Celebrating the anniversary of the nation's independence or a glorious military victory is easy. Commemorating the devastating losses, however, is a harder task.
That's the challenge for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bladensburg, a War of 1812 engagement that is being marked this weekend with a festival on the shores of the Anacostia River and the unveiling of a monument to the Americans who fought and died there.
The battle itself, in which 4,500 British troops routed the American militia, might be obscure, but the result is not: The Americans' pell-mell retreat left the road to Washington wide open and undefended. Hours later, British forces burned the White House, the Capitol and other public buildings. First lady Dolley Madison barely had time to flee with a copy of the Declaration of Independence before the troops arrived. The Washington Navy Yard was torched to prevent it falling into British hands. Just days later, the city of Alexandria surrendered without firing a shot.
But there's courage to be found in the story of the ragtag group of American militiamen and inexperienced shopkeepers, backed by a small detachment of battle-tested sailors and marines, standing up to the most vaunted fighting force in the world. And although the British won the battle and the capital was occupied and sacked, a few weeks later American troops managed to beat back British ground and naval attacks. Most important, the United States didn't lose the war, which became known as the Second War of Independence.
The activities in Bladensburg and Washington this weekend, and in Alexandria next week, may not be the triumphant celebrations you'll find in Baltimore next month (see below), but the local history being honored is well worth remembering.
Bladensburg and Washington: Aug. 23-24
Saturday in Bladensburg
Bladensburg Waterfront Park is the epicenter of this weekend's events. The Undaunted in Battle memorial will be dedicated at 11 a.m. to the sounds of the U.S. Marine Band. In the afternoon, more than 20 groups of American and British reenactors will take to the Anacostia River Field for a "grand tactical battle"; the Fort McHenry Guard will offer hourly cannon firing; and bands will perform music from the era. Hands-on attractions will include traditional crafters, games and dance lessons. But this isn't just a living museum: The park will also offer a full lineup of food trucks, beer and wine tents, boat tours of the Anacostia, arts and crafts vendors and blues, folk and big-band music. The day will be capped by a fireworks display at 8:45 p.m.
Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Bladensburg Waterfront Park, 4601 Annapolis Rd., Bladensburg. 301-927-8819. www.princegeorges1812.org. Free admission. There will be no parking at Waterfront Park. Shuttle buses will run from the Landover Metro station and the University of Maryland's Parking Lot 1 at Campus Drive. (See undauntedweekend.splashthat.com for maps and directions.)
Sunday in Bladensburg and Washington
The actual anniversary of the battle will begin with two 5K races. The Battle of Bladensburg 5K will trace part of the original battlefield. The Flee the British 5K at the historic Congressional Cemetery in Washington will be a bit more lighthearted: Runners will follow Dolley Madison (dressed in period costume) while being chased by men dressed as British soldiers. After the race, docents will offer tours of War of 1812-related graves in the historic cemetery throughout the morning.
Bladensburg's major festival is on Saturday, but Sunday afternoon will be a great time to visit the town. The Battle of Bladensburg visitors center at Waterfront Park, which is the gathering point for walking and boat tours, will be open from noon to 4 p.m., and a free trolley at the park will make stops at Bladensburg's War of 1812-era houses, including the Bostwick (3301 48th St.), the Indian Queen Tavern (4302 Baltimore Ave.) and the Magruder House (4703 Annapolis Rd.).
Washington's Decatur House, the Lafayette Square home of naval hero Steven Decatur, will be open for self-guided tours, trivia and family craft and costume activities. Dumbarton House, where Madison stopped on her way out of the city, will be hosting a day of self-guided tours and activities. You can sample "Dolley cake" and ice cream and learn English country dances.
At the Navy Yard, the National Museum of the U.S. Navy will host an open house and family day with sea chanteys, cannon demonstrations, arts and crafts and tours of the Pride of Baltimore II, an 1812-style schooner that will be docked there. A one-hour walking tour about the burning of the Navy Yard will begin at 4 p.m. (Tour requires an RSVP; call 202-433-6897.)
Battle of Bladensburg 5K: Sunday at 8 a.m. Bladensburg Waterfront Park, 4601 Annapolis Rd., Bladensburg. 301-927-8819. www.princegeorges1812.org. $35.
Flee the British 5K: Sunday at 8 a.m. Congressional Cemetery, 1801 E St. SE. 202-543-0539. www.congressionalcemetery.org. $40, $10 for kids' 2K fun run, which begins at 8:05 a.m.
Decatur House: Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. 1610 H St. NW. 202-842-0917. www.whitehousehistory.org. Free.
