The Battle Of Bladensburg

The British victory at the Battle of Bladensburg allowed the British army to enter and burn the city of Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812

It was a day no American had ever expected to see, one of shame and of national humiliation. The nation's capitol was in flames. Two years earlier, with dreams of conquering vast expanses of Canadian land, the United States Congress had audaciously declared war on the single greatest power in the world. Now the dreams were gone and those few who still talked of victory were reduced to talking of it in terms of simple survival.

Then came August 24, 1814. At approximately 7pm, 4,000 soldiers of England's elite

Wellington's Invincibles marched into the capitol of the United States. It was a peculiar event for these soldiers. Veterans of the recently concluded Napoleonic War, this campaign had had none of the European niceties. Even now as they entered the captured capitol of an enemy nation, there was no delegation to meet them, no bands, no lines of soldiers to salute their superior military abilities; there had been no formal surrender, no negotiations for the city's safety. The place was all but deserted.

For the British, the campaign to take the city of Washington began in earnest on August 17, 1814 aboard the 80 gun HMS TONNANT, anchored in the Chesapeake Bay. The occasion was a final strategy session whose major participants were Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cockrane, the newly appointed commander of His Majesty's forces in the Americas; Major General Robert Ross, who had arrived only the day before with three brigades of light infantry, a total of 3,000 soldiers; and Rear Admiral George Cockburn, in command of the squadron blockading the coast

The three agreed that Baltimore, not Washington should be the final objective of their joint campaign. But on the matter of Washington itself, there was a good deal of contention. Ross wanted to bypass the American capitol altogether. A small city situated on the edge of a swamp, Washington was of little military importance to anyone, while Baltimore was a major port and center of commerce, the nation's third largest city. Ross pointed out that he had only 3,000 infantry, no cavalry, no artillery and absolutely no knowledge of the enemy's strength or disposition, or of the fortifications which the enemy surely must have constructed to protect his capitol.

But Cockburn was adamant on the subject of taking Washington. Far more flamboyant than Ross, the Admiral desired the glory of riding triumphantly into the enemy's capitol. He was quick to assure Ross that whatever resistance the Americans offered, it would be both, half hearted and short lived. At best the Americans could muster no more than a few thousand men and those almost entirely untrained and inexperienced militia, lead by officers equally untrained and inexperienced. In the end both, Ross and Vice Admiral Cockrane agreed to take the risk.

The plan called for Ross' force, augmented by 1,000 of Cockburn's sailors and marines, to move north keeping parallel with the Patuxent River as far as possible before turning west towards Washington. Cockburn would keep pace with him via the river providing naval gun fire as needed until the river became too shallow to allow the ships passage.

To keep the Americans off balance a small squadron of bomb ketches would be sent up the Potomac with orders to shell fortifications on that river's banks while a frigate and two schooners would be ordered up the Chesapeake to take positions above Baltimore. The intention was to force the Americans to divide their forces, defending simultaneously against a possible assault of Baltimore, a possible attack on Washington from the east, and another possible attack on Washington from either the south or the west.

The arrival of Ross' troop transports in the Chesapeake surprised no one in Washington. As early as mid-July, President Madison had received reports from a European source concerning the expedition; reports so detailed as to relate Ross' exact troop strength, which regiments were included and the General's intended rendezvous with Admirals Cockrane and Cockburn.

Madison and the majority of his cabinet accepted the reports without alarm. Few believed the capitol to be in any real danger. For the most part, Madison's advisors agreed with Ross' assessment of Washington's military value, or lack thereof vis-a-vis Baltimore.

There were two men in Washington who fought this false sense of security, unsuccessfully: Secretary of the Navy William Jones and the commander of the District of Columbia's militia, Major General John Van Ness. Both held that Ross would make his way for the capitol with as much haste as possible.

