Was it a brave, last-ditch effort to defend the country? Or a humiliating military disaster, with U.S. forces taking to their heels before the bloody British?

Sunday is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bladensburg, down in Maryland, in which an overwhelmingly volunteer American force stood between Washington and the most powerful army in the world.

We lost, of course. And that same day, the young capital in the miasmal swamp went up in flames.

Thus, the questions about one of the more puzzling battles in our history.

A pretty puzzling war, that War of 1812. Not that well-known. Maybe because, face it, it's one we didn't win.

"I think people do know at least one part of it better than they think they do," says Aaron Marcavitch, executive director of Anacostia Trails Heritage Area Inc. He's helping spearhead the celebrations this weekend in Bladensburg. "Every time they sing, 'The rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,' that's the War of 1812 they're singing about."

Correct. A few weeks after Bladensburg came the Battle of Baltimore, a furious siege in which the British tried to seize what they knew was our fairest port. We held on. "Francis Scott Key was there at the siege of Fort McHenry, and he saw the hundreds of Congreve rockets the British lobbed at the fort," Marcavitch says. Key wrote a poem, later put to the tune of an old drinking song - "and now, we sing about the War of 1812 at every ball game."

It's likely, Marcavitch says, that many soldiers fighting the British at Bladensburg "had more loyalty to Baltimore than to Washington. One was very well-established, and the other was pretty new. But the symbolism of a British invasion wasn't lost on either side."

The Battle of Bladensburg itself was a curious clash. "I think the outcome was less a matter of our soldiers cutting and running," Marcavitch says, "and more a result of all the political infighting and cross-purposes among the leaders." Among the names were Secretary of State (and future President) James Monroe, Gen. Tobias Stansbury, Gen. William H. Winder, Brigadier Gen. Walter Smith, and Col. William Beall. President James Madison observed the battle, although, with good discretion, he got the heck out of there.

"Part of it was poor communications," Marcavitch says, "and part of it was not wanting to do what your superior was telling you to do." During the two days before, a very confused Stansbury somehow took his troops from a commanding position overlooking the British route to a brickyard of inferior advantage.

American forces (close to 7,000) outnumbered the British (around 4,500), and included about 6,500 hastily assembled militia, more or less volunteers. "Many of these men fighting in the fields were farmers the day before," Marcavitch says, "and you can't blame them all the way, when the Congreve rockets start roaring overhead, for thinking better of it."

The British troops, under Maj. Gen. Robert Ross, got there around noon. And much of the fighting was spirited. This is where we should give credit to what bravery was truly shown. For the record, American fighters killed more British soldiers. "These men were staring right at the biggest army in the world," Marcavitch says, "and many stood their ground and fought."

And many didn't. As things collapsed for the Americans, first one group of militia, then another, then another, hightailed it. Many were still hightailing it through the streets of Washington as the British advanced with torches ablaze. Disgrace was such that the battle became known as the "Bladensburg Races."

In less than a year, the war was over. One of our greatest victories, the Battle of New Orleans ("We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin' / Wasn't nigh as many as there was a while ago," as the Johnny Horton hit went), was fought after the diplomatic end, the signing of the Treaty of Ghent. The British went away. And the young country remained intact. Whew.

Bladensburg reminds us that, win or lose, war is a mess. Losers win, winners slink away. In the War of 1812, as in the Revolutionary War a generation earlier, Americans prevailed by our knack for holding on through very bad times. In a war in which we lost our capital, we somehow held onto our country.

This weekend in Bladensburg is the Undaunted Weekend Battle of Bladensburg Reenactment and Festival. "There's a lot to learn and celebrate," Marcavitch says. All of Prince George's County has been observing the war this year, and Bladensburg is arguably the acme, with Saturday's battle reenactment and military encampment. There's a dedication of a monument and memorial, tours, and lots of food and music. It continues through Sunday, just a two-hour hop down I-95.

Sunday, there's not one but two races. One is called the Flee the British 5K. You don't want to miss that.

John Timpane is an Inquirer staff writer.