Memorializing defeat at Bladensburg that led to eventual victory
By Miranda S. Spivack, Published: January 6
For Joanna Blake, the sculptor who has been designing a memorial to Americans who fought at the Battle of Bladensburg during the War of 1812, the challenge was daunting. How do you create a scene that commemorates a defeat, but a defeat that would prove to be a significant turning point in an eventual U.S. victory?
“It galvanized the nation,” Blake said of the August 1814 battle. The outcome was a major setback — it opened the door for the British to sack Washington — but it alerted the country that its independence was tenuous and that a more sophisticated battle plan and military was needed. Nearly three weeks after the battle at Bladensburg, the Americans were victorious in Baltimore, where Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that became the fledgling nation’s anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“The Americans might not have had the victory at Baltimore if not for the Battle of Bladensburg,” said Blake, a Cottage City resident who worked on the National World War II Memorial in Washington before taking on the job of creating the Bladensburg memorial.
Blake, who worked on several possibilities, settled on a design that shows a wounded American Commodore Joshua Barney; Charles Ball, a former slave who served in Barney’s flotilla; and an unnamed Marine. While Barney is down and wounded, all three figures are looking up, weapons by their sides, appearing ready for whatever might come next.
Blake’s 8-by-10-foot panel, recently completed after more than two years of work, will soon go to Laran Bronze of Chester, Pa., which will make a mold before casting it in bronze. The memorial’s supporters hope that it will be installed in Balloon Park off U.S. 1 near Bladensburg around the time of the battle’s 199th anniversary in August.
But like the battle itself, the effort to create a memorial to the Americans who fought has been something of a challenge.
It was spearheaded by county residents and history buffs troubled that this significant event in Prince George’s County history had no memorial to commemorate it.
Key among them was John Giannetti, who served in the Marines and whose Brentwood sculpture studio, where monuments and memorials are created for a wide range of purposes, has been the site of much of Blake’s work. Giannetti, along with others from the Aman Trust, a local nonprofit group that supports historic preservation around Bladensburg, is trying to raise the $400,000 or so that the memorial needs to go from dream to reality.
With two years of commemorations of the War of 1812 underway throughout the Washington region, Giannetti and his colleagues have joined forces with a broader group of Prince George’s residents who are striving to let the world know that their community was the scene of several pivotal events in the War of 1812, which was sparked partly by the British navy pressing unwilling U.S. sailors into service.
County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) established a county task force that is working with a group formed by Bladensburg Mayor Walter James to try to call attention to the county’s role in the war.
All are eyeing the 2014 bicentennial of the Battle of Bladensburg as the focus for major commemorations and events.
Giannetti has long been fascinated by the battle, which took place within a few miles of the studio his family has owned since the 1930s.
“The Battle of Bladensburg is always something very prominent in my mind,” Giannetti said. “It is one of the most misunderstood things. It was always looked upon as a great disgrace, but really that is not what happened. We were just caught unprepared.”
Giannetti, who has worked steadily on the project for nearly three years, is nothing if not prepared. He hopes the memorial will help call attention to Barney’s stand at Bladensburg. Unlike the civilian militia, the commodore’s detachment — made up of Marines and sailors, including Ball, who had been forced to scuttle a little fleet operating on the Patuxent River — did not retreat.
The work originally was titled “Undaunted in Defeat,” but Giannetti said that former Prince George’s Planning Board chairman Samuel Parker suggested the more optimistic “Undaunted in Battle” — the title the sculpture will carry.
The project got a big boost in December. The Maryland Board of Public Works — Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), a big supporter of the state’s War of 1812 commemorative efforts; state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D); and Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) — approved a $125,000 bond bill to help fund the memorial. Francis de C. Hamilton, a Scot who is a descendant of British General Robert Ross, Barney’s nemesis at the Battle of Bladensburg, has also promised a donation. The Aman Trust put in $60,000. And the county’s planning commission already has donated the land in Balloon Park.
Giannetti believes the vision he and colleagues from the Aman Trust had for the memorial is close to being realized, though backers are still about $60,000 short of what they say is necessary to create a well-marked site with sufficient historical markers.
“One epic moment survived that mournful day,” Giannetti said of Barney’s stand in the battle that historians have called “the Bladensburg races” because of the precipitous retreat of the militia.
“This American force” — Barney’s — “refused to retreat.”