Independence Day celebrations are set to burst in the air across the United States on Friday but no rocket’s red glare will illuminate as much history as the celebrations in the National Mall this weekend. In addition to the spectacular fireworks display in the nation’s capital on Friday, the National Park Service and the National Museum of American History are also commemorating the bicentennial of the 1814 burning of Washington D.C. by the British in the War of 1812 and the writing of The Star Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key.
The summer of 1814 was a critical period in the renewed war against the British. Fresh British forces, which had been freed from fighting Napoleon in Europe, had landed at Benedict, Maryland in an attempt to attack American strongholds in Maryland and Delaware directly. In late August 1814, U.S. Army, Navy and Marines under General William H. Winder made a stand at the important crossroads of Bladensburg, Maryland but were soundly defeated and routed. Many military historians call Bladensburg the worst defeat of American arms in history. The next day, British forces burst into Washington D.C. and burned federal buildings and the White House. Only a month earlier the city had celebrated its 38th Independence Day.
The defeat at Bladensburg and the sacking of Washington D.C. exposed the city of Baltimore to British attack. In September 1814, 5,000 British troops landed outside Baltimore and stormed North Point just outside the city. The British managed to push the Americans back to the city defenses, but Baltimore itself was too heavily fortified for the lightly equipped British land force. The British commander ordered a naval bombardment of Fort McHenry, which protected Baltimore harbor, in the hopes of reducing its defenses and occupying it.
The naval bombardment, which lasted throughout the night and consisted of bursting cannonade and rockets from the massed British warships in Baltimore harbor, was witnessed by Francis Scott Key who sat aboard a ship in the Patapsco River. When on the next morning the huge, over-sized American flag handmade by Mary Pickersgill and her daughter was raised in defiance over the battered Fort McHenry, the sight inspired Key to write a poem entitled The Defense of Fort McHenry, which later became The Star Spangled Banner. Mary Pickersgill’s huge flag, together with Francis Scott Key’s original manuscript, are now the centerpiece of an exhibit at the National Museum of American History and will be on public display for July 4 celebrations until Sunday, July 6.
The National Park Service is sponsoring historical tours and events throughout the month of July in the National Mall as part of its Independence Day celebrations. Visitors can learn about Joshua and William Barney in the War of 1812 as well Civil War history. On Sunday July 6th and 13th, the National Park Service is sponsoring a free historical walking tour that will commemorate the burning of Washington D.C. in 1814. The Capitol Fourth music celebrations, which occur at the bandstand in front of the Capitol Building on Friday, will be hosted by television star Tom Bergeron and include music from Frankie Vallie, John Williams, Patti Labelle, Phillip Phillips and many others. In whatever way visitors to Washington D.C. will celebrate Independence Day, the weekend will be bursting with excitement.
By Steve Killings