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Remembering the War of 1812

Fort McHenry is hallowed ground in United States history. It is of course best known as the scene of a siege during the War of 1812, a siege witnessed by a Washington lawyer called Francis Scott Key, whose eloquent impressions later became known as the 'Star Spangled Banner.' (It's perhaps less well known that, when he first wrote those famous lines, Key was on a mercy mission to the opposing fleet, and actually witnessed the bombardment from behind the British lines.)

Fireworks explode over the HMS Argyll in Baltimore, Maryland, during the Star-Spangled Spectacular. Photo by Leading Airman Stephen Johncock. Used with permission.
Fireworks explode over the Royal Navy's HMS Argyll in Baltimore, Maryland, during the Star-Spangled Spectacular. Photo by Leading Airman Stephen Johncock. Used with permission.

So it was a real honour to be present at Fort McHenry this weekend to commemorate the 200th anniversary of that engagement and celebrate the anthem that emerged from it. Together with the Governor of Maryland, most of the Old Line State's congressional delegation, my Canadian colleague, and a host of other dignitaries, I enjoyed music from the President's Own Marine Band and the Pipes and Drums of the Scots Guards, a rousing speech from Vice President Joe Biden, and a magnificent fireworks display.

The Star-Spangled Banner flag, which inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the song that would become our national anthem, on display at the National Museum of American History
The Star-Spangled Banner flag, which inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the song that would become our national anthem, on display at the National Museum of American History

It was a moving and enjoyable celebration. But the events of September 1814 also carry a broader significance for both Brits and Americans. The War of 1812 was the last time Britain and America came to blows. It was the conflict that convinced us to be friends. The Battle of Baltimore was a turning point in that war, and the Siege of Fort McHenry was itself the decisive moment in the battle.  So it could be said, without too much exaggeration, that the seeds of the special relationship were sown at Fort McHenry.

We've seen a number of events recently marking key points in the War of 1812—the Burning of Washington, the surrender at Alexandria and, now, the Battle of Baltimore.

This piece of White House timber is thought to be from the British burning of Washington on August 24, 1814. President James and First Lady Dolley Madison fled before the structure went up in flames. Only the exterior walls survived the attack.
This piece of White House timber is thought to be from the burning of Washington on August 24, 1814. President James and First Lady Dolley Madison fled before the structure went up in flames. Only the exterior walls survived the attack.

But as with every War of 1812 event, what we're really celebrating is not the war itself—it's the peace that followed, and the extraordinary friendship, alliance and special relationship that blossomed from that peace.

The war's final battle took place at New Orleans in January 1815. It was a famous American victory, spearheaded by future President Andrew Jackson. Ironically, most of the battle took place after peace had already been agreed, at Ghent in modern-day Belgium. In an age when messages had to be carried by ship and on horseback, word of the accords had not yet reached either army.

Andrew Jackson's uniform coat with epaulets from the Battle of New Orleans
Andrew Jackson's uniform coat with epaulets from the Battle of New Orleans, in the collection of the National Museum of American History

Not long after the dust settled, Britain and America began forging a new relationship. We have never stopped building it. In the 1940s, we faced down fascism with a joint effort largely coordinated through the Embassy where I now work. Today, our cooperation remains vital in fighting terrorism, confronting dangerous diseases like Ebola, and standing up to Russia's dangerous aggression in Ukraine.

Our business ties were established long before 1812. In fact, they were so strong in the run-up to the War that some New England businessmen lobbied for their region to secede from the Union rather than stop trading with the UK.

HMS Argyll arrived in Baltimore on 10 Sep 14 to join Americans in a week-long commemorative event to celebrate the 200th birthday of the US National Anthem at the Star Spangled Spectacular event.   Photo by Leading Airman Keith Morgan / HMS ARGYLL
The Pipes and Drums of the British Army’s 1st Battalion Scots Guards perform as the Royal Navy's HMS Argyll arrives in Baltimore, Maryland for the Star-Spangled Spectacular festivities. Photo by Leading Airman Keith Morgan. Used with permission.

But perhaps the most important aspect of our relationship—and the secret to its longevity—is our shared set of fundamental values. The principles of free speech, democracy, accountability, and open markets, which both our countries have helped refine, continue to inspire people around the world right up to the present day.

I'm looking forward to celebrating another milestone: the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. Winston Churchill himself placed the 'Great Charter' alongside the Declaration of Independence as one of the "title deeds of liberty". The exhibition of Lincoln Cathedral's unique Magna Carta at the Library of Congress beginning in November will provide an opportunity for our two peoples to remind themselves of the extraordinary heritage we share.