The War of 1812 – Get Ready to Celebrate

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

As I reflect on the upcoming bicentennial of the War of 1812, I believe that most individuals know little about this conflict beyond the Battle of New Orleans and Andrew Jackson (thanks to Johnny Horton’s recording – if you’re old enough to remember) and the burning of the White House. Other than those two events, the proverbial “man in the street” would probably be unable to answer questions about this war. This amnesia may exist, in part, because the War of 1812 has often been lumped under the catchall category, “Old Wars,” and overshadowed by the major conflicts that occurred before and after – the Revolution and the Civil War. Even though few of the issues that prompted its outbreak were resolved at the conflict’s completion, War of 1812  records are worth investigation as you pursue your family history research.

After the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1783, ended the Revolutionary War, the former British colonies embraced peace and the opportunity to organize the new nation. These efforts, and indeed the new country itself, were not necessarily taken seriously by Great Britain, however. During the two decades following the loss of its colonies, Great Britain’s attention turned toward the Continent, first with the French Revolution (1792-1802) and then the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15). Commerce became a major issue between Britain and France following Britain’s triumph at Trafalgar in 1805. In 1806, Napoleon enacted the “Continental System” which forbade not only French ships, but allied and neutral ships as well, from trading with Britain. Britain responded with the “Orders in Council of 1807” which, in turn, forbade French trade with the United Kingdom and her allies and attempted to funnel all neutral trade with the Continent through British ports. When the Royal Navy was deployed to blockade French ports, Napoleon raised the level of confrontation with the “Milan Decree,” stating that neutral shipping using British ports or paying British tariffs would be considered British and seized.

The United States government was already concerned with the British failure to withdraw from American territory along the Great Lakes, as well as continued British support for Native Americans on the frontier. Needless to say, French and British commercial embargos and other actions added to these concerns by impacting American commercial interests. It seemed clear that both Great Britain and France were violating American rights of neutrality on the sea. These concerns were further exacerbated by the British practice of impressing seamen from American merchant ships on the pretext (often false) that these individuals were British subjects. When the British ship Leopard fired on the American frigate Chesapeake in 1807, the stage was set for conflict. Congress passed an Embargo Act banning all American ships from foreign trade. The act failed in its intent to harm British and French thereby forcing a change in policy. Instead, the Embargo Act devastated New England shipping.

Many in the 11th Congress (sometimes known as the Warhawk Congress), that was elected in 1810, felt that the national honor had suffered a significant affront due to the British and French policies. Democratic-Republications, such as John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay, argued that American honor could be saved by an invasion of Canada, an action that had failed during the Revolutionary War, but which would, if successful, rid North America of the British once and for all.  These “Warhawk” congressmen were opposed by the Federalists, largely made up of New England ship owners, who feared further economic ruin as a result of a war. Napoleon revoked his decrees, but when the British refused to do likewise, President James Madison declared war on 18 June 1812. At the time of the declaration of war, Madison was unaware that two days earlier, on 16 June, Britain had announced that it would revoke the Orders in Council (1807). This news did not reach Washington until August, over six weeks later. Unsure of British reaction to his declaration of war, Madison refused to rescind his action.

The war, which many consider a second revolutionary war, was waged from June 1812 until the spring of 1815. The majority of the fighting occurred along the Canadian border, in the Chesapeake Bay area, and along the Gulf of Mexico. Communication would again impact the war, as the Treaty of Ghent, ending the war, was actually signed on December 1814, although military actions would continue through the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815.

A variety of records are available concerning War of 1812 military service. The majority form part of National Archives Record Group 94, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office. Please note that these records have not been microfilmed, with the exception of name indices for compiled military service records and pension application files. When researching these records at the National Archives, you will want to consult the Index to Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Soldiers Who Served During the War of 1812 (M602). (Information about officers can be found in Francis B. Heitman’s Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army (Clearfield, 1994), as well as on the Naval History and Heritage Command website. )  For example, the index entry for a David Barkley indicates that he was a private in the Consolidated Regiment (Smith’s) New York Militia. When you are at the Archives, transfer the appropriate information to a textual record request slip, and once the file has been pulled, view the original textual file in the second floor reading room. These indices are also available on ancestry.com, so that you can arrive at the National Archives having located the necessary information online and thus be able to immediately complete the request form.

