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Battle of Bladensburg, 24 August 1814

Battle of Bladensburg, 24 August 1814


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Battle of Bladensburg, 24 August 1814

The battle of Bladensburg, 24 August 1814, was a British victory during the War of 1812 that left Washington vulnerable to attack. The fall of Napoleon had allowed the British to move relatively large numbers of troops across the Atlantic. Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane soon had over 4,000 men at Bermuda, amongst them a contingent 3,000 strong under Major-General Robert Ross that had sailed directly from south west France. Cochrane decided to use his new army to support Rear-Admiral Sir George Cockburn, who had spent the first part of the summer campaigning in that area.

Cochrane and Cockburn decided to attack a fleet of American gunboats that had taken shelter in the Patuxent River, and if possible move on to attack Washington. The Patuxent River runs from north to south, east of Washington, and was big enough in 1812 to allow the British to operate a fleet of small boats on the river.

Ross’s troops landed close to the mouth of the Patuxent River on 19 August and began to march up the river towards the gunboats. On 22 August the commander of that fleet, Commodore Barney, destroyed fifteen of his gunboats and retreated towards Washington, hoping to defend the road that led through Bladensburg to the capital.

Washington was very vulnerable to attack. Most members of the American government believed that Baltimore was far more likely to be attacked than Washington and so the capital was left unfortified. Over the spring of 1814 this began to worry some members of the government, and so on 2 July a new Military District No. 10 was created around the city. Unfortunately General William H. Winder, a Marylander and a relative of the Governor of the state was appointed to command the district. Winder’s recent military experience had come on the Niagara Front, where he had been captured by the British at the battle of Stoney Creek after mistaking British for American troops. Winder had been exchanged in the spring of 1814 and was a purely political appointment, made by President Madison against the wishes of the Secretary of War.

In theory Winder had command of 1,000 regulars and 15,000 militia, but when the British landed he only had 1,500-1,600 men under his command and most of them were near to Baltimore. Winder did not perform well as the British approached Washington, he did have a difficult task. The British had a choice of routes they could have taken from the Patuxent. If Washington was the target they could move west to attack Fort Washington and then move up the Potomac or north west to Bladensburg, cross the East Branch river and attack Washington from the north east, or even move north to attack Baltimore.

Accordingly as the British moved up the Patuxent to Upper Marlsborough and then moved towards Bladensburg, Winder failed to act. On 21 August he was only five miles south west of Upper Marlsborough. On the next day he pulled back to Old Fields, and then on 23 August retired into Washington. On the previous day the population had begun to abandon the capital, although President Madison and his cabinet remained in the city, where they would play a part in the American defeat.

Despite Winder’s inactivity, Bladensburg was not entirely undefended. Barney’s 400 sailors had been joined by 1,450 local militia and 420 regulars, under the command of General Tobias Stansbury. He had taken up a defensive position on the western bank of the East Branch River. Secretary of State Monroe arrived on the scene on the morning of 24 August, and began to interfere with Stansbury’s deployment. He was followed by 5,000 more militia, and finally by General Winder himself, who arrived to take command just before the British attacked.

The British only had 2,600 troops, under the command of Major-General Ross, but they were all experienced regulars. The American position seemed quite strong, at least to General Ross. He described the Americans as being “strongly posed on very commanding heights, formed into two lines”, with artillery covering the bridge over the East Branch.

The main weakness in the American position was the lack of regular troops. When the British attacked over the bridge the militia only stood their ground for a short time, before abandoning the field. Part of the panic was apparently caused by Congreve Rockets fired into their ranks. Only Barney’s sailors stood and fought, until they were outflanked by the British, at which point Barney ordered them to retreat. Barney himself was badly wounded in the fighting.

Although the battle rapidly turned into a British victory, it was not without cost. The British suffered 64 dead and 185 wounded, three times the American casualties of 26 dead and 51 wounded. The lack of American prisoners was attributed to the speed of their retreat.

The British victory at Bladensburg left Washington exposed to attack. Madison and his cabinet were forced to flee into the surrounding countryside, while later that day the British entered the city. In the previous year the Americans had captured York, the capital of Upper Canada, and burnt the parliament buildings and Government House. In retaliation the British now burnt the White House, the Capitol, the Treasury and the War Office and seized large quantities of munitions. On the next day they began their march back to their ships.

Books on the War of 1812 | Subject Index: War of 1812


Battle of Bladensburg

The Battle of Bladensburg, August 24, 1814, ended in defeat for the United States and cleared the way for British troops to invade Washington, DC. © Richard Schlecht

“The enemy are in full march to Washington. Have the materials to destroy the bridges.”
– Secretary of State James Monroe to President James Madison, August 23, 1814

As British ships and land troops moved northward from the landing at Benedict, Maryland, they kept the Americans guessing. Would the target be Baltimore or Washington?

By the time it was clear that the invasion force was heading to Washington, the Americans had little time to prepare. They hastily established three lines of defense near the port town of Bladensburg, where the British would cross the Eastern Branch of the Potomac River, known today as the Anacostia.

The opposing troops clashed just west of Bladensburg on August 24, 1814, in three hours of intense fighting. Though superior in number, most of the American defensive forces were poorly trained, ill-equipped, and positioned so the lines could not support one another. They were no match for the seasoned British army.

The British stormed the bridge and, after one failed attempt, crossed the river and pushed the Americans back. The first defensive line folded into the second, and soon confusion and panic swept through the American ranks.

Only the third defensive line made a heroic stand. There, Commodore Joshua Barney, along with about 400 flotillamen, 114 US Marines and militiamen, held off the British advance until the defenders were outflanked and their commander, Barney, was wounded.

President James Madison and several cabinet members were on the field of battle that day. Seeing the start of an American rout, they beat a hasty retreat to Washington, sending word ahead to First Lady Dolley Madison and others to save what possessions they could and flee.

That night the British victors occupied the Nation’s Capital and destroyed most of the public buildings. The defeat at Bladensburg and the enemy occupation of the capital made August 24 the darkest day of the war for the United States.


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The Battle of Bladensburg (1814)

On August 24, 1814, British forces broke camp at Melwood Park and moved northwest to Bladensburg. The Baltimore militia, under the command of General Tobias Sansbury, was positioned west of the Anacostia River along the Bladensburg-Washington Road in the area of present day Cottage City, Colmar Manor, and Fort Lincoln Cemetery. Marching in the intense heat along the river road paralleling today's Kenilworth Avenue, the British arrived in Bladensburg about noon and attacked the American defenders shortly thereafter.

When the British forces led by Major-General Robert Ross entered Bladensburg by marching down Lowndes Hill, American riflemen fired. However, Ross's infantry continued undaunted toward the bridge over the Anacostia, which the ill-prepared Americans had not yet destroyed. American General Winder's men had since moved behind Stansbury's as brigades from Annapolis arrived from the east.

