Commemorating history can be classified into two basic groups. Good history, when we win, when the human spirit soars, when we feel good about the result, well, that’s easy.
On the other hand, bad history is the kind we’d rather forget or not talk about.
Yesterday, the National Park Service at Fort Washington tackled the latter. In late August 1814, the morale of our young nation sunk to depths about as low as ever seen. The British whipped us at Bladensburg, then sacked and burned Washington. Over on the Potomac River, late in the late afternoon of August 27, all seven warships of the Potomac Squadron bombarded Fort Washington (then known as Fort Warburton). The American forces retreated without a shot fired. Four miles upstream, Alexandria waved the white flag of surrender. The commander at Fort Washington, Captain Samuel Dyson, was court marshaled and convicted.
The events that took place at Fort Washington were commemorated yesterday. For me, Fort Washington was one of those “still-to-visit-and-why-the-heck-haven’t-yet” places.
If you haven’t been, you don’t what you’re missing.
The National Park Service provided a series of events, including a re-enactment of the court martial of Captain Dyson. Outgunned, and believing he was about to be pinched from both sides, he ordered the fort to be blown up and the troops to evacuate.
I was not able to attend the re-created trial, but Patrick O’Neill touches on it in his book, "To Annoy or Destroy the Enemy, The Battle of the White House after the Burning of Washington." It is the definitive account of the battle that had been poorly covered by historians.
O'Neill points out the majority of the blame for the damage to Fort Warburton was put on Dyson’s shoulders and he was the scapegoat. The Navy discharged him and took away his pension.
Fort Washington is a jewel, with great views of the Virginia side and into Washington, plenty of interpretive markers, and a small book store and museum. It should be noted the first fort was located below the current one. The second was returned to the Department of Interior in 1946.