It is 24 August 1814, and our nation’s capital is ablaze!
British forces are systematically torching every government building save three: The US Patent Office, the U.S. Marine and Navy Barracks, and the U. S. Marine Corps Commandants house. This is in retaliation for the burning of York (Toronto), Ontario, Canada the previous year by United States armed forces. But what events precipitated this inferno of national epic proportions?
Five days before, the British army had landed a considerable force near Benedict, Maryland and had marched inland near the town of Bladensburg. There they were confronted by a hastily assembled U.S. force consisting of Regular Army units, Maryland Militia, Volunteers, and U.S. Naval and Marine detachments. After an initial exchange of fire, the British breached the U.S. defenses and secured the west bank of the Anacostia River (Potomac’s eastern branch). Due to a combination of British firepower, including the new Congreve rockets, and the U.S. commander issuing unclear and confusing orders, the United States Army broke and began to flee.
The retreat soon turned into a complete rout! The battle is often referred to as “the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms” and “the most humiliating episode in American history”.  This rout is also known as the “Bladensburg Races” which left the road to Washington wide open, save for the courageous self-sacrifice of the 103 U.S. Marines and 300 Sailors under the command of Commodore Joshua Barney. Although greatly outnumbered, they fought for over four hours repulsing one charge after another in furious hand-to-hand combat. Eventually they were overwhelmed, but this gallant struggle allowed U.S. government officials including the first lady, Dolly Madison sufficient time to evacuate Washington and prevent their capture.
That evening, the British entered Washington and immediately set fire to the Treasury building and the yet uncompleted White House and U.S. Capitol buildings. The next day saw the rest of the government buildings destroyed. The US Patent Office was saved due to the pleas of the Superintendent of Patents, William Thornton. The other two buildings not destroyed were the U.S. Marine Barracks and Commandant’s House. The British Commander ordered this as a sign of respect for their unprecedented gallantry at Bladensburg earlier in the day. This significant event is memorialized in Joanna Blake’s sculpture “Undaunted in Battle”, depicting a wounded Commodore Barney being assisted by a U.S. Marine and U.S. African-American Sailor.
Washington would rise from the ashes of destruction like a phoenix and be rebuilt to become the symbol of American democracy and freedom for the world. And from the disgrace of Bladensburg the modern U.S. Army would come into its own. They would later distinguish themselves at the Battle of North Point, Maryland and other battles yet to be fought. President Madison learned that there is a significant difference between a well-trained and commanded standing army versus a hastily organized militia. The outstanding defense of the U.S. Marines and Naval personnel at Bladensburg became ingrained in the stellar lore of their respective histories.
Today we once again face an enemy even more destructive than the British in 1814, the pension files of those who sacrificed so much during the War of 1812 are being attacked without mercy by the ravages of light, air pollution, high humidity, mold, and deterioration, thus making the documents yellow and brittle with age. We really have only two choices, either allow this destructive agents destroy the treasures of the pension files much like those who ran at Bladensburg did to Washington, or stand up and be counted by donating to the PERSERVE THE PENSIONS-WAR OF 1812 PENSION PROJECT as did the Marines and Sailors did at Bladensburg in allowing government personnel time to evacuate Washington. This is our chance to become valiant defenders of the memories contained in the War of 1812 pension files.
The Federation of Genealogical Societies is helping to raise funds to digitize the pension records of many of the heroes of The War of 1812. The need is greater than ever to raise these funds, as the time grows shorter to do so. Let us show our strength and courageous and not wither under the pressure of apathy to show not only the descendants of these valiant men; but to the nation as a whole that we can successfully complete a cause that is vital to the preservation of the records of our great nation!
With the 200th anniversary of the start of the War of 1812, the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) initiated the PERSERVE THE PENSIONS-WAR OF 1812 PENSION PROJECT. FGS is proud to be leading this national effort to support this project and is actively seeking donations from genealogical, lineage, historical, patriotic and military heritage societies, as well as interested corporations and individuals. Ancestry.com is providing a dollar-for-dollar match of each donation through a provision of services. To learn more and to contribute to the Preserve the Pensions project, visit www.preservethepensions.org.
This multi-year project consists of scanning the pension files at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington D.C. and creating a searchable index to the digital images. FGS and NARA have targeted the War of 1812 Pension Applications as a high priority project based on the value of the content for genealogists and historians as well as the importance of preserving these fragile records. At present two digital cameras are in operation with a third camera anticipated shortly. You can help support this third camera to digitize the files even faster.
The files contain documentation submitted to support a claim, such as the original application form, affidavits, and statements from witnesses.
 Howe, Daniel Walker (2007). What Hath God Wrought: the Transformation of America, 1815-1848. Oxford University Press US. P.63. ISBN 978-)-19-507894-7.