Seized by fear of exploding British Congreve rockets and uncertain of any rear-line support from Winder, the Americans rushed to the rear of the battle line. Here, Ross dealt a crushing blow by bringing up another regiment that forded the stream and confronted a Baltimore regiment. The rest of the American forces retreated to the rear, thus opening the turnpike leading to Washington for the British. The only resistance came

when Commodore Barney and his 500 sailors engaged the British.

Commodore Barney and his seamen made a heroic stand in Bladensburg against overwhelming odds. Even after several thousand supporting militiamen had fled in the face of British bayonets and fire, Barney's men stood their ground. Armed with hand pikes and cutlasses, they launched a successful counterattack against the British infrantry with cries of "Board'em! Board'em!" Only when hopelessly surrounded did Barney, by then seriously wounded, order his officers to disarm their guns and retreat. At their commander's insistence, they reluctantnly left him lying next to one of his cannons to await capture. After being captured by the British, Barney was congratulated for his bravery and released.

With the American forces vanquished and in full retreat, the British marched into the nation's capital, Washington, D.C., and sacked and burned significant portions of the city, including the Capitol and the White House.

Text with lower-middle picture: A contemporary British illustration depicting the invasion and burning of Washington, D.C., in August of 1814. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Text with upper-right photo: British Rear-Admiral Cockburn joined forces with Major-General Robert Ross for the Battle of Bladensburg. Courtesy of The

National Maritime Museum, London.

Topics and series. This historical marker is listed in this topic list: War of 1812. In addition, it is included in the Battlefield Trails - War of 1812 series list. A significant historical year for this entry is 1814.

Location. 38° 56.15′ N, 76° 56.313′ W. Marker is in Bladensburg, Maryland, in Prince George's County. Marker can be reached from the intersection of Annapolis Road (Maryland Route 450) and 46th Street. Marker is in Bladensburg Waterfront Park, .2 miles south of the entrance at this intersection. Touch for map. Marker is in this post office area: Bladensburg MD 20710, United States of America. Touch for directions.

Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. Historic Bladensburg Waterfront Park - Port Town History (within shouting distance of this marker) First Unmanned Balloon Ascension (1784) (within shouting distance of this marker) The Incidental Cause of the Star-Spangled Banner (1814) (within shouting distance of this marker) Dinosaur Alley (within shouting distance of this marker) Duels and the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds (within shouting distance of this marker) Encampment of Coxey's Army (1894) (about 300 feet away, measured in a direct line) Colonial Ropemaking (about 400 feet away) The First Telegraph Line (1844) (about 500 feet away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Bladensburg.

More about this marker. Another "Battle of Bladensburg" marker is located inside Fort Lincoln Cemetery, about 1.5 miles east, where Commodore Barney and his marines made their "heroic stand".


Maryland Invaded by Land

By mid-August 1814, Americans living along the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay were surprised to see the sails of British warships on the horizon. There had been raiding parties striking American targets for some time, but this appeared to be a considerable force.

The British landed at Benedict, Maryland, and began marching toward Washington. On August 24, 1814, at Bladensburg, on the outskirts of Washington, British regulars, many of whom had fought in ​the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, fought poorly equipped American troops.

The fighting at Bladensburg was intense at times. Naval gunners, fighting on land and led by the heroic Commodore Joshua Barney, delayed the British advance for a time. But the Americans could not hold. The federal troops retreated, along with observers from the government including President James Madison.


Events.

To piece together what Dolley saw as she viewed the battle I studied several ancient & detailed sources, then diced them up and put them into chronological order. I didn’t use everything, just the parts I deemed useful.

Mahan = Sea Power In Its Relations To The War Of 1812 By Captain A.T. Mahan. Download.

Lossing = Pictorial Field-Book Of The War Of 1812. By Benson J. Lossing 1869, Ch 39. Read Online

Gleig = The Campaigns of the British Army at Washington and New Orleans, 1814-1815 by Rev. G. R. Gleig, M.A., Chaplain-General. Download.

Before 24 August 1814

Mahan – Secretary of War thought he could assemble one thousand regulars, independent of artillerists in the forts.[2] The Secretary of the Navy could furnish one hundred and twenty marines, and the crews of Barney’s flotilla, estimated at five hundred.[2] For the rest, dependence must be upon militia, a call for which was issued to the number of ninety-three thousand, five hundred. [370] Of these, fifteen thousand were assigned to Winder, as follows: From Virginia, two thousand from Maryland, six thousand from Pennsylvania, five thousand from the District of Columbia, two thousand. [371] So ineffective were the administrative measures for bringing out this paper force of citizen soldiery, the efficiency of which the leaders of the party in power had been accustomed to vaunt, that Winder, after falling back from point to point before the enemy’s advance, because only so might time be gained to get together the lagging contingents, could muster in the open ground at Bladensburg, five miles from the capital, where at last he made his stand, only the paltry five or six thousand stated by the court.

Lossing – Now let us see what forces were at the disposal of General Winder for the defense of Washington. There were two small brigades of District troops. One of these comprised the militia and volunteers of Washington and Georgetown, arranged in two regiments under Colonels Magruder and Brent, and was commanded by General Walter Smith, of Georgetown. Attached to the brigade were two companies of light artillery, commanded respectively by Major George Peter, of the regular army, and Captain Benjamin Burch, a soldier of the Revolution. There were also two rifle companies under Captains Doughty and Stull. This brigade numbered, on the morning of the 21st of August, one thousand and seventy men. The second brigade was commanded by General Robert Young, and numbered five hundred men. It comprised a company of artillery led by Captain Marsteller. It was chiefly employed in defending the approaches to Fort Washington, about twelve miles below the capital.

Brigadier General West, of Prince George’s County, had troops on the look-out toward the Potomac.

The troops from Baltimore comprised a greater portion of the brigade of General Stansbury, formed in two regiments under Lieutenant Colonels Ragan and Schutz, thirteen hundred and fifty in number and the Fifth Regiment, under Colonel Sterett, with artillery and riflemen already mentioned, the latter under the celebrated William Pinkney. The whole force from Baltimore was about two thousand two hundred, commanded by General Stansbury as chief.

Besides these there were various detachments of Maryland militia, under the respective command of Colonels W. D. Beall (of the Revolution) and Hood, Lieutenant Colonel Kramer, and Majors Waring and Maynard – in all less than twelve hundred. There was also a regiment of Virginia militia under Colonel George Minor, six hundred strong, with one hundred cavalry.

The regular army contributed three hundred men from the Twelfth, Thirty-sixth, and Thirty-eighth Regiments, under Lieutenant Colonel William Scott. To these must be added the sailors of Barney’s flotilla, four hundred, and one hundred and twenty marines from the navy yard at Washington, furnished with two 18-pounders and three 12-pounders.

There were also various small companies of volunteer cavalry from the District, Maryland, and Virginia, under Lieutenant Colonel Tilghman, and Majors O. H. Williams and Charles Sterett, three hundred in number, and a squadron of United States dragoons commanded by Major Laval. The whole force was about seven thousand strong, of whom nine hundred were enlisted men. The cavalry did not exceed four hundred in number. The little army had twenty-six pieces of cannon, of which twenty were only 6-pounders. This force, if concentrated, would have been competent to roll back the invasion had the commanding officer been untrammeled by the interference of the President and his Cabinet.

