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

1800s | January 8, 2021

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.

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.

The death of General Pike at the Battle of York. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Feel The Burn

In the early months of 1813, British forces infested New England, and the Chesapeake Bay fell to Britain as American forces fought tooth and nail through Canada. These bloody days of the war turned even more destructive with the finale of the Battle of York. Even though the plan to expand into Canada never came to fruition, American forces took Fort York and sat on it until Lake Ontario thawed in mid-April 1813.

Once the frigid winter was through, American forces pushed British militia members out of the area, but as they surrendered, the British lit their supplies on fire and let the place burn to the ground. More than 200 troops, including General Pike, were killed by the explosion, leading soldiers to destroy the town, burning private homes and businessesAs you might imagine, this mass destruction seriously upset the British military. When they marched into Washington, D.C. in August 1814, British soldiers were ready to destroy everything in their wake.

Tear gas outside United States Capitol on January 6, 2021. (Tyler Merbler/Wikimedia Commons)

Storming The Capitol

On August 20, 1814, both a literal and figurative storm was brewing in the Atlantic. British forces advanced on Washington, defeating U.S. troops at the Bladensburg and moving through the city at a breakneck pace. The only other time we've seen something like this on American soil was on January 6, 2021, when supporters of then-President Donald Trump stormed Congress to halt the certification of electoral votes that handed the presidency over to Joseph Biden.

Both the British soldiers and Trump supporters made their way directly toward their target, but while the congresspeople of 2021 were forced to hide out in their offices until the melee ended, higher-ups in the government like James Madison and his military leaders were able to completely get out of dodge. As British forces moved through the Capitol Building, which was under construction at the time, they piled up furniture and covered it in gunpowder before setting the place ablaze. (In 2021, rioters were less keen on destruction of property and more interested in taking selfies.)

The congressional chambers, the Library of Congress, and the Supreme Court were all damaged in the blaze. Not satisfied with even that level of destruction, soldiers made their way to the White House, where they broke through the front doors before eating the food found inside, stealing President Madison's medicine chest, and starting another fire. Although the fires were miraculously put out by a rainstorm that hit just after they were set, their damage was incalculable. They were seen as far away as Baltimore.

Signing of Treaty of Ghent. (Smithsonian American Art Museum/Wikimedia Commons)

Merry Christmas, War Is Over

After signing the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Eve 1814, America agreed to stop pushing Britain on the French blockade, and England agreed to stop aiding Native Americans. Since James Madison didn't have Twitter and couldn't immediately announce that the war was over, however, fighting continued into 1815, when Andrew Jackson and his men defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans.

The victory that only served to make Americans feel a little better about gaining nothing in a war that lasted more than two years. York was destroyed, and so was Washington, D.C., but the borders between America and Canada remained unchanged. It did bring an end to the Federalist Party, whose members were seen as unsupportive of America's war effort, and the United States increased its Navy and doubled down on western expansion. The real casualties of this war were America's indigenous people. Bereft of any major backing, they were primed to be removed from their land.

Tags: 1800s | war | war of 1812

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.