On January 9, 1854 (a day after the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans), a group of over 1,500 War of 1812 veterans from across the United States met in convention in Congress Hall in Philadelphia, having responded to a call issued by Joel Barlow Sutherland (1792-1861), an 1812 veteran and former Congressman from Philadelphia. Ostensibly called to draft resolutions pertaining to bounty land benefit legislation, the veterans assembled in Philadelphia acknowledged the need for an organization for mutual support and to perpetuate the history of the War of 1812. From this convention, the Society of the War of 1812 was founded and Sutherland was elected its first President. The Society met again in convention a year later in Washington, D.C., where they were received by President Franklin Pierce at the White House and lobbied members of Congress to secure the bounty land legislation, which was passed later in 1855. Sutherland’s goal was to form a division of the Society in each state in the union. Sutherland’s vision for the organization was not completed at the time of his death in 1861. Shortly thereafter, the Society began accepting sons and grandsons of Veteran members.
On January 8, 1891, the Society elected John Cadwalader (1843-1925) of Philadelphia as its first non-veteran President. At a time when numerous hereditary societies were being formed, the youthful Cadwalader envisioned the Society of the War of 1812 as the premier men’s lineage society associated with the War of 1812. The Society’s constitution was revised—adding the now famous Preamble and restyling the organization as the General Society of the War of 1812—in 1892. Later that year, the Society was incorporated in Philadelphia.
During this time, Cadwalader reached out to the few remaining organizations of War of 1812 veterans. One of those groups was the Defenders of Baltimore, whose association with the Society went back to the 1854 organizing meeting in Philadelphia where the Defenders were welcomed and seated en masse.
The Defenders of Baltimore trace their origin to the huge collection of American militia companies that were called to meet the British thrust at Baltimore following the occupation of the National Capital. Those veterans gained the sobriquet “Defenders” from the local citizenry. On the first anniversary of their successful repulse of the British, the “Defenders” turned out from their work to witness the laying of the Battle Monument cornerstone and to view the Fort McHenry U.S. garrison and some of Maryland’s Fifth Regiment parade in the adjacent streets. Ever after, Defenders’ Day has been observed in Maryland.
In 1841, the Defenders met to establish a more formal organization. The following year, a national encampment was held with veterans from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the District of Columbia attending. President John Tyler reviewed the parading veterans. On the 14th of May 1842, the veterans received their first organizational charter in Maryland recorded in the Circuit Court of Baltimore as “The Association of Defenders of Baltimore” and had as their purpose the encouraging of love of country, commemoration of the war, defraying of funeral expenses of veterans who were impoverished, and the education of their children.
By 1893, their ranks grew thin and the Defenders were reorganized to include the sons and male descendants of veterans. Later that year—anticipating Cadwalader’s plans with the General Society—it was incorporated in as The Society of the War of 1812 in Maryland of Baltimore City.
In 1894, at a meeting in Congress Hall in Philadelphia, where the first convention of veterans had occurred in 1854, Cadwalader presided over a meeting which adopted the “Basis of Union,” uniting the Maryland Society with the General Society and providing for the creation of other state societies. As part of the agreement, the General Society adopted the founding date of the Defenders of Baltimore—September 14, 1814—as its founding date. John Cadwalader was elected President General of the newly united group and served in that capacity until his death in 1925.
In time the General Society chartered State Societies throughout the United States and remains the preeminent hereditary society for male descendants of veterans of the War of 1812. Founded by actual veterans of the War of 1812, the Society continues carrying out the goals set forth in the Preamble of its Constitution and fulfilling the visions of Joel Sutherland and John Cadwalader to honor those men who so bravely served in that war.