Mahan – Barney had abandoned the boats on the 21st, leaving with each a halfdozen of her crew to destroy her at the last moment. This was done when the British next day approached one only escaping the flames.

Lossing – 22 August letter from Monroe to Madison:

“The enemy are advanced six miles on the road to the Wood Yard, and our troops are retiring. Our troops were on the march to meet them, but in too small a body to engage. General Winder proposes to retire till he can collect them in a body. The enemy are in full march to Washington. Have the materials prepared to destroy the bridges. J. MONROE. “P.S. – You had better remove the records.”

This message produced the wildest excitement in the national capital, then a straggling town of between eight and nine thousand inhabitants, and caused a sudden and confused exodus of all the timid and helpless ones who were able to leave.

Lossing – [Soldiers] were undisciplined and untried, and surrounded and influenced by a crowd of excited civilians, to whose “officious but well-intended information and advice” the general was compelled to listen. In addition to this intrusion and interference of common men, he was embarrassed by the presence and suggestions of the President and his Cabinet ministers, the most of them utterly ignorant of military affairs.

Lossing – 23 August morning: The fatigued little army at Long Old Fields had reposed but a short time when, at two o’clock in the morning (August 23), a timid sentinel gave a false alarm, and they were summoned to their feet in battle order. They were soon dismissed, and slept on their arms until dawn. At sunrise they were ordered to strike their tents, load the baggage wagons, and have every thing in readiness to move within an hour. When every thing was prepared for marching they were reviewed by President Madison.

Mahan – From Upper Marlborough, where the British had arrived, two roads led to Washington. One of these, the left going from Marlborough, crossed the Eastern Branch near its mouth the other, less direct, passed through Bladensburg. Winder expected the British to advance by the former and upon it Barney with the four hundred seamen remaining to him joined the army, at a place called Oldfields, seven miles from the capital. This route was militarily the more important, because from it branches were thrown off to the Potomac, up which the frigate squadron under Captain Gordon was proceeding, and had already passed the Kettle-bottoms, the most difficult bit of navigation in its path. The side roads would enable the invaders to reach and co-operate with this naval division unless indeed Winder could make head against them. This he was not able to do but he remained almost to the last moment in perplexing uncertainty whether they would strike for the capital, or for its principal defence on the Potomac, Fort Washington, ten miles lower down. [373]

Mahan – the British advanced, as anticipated, by the left-hand road, and at nightfall of August 23 were encamped about three miles from the Americans.

Mahan – Winder feared to await the enemy, because of the disorder to which his inexperienced troops would be exposed by a night attack, causing possibly the loss of his artillery the one arm in which he felt himself superior. He retired therefore during the night by the direct road, burning its bridge. This left open the way to Bladensburg, which the British next day followed…

Lossing – The night of the 23d of August was marked by great excitement in the National capital. The President and his Cabinet indulged in no slumbers, for Ross, the invader, was bivouacked at Melwood, near the Long Old Fields, about ten miles from the city, and Winder’s troops, worn down and dispirited, were fugitives before him. Laval’s horsemen were exhausted, and Stansbury’s troops at Bladensburg were too wearied with long marching to do much fighting without some repose.

Gleig – 24 August – We had now proceeded about nine miles, during the last four of which the sun’s rays had beat continually upon us, and we had inhaled almost as great a quantity of dust as of air. Numbers of men had already fallen to the rear, and many more could with difficulty keep up consequently, if we pushed on much farther without resting, the chances were that at least one half of the army would be left behind.

Lossing – 24 August – Winder’s head-quarters were at Combs’s, near the Eastern Branch Bridge, and at dawn the President and several of his Cabinet ministers were there. 25 Before their arrival, General Winder (who was greatly fatigued in body and mind, and had received a severe injury from a fall during the night) had sent a note to the Secretary of War, expressing a desire to have the counsel of that officer and of the government.

Lossing – While Winder and the government were in council, Ross moved toward Bladensburg. Laval’s scouts first brought intelligence of the fact to head-quarters. They were soon followed by an express from Stansbury, giving positive information that the British were marching in that direction, with the view, no doubt, of crushing the little force of Baltimoreans near the Bladensburg Mill.

Mahan – 24 August – On the morning of the battle the Secretary of War rode out to the field, with his colleagues in the Administration, and in reply to a question from the President said he had no suggestions to offer “as it was between regulars and militia, the latter would be beaten.” [372] The phrase was Winder’s absolution pronounced for the future, as for the past. The responsibility for there being no regulars did not rest with him, nor yet with the Secretary, but with the men who for a dozen years had sapped the military preparation of the nation.

Lossing – 24 August – …it was ten o’clock in the morning when Winder ordered General W. Smith, with the whole of his troops, to hasten toward Bladensburg. Barney was soon afterward ordered to move with his five hundred men, and the Secretary of State, who had seen some military service in the Revolution, was requested by the President and General Winder to hasten to Stansbury and assist him in properly posting his troops. Mr. Monroe was immediately followed by General Winder and his staff. The Secretary of War then followed and lastly the President and Attorney General, accompanied by some friends, all on horseback, rode on toward the expected theatre of battle. 27 Stansbury seems not to have been well pleased with the aid of the Secretary of State, for he afterward intimated that “somebody,” without consulting him, changed and deranged his order of battle. That “somebody” was Colonel Monroe….

Mahan – [British ] arriving at the village [Bladensburg] towards noon of the 24th.

Gleig – The hour of noon was approaching, when a heavy cloud of dust, apparently not more than two or three miles distant, attracted our attention…. for on turning a sudden angle in the road, and passing a small plantation, which obstructed the vision towards the left, the British and American armies became visible to one another. … Across [east branch] was thrown a narrow bridge, extending from the chief street in that town to the continuation of the road, which passed through the very centre of their position and its right bank (the bank above which they were drawn up) was covered with a narrow stripe of willows and larch [pine] trees, whilst the left was altogether bare, low, and exposed.

Mahan – Contrary to Winder’s instruction, the officer stationed there had withdrawn his troops across the stream, abandoning the place, and forming his line on the crest of some hills on the west bank.

