As two years of commemorations get underway this summer throughout the Washington region, Prince Georgians are striving to let the world know that their community was the scene of several pivotal events in the conflict, which was sparked partly by the British navy pressing unwilling U.S. sailors into service.
Without Prince George’s, local history buffs like to say, there would be no “Star-Spangled Banner.”
That’s because among the wartime events in Prince George’s was one that eventually led William Beanes, an Upper Marlboro doctor, and Francis Scott Key, a Georgetown lawyer, to end up in Baltimore detained by the British. There they witnessed the battle that delivered victory to the Americans and that became a turning point in the war. They saw the “rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air” that Key memorialized in the poem “Defence of Fort McHenry,” which would later become the lyrics of the fledgling nation’s anthem.
“We are so proud of that,” said Sarah Rogers, director of interpretation for the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area, one of several county organizations involved in local commemorations.
While the county is aiming most of its events toward 2014 — Key wrote the poem in 1814 — some are beginning this month, including a reenactment of aspects of the Battle of Bladensburg, a low point for the Americans, on Saturday at the Riversdale historic house in Riverdale Park.
A county 1812 committee, headed by Beatrice Tignor, an aide to County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), and Aaron Marcavitch, executive director of the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area, is planning events.
“We want to highlight not just the War of 1812,” said Baker, who majored in early American history at Howard University, “but start to get people to realize Prince George’s County is a destination place for historic events in our area.”
To kick things off after Saturday’s reenactment, officials will gather at Bladensburg Waterfront Park on Aug. 24 for the opening of the Battle of Bladensburg War of 1812 Visitor Center. A family day will follow the next day.
Edward Day, director of Riversdale, hopes that the national focus on the war’s bicentennial will increase awareness of the county’s role in it.
“All of those cars and trucks that drive on Bladensburg Road, most of them have no idea what happened on that piece of land,” he said. “The Battle of Bladensburg was a setback, but two weeks later the Americans turned the British back as they tried to burn and sack Baltimore. Bladensburg is itself the context for what happened in Baltimore, and it was a lesson for the Americans, too.”
The Americans, who were badly organized at Bladensburg, eventually learned that the new nation would need to establish an army — that it could not simply turn to volunteers as it had during the revolution.