So we all know the dastardly British burned Washington, DC in a orgy of destruction (more on that tomorrow), but surely our stout American yeomen put up a stiff resistance before succumbing to the overwhelming British hordes, a la Bunker Hill?
Sadly, no, it was not the finest moment in American military history. Despite the lessons of the Revolution, the American political system was deeply dubious of a standing Army, and relied heavily on a militia system. Unlike Regulars, militia were locally raised, much cheaper to maintain, and unlikely to provide a power base to potentially rival the Federal government. Extremely unlikely, as events would show, as they proved unable to fight their way out of a paper bag.
So befuddled by poor leadership, 6,000 some American militia troops gathered on the banks of the Anacostia River to try and ward off roughly 4,500 British soldiers and sailors. The American commander, to use the term loosely, General William Winder, managed after many reverses to actually get his soldiers on the field, and pointing, roughly, in the right direction before being Royally smacked around. The objective of the American Army at this point, if you can use that term, was to defend the bridge across the Anacostia and deny it's use to the British. Obviously, they failed, but let's give General Winder a little credit. He did manage not to get captured. So he showed some ability to learn.
The one solitary bit of pride we can derive from this debacle was the performance of about 500 sailors and Marines under the command of Commodore Joshua Barney, USN. Having scuttled their ships to prevent their capture by the British, Commodore Barney marched them to Bladensburg to assist in the defense of Washington. They formed a secondary line on the high ground a bit under a mile back. While the initial line crumbled quickly, the sailors and Marines fought until their ammunition gave out, then continued with cutlasses and pikes until finally overrun by the British. Unlike the militia, who, in the words of fugitive slave turned Naval gunner Charles Ball remarked, "ran like sheep chased by dogs." Commodore Barney was himself wounded and abandoned to the British on his own orders.
Well that's all fine and good, but what of it remains to this day? Well, it's quite off the beaten tourist path, but the grounds of the Battle of Bladensburg are close to the current Bladensburg Waterfront Park, near the intersection of US 1 and MD 450, just over the northeast border from DC. I don't know if I'd recommend it as a top site in DC, but if you have some time or you live around here, it's a quaint little park on the banks of the Anacostia River. It has several interpretive signs about the Battle, as well as other local history, and some great canoeing and kayaking options. Bring a picnic lunch though, because Bladensburg as a town has a feel of a place time forgot and is lacking in dining options. The river silted up, the railroad built a bypass, and most of the historic town has been replaced by industrial facilities and highways. The park is nice, though.
For a more tranquil experience, just down US 1 towards DC is Ft. Lincoln Cemetery, a forgotten island in the sprawl of Northeast DC and Prince George's County, Maryland). You're welcome to drive through the Cemetery, and as you do so, take a turn behind the majestic post World War II mausoleum. You'll find a nice little marker dedicated to the 500 Marines under Commodore Barney (guess they just ignore the sailors). This is the site of their heroic stand. No kidding, pull in here if you happen to be driving down U.S. 1. It's well worth a few minutes of your time to tour the place. I was quite surprised at it.
Not a whole lot else remains. Commodore Barney has a street in northeast DC and a traffic circle in the southeast corner of Capitol Hill, just over the Anacostia River along Pennsylvania Avenue. Gen Winder, for some bizarre reason, had the Winder Building near the White House named for him. Other than that, American History has swallowed the Battle of Bladensburg whole.