Viewed by many as a second war for independence, the War of 1812 tested the new American nation’s sovereignty, identity, and military just thirty years after its Revolution. The United States declared war against the British after suffering nearly a decade of abuses on the high seas as a result of the Napoleonic Wars between Great Britain and France. With the battle cry “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights,” the United States fought largely because of the impressments of its sailors, violation of its neutrality rights, and restriction of its foreign trade.

The War of 1812 was a divisive and unpopular conflict in some quarters of the country, but many of its supporters were veterans of the Revolution and invoked the need to preserve the nation’s hard-won independence when defending this new war. In an Independence Day address less than one month after the start of the war, Ebenezer Elmer, a veteran of Washington’s army and adjutant general of the New Jersey militia in the War of 1812, argued that America had been driven to “the last resort—the resort to arms; we are now called upon by the constituted authority of our country to defend that independence and those privileges with our arms which we obtained by them.”

Although the war ultimately ended in a stalemate, the American public believed their side had won. Victories at sea against a superior British navy and dramatic successes at Baltimore and New Orleans created a new generation of military heroes. Many of these men were members of the Society of the Cincinnati—whether aging veterans of the Revolution, sons and nephews of original Society members, or others newly elected to honorary Society membership for their valor. This renewed sense of national pride coincided with an increase in American manufacturing, resulting in an explosion of goods made to commemorate these men. Congress and state and city governments presented their heroes with swords, medals, and silver and commissioned paintings in their honor. For ordinary Americans, ceramics, textiles, prints, books, and songs brought the likenesses and stories of War of 1812 heroes into their homes. For many of the heroes themselves, membership in the Society of the Cincinnati—and the right to wear its venerable gold Eagle insignia—communicated to their contemporaries and to later generations of Americans that these officers wished to be remembered as defenders of the American independence that George Washington and his troops had secured.