Before donning period costume, Baker wondered: did blacks fight in War of 1812?


County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, wearing 19th-century Naval uniform in his office. (N/A/courtesy of the Prince George County Executive Office)

For the celebration of the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 in Bladensburg this weekend, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III has decided to dress the part.

Historical groups and volunteers have planed a series of events marking the “forgotten war,” when the British invaded the United States, marched through what is now Prince George’s County and set fire to the White House, the U.S. Capitol and other parts of federal Washington.

At an all-day event Saturday in Bladensburg (where the Americans failed to stop the Brits), Baker — a history buff — promises to don a 1802-style U.S. Navy Lieutenant Dress coat, epaulets and all.

Baker flirted with the idea of getting into costume on Wednesday, when he joined Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller in Aquasco to dedicate a highway marker to Brigadier General Leonard Covington, a famous Marylander who fought in the Battle of Baltimore.

But he and his aides decided against it — and not because of the heat and humidity.

Press secretary Scott Peterson was concerned about how a costumed county executive would play during a tumultuous news week — when the county was mourning the violent death of two three-year-olds and the nation was focused on racial unrest in Missouri and multiple crises overseas.

As they debated the sartorial decision, they found themselves also asking a historical question that they considered particularly significant for majority-black Prince George’s, and for Baker, who is African American.

Did blacks play much of a role in the War of 1812?

Yes they did, came the answer, after an e-mail and a little research by Aaron Marcavitch and Myron Peterson of Maryland Milestones and the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area Inc., the group helping to organize the Bicentennial festivities.

Hundreds of escaped slaves joined both sides of the fight. Some historians estimate that up to 15 percent of the U.S. Navy was comprised of freed and escaped blacks. On the British side, an estimated 4,000 black men fought for His Majesty’s Navy, hoping that by doing so, they would win a chance at freedom.

“The [U.S.] Navy, by and large, was much more liberal about those that participated compared with the Army at that time,” Marcavitch said. “Good sailors were harder to find than boots on the ground.”

Maryland-born Charles Ball, one of the more famous African American soldiers to participate in the battle, enlisted in 1813 (despite its name, the war would grind on another two years).

Ball, who escaped slavery in the south and declared himself free in the north, served as a seaman and cook in the Chesapeake Flotilla under Commodore Joshua Barney until the fleet was sunk to evade enemy capture.

Ball was with Barney when the British landed at Benedict, Md., on the shores of the Patuxent River, and marched through Upper Marlboro on their way to the nation’s capitol, according to his 1837 memoir. He manned the cannons in the Battle of Bladensburg in 1814 — 200 years ago this Sunday.

No blacks were Naval officers, however, so in that sense the 19th-century threads that Baker will wear on Saturday could be considered a bit anachronistic. He will attend festivities at Bladensburg Waterfront Park, where more than 5,000 people are expected to gather, including Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).

Arelis Hernández covers Prince George’s County as part of The Washington Post's local staff.

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