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Retracing the 'Bladensburg Races'

Monument to the Battle of Bladensburg.
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Monument to the Battle of Bladensburg.
Cover of 'The Burrning of Washington' by Anthony Pitch.
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Cover of 'The Burrning of Washington' by Anthony Pitch.

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.

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.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liane Hansen
Liane Hansen has been the host of NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday for 20 years. She brings to her position an extensive background in broadcast journalism, including work as a radio producer, reporter, and on-air host at both the local and national level. The program has covered such breaking news stories as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy, Jr., and the Columbia shuttle tragedy. In 2004, Liane was granted an exclusive interview with former weapons inspector David Kay prior to his report on the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The show also won the James Beard award for best radio program on food for a report on SPAM.