Troop Deployment

Mahan – The impression which this position made upon the enemy was described by General Ross, as follows: “They were strongly posted on very commanding heights, formed in two lines, the advance occupying a fortified house, which with artillery covered the bridge over the Eastern Branch, across which the British troops had to pass. A broad and straight road, leading from the bridge to Washington, ran through the enemy’s position, which was carefully defended by artillerymen and riflemen.” [374]

Mahan – The American line had been formed before Winder came on the ground. It extended across the Washington road as described by Ross. A battery on the hill-top commanded the bridge, and was supported by a line of infantry on either side, with a second line in the rear. Fearing, however, that the enemy might cross the stream higher up, where it was fordable in many places, a regiment from the second line was reluctantly ordered forward to extend the left and Winder, when he arrived, while approving this disposition, carried thither also some of the artillery which he had brought with him. [375]

Lossing – In the triangular field formed by the two roads just mentioned, and near the mill, General Stansbury’s command was posted on the morning of the 24th. On the brow of a little eminence in that field, three hundred and fifty yards from the Bladensburg Bridge, between a large barn 29 and the Washington Road, a barbette earth-work had been thrown up for the use of heavy cannon. Behind this work were the artillery companies from Baltimore, under Captains Myers and Magruder, one hundred and fifty strong, with six 6-pounders. These were too small for the high embankment, and embrasures were cut so that they might command the bridge and both roads. Major Pinkney’s riflemen were on the right of the battery, near the junction of the roads, and concealed by the shrubbery on the low ground near the river. Two companies of militia, under Captains Ducker and Gorsuch, acting as riflemen, were stationed in the rear of the left of the battery, near the barn and the Georgetown Road. About fifty yards in the rear of Pinkney’s riflemen was Sterett’s Fifth Regiment of Baltimore Volunteers, while the regiments of Ragan and Schutz were drawn up en echelon, 30 their right resting on the left of Ducker’s and Gorsuch’s companies, and commanding the Georgetown Road. The cavalry, about three hundred and eighty in all, were placed somewhat in the rear, on the extreme left, and seem not to have taken any part in the battle that ensued.

Lossing – Colonel Monroe, without consulting General Stansbury, and in face of the enemy, then on the other side of the Eastern Branch, proceeded to change it, by moving the Baltimore regiments of Sterett, Ragan, and Schutz a quarter of a mile in the rear of the artillery and riflemen, their right resting on the Washington Road. This formed a second line in full view of the enemy, within reach of his Congreve rockets, entirely uncovered, and so far from the first line as not to be able to give it immediate support in case of an attack This was a blunder that proved disastrous, but it was made too late to be corrected, the enemy was so near.

Lossing – General Winder in the mean time had arrived on the field, and posted a third and rear line on the crown of the hills, near the residence of the late John C. Rives, proprietor of the Washington Globe, about a mile from the Bladensburg Bridge. This line embraced a regiment of Maryland militia, under Colonel Beall, which had just arrived from Annapolis, and was posted on the extreme right Barney’s flotilla-men, who formed the centre on the Washington Road, with two 18 pounders planted in the highway a few yards from the site of Rives’s barn, a portion of the seamen acting as artillerists and Colonel Magruder’s District militia, regulars under Lieutenant Colonel Scott, and Peter’s battery, who formed the left.

Lossing – About five hundred yards in front of this position the road descends into a gentle ravine, which was then, as now, crossed by a small bridge (Tournecliffe’s), on the north of which it widens into a little grassy level, and formed the dueling-ground where Decatur and others lost their lives.

Lossing – Overlooking it, about one hundred and fifty yards from the road, is an abrupt bluff on which the companies of Captains Stull and Davidson were posted in position to command that highway. Lieutenant Colonel Scott, with his regulars, Colonel Brent, with the Second Regiment of General Smith’s brigade, and Major Waring, with the battalion of Maryland militia, were posted in the rear of Major Peter’s battery. Magruder was immediately on the left of Barney’s men, his right resting on the Washington Road and Colonel Kramer, with a small detachment, was thrown forward of Colonel Beall.

Gleig – I have said that the right bank of the Potomac was covered with a narrow stripe of willow and larch trees. Here the Americans had stationed strong bodies of riflemen, who, in skirmishing order, covered the whole front of their army. Behind this plantation, again, the fields were open and clear, intersected, at certain distances, by rows of high and strong palings. About the middle of the ascent, and in the rear of one of these rows, stood the first line, composed entirely of infantry at a proper interval from this, and in a similar situation, stood the second line while the third, or reserve, was posted within the skirts of a wood, which crowned the heights. The artillery, again, of which they had twenty pieces in the field, was thus arranged on the high road, and commanding the bridge, stood two heavy guns and four more, two on each side of the road, swept partly in the same direction, and partly down the whole of the slope into the streets of Bladensburg. The rest were scattered, with no great judgment, along the second line of infantry, occupying different spaces between the right of one regiment and the left of another whilst the cavalry showed itself in one mass, within a stubble field, near the extreme left of the position. Such was the nature of the ground which they occupied, and the formidable posture in which they waited our approach amounting, by their own account, to nine thousand men, a number exactly doubling that of the force which was to attack them.

Battle

Lossing – at noon, the enemy were seen descending the hills beyond Bladensburg, and pressing on toward the bridge.

Gleig – In the mean time, our column continued to advance in the same order which it had hitherto preserved. The road, having conducted us for about two miles in a direction parallel with the river, and of consequence with the enemy’s line, suddenly turned, and led directly towards the town of Bladensburg. Being of course ignorant whether this town might not be filled with American troops, the main body paused here till the advanced guard should reconnoitre. The result proved that no opposition was intended in that quarter, and that the whole of the enemy’s army had been withdrawn to the opposite side of the stream, whereupon the column was again put in motion, and in a short time arrived in the streets of Bladensburg, and within range of the American artillery.

Lossing – At half past twelve they were in the town, and came within range of the heavy guns of the first American line.

Gleig – Immediately on our reaching this point, several of their guns opened upon us, and kept up a quick and well-directed cannonade, from which, as we were again commanded to halt, the men were directed to shelter themselves as much as possible behind the houses. The object of this halt, it was conjectured, was to give the General an opportunity of examining the American line, and of trying the depth of the river because at present there appeared to be but one practicable mode of attack, by crossing the bridge, and taking the enemy directly in front. To do so, however, exposed as the bridge was, must be attended with bloody consequences, nor could the delay of a few minutes produce any mischief which the discovery of a ford would not amply compensate. But in this conjecture we were altogether mistaken for without allowing time to the column to close its ranks, or to be joined by such of the many stragglers as were now hurrying, as fast as weariness would permit, to regain their places, the order to halt was countermanded, and the word given to attack and we immediately pushed on at double quick time, towards the head of the bridge.

Mahan – The anxiety of the Americans was therefore for their left. The British commander was eager to be done with his job, and to get back to his ships from a position militarily insecure. He had long been fighting Napoleon’s troops in the Spanish peninsula, and was not yet fully imbued with Drummond’s conviction that with American militia liberties might be taken beyond the limit of ordinary military precaution. No time was spent looking for a ford, but the troops dashed straight for the bridge. The fire of the American artillery was excellent, and mowed down the head of the column but the seasoned men persisted and forced their way across. At this moment Barney was coming up with his seamen, and at Winder’s request brought his guns into line across the Washington road, facing the bridge.

