One historian has dubbed the War of 1812 “the war of unfinished business,” because it dealt with lingering antagonism between the British and the Americans after the Revolutionary War.
For the Washington suburb of Prince George’s County, officials say, that description is also quite apt.
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.
“We were kind of cocky at that time,” Day said.
The road to victory was circuitous, from Baltimore via Prince George’s and Washington, where the British burned the Capitol and the While House, back again to Prince George’s.
For the first two years of the war, the British were busy fighting Napoleon in Europe, but by the spring of 1814, there were enough British troops available to begin major assaults on the United States. In August, an invasion force under Maj. Gen. Robert Ross was in the Chesapeake Bay, hoping to capture the American flotilla that was commanded by Joshua Barney and lurking in the Patuxent River. The British reached Nottingham on Aug. 21, prompting Barney to scuttle the U.S. fleet rather than allow it to fall into British hands.
Efforts are underway to retrieve the vessels, which are believed to be buried under the river’s silt.
Eventually, Ross got to Upper Marlboro and from there headed to Bladensburg, where the Americans, a motley collection of militiamen, were routed. Rosalie Stier Calvert, living in Riversdale, described the battle, which she could see 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’s arrest of the soldiers 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.
Beanes’s grave is one of three historic sites in Upper Marlboro and is part of the National Park Service’s recently unveiled Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail. At nearby Trinity Episcopal Church on Church Street, British soldiers used tombstones as tables to knead bread, according to historical accounts. Darnall’s Chance, a historic house across from the county administration building, was occupied during the war by John Hodges, who sought to free the British soldiers held at the Queen Anne jail to try to prevent the British from making good on a threat to burn down the town. He was later tried for treason but acquitted.
Had Beanes not acted to arrest the British soldiers, he might have labored in obscurity. Key, who became U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, might have remained best known for his legal acumen rather than his famous lyrics.
The rest, as they say, is history. And in Prince George’s, officials are hoping that the role of the county and its residents in that history will not be forgotten.