Retracing the 'Bladensburg Races'

Book Takes Closer Look at 1814 British Victory in Maryland

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Listen: Pitch Describes the Battle

Marker

Monument to the Battle of Bladensburg. hide caption

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Cover of 'The Burrning of Washington'

Cover of 'The Burrning of Washington' by Anthony Pitch. hide caption

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A short distance from Washington, D.C.'s national mall, with its grand monuments to past presidents and the men and women who served in America's 20th century wars, rests a more modest and unheralded memorial.

A small historical marker in Fort Lincoln Cemetery reveals the location of one of the nation's most historic military engagements: the Battle of Bladensburg, fought against the British during the War of 1812.

NPR's Liane Hansen talks with historian Anthony Pitch, author of The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814, about the battle and the ensuing British occupation of the nation's capital.

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The Aug. 24, 1814, battle featured a rare battlefied appearance of an American president: James Madison. And Secretary of State James Monroe — who made an unauthorized realignment of the troops that some say contributed to the defeat — was also on the field.

Bladensburg is commonly viewed as a rout of American troops. The battle was referred to at the time as the "Bladensburg Races," after men were seen dropping their weapons and running from the field of battle. As Pitch points out, even some of the information on the historical marker leans toward this version of events.

But the facts point to a more heated encounter that included instances of American heroism, particularly by Commodore Joshua Barney and his Marines. Yet at the end of the day, the American forces were ordered by Gen. William Winder to fall back.

Later that evening, the British continued on to set the White House ablaze. They burned the U.S. Capitol and other government buildings before abandoning the city the following day.

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