened United Kingdom was pretty much done with the U.S. At the time, they were embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars and had placed a blockade around France, stopping all trade with the country. If you were, let's say, an upstart country who happened to be allied with France and wanted to trade furs with them, you were out of luck. To make matters worse, the Royal Navy forcibly enlisted seamen into the naval blockade regardless of which port they were coming from, turning Americans into unwilling British soldiers for a brief period of time. Back home, that felt like not only a slap in the face but an overstepping of boundaries set up in the American Constitution. It was the last straw for a country tired of being shut out of global politics.

But that's just the easiest way to look at this sequel to the Revolutionary War. At the same time, indigenous Americans were fighting the western expansion of American colonists, and in 1811, the British began providing them with aid and weapons, specifically Shawnee chief Tecumesh. Federalists pressured President James Madison to prove Americans weren't pushovers, so despite the bitter fighting in the House and the Senate, Madison signed a declaration of war against Britain on June 18, 1812.

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Perry's victory at Lake Erie. (United States Senate/Wikimedia Commons)

Tecumesh To The West, Britain To The East, There They Were, Stuck In The Middle With Canada

Rather than immediately commit military suicide and push some boats out into the Atlantic, American forces attacked Canada. The siege to the north ended poorly for Americans, and on August 16, 1812, American forces were forced to surrender Detroit. They fared much better in the west, where Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry ravaged the British forces in the Battle of Lake Erie, hands-down one of the biggest American wins of the war, and along the Atlantic coast throughout 1813.

Having realized that they were outgunned on the sea, they initiated a massive shipbuilding program to pump up their numbers, and in the meantime, they performed hit-and-run attacks on British ships, using the element of surprise to keep their enemies off balance. The British countered by creating a naval blockade around the United States, cutting off their supply line and siphoning off the pilfered goods to Spain. Americans got some supplies through Maine throughout 1813, but that came to an end when the British set up shop in the pine tree state and renamed it the colony of New Ireland. With the Napoleonic Wars winding down, the British refocused their energy on America and started making moves on land.