There was little that Van Ness could do except continue drilling his men and continue begging the War Department for supplies and engineer support for the city's meager defenses. Neither of which were forthcoming as Secretary of War Armstrong, a foul tempered and widely disliked man, was a strong subscriber to the Baltimore theory. As for Jones, he issued orders to Commodore Joshua Barney, commander of the only U.S. naval force in the area, a small flotilla of gunboats, no match for the nearby English fleet, to bring his flotilla as far up the Patuxent River as possible and to be prepared to scuttle his boats, afterwards bringing his sailors and his few marines to the city's defense.

Shortly after learning of Ross' departure from Europe, President Madison created the 10th Military District encompassing the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland. The President's idea was to create a unified command where before existed several fragmented militia commands which could barely agree on the time of day much less coordinate and carry out joint military operations. If the British were going to land at the mouth of the Patuxent and march overland to attack Baltimore, Madison wanted them to encounter American forces before they reached the city.

The man placed in charge of the newly created Military District was Brigadier General William Winder, another adherent of the Baltimore theory. It did not take long for General Winder to discover that his new command was a paper one. At the same time that he created the 10th Military District, Madison authorized the General to call up 3,000 Maryland militiamen and to place another 12,000 on a sort of standby alert. Unfortunately, under then current interpretations of the Constitution, the President of the United States had no authority to activate the militias of the fifteen states; and none of the governors involved were concerned enough to agree to play the President's game.

So Winder spent the next month engaged in frantic, futile attempts first, to acquire a core of militia to spearhead his new command and, having failed at that, to convince the War Department to stockpile arms and supplies against the coming battle. But Secretary Armstrong disliked Winder even more than he disliked General Van Ness and refused to lend Winder even the slightest aid. Thus, throughout July and the early part of August, no forces were organized, no supplies were gathered and the only fortifications constructed for Washington's defense were those done so by private citizens at Van Ness' urging.

On August 19th, Madison was informed by Commodore Barney that the British were disembarking. Ross' force was landing at the town of Benedict on the Patuxent's west bank. With 3,000 enemy soldiers actually present on Maryland soil, the Americans finally began taking the matter seriously.

Secretary of the Navy Jones sent word to Philadelphia and New York to send as many seamen as possible south to link up with Barney. They would not arrive in time. General Van Ness activated the District's 1,000 militiamen, but then resigned. Once the militia had been formally activated, General Winder possessed the legal authority to place it under his own command. Van Ness objected and resigned rather than serve under a man whom his despised.

Then there was Secretary of State James Monroe who seemed bent on reliving his earlier days as a cavalry colonel in the Revolutionary War. Disgusted by Winder's lack of an intelligence network to report on Ross' movement, Monroe set off with a small escort to spy on the enemy himself. Most importantly, however, Armstrong finally began releasing supplies to Winder while the General's uncle at last relented and placed his state's militia under Federal control.

By August 20th things had begun looking up for the Americans. In addition to his 1,000 District of Columbia militiamen, Winder now had another 800 men, to include 300 regular infantry and 150 cavalry; and more militiamen were on their way from Baltimore.

The first of the battle's players to reach Bladensburg on August 24 was Brigadier General Stansbury in command of 2,200 Baltimore militiamen, which he placed in a wedge shaped formation on the western side of the Potomac River's East Branch. 350 yards to the formation's front was the Bladensburg Bridge, with the town itself just across the river. On the wedge's left flank was the road to Georgetown, on the right, the road to Washington.

Stansbury's forward defensive line consisted of a small series of earthworks. Here he placed two battalions of riflemen and his battery of small 6 pounders. Behind them an open field extended for 50 yards ending in an apple orchard where Stansbury positioned his second echelon troops.

Like his English counterpart, General Winder spent the morning of the 24th moving towards Bladensburg. With him were 3,000 infantrymen, 400 cavalry and 20 artillery pieces, not to mention the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Treasury and the Attorny-General. Also, though he had not been invited, Commodore Barney traveled behind Winder's column with 500 battle experienced sailors and marines and six heavy naval cannon. Behind Barney, President Madison also rode for the town armed with a brace of pistols. Ahead of all of them rode Secretary of State Monroe.

