It is somewhat unusual for a locality to celebrate a battle for which its army was so poorly organized that the loss was considered a great setback to the American efforts to preserve the freedom won from England a mere 36 years before. It, the Battle of Bladensburg, also opened the door for the British sacking of Washington. However, it was from this embarrassing loss that our fledgling nation learned its independence was tenuous and a more sophisticated battle plan and army.
The War of 1812, sometimes referred to as the war of unfinished business, was sparked partially by the British navy pressing unwilling U.S. sailors into service. During the first two years of the war, the British were busy fighting Napoleon in Europe. In the spring of 1814, the British had enough troops available to begin major assaults on the United States. In August, British Major General Robert Ross was commanding an invasion force in the Chesapeake Bay where he hoped to capture the American flotilla commanded by Joshua Barney and lurking in the Patuxent River. This plan was foiled when Barney scuttled the U.S. fleet rather than allow it to fall into the hands of the British.
Ross continued up the Chesapeake Bay and eventually reached Upper Marlboro. From there, he headed to Bladensburg where a motley crew of U.S. volunteer militiamen was routed. A resident, Rosalie Stier Calvert described the battle which she viewed from a second-floor window facing south:
It was on a return visit to Upper Marlboro that some British stragglers were arrested by Beanes, the physician. Beanes’ arrest of the stragglers prompted his own arrest by British forces. That precipitated a chain of events that placed Beanes and the lawyer who had come to rescue him – Key – as detainees of the British on a ship in Baltimore harbor, where they watched the British and Americans fight.
Two weeks after the Battle of Bladensburg, the British tried to burn and sack Baltimore as they had Washington. This time the Americans were ready for them and turned the British back. It was during this American battle that Beanes and Francis Scott Key witnessed the “rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air” that Key memorialized in his poem Defence of Fort McHenry. This poem would later become the lyrics of our new country’s national anthem.
Sculptor Joanna Blake has been working more than two years on a recently complete 8-by10-foot panel which will be fashioned into a bronze memorial by Laran Bronze of Chester, PA. The design shows a wounded American Commander Joshua Barney; Charles Bell, a former slave who served in Barney’s flotilla; and an unnamed Marine. While Barney is wounded and down. all three characters are looking up, weapons by their sides, appearing ready for whatever the British had to offer next. The work will be titled Undaunted in Battle.
When planning family trips over the next two years, check the Washington area, particularly Prince George County, MD and the town of Bladensburg to discover some history.