Dumbarton House: Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. 2715 Q St. NW. 202-337-2288. www.dumbartonhouse.org. Free.
National Museum of the U.S. Navy: Sunday from noon-4 p.m. 805 Kidder Breese St. SE. 202-433-4882.
history.navy.mil/NMUSN. Free. Access to the Navy Yard is limited. Visitors who don't have a military, law enforcement or U.S. government employee ID must enter through the gate at Sixth and M streets SE to obtain a visitor's pass, and everyone 18 and older must have a photo ID.
Alexandria: Aug. 30-31
Days after the British army retreated from Washington, a six-boat squadron of British naval vessels sailed up the Potomac, firing on Fort Washington before aiming guns at Alexandria. Having seen what had happened to the capital, Alexandria's mayor quickly approached Commodore James Alexander Gordon under a flag of truce to surrender the city.
The British occupation of Alexandria lasted five days and was largely uneventful. The city surrendered all of its merchant ships, military supplies and goods in its warehouses. The only shots fired occurred after British ships sailed out of Alexandria and down the Potomac, where a small battery at White House Landing engaged British ships that came past and foundered on the shoals.
One of the Americans killed in the two-day Battle of White House Landing was Robert Allison Jr., who was buried in Alexandria's Presbyterian Cemetery. As part of Alexandria's War of 1812 Commemoration weekend, Allison will be honored with a wreath-laying at his grave on Aug. 30. On Aug. 31 at Alexandria's Waterfront Park, activities will include free boat tours, living-history talks with "Alexandrians of 1814" and hands-on family activities.
A series of "British challenges" will add some levity throughout the weekend. The town will seek to prove its superiority over staffers from the British Embassy in such competitions as a yacht race and a tug of war.
Wreath-laying: Aug. 30 at 10 a.m. Presbyterian Cemetery, 600 Hamilton Lane, Alexandria. 703-5496670. www.opmh.org. Free.
War of 1812 Signature Event: Aug. 31 from noon to 5 p.m. Waterfront Park, 1 Price St., Alexandria. www.alexandriava.gov/1812. Free.
Baltimore: Sept. 10-16
Unlike Washington, Baltimore had a lot to crow about during the War of 1812. In mid-September 1814, just a few weeks after the White House had burned, 10,000 American soldiers and militia massed in Baltimore. The Battle of North Point, on a peninsula to the southeast of the city, resulted in the death of the British commanding general, Robert Ross. This was followed by the successful defense of Baltimore's Fort McHenry, the event that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner" and led to the British fleet's retreat from Chesapeake Bay.
This fall's anniversary is the biggest to hit Baltimore in years - and maybe the biggest until 2039, when Old Bay seasoning marks its centennial - so Charm City is pulling out all the stops. A week-long celebration dubbed the Star-Spangled Spectacular will feature a flotilla of tall ships and naval vessels from around the world; family-friendly activities and living-history events; fireworks over Baltimore harbor; air shows starring the Navy's Blue Angels; and concerts honoring the national anthem. These are the "Key" events to note, pun intended. (For a full schedule of tours and events, visit www.starspangled200.com.)
TALL SHIPS: More than 30 ships will be sailing into Baltimore for the anniversary. The clipper ship Pride of Baltimore II and the schooner Lady Maryland will be the headliners, but a variety of other craft also will be on display, including modern warships and research vessels.
Ships will be docked at the Inner Harbor, Fells Point and Locust Point Sept. 11-15. Most will be open for free tours daily between noon and 5 p.m., though the schedule varies by ship. Expect screening and bag checks for the modern naval ships at Locust Point.
Rather see the ships sailing in? They'll be arriving throughout the day Sept. 10, and most will depart Sept. 16 beginning at 9 a.m. Fells Point and Fort McHenry are recommended viewing spots.
PLANES: The Blue Angels and other Navy planes will soar over Baltimore's Patapsco River on Sept. 13 and 14 between 2 and 4 p.m. The best views will be from the Inner Harbor, Fort McHenry and Canton Waterfront Park. (Tip: The Blue Angels will be practicing in the same area the afternoons of Sept. 11 and 12, though no times have been confirmed.)
FIREWORKS: The city will celebrate the defense of Fort McHenry with a night of patriotic music, the raising of a 42-foot replica of the Star-Spangled Banner and a 20-minute fireworks display launched from ships stationed between Fort McHenry and the Inner Harbor. The fireworks will begin at 9:30 p.m., with viewing sites reserved at Fort McHenry and the Inner Harbor. Be warned: Parking won't be available at or around Fort McHenry, so park downtown and take a shuttle bus or water taxi from the Inner Harbor.