Lossing –The British commenced hurling rockets at the exposed Americans, and attempted to throw a heavy force across the bridge, but were driven back by their antagonists’ cannon, and forced to take shelter in the village and behind Lowndes’s Hill, in the rear of it. 33

Lossing –Again, after due preparation, they advanced in double-quick time and, when the bridge was crowded with them, the artillery of Winder’s first and second lines opened upon them with terrible effect, sweeping down a whole company. The concealed riflemen, under Pinkney, also poured deadly volleys into their exposed ranks but the British, continually re-enforced, pushed gallantly forward, some over the bridge, and some fording the stream above it, and fell so heavily upon the first and unsupported line of the Americans that it was compelled to fall back upon the second.

Gleig – When once there, however, everything else appeared easy. Wheeling off to the right and left of the road, they dashed into the thicket, and quickly cleared it of the American skirmishers who, falling back with precipitation upon the first line, threw it into disorder before it had fired a shot. The consequence was, that our troops had scarcely shown themselves when the whole of that line gave way, and fled in the greatest confusion, leaving the two guns upon the road in possession of the victors.

Lossing –A company, whose commander is unnamed in the reports of the battle, were so panic-stricken that they fled after the first fire, leaving their guns to fall into the hands of the enemy.

Lossing –The first British brigade were now over the stream, and, elated by their success, did not wait for the second. They threw away their knapsacks and haversacks, and pushed up the hill to attack the American second line in the face of an annoying fire from Captain Burch’s artillery.

Gleig – But here it must be confessed that the light brigade was guilty of imprudence. Instead of pausing till the rest of the army came up, the soldiers lightened themselves by throwing away their knapsacks and haversacks and extending their ranks so as to show an equal front with the enemy, pushed on to the attack of the second line. The Americans, however, saw their weakness, and stood firm, and having the whole of their artillery, with the exception of the pieces captured on the road, and the greater part of their infantry in this line, they first checked the ardour of the assailants by a heavy fire, and then, in their turn, advanced to recover the ground which was lost.

Lossing –They weakened their force by stretching out so as to form a front equal to that of their antagonists. It was a blunder which Winder quickly perceived and took advantage of. He was then at the head of Sterett’s regiment. With this and some of Stansbury’s militia, who behaved gallantly, he not only checked the enemy’s advance, but, at the point of the bayonet, pressed their attenuated line so strongly that it fell back to the thickets on the brink of the river, near the bridge,

Lossing – [Brits] maintained its position most obstinately until re-enforced by the second brigade. Thus strengthened, it again pressed forward, and soon turned the left flank of the Americans, and at the same time sent a flight of hissing rockets over and very near the centre and right of Stansbury’s line.

Gleig – In this state the action continued till the second brigade had likewise crossed, and formed upon the right bank of the river when the 44th regiment moving to the right, and driving in the skirmishers, debouched upon the left flank of the Americans, and completely turned it. In that quarter, therefore, the battle was won because the raw militia-men, who were stationed there as being the least assailable point, when once broken could not be rallied. But on their right the enemy still kept their ground with much resolution nor was it till the arrival of the 4th regiment, and the advance of the British forces in firm array to the charge, that they began to waver. Then, indeed, seeing their left in full flight, and the 44th getting in their rear, they lost all order, and dispersed, leaving clouds of riflemen to cover their retreat and hastened to conceal themselves in the woods, where it would have been madness to follow them.

Mahan – Soon after this, a few rockets passing close over the heads of the battalions supporting the batteries on the left started them running, much as a mule train may be stampeded by a night alarm. It was impossible to rally them. A part held for a short time but when Winder attempted to retire them a little way, from a fire which had begun to annoy them, they also broke and fled. [376]

Lossing –The frightened regiments of Schutz and Ragan broke, and fled in the wildest confusion.

Lossing –Winder tried to rally them, but in vain. Sterett’s corps maintained their ground gallantly until the enemy had gained both their flanks, when Winder ordered them and the supporting artillery to retire up the hill. They, too, became alarmed, and the retreat, covered by riflemen, was soon a disorderly flight.

Gleig – The rout was now general throughout the line. The reserve, which ought to have supported the main body, fled as soon as those in its front began to give way and the cavalry, instead of charging the British troops, now scattered in pursuit, turned their horses’ heads and galloped off, leaving them in undisputed possession of the field, and of ten out of the twenty pieces of artillery.

Lossing –The first and second line of the Americans having been dispersed, the British, flushed with success, pushed forward to attack the third. Peter’s artillery annoyed, but did not check them and the left, under the gallant Colonel Thornton, soon confronted Barney, in the centre, who maintained his position like a genuine hero, as he was. His 18-pounders enfiladed the Washington Road, and with them he swept the highway with such terrible effect that the enemy filed off into a field, and attempted to turn Barney’s right flank. There they were met by three 12-pounders and marines, under Captains Miller and Sevier, and were badly cut up. They were driven back to the ravine already mentioned as the dueling-ground, leaving several of their wounded officers in the hands of the Americans. Colonel Thornton, who bravely led the attacking column, was severely wounded, and General Ross had his horse shot under him.

Lossing –The flight of Stansbury’s troops left Barney unsupported in that direction, while a heavy column was hurled against Beall and his militia, on the right, with such force as to disperse them. The British light troops soon gained position on each flank, and Barney himself was severely wounded. When it became evident that Minor’s Virginia troops could not arrive in time to aid the gallant flotilla-men, who were obstinately maintaining their position against fearful odds, and that farther resistance would, be useless, Winder ordered a general retreat.

Mahan – The American left was thus routed, but Barney’s battery and its supporting infantry still held their ground. “During this period,” reported the Commodore,—that is, while his guns were being brought into battery, and the remainder of his seamen and marines posted to support them,—”the engagement continued, the enemy advancing, and our own army retreating before them, apparently in much disorder. At length the enemy made his appearance on the main road, in force, in front of my battery, and on seeing us made a halt. I reserved our fire. In a few minutes the enemy again advanced, when I ordered an 18-pounder to be fired, which completely cleared the road shortly after, a second and a third attempt was made by the enemy to come forward, but all were destroyed. They then crossed into an open field and attempted to flank our right he was met there by three 12-pounders, the marines under Captain Miller, and my men, acting as infantry, and again was totally cut up. By this time not a vestige of the American army remained, except a body of five or six hundred, posted on a height on my right, from whom I expected much support from their fine situation.” [377]

Mahan – In this expectation Barney was disappointed. The enemy desisted from direct attack and worked gradually round towards his right flank and rear. As they thus moved, the guns of course were turned towards them but a charge being made up the hill by a force not exceeding half that of its defenders, they also “to my great mortification made no resistance, giving a fire or two, and retired. Our ammunition was expended, and unfortunately the drivers of my ammunition wagons had gone off in the general panic.” Barney himself, being wounded and unable to escape from loss of blood, was left a prisoner. Two of his officers were killed, and two wounded. The survivors stuck to him till he ordered them off the ground. Ross and Cockburn were brought to him, and greeted him with a marked respect and politeness and he reported that, during the stay of the British in Bladensburg, he was treated by all “like a brother,” to use his own words. [378]

Mahan – The character of this affair is sufficiently shown by the above outline narrative, re-enforced by the account of the losses sustained. Of the victors sixty-four were killed, one hundred and eighty-five wounded. The defeated, by the estimate of their superintending surgeon, had ten or twelve killed and forty wounded. [379] Such a disparity of injury is usual when the defendants are behind fortifications but in this case of an open field, and a river to be crossed by the assailants, the evident significance is that the party attacked did not wait to contest the ground, once the enemy had gained the bridge. After that, not only was the rout complete, but, save for Barney’s tenacity, there was almost no attempt at resistance. Ten pieces of cannon remained in the hands of the British. “The rapid flight of the enemy,” reported General Ross, “and his knowledge of the country, precluded the possibility of many prisoners being taken.” That night the British entered Washington.

