Maryland suffered but still loves War of 1812

August 11, 2012

At first glance, Maryland’s enthusiasm for remembering the War of 1812 seems remarkably odd, given that the state spent most of the conflict getting its fanny whacked militarily by British invaders.

Consider Saturday’s reenactment in Prince George’s County of the Battle of Bladensburg, which helped kick off observances in our region of the war’s 200th anniversary.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

The original engagement was an American debacle, as 6,000 poorly led U.S. militiamen retreated in chaos before 4,000 British regulars. Secretary of State James Monroe (later president) contributed to the troubles by second-guessing officers on the scene. He placed a unit of dragoons in a ravine where they couldn’t see what was happening.

The defeat cleared the path for British troops to surge into Washington in the evening and torch the White House and Capitol.

Nevertheless, dozens of reenactors and hundreds of spectators showed up at the event to mark what the Encyclopedia of the War of 1812 calls “an unmitigated military disaster.”

The explanation for such devotion is simple. It’s all about state pride and tourist dollars.

Even if the War of 1812 is a hazy bit of history for most Americans, it’s the most significant U.S. historical event that Maryland, and especially Baltimore, can claim as its own.

As a result, Maryland is promoting the bicentennial with every available tool, including commemorative coins, a ship festival and new historical exhibitions. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who has dressed up as an 1812 militiaman for reenactments, set up a bicentennial commission five years ago to oversee the effort.

Plus, of course, Maryland is the only state featuring the War of 1812 on its license plates.

“Maryland is definitely carrying the flag here. They’re at the forefront,” said the National Park Service’s Suzanne Copping, who is project manager for the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail. The new, 560-mile route, championed in Congress by the Maryland delegation, tracks the war in our region.

History offers grounds for Maryland’s passion. The Free State was the site of more battles, raids and other engagements than any other state during the three-year conflict. Most were U.S. setbacks, incurred as a British naval task force marauded up and down the Chesapeake in 1813 and 1814.

“Maryland probably had more damage than any other state,” said Steve Vogel, a Washington Post reporter whose book on the war in our area, “Through the Perilous Fight,” will be published in the spring.

“Parts of Southern Maryland never really recovered. A lot of people left and never came back,” Vogel said.

But the state was redeemed by the successful defense of Baltimore, three weeks after the Bladensburg fiasco. The highlight was Fort McHenry’s refusal to submit to British bombardment, which inspired the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” (Never mind that the anthem’s author, Francis Scott Key, passionately opposed the war when President James Madison and his congressional allies started it.)

When news of the British setback in Baltimore reached London in the autumn of 1814, it helped prompt the government to soften its demands in peace negotiations.

So Maryland gets some credit for the war ending as it did in a draw, rather than a defeat. (The war’s causes included Britain’s forced recruitment of U.S. sailors, trade disputes and American interest in conquering Canada.)

Finally, Baltimore dispatched an unmatched number of privateers, or privately owned, armed vessels commissioned by Washington, to attack British commercial shipping. They did so, with ravaging results.

By the end, Maryland had enough 19th-century military successes to justify a 21st-century marketing effort.

“People are always looking for something to set them apart in terms of attracting tourism, and Maryland does have a lot of [War of 1812] sites. You can’t beat Fort McHenry,” said Ann Wass, a historian at Riversdale House Museum in Riverdale, where the Bladensburg reenactment was staged.

Maryland can never pack the historical punch of neighboring Virginia.

The Old Dominion is tops in the country for battlefields of the Civil War, which has a more enduring legacy than even the Revolution. Virginia also boasts Jamestown, Yorktown and Williamsburg.

Still, the Free State is putting the best spin on what it’s got. That’s Wass’s approach toward the Bladensburg rout: “We think this was a wake-up call. When the Baltimoreans heard the British were coming, they were ready.”

For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/
mccartney.

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