Most compiled military service records provide limited genealogical information. Of far more importance to your family history research are the pension and bounty land warrant application files. The first War of 1812 pensions were granted to veteran  (or their widows) of the army, navy and marines whose service resulted in death or disability. Information about these applicants can be found in a microfilm index entitled Old War Index to Pension Files (T316). The index will indicate veteran’s name, unit, state from which the claim was made, and type of claimant (widow, child, or other heir). These records may also include children’s names, as well as widow’s maiden name and marriage dates. The majority of War of 1812 pension application files, however, can be searched in the Index to War of 1812 Pension Application Files (M313). These index entries are also available on ancestry.com, but in a database that can be browsed only, so be prepared to spend some time searching for your particular individual on that site. Pension acts as late as 1871 and 1878 authorized pensions based on length of service, the former requiring at least sixty days of service for veterans, or marriage prior to 1815 for widows. The later reduced the service period to a mere fourteen days. Pension applications submitted by a widow or on behalf of a minor child almost always provide a wealth of genealogical detail as the widow was required to provide proof of the marriage. This information might include her maiden name, the date and location of the marriage, and perhaps even documentation concerning the death of a previous husband. The record for a John Barkley indicates that he was a Corporal in Capt. James Thomson’s Co., South Carolina Militia. He enlisted on 23 January 1814 and was discharged on 4 August of the same year. His widow was Mary Barkley, who lived (1850, 1855 and 1871) in Anderson County, South Carolina. Her maiden name was Brown, and John and Mary were married on 21 April 1813 in Anderson County where John died on 6 April 1834. Pension claim and file numbers are W. O. 2239 and W. C. 944. The bounty land is listed as 38968-80-50 and 48242-80-55. Remarks indicate that John’s soldier’s discharge certificate was included in his case file.

Bounty lands were granted to veterans or their widows. These grants were normally for 160 acres. Bounty applications include the name of the veteran, age, unit in which he served, residence, period of service, and, if the application is a widow’s application, it will include her name, age and place of residence. These records have been filmed as War of 1812 Military Bounty Land Warrants, 1815-1858 (M848). An act dated 6 May 1812 authorized the first bounty land grants for the War of 1812. Subsequent legislation continued to increase eligibility, even as late as 1871 and 1878. Many of these later grants can be located by searching the federal land patents digitized by the Bureau of Land Management. For example: Elizabeth Barkley received warrant no. 29396 for 160 acres in Mower County, Minnesota. In the patent she is described as the widow of George Barkley, private, who served in Captain McNamara’s Company of Maryland Militia during the War of 1812. A detailed land description is included in the warrant which is dated June 1859 and which further indicates that the land had been assigned to Hulda Beebe.

Other relevant records for War of 1812 research include the Discharge Certificates and Miscellaneous Records Relating to the Discharge of Soldiers from the Regular Army, 1792-1815, available as NARA microfilm publication M1856. Please note that these records apply to those individuals who served in the regular army (not volunteer or militia). A useful article on this series of records is available at the National Archives website. In addition, the Library of Virginia provides a fully searchable personal name index to Pay Rolls of Militia Entitled to Land Bounty Under the Act of Congress of Sept. 28, 1850 as well its supplement, Muster Rolls of the Virginia Militia in the War of 1812. When I searched the ancestry.com card catalog under the keywords War of 1812, I received a list of 123 matches with entries as broad as “War of 1812 Service Records” (582,271 records) and as narrow as “A List of Pensioners of the War of 1812 [Vermont Claimants] (168 records).

There are several titles available in print that will assist you in your research. Among several available from Genealogical Publishing Co. are:

British Aliens in the United States During the War of 1812 by Kenneth Scott. (Clearfield, 1999). Currently out of print.

The British Invasion of Maryland, 1812-1815 with an Appendix Containing Eleven Thousand Names by William M. Marine. (Clearfield, 1977).

A Chronicle of War of 1812 Soldiers, Seamen, and Marines, 1993 ed. with added Year 2000 Supplement by Dennis F. Blizzard and Thomas L. Hollowak. (Clearfield, 2001).

Kentucky Soldiers of the War of 1812. (Clearfield, 2007).

Muster Rolls of the Soldiers of the War of 1812. (Clearfield, 2006).

Pensioners of the United States, 1818. (Clearfield, 2008).

The Roster and Register of the General Society of the War of 1812, 4 vols. in 2, by Dennis F. Blizzard, et al. (Clearfield, 1999). Currently out of print.

Virginia Militia in the War of 1812, 2 vol. (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2001), currently on sale at genealogical.com. The name index to this title is mentioned in the paragraph above.

An additional title to consult is Craig R. Scott’s The ‘Lost’ Pensions: Settled Accounts of the Act of 6 April 1838 (Willow Bend Books, 2009), a finding aid to the accounts of pensioners or their heirs (Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Indian Wars and the Mexican War) who were required to obtain their payments from Washington. As these were Auditor Department accounts, they may not be located through standard pension research.

As you continue your research into the War of 1812 and those individuals who served, be sure to look at The Official War of 1812 Bicentennial Website – Celebrating 200 Years of Peace to consult its list of upcoming events, information about historic sites and museums, and tips on how to plan your visit.

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