ARLINGTON, Va. - On Aug. 24, 1814, the Battle of Bladensburg (Maryland) took place. This campaign of the War of 1812 directly preceded the advance of the British army into Washington, D.C., that evening, where advancing forces burned the Capitol building, the White House and the Library of Congress.
Hurricane-force rains the following day helped extinguish the blazes around the nation’s capital. Prior to the British incursion, State Department officials helped spirit documents of the Founding Fathers into hiding in Virginia.
The burning of Washington proved a humbling defeat, and the Bladensburg episode became synonymous with the failure of the American forces to hold back the British. Ultimately, poor leadership and battlefield preparation stood at the core of the American defeat at Bladensburg.
Yet deeper scrutiny of events before and during the battle lends support that it should not be viewed as an abject failure on all levels. This conflict demonstrated how the militia system could muster troops from multiple community and state-organized military forces under the pressures of a battle campaign. Section 1 of the Militia Act of 1792 expressed that the ability of the president of the United States to call forth “state or states… as [may be judged] as sufficient,” particularly with the threat of the national capital being threatened by British forces. So militia forces from the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania assembled according to this statute.
Two active National Guard units received battle participation credit in the Battle of Bladensburg, among 12 existing units in the Army National Guard. Maryland’s Fifth Regiment, lineal predecessors of today’s 1st Battalion, 175th Infantry Regiment, Maryland National Guard, and the First Brigade of the Columbian Division, today’s 372nd Military Police Battalion, District of Columbia National Guard, fought among the first and second lines of defense respectively.
Maryland realized that its militia forces offered the best hope to defend the port city of Baltimore. By engaging in an active defense, the Maryland militia was later able to harass the British advance during the Battle of North Point. This delaying engagement and the Battle of Baltimore that lasted through Sept. 14, 1814, marked the turning point of the war.
The state of Maryland is commemorating bicentennial of the Battle of Baltimore and the composition of “The Star Spangled Banner” in September 2014. All this pageantry would not be taking place had the city of Baltimore fallen to British forces 200 years ago.