War of 1812 – Resources for the Bicentennial Year

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

Did you grow up during the 1950s? If so, perhaps your first introduction to the War of 1812 may have been Johnny Horton’s classic Battle of New Orleans which scored #1 on the Billboard charts in 1959. Perhaps you also learned about some of the other iconic images from this period: the burning of the White House and Dolly Madison’s last-minute rescue of Washington’s portrait; the penning of the words to The Star Spangled Banner; and the famous exhortation, “Don’t give up the ship,” uttered by the dying captain, James Lawrence, of the USS Chesapeake in 1813 (often incorrectly attributed to Oliver Hazard Perry as it was featured on his personal battle flag). However, like the Korean War, the War of 1812 has become one of the forgotten wars in American history. Considered from a global perspective, what we Americans term “the War of 1812” was overshadowed by the Napoleonic Wars in Europe that occurred between 1793-1801 and 1803-1815. (Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, after all, has nothing to do with the United States, featuring, instead, the Marseilles and the Russian hymn, God Save the Tsar). Ironically, today the War of 1812 bicentennial is clearly eclipsed by the sesquicentennial commemoration of the American Civil War. The bicentennial, however, offers us an opportunity to understand its effect on American history and to learn about records about that are available concerning individuals involved in this conflict.

James Madison’s request for a declaration of war was brought about by several issues, all of which stemmed from Great Britain’s reluctance to respect United States sovereignty. With the Revolutionary War still a recent experience for many, feelings ran high. Conflict arose due to economic issues (blockades and embargos), as well as those that were of national security (British involvement in Indian unrest in frontier areas) and naval concerns (impressments of seamen and neutrality rights violations). While there were land-based actions (principally seen in U.S. attempts to invade Canada and the British burning of Washington, D.C.), the war was predominantly one of naval actions. Theodore Roosevelt would summarize the naval aspect of the war in his The Naval War of 1812 as follows:

…the whole history of the struggle on the ocean is, as regards the Americans, only the record of individual cruises and fights. The material results were not very great, at least in their effect on Great Britain, whose enormous navy did not feel in the slightest degree the loss of a few frigates and sloops. But morally the result was of inestimable benefit to the United States. The victories kept up the spirits of the people, cast down by the defeats on land; practically decided in favor of the Americans the chief question in dispute – Great Britain’s right of search and impressment – and gave the navy, and thereby the country, a world-wide reputation. I doubt if ever before a nation gained so much honor by a few single-ship duels.1

It is interesting to note that many of the very issues that prompted the formal declaration of war on 18 June 1812 actually had been resolved by the British (but word had not yet reached the U.S.) and the last battle (New Orleans) was fought in January 1815, several months after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent which ended the war on 24 September 1814 (but word had not yet reached the U.S.). The outcomes of the war would be seen in increased economic instability, increased nationalistic fervor, establishment of a standing army and navy, and in rising friction between geographical regions (principally north and south) and between political parties (Federalist and Republican), the aggregation of which would continue to effect American politics and culture throughout Civil War ante-bellum period.

As always, when pursuing genealogical research, it is important to understand the historical context within which our ancestors lived. The Naval History and Heritage Command website includes a section on the War of 1812, as part of the official bicentennial observance. The site includes biographies of famous individuals of the time (Matthew Fontaine Maury, David Glasgow Farragut, Stephen Decatur, and others), photographic images of naval actions of the USS Constitution, the USS Hornet, the USS United States, and other vessels, videos, and an “Interesting Reads” section that includes “Navy Regulations 1814,” “Uniform  Regulations 1814,” and documents pertaining to the Battle Record of “Old Ironsides” (USS Constitution). Links are provided to other related sites such as the War of 1812 Bicentennial – Canada.

In searching for an ancestor who may have served during the conflict, you will want to check a variety of sources, particularly those that provide information from compiled military service records and pension files. Luckily, many are now available online.

Ancestry.com provides access to the War of 1812 Service Records, 1812-1815 database, which lists almost 600,000 men “mustered into the armed forces…each record includes the soldier’s name, company, rank at time of induction, and rank at time of discharge.”2  My standard Barkley surname search identified a list of 500 individuals (of many variant Barkley spellings) who served from a wide cross-section of states, including Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, and Georgia, to name just a few. Also available at Ancestry.com is the War of 1812 Pension Application Files Index, 1812-1815, which contains pension applications for veterans or their survivors, under provisions of either the pension act of 14 February 1871 (pensions granted for 60 days of service plus other requirements) or the pension act of 9 March 1878 (pensions granted for 14 days of service plus other requirements). Earlier pensions had been granted only for service-related deaths and disabilities. Please note, however, that many who had served (and survived without war-related disabilities) would have probably died prior to 1871. In each record, the name of the veteran (or widow), pension claim or file number, and the specific organization or type of service is provided. When available, files may also include personal identifying information. A Barkley surname search in this database identified Archibald C. Barkley, a corporal in Capt. Isaiah Renshaw’s company in the Tennessee militia. The index card states that Archibald, resident of Catawba County, North Carolina, enlisted on 10 December 1812, and was discharged on 20 April 1813. He married Elizabeth Hill on 10 January 1811 in Beatties Ford, North Carolina. His widow applied for and received a pension in 1872. Archibald had died on 10 April 1866 in Catawba County, North Carolina; Elizabeth died on 29 September 1880. The index also provides bounty land information. I knew very little about Archibald prior to searching the index, but found a great deal of useful information in the index alone. Analyzing the actual pension application file and attached papers (index remarks indicate “soldier’s discharge certificate and family record”) may provide more detailed information.

