Under a murky, drizzling sky, four American militiamen, dressed in their 19th century uniforms and replica weapons in hand, surveyed the land. Then they took their place in line, reading over the barbecue menu on the side of a parked food truck.
It was that kind of afternoon at Bladensburg Waterfront Park on Saturday, as a brigade of War of 1812 reenactors performed for dozens of spectators commemorating the bicentennial anniversary of the Battle of Bladensburg. The actors mingled with families as they told the story of how American forces fought off British troops who would later make their way to Washington and famously burn the White House.
While the Battle of Bladensburg has gone down in history as a defeat of American troops, on Saturday — the day before the battle’s official anniversary — the festivities focused more on the resolve of the fallen American troops, including a dedication of a monument titled “Undaunted in Battle.” The 20-foot-tall bronze and limestone memorial, sculpted by Joanna Campbell Blake, depicts a U.S. Marine and Charles Ball, a former slave, assisting an injured Commodore Joshua Barney.
It was the kind of historical lesson many on hand said they came to be exposed to.
For David Black, 43, of Arlington, the afternoon festivities were a chance for his 4-year-old daughter Eleanora and 2-year-old son Craig to have fun and be exposed to history.
“I think it’s good to educate kids on the history of where they’re from,” Black said.
Black added that he wanted to learn more about the War of 1812 himself, especially when he realized he couldn’t answer his daughter’s question as to why the British were the “bad guys” of the war.
But Margaret Schmidt, 78, of Howard County, who rode a free shuttle to the park, said she was dismayed to see that most of the passengers were in her age group.
As someone whose parents instilled a love for history in her at a young age, and someone whose high school history teachers in Michigan would ask for her input in preparing class lectures, Schmidt, a retired Prince George’s County teacher, worries that younger generations aren’t being exposed to enough American history.
“I feel sad that so many people don’t know our history,” Schmidt said.
Much to Schmidt’s joy, families with young children braved the gloomy weather and started arriving at the park grounds shortly after noon.
Elected officials including Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D) spoke at the monument’s dedication, reenforcing how the spirit of the American troops in the War of 1812 trumps a defeat.
“The lesson of the Battle of Bladensburg I believe is this: Sometimes, some days, victory is not ours, but all the time and every day, ours is the struggle,” O’Malley said.
Throughout the afternoon, the crowds visited tents manned by local historical societies, participated in arts and crafts workshops and even stepped back in time into a historic trade village complete with spinning wheels, a blacksmithing family and militiamen’s tarp tents.
There was even a royal navy surgeon lecturing a captivated audience on the intricacies of surgery in 1814. The festival continues Sunday with more activities such as a 5K race.
Another spin on the commemoration events came from Dave Eke, lord mayor of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, who traveled with members of his town’s War of 1812 Bicentennial Committee to see how Maryland would handle the fanfare.
“We’re commemorating the War of 1812, but it’s the celebration of 200 years of peace that have [been a] subsequent result of that war with our neighbor to the south,” Eke said.
The war holds a different place in Canadian history than it does in the heart and minds of Americans, he said. Canadians celebrate the War of 1812 as a foundation for their nation’s existence.
As with most war reenactors, the War of 1812 soldiers Saturday took their positions seriously. In many cases, they chose not to give their real names so they could stay in character. And they weren’t fazed by the rain. For his part, Commodore Joshua Barney, whose real name is Myron Peterson, 58, from Anne Arundel, said the Chesapeake Flotilla Artillery was ready for anything Saturday.
When asked what might happen to any 21st-century civilians should a “battle” break out, Barney said: “Any civilian that gets in the way does so at their own peril.”
A reenactor who played President James Madison, who declined to give his real name, added that should the battle go awry, the nation would endure.
“The foundation of the American republic does not rest on any building or edifice. It rests on the spirit of the American people,” Madison said.