Lossing – The Americans lost twenty-six killed and fifty-one wounded. The British loss was manifold greater. According to one of their officers who was in the battle, and yet living (Mr. Gleig, Chaplain General of the British Army), it was “upward of five hundred killed and wounded,” among them “several officers of rank and distinction.” The battle commenced at about noon, and ended at four o’clock.

Afterward

Gleig – This battle, by which the fate of the American capital was decided, began about one o’clock in the afternoon, and lasted till four. The loss on the part of the English was severe, since, out of two-thirds of the army, which were engaged, upwards of five hundred men were killed and wounded and what rendered it doubly severe was, that among these were numbered several officers of rank and distinction. Colonel Thornton, who commanded the light brigade, Lieutenant-Colonel Wood, commanding the 85th regiment, and Major Brown, who led the advanced guard, were all severely wounded and General Ross himself had a horse shot under him. On the side of the Americans the slaughter was not so great. Being in possession of a strong position, they were of course less exposed in defending, than the others in storming it and had they conducted themselves with coolness and resolution, it is not conceivable how the battle could have been won. But the fact is, that, with the exception of a party of sailors from the gun-boats, under the command of Commodore Barney, no troops could behave worse than they did. The skirmishers were driven in as soon as attacked, the first line gave way without offering the slightest resistance, and the left of the main body was broken within half an hour after it was seriously engaged. Of the sailors, however, it would be injustice not to speak in the terms which their conduct merits. They were employed as gunners, and not only did they serve their guns with a quickness and precision which astonished their assailants, but they stood till some of them were actually bayoneted, with fuzes in their hands nor was it till their leader was wounded and taken, and they saw themselves deserted on all sides by the soldiers, that they quitted the field. With respect to the British army, again, no line of distinction can be drawn. All did their duty, and none more gallantly than the rest and though the brunt of the affair fell upon the light brigade, this was owing chiefly to the circumstance of its being at the head of the column, and perhaps also, in some degree, to its own rash impetuosity. The artillery, indeed, could do little being unable to show itself in presence of a force so superior but the six-pounder was nevertheless brought into action, and a corps of rockets proved of striking utility.

Mahan – The burning of Washington was the impressive culmination of the devastation to which the coast districts were everywhere exposed by the weakness of the country, while the battle of Bladensburg crowned the humiliation entailed upon the nation by the demagogic prejudices in favor of untrained patriotism, as supplying all defects for ordinary service in the field. In the defenders of Bladensburg was realized Jefferson’s ideal of a citizen soldiery, [382] unskilled, but strong in their love of home, flying to arms to oppose an invader and they had every inspiring incentive to tenacity, for they, and they only, stood between the enemy and the centre and heart of national life. The position they occupied, though unfortified, had many natural advantages while the enemy had to cross a river which, while in part fordable, was nevertheless an obstacle to rapid action, especially when confronted by the superior artillery the Americans had. The result has been told but only when contrasted with the contemporary fight at Lundy’s Lane is Bladensburg rightly appreciated. Occurring precisely a month apart, and with men of the same race, they illustrate exactly the difference in military value between crude material and finished product.

Lossing – “It was not,” says one of Ross’s surviving aids, Sir Duncan M‘Dougall, in a letter to the author in 1861, “until he was warmly pressed that he consented to destroy the Capitol and President’s house, for the purpose of preventing a repetition of the uncivilized proceedings of the troops of the United States.” Fortunately for Ross’s sensibility there was a titled incendiary at hand in the person of Admiral Sir George Cockburn, who delighted in such inhuman work, and who literally became his torch-bearer.


200th Anniversary of the Battle of Bladensburg and the Burning of Washington, DC

2014-08-23T12:59:23-04:00 https://images.c-span.org/Files/4d8/20140823133209003_hd.jpg Panelists commemorated the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bladensburg and the burning of Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812. On August 24, 1814, British soldiers defeated American troops at the Battle of Bladensburg just outside the nation&rsquos capital. The British forces then marched into the city and burned down the White House, the U.S. Capitol, and other government buildings.

The panelists were: Steve Vogel, author of Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks That Saved the Nation Christopher T. George, author of Terror on the Chesapeake: The War of 1812 on the Bay Ralph Eshelman, co-author of In Full Glory Reflected: Discovering the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake and Peter Snow, author of When Britain Burned the White House: The 1814 Invasion of Washington. John McCavitt spoke from the audience.

This &ldquoWriters Roundtable,&rdquo held in the Education Building of the Bladensburg Waterfront Park, was part of the &ldquoUndaunted Weekend&rdquo of the Battle of Bladensburg Festival.

Panelists commemorated the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bladensburg and the burning of Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812. On August 24, 1814, British… read more

Panelists commemorated the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bladensburg and the burning of Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812. On August 24, 1814, British soldiers defeated American troops at the Battle of Bladensburg just outside the nation&rsquos capital. The British forces then marched into the city and burned down the White House, the U.S. Capitol, and other government buildings.

The panelists were: Steve Vogel, author of Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks That Saved the Nation Christopher T. George, author of Terror on the Chesapeake: The War of 1812 on the Bay Ralph Eshelman, co-author of In Full Glory Reflected: Discovering the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake and Peter Snow, author of When Britain Burned the White House: The 1814 Invasion of Washington. John McCavitt spoke from the audience.

This &ldquoWriters Roundtable,&rdquo held in the Education Building of the Bladensburg Waterfront Park, was part of the &ldquoUndaunted Weekend&rdquo of the Battle of Bladensburg Festival. close


Spooked Horse or Spooked President? John Gilpin, James Madison, and “The Bladensburg Races”

August 24, 1814, the day the British burned Washington, D.C., is typically remembered for a heroic act: Dolley Madison rescuing the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington as she fled the White House. At the time, however, a cowardly act—American militiamen retreating from Bladensburg, Maryland—caught the attention of the press. Newspaper editor Hezekiah Niles lambasted the militiamen who “generally fled without firing a gun, and threw off every incumbrance of their speed!” [1] An anonymous ballad called “The Bladensburg Races” satirizes this blunder, casting President James Madison as the retreater-in-chief whose horse, Griffin, carries him well past Bladensburg. [1] But the content, characterizations, and many of the stanzas in “The Bladensburg Races” originated in 1782, when The Public Advertiser in London printed a ballad by William Cowper, “The entertaining and facetious History of John Gilpin, shewing how he went farther than he intended, and came home safe at last.” [3] Gilpin’s follies—and his stubborn and easily-spooked horse—became Madison’s liabilities as Commander-in-Chief.