Online records pertaining to the War of 1812 are also available at FamilySearch and at Fold 3. It is also useful to identify War of 1812 records that are available at the state level. For example, the Library of Virginia collection includes militia pay rolls and other records from the Auditor’s Office in Richmond, militia muster rolls, registers of furloughs, quartermaster’s account books and registers of public service claims, business papers, a record book for the Society of the Soldiers of the War of 1812 for the second district listing veterans living in Norfolk, Portsmouth, Elizabeth City County, Norfolk County, Nansemond County, and Princess Anne County in the years 1854 to 1866. Ancestry.com provides databases of pension abstracts for individual states including North Carolina, Kentucky, Vermont, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.

Records exist both for sailors who applied for the seaman’s protection certificate (that was supposed to save them from impressments) and for sailors who were impressed. A more detailed look at these records is available in a two-part blog article, which I wrote in 2010, “For Those Who Go Down to The Sea in Ships.” In addition, Ancestry.com provides access to War of 1812, Prisoner of War Records, 1812-1815. While I did not find a Barclay included in this database, I was able to locate a register of soldiers taken prisoner and released near the Canadian lines “taken from information provided by Col. Barclay.”

Print material is also available including Benson J. Lossing’s classic The Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812 (Harpers, 1869) and John R. Elting’s Amateurs to Arms!: A Military History of the War of 1812 (Da Capo, 1995). Two of my most recent personal acquisitions include Patrick G. Wardell’s War of 1812: Virginia Bounty Land and Pension Applicants (Heritage Books, 1987, printed 2007) and a great background and travel title, John Grant and Ray Jones’ The War of 1812: A Guide to Battlefields and Historic Sites (Western New York Public Broadcasting Association, 2011), published as a companion to the PBS television special on the war. This book is one that you can dip into a little at a time. In addition to describing what happened at war-related sites in seven different theaters in which the war occurred (the Northwest, Niagara, Lake Ontario, St. Lawrence/Champlain, Northeast, Chesapeake, and Southern), it tells you what you can see if you visit the site today.

A selection of War of 1812 titles available from Genealogical.com includes (check the website for a full listing):

A Chronicle of War of 1812 Soldiers, Seamen and Marines by Dennis F. Blizzard and Thomas L. Hollowak (Clearfield, 2001).

Kentucky Soldiers of the War of 1812 by Kentucky Adjutant-General’s Office (1891, reprinted by Clearfield, 2007.

Known Military Dead During the War of 1812 by Clarence Stewart Peterson (1955, reprinted by Clearfield, 2008).

A List of Pensioners of the War of 1812 [Vermont Claimants] by Byron N. Clark (1904, reprinted by Clearfield, 1996).

Louisiana Soldiers in the War of 1812 by Marion John Bennett Pierson (1963, reprinted by Clearfield, 2003).

Muster Rolls of the Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of 1812-1814 by John B. Linn and William H. Engle (1890, reprinted by Clearfield, 1994).

Muster Rolls of the Soldiers of the War of 1812 by Maurice Toler (1851, reprinted by Clearfield, 2006).

Mississippi Territory in the War of 1812 by Eron Opha Rowland (1921, reprinted by Clearfield, 2005).

The Roster and Register of the General Society of the War of 1812 by Dennis F. Blizzard et.al. (1972, reprinted by Clearfield 1999).

Roster of Ohio Soldiers in the War of 1812, Ohio Adjutant-General’s Department (1916, reprinted by Clearfield, 2008).

Virginia Militia in the War of 1812 (1851, reprinted by Genealogical Publishing Company, 2001).

The following genealogical.com books are currently out-of-print. Check with your local library for the nearest library location with this title, or click on the “Notify Me” button on genealogical.com to be notified when the title will be back in print.

British Aliens in the United States During the War of 1812, Kenneth Scott (Clearfield, 1999)

[New York]: Index of Awards on Claims of the Soldiers of the War of 1812 by New York Adjutant-General’s Office (1860, reprinted by Clearfield, 2005).

Records of the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia Called Out…to Suppress a Threatened Invasion During the War of 1812-1814 (by Gardner W. Pearson (1913, reprinted by Clearfield, 1993).


1  Naval History & Heritage Command, War of 1812, (http://www.history.navy.mil/commemorations/1812/quotes.htm : accessed 12 July 2012), citing Theodore Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812 (1882, reprinted Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1987).

2 “War of 1812 Service Records, 1812-1815 ,” database, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 12 July 2012).

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