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Picturing the War of 1812

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The bicentennial of the War of 1812 approaches. This guest post from Sara W. Duke, Curator of Popular and Applied Graphic Art, of the Prints and Photograph Division at the Library of Congress, looks at images related to that war.

The War of 1812 might be best known for inspiring Francis Scott Key to write the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner, but students might also recall that, during the war, British soldiers burned both the White House and the United States Capitol building.

On June 18, 1812, in reaction to British interference in American international commerce, the United States declared war on Great Britain. The War of 1812 lasted more than two and a half years, from 1812 to 1815.

Initially the United States, three and a half decades old, did well. That changed in 1814, when Great Britain used its well-honed military, which had recently secured victory in the Napoleonic Wars, to attack the United States with a vengeance and imposed an economic blockade. British general Robert Ross led his troops into Washington with strict orders to burn only public buildings. Reinvigorated British troops sacked the city, burning both the Capitol and the White House on August 24, 1814.

George Munger created a watercolor, passed down through the Munger family for generations before it was purchased by the Library, of the Capitol shortly after it was burned. Noted Greek Revival architect William Strickland etched Munger’s drawings in the months after the destruction of the Capitol and White House.

What clues are there to help you decide which is the original drawing, and which is the etching created months later from the original?

Two weeks later British troops entered the Port of Baltimore. Francis Scott Key immortalized the American victory at the Battle of Baltimore when he penned the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner. On September 14, 1814, British ships left Baltimore Harbor, defeated.

The Treaty of Ghent, signed on December 24, 1814, did not signify victory, but a return to the pre-war status quo. The final battle of the War of 1812 occurred a few weeks later in New Orleans.

Teachers may ask students to:

  • Compare the Munger drawing to the Strickland print. Observe the details each artist chose to include and form a hypothesis about which came first. What clues in the two images support the hypothesis? Check the bibliographic record for each item for additional information.
  • Use this map to trace the route taken by the troops of British general Robert Ross. What other public buildings might have been burned?
  • Compare the two historical images with a current image of the Capitol. What has changed? What has stayed the same?

Related resources:

Strickland and Munger recorded their wartime observations using the means of expression available to them at the time. How do students think people today are using technologies to record observations of current conflicts and wars that will provide evidence for future historians?









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