Ah the eighteen-year-old male. Is there anything so omnipotent, so immortal, so perfectly bullet-proof--at least in the mind of the eighteen-year-old male.
John Pendleton Kennedy was eighteen at the time of the Battle of Bladensburg in 1814. He had an eye for the young ladies, a "dashy" uniform, and a head full of romantic notions of the glory of war. It was all a grand adventure, as he saw it, at least until the shooting started. The young private, a volunteer with the Maryland Militia, had gone so far as to pack his dancing shoes along with the rest of his gear when he had set out for the battleground. These were essential, he later explained, since after they had beaten the British army and saved the city of Washington President Madison was sure to invite the victorious soldiers to a ball at the White House. It simply wouldn't do to arrive in combat boots.
The night before the battle, there was a great deal of talk among the men. The night was marked by excitement, confusion, frequent moves of the camp, and a lot of sleeplessness. Somehow, in all the hubbub, Kennedy's boots were misplaced. When the Battle of Bladensburg began, he had turned out wearing the fancy dancing shoes on his feet.
Today, August 24th, is the anniversary of Private Kennedy's first taste of battle. It is also the anniversary of the burning of Washington, which tells you all you need to know about how the battle turned out. The Battle of Bladensburg is usually referred to as the US military's most humiliating defeat. Not that there was great loss of life. Frankly the soldiers, mostly green untested militiamen like our young private, were running too fast to suffer much injury. The pursuing British soldiers fared worse. At least twelve of them died of heatstroke trying to keep up with the stampeding enemy.
Private Kennedy summed up the day in his own plucky way. "We made a fine scamper of it," he said later.
It would be easy to laugh at young Kennedy's naive cheerfulness. I admit I've done so. But lately I've come to appreciate the Private Kennedys of the world. Maybe, just maybe, when you're going into the worst battle of your life, it's not such a bad thing to wear your dancing shoes.