Although President Madison` was reluctant to enter into a war with Great Britain, he acquiesced as early as November 1811 to repeated calls from members of his party to a buildup of American arms. On the fifth of that month, he appeared before Congress to issue his call to arms. It was actually in the middle of his campaign for reelection to the presidency, on June 17, 1812, when Congress declared war of the British, marking the official start of the War of 1812. When Madison swore in for his second term, his primary occupation was the fulfillment of duties as Commander-in-Chief of a nation at war.
The War of 1812 was also known as the Second War for Independence. It was fought primarily because Americans detested the heavy-handed treatment their countrymen received from the British on the high seas. It was a constant irritation tothe young nation that men on American merchant ships who engaged in trade with the French were repeatedly taken captive by British naval officers and impressed into military service for the Crown.
Even though Madison was reluctant to go to war, the Federalists, concerned about their commercial interests, labeled the conflict "Mr. Madison's War," and their opposition to it made sure and swift American engagement in the struggle difficult to pursue. The militias in some of the New England states did not rise up readily to fight the British, and when Maine (still at this time part of Massachusetts) was threatened, the Massachusetts militia refused even to defend the northern part of their state from British attack. The people of Maine felt very injured, and were glad to acquire state independence some years later in 1820.
America's fighting was done by state militias and volunteers, and in the first part of the war went badly. General William Hull failed in his attempt to invade Canada, instead surrendering to the British at Detroit. Several other attempts at invading Canada also failed. President Madison responded to these defeats by focusing on building up the navy, sending fleets into the Great Lakes to defend the United States from British attacks from Canada. The American navy saw victories in the first year of the war: three of its ships, named the United States, the President, and most famously the Constitution, nicknamed "Old Ironsides," were more formidable than any ships in the British navy. Though outnumbered by the very large British fleet, the American ships held their own in close naval combat.
The Americans suffered naval setbacks, however, with the onset of the British blockade of the Atlantic coastline. The most remembered event in the war occurred when the British landed south of Washington, D.C. and, on August twenty-four, 1814, after defeating an American army at Bladensburg, Virginia, marched into the capital city and set fire to it. The White House was one of the buildings which was destroyed–it was hollowed out in the fire. President Madison had evacuated the city before seeing his house in flames; Dolley Madison, evacuating after her husband, saved a precious, life-size portrait of George Washington while leaving some of her own belongings behind in the conflagration. Many Americans viewed the First Lady as a heroine for this action. The President reacted to the destruction of Washington by firing his Secretary of War and replacing him with James Monroe, who continued to serve simultaneously as Secretary of State.
The burning of Washington marked a turning point in the war. The image of their capital in flames had the effect of rallying Americans to a spirited defense of their country, and the British were soon turned back in their attempts to capture the city of Baltimore. America won a great victory in their defense of Fort McHenry–the battle which was the inspiration to onlooker Francis Scott Key's poem, "The Star Spangled Banner," which would become the lyrics to America's National Anthem.