In Cowper’s ballad, John Gilpin’s unnamed wife urges her husband to take a break from his business in Cheapside, London to celebrate their anniversary in Edmonton. Gilpin borrows a horse from his friend “the Callender,” but the horse speeds off at such a pace that Gilpin’s wig and hat fly off, and the two zoom past Edmonton because the horse is used to traveling to its owner’s house in Ware. When the horse finally stops, the Callender assumes that Gilpin, disheveled and bare-headed, has raced to deliver some urgent news, but Gilpin retorts, “I came because your horse would come, / And if I well forbode, / My hat and wig will soon be here, / They are upon the road.” The Callender replaces Gilpin’s wig and hat with his own, which are too big for Gilpin’s head and immediately lost on the return trip. As before, the horse does not stop in Edmonton, and soon, Gilpin finds himself back in Cheapside where the journey began.

Much like Gilpin’s borrowed horse, Cowper’s ballad went farther than he intended, finding popularity through cheap print and performances on both sides of the Atlantic in the decades after the American Revolution and inspiring “The Bladensburg Races,” where “John Gilpin,” linen draper from Cheapside, transforms into “Generalissimo” James Madison. Readers did not need to be familiar with “The Diverting History of John Gilpin” to understand “The Bladensburg Races,” but those who were would have found that the author adapted British farce into biting American political satire.

Both ballads begin with a nagging wife. Mrs. Gilpin has waited “These twice ten tedious Years” for a holiday, while Mrs. Madison has waited “These two last tedious weeks” for the enemy to reach the capital. Both couples plan for the wife and family to travel by coach, and the husband to follow behind on horse, but James suggests that he will ride as if to Bladensburg, and then rendezvous with Dolley further out of town. She agrees, noting that once news spreads that the President has fled, “Twill set the town on fire.” The Madisons did not actually premeditate their evacuation, but the ballad paints James Madison as a “gallant Little Man” who runs away from battle, while Secretary of State James Monroe becomes the Post Boy who Mrs. Gilpin sends after her husband.

In Cowper’s ballad, the frugal Mrs. Gilpin plans to bring bottles of wine for the anniversary dinner, but forgets to pack them. John Gilpin straps the wine to his belt, and the bottles break during the jolting ride: “Down ran the wine into the road / Most piteous to be seen, / Which made his horse’s flanks to smoke / As they had basted been.” In “The Bladensburg Races,” the wine bottles are substituted for swords, which Madison straps to his belt like Gilpin. The author’s implication is that the swords, which beat against Madison’s back as the horse gains speed, will do him as much good as Gilpin’s broken wine bottles. [4] As Madison tries to keep his grasp on the horse’s reins, “His little head full low, / His sword flew up against his hat, / And gave him such a blow, / Off went at once his chapeau-bras, / And fell into the road.”

The peak comedic moment of Gilpin’s story—his hat and wig in mid-air as his wine-soaked horse speeds through Edmonton—was captured in contemporary engravings, and later in Randolph Caldecott’s illustrations. In fact, I came to know John Gilpin through the image, not the text. My grandmother had a broadside of the ballad hanging in her dining room, and because my great-grandmother’s maiden name was Gilpin, I grew up assuming that this befuddled man on horseback was some ancestor. But “The Bladensburg Races” evokes a different, darkly comedic image of the Commander-in-Chief with a far more meaningful hat, an essential piece of a military dress uniform, flying in the wind as he retreats from the advancing British forces.

Gilpin’s story is entertaining because, despite his character flaws, the episode is entirely the horse’s fault. Gilpin pries himself away from the routine of his business and marriage, but his borrowed horse remains committed to its own routine of carrying its rider to Ware and back. “The Bladensburg Races” twists this comedic dynamic into a commentary on Madison’s leadership during the War of 1812. The horses in both ballads are spooked—Gilpin’s by a braying donkey, and Madison’s by a British cannonade. But when James Madison reaches the place where he is supposed to meet Dolley, the author suggests that, unlike Gilpin, Madison is more than happy to keep riding past his waiting wife. A comparison of these stanzas shows how ambiguous the pronoun “he” is in “The Bladensburg Races”:

Was it the horse who flew swiftly away from the British, or did Madison drive their escape, abandoning his wife and country in the process? From the ballad’s opening conversation where James and Dolley agree that he should only feign as if he is riding into battle, to this revelation that experiencing the war first-hand was too much for Madison to take, the story of a runaway horse morphs into the story of a scaredy-cat President.

“The Bladensburg Races” concludes in the same way as “The Diverting History of John Gilpin,” substituting “long live the King” with “long live Madison the brave!” But instead of the hopeful final lines of Cowper’s ballad (“And when he next does ride abroad, / May I be there to see!”), the author adds two stanzas indicting American leadership during the war: “And when their Country’s Cause at stake / Against th’ invading foe: / But fly their posts—ere the first gun / Has echo’d o’er the wave, / Stop! Stop! POTOWMAC! stop thy course! / Nor pass MOUNT VERNON’S Grave!” While the original farce leaves readers longing to witness a ride as entertaining as Gilpin’s for themselves, this satire leaves readers longing for a time when the President was as competent and respected a military leader as George Washington. Recast as Mrs. Gilpin, Dolley Madison’s own evacuation and her decision to order Paul Jennings and other servants to save Washington’s portrait, are erased. For the author of “The Bladensburg Races,” the Battle of Bladensburg was a folly on equal footing with the Gilpins’ failed holiday.

Emily Sneff is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at William & Mary. She studies early American print and material culture, focusing on the founding era. Her dissertation explores the dissemination of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Before graduate school, she was the research manager of the Declaration Resources Project at Harvard University.

Title Image: Mural in United States Capitol Building showing the burning of the Capitol in 1814. By Allyn Cox, 1974. Courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol.

Further readings:

Nicole Eustace, 1812: War and the Passions of Patriotism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

Edward Skeen, Citizen Soldiers in the War of 1812 (Louisville: The University Press of Kentucky, 1999).

Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

[1] “Capture of Washington City,” Niles’ Weekly Register (Baltimore, MD), 27 August 1814, 443.

[2] The Bladensburg Races. Written Shortly After the Capture of Washington City, August 24, 1814 (Printed for the Purchaser, 1816). For quotes from “The Bladensburg Races,” see this edition.

[3] The Public Advertiser (London: Printed by H.S. Woodfall), 14 November 1782, 2. For quotes from “The Diverting History of John Gilpin,” see this edition. The ballad was first published anonymously.

[4] Gilpin is alerted to the forgotten wine bottles by “Betty,” perhaps a servant, but Madison is alerted by “Cuffee,” presumably a layered and racialized reference to Paul Cuffe.


