The Battle of Bladensburg, Maryland — when about 7000 Americans tried to defend Washington DC from the advance of 4500 British — has been called the most humiliating episode in American military history. Because despite out-numbering the British and suffering less casualties, the American commander ordered retreat. And when he did, many of the American troops dropped their guns and ran.
The cause of the defeat seems to be incompetence among American leaders. Ignoring information that the British were on their way until it was too late, they were forced to use troops — almost all of them militia, not regulars — that were ill-trained and ill-equipped. And once they had troops in place – in the wrong place, as it happened – orders were confusing and the troops disorganized. But the cause doesn’t really matter. What’s remembered about the Battle of Bladensburg in popular history is that the American troops ran. They ran all the way to Washington DC and through its streets, with the British not far behind.
The Battle of Bladensburg was the first time a sitting president — James Madison – was present on a battlefield and in the line of fire. That part of the story loses out to the fact that he, too, ran – figuratively, if not literally – along with Secretary of State James Monroe and other cabinet members who were with him. That prompted a poem – British author unknown – that became known as The Bladensburg Races.
So like an arrow swift he flew, Shot from an archer’s bow; So did he fly—so after him, As swift did fly MONROE. Six gentlemen upon the road, Beheld our GENERAL ride— MONROE behind—the chapeau gone; The broadsword by his side.
History, we’ve all heard, is written by the winners.
It was not, however, all fleeing and humiliation for the Americans. According to British reports, Marines from the Washington Navy Yard, under Captain Samuel P. Miller, and sailors from Commodore Joshua Barney’s flotilla (the same Barney and flotilla who repelled the British the first time they tried to get to DC, at the Battle of St. Leonard’s Creek) fought to the bitter end. Miller and Barney were wounded and captured (but eventually released) by the British.
For this lone positive in an otherwise bleak moment for the US, Barney is the central figure in the Battle of Bladensburg monument that stands in a median strip near the entrance to Waterside Park (site of the battle on August 24, 1814) in the town of Bladensburg. Featured with Barney is an unnamed Marine and Charles Ball, an African American who served in Barney’s flotilla. Several African Americans served under Barney, a fact noted by President Madison in a conversation with Barney. Madison expressed concern that the African Americans would run away, so it’s ironic that they were among the only ones who were still there at the end. “Undaunted in Battle” says the monument (which was originally called “Undaunted in Defeat,” until a local politician suggested that they give it a more positive spin).
Undaunted Weekend was the name of the 200th anniversary commemoration of the August 24, 1814 Battle of Bladensburg. It started with the dedication of the memorial, and ended with fireworks. In between, there was dancing from the Regency Society of Virginia, lectures from various experts, stalls with 19th century repro wares and PR from historical societies and government agencies, lots of cool food trucks (best food set-up of all of the 1814/Civil War events thus far) and Canadians (playing the British) and Americans reenacting the Battle of Bladensburg. James and Dolley Madison were there too, but I didn’t see him on the battlefield.
It was a little uncomfortable, watching the Americans run. We expect heroics. A teachable moment for the children in the crowd, I suppose.
I’d followed the enthusiastic organizers of Undaunted Weekend on twitter for months, so felt bad for them when the weekend turned out to be a very wet one. But the hardcore – like me (and the reluctant-but-drafted, like my husband) – still came out and they seemed to have a good turnout, despite the rain.
From Bladensburg, the British marched on to DC and set fire to its government buildings, including the US Capitol and the White House. While they didn’t target private residences, it’s hard to contain a fire and all of DC was threatened until a rain storm came along the following day – too late for the White House and the Capitol but not for most of DC — and a torrential downpour put out the fire.