Battle of Bladensburg Walking Tour

Starting from the Waterfront Park, use this PDF version or pick up your own copy at the Visitors Center. The audio tour (below) corresponds with the following locations:

Background Information Audio Tour Stop 1
Background Information Audio Tour Stop 2
Background Information Audio Tour Stop 3
“The British Attack” Audio Tour Stop 4
“The British Attack” Audio Tour Stop 5
Battle Tour Stop 1 Audio Tour Stop 6
Battle Tour Stops 2 & 3 Audio Tour Stop 7
Battle Tour Stops 3, 4, & 5 Audio Tour Stop 8
Battle Tour Stops 7 & 8 Audio Tour Stops 9, 10, 11 & 12
“After the Battle” Audio Tour Stops 13 &14
Battle Tour Stop 6 Audio Tour Stop 15

To explore the history of the Battle of Bladensburg, we recommend walking or biking the remains of the battlefield. With modern development, there isn’t much left of the landscape. However, the first and third line do have remnants that evoke the landscape of the time.

The route was marked from the end of the Bladensburg Waterfront Park pedestrian bridge with small white stars painted along the route, however, many of these stars have been worn away over the last few years. Efforts in 2020 will be made to renew these markings.


Americans Routed

Pressing forward, the British soon came under fire from Smith's men as well as Barney's and Captain George Peter's guns. The 85th attacked again and Thornton was badly wounded with the American line holding. As before, the 44th began moving around the American left and Winder ordered Smith to retreat. These orders failed to reach Barney and his sailors were overwhelmed in hand-to-hand fighting. Beall's men to the rear offered token resistance before joining the general retreat. As Winder had provided only confused directions in case of retreat, the bulk of the American militia simply melted away rather than rallying to further defend the capital.


Battle of Bladensburg

Napoleon’s abdication in April 1814 harbored serious strategic consequences for the United States, for it released thousands of veteran British soldiers for service in the War of 1812. Worse yet, the British government, angered by the burning of York (Toronto) in April 1813 and Port Dover, Ontario, in June 1814, authorized British senior commanders to embark upon an officially sanctioned policy of retribution. Ross, with his single brigade of four veteran regiments (Fourth, 21st, 44th, and 85th) under Cols. Arthur Brooke and William Thornton, were about to become the cutting edge of that policy. He was conveyed to Chesapeake Bay by Adm. Alexander Cochrane and united with a squadron under Adm. George Cockburn. On August 19, 1814, Cockburn landed Ross’s force of 4,500 men at Benedict, Maryland, while he sailed up the Pautuxent River in search of Commodore Joshua Barney’s gunboat flotilla. Barney subsequently destroyed his fleet and marched overland to Washington, D. C., which was only lightly defended. Cockburn then left the fleet to join up with Ross at Upper Marlborough and prevailed upon him to advance upon the American capital, 28 miles distant. To take such a small but veteran force, lacking any cavalry whatsoever, through the heart of enemy country was an audacious ploy, indeed. But danger was Ross’s calling, and he undertook the task with abandon.

The British soldiers advanced in excellent order as far as Bladensburg, Maryland, where, on August 24, 1814, they encountered a force of nearly 7,000 militia under Gen. William H. Winder. Winder squandered his numerical advantage by deploying in three mutually unsupportive lines, and Ross decided to attack immediately. Thornton’s brigade was ordered to charge across a heavily defended defile to his front while Brooke’s men attempted a flanking movement. The leading British elements were badly shot up and Thornton seriously wounded, yet Winder was unable to coordinate his withdrawal. In the ensuing fracas, the entire American army panicked and stampeded. The only real resistance came from a small knot of sailors and marines under Commodore Barney, who stood his ground magnificently until surrounded. Ross, having sustained 300 casualties-and having lost another horse-personally directed the final battlefield activities of the army. He then resumed advancing and occupied Washington that night. However, while accompanying the vanguard, he was fired upon by two snipers, who killed his mount. Ross was unhurt, but he ordered the house from which the shots originated burned-and the British began implementing their retaliatory policy with a vengeance.

Accordingly, the White House, Congress, and all public property were summarily reduced to ashes. Ross, however, was never happy with the practice of state-sponsored vandalism, and he strictly forbade his soldiers from looting private property. Several unlucky violators were caught and summarily flogged. Then, having humiliated the United States thoroughly and garnered additional laurels for himself, the general retraced his steps back to Benedict, where he reembarked on August 30, 1814. From beginning to end it was one of the War of 1812’s most spectacular and remarkable episodes. The entire affair underscored the military unpreparedness of the United States, especially when dealing with so talented and capable an enemy as England.

The Marines and Sailors

The British force of 4,000 men under General Ross landed at Benedict, Maryland on 19 August 1814, and from there set out for Washington. Five days after landing, impeded only by the Maryland sun which prostrated twelve men, they reached the village of Bladensburg just outside Washington, where they came in contact with Winder’s men. ‘On first sight,’ recounted a supercilious British officer, ‘the Americans might have passed off very well for a crowd of spectators come out to view the approach of the army.’

To the west of the village of Bladensburg was the River Anacostia, and Winder’s militia were drawn up on high ground on the far side with the seamen and Marines astride a road in the rear on the right flank. After delivering their Congreve rockets, Ross ordered his army to cross the river and attack the American position. At the first whoosh of the rockets, Winder’s militia threw away their muskets and fled. The Marines and seamen, however, stood fast. The Commodore Barney busied himself with his guns and Marine Captain Miller deployed the Marines as infantry. Ross pushed on unconcernedly until his advanced guard reached the rising ground on which Barney and Miller had sited their guns and formed the Marines. Boldly the British charged. The Commodore himself checked the laying of each piece. Then at last he gave the order to one gun to fire. As he reported, ‘I reserved our fire. In a few minutes the British advanced, when I ordered an 18 pounder to be fired, which completely cleared the road.’ The Commodore was guilty of no exaggeration, for the British afterwards said that the seamen gunners’ initial blast of grape and canister blew an entire company off the road. As the sailors stood to their guns, a hail of musketry swept down on the advancing foe from the Marines. Twice more the British re-formed and charged twice more they were thrown back. The last repulse was actually followed by a counter-attack by the Marines and cutlass-swinging sailors shouting, ‘Board ’em! Board ’em!’ But by now both the Commodore and Captain Miller had been wounded. And General Ross, having seven times Barney’s force, worked flanking columns expertly round the thin line of Marines and seamen. With more than a fifth of the Marines killed or wounded, and with a bullet through his own thigh, Commodore Barney gave orders to retire. Although the redcoat had been stopped for two hours and had suffered 249 casualties, they could not be kept from their goal. Almost every public building in Washington was put to the torch, including the White House and the Capitol. The Commandant’s house was the one structure that escaped legend has it that General Ross spared the house because it ranked as ‘married quarters’.


Watch the video: The Battle of Bladensburg, August 24, 1814, and the Burning of Washington DC tour date 9212001 (May 2022).