For some unrecorded reason, upon arriving at Bladensburg, Monroe was dissatisfied by Stansbury's placement of the second line and apparently thought himself invested with the authority to move it; unfortunately, so did the officers in the line, awed no doubt, my Monroe's position as a member of the President's cabinet. Without Stansbury's knowledge, the Secretary moved the line 500 yards farther to the rear, out of the orchard and onto a hill void of cover. When 800 additional militia arrived unexpectantly from Annapolis, Monroe placed them on yet another hill, this one a mile behind Stansbury's front line. And when Winder's cavalry arrived, Monroe placed them in a ravine so deep they were unable to even see the battle much less participate in it.

When Stansbury and Winder learned of Monroe's tactical endeavors they were predictably furious, but by then it was too late to correct the situation. Ross and Winder reached Bladensburg almost simultaneously. Ross' 4,000 man column waited outside of the town while a small group of soldiers went ahead to look for snipers in the buildings. There were none, but the maneuver resulted in an hour long delay and gave Winder time to position his own men.

Winder used the bulk of his force to establish a third line, well behind the "ËśMonroe line'. The line's right flank was positioned atop a small grassy knoll; the remainder simply stood in ranks in the center of a broad open field. There were two small detachments sent forward: a battery of three cannon placed on Stansbury's left flank, positioned to rake the orchard so as to cover any retreat of the forward line; and an additional battery of two cannon placed well forward on the Washington road to impede enemy movement down it. Barney arrived shortly after Winder's main body and in the absence of orders decided to position his men directly in the third line's center.

By now Ross was ready. Keeping the bulk of his column out of the range of Stansbury's artillery, he ordered his First Brigade across the bridge. The British advanced in neat, orderly ranks and as the American artillery opened fire, Ross answered with a battery of newly invented congreve rockets, supplied courtesy of Admiral Cockburn who supervised their firing. The rockets were wildly inaccurate, but to Stansbury's inexperienced militia it seemed as though the floodgates of hell had opened upon them. At this point Winder suggested to the President that he retire from the field and, if he pleased, would he take Secretaries Monroe and Armstrong with him. Madison agreed and the three men galloped off for Washington.

For a short time the American front line not only held steady, but subjected the enemy to a surprisingly high and accurate volume of fire. For a moment it appeared as though the British advance might crumble as its forward ranks broke and ran for the cover of nearby buildings. A cheer went up from the American side, but it soon subsided as Ross' First Brigade regained its composure and stormed across the bridge. It was too much for the defenders. The tip of Stansbury's wedge broke and ran for the apple orchard.

Observing this, General Winder, who was with Stansbury in the Baltimore militia's second line, ordered two thirds of the line, a total of some 1,300 men, forward into the orchard. They never reached it. Cockburn had been quick to raise his rocket fire and it was now falling on the slowly advancing American second line. Between the rockets and the sight of the routed first line, these men too decided that discretion was the better part of valor and in short order were scattered to the four winds themselves.

Winder and Stansbury must have been flabbergasted. After less than half an hour of battle, little more than 500 of the original 2,200 Baltimore militia remained on the field. And soon even these 500 vanished as they came under withering fire from the British who had swiftly penetrated the orchard. The cannon which Winder has positioned to cover a retreat fired only a few token rounds before their crews joined the route. The two generals repositioned themselves with the last American line.

Thirty minutes elapsed before the English were sighted again. Once again they attacked down the road in tidy, disciplined rows. The American right flank was the first to open fire, then the left, and finally Barney's big 18 pounders began raking the field with grapshot and canister.

The British took three volleys of heavy fire then turned off the road and charged Winder's flank on the right over an open field. The American artillery fire became more intense and the charge slowed. Seizing the opportunity, Barney lead his 500 sailors and marines in a rush against the center of Ross' force. Being seamen, they discarded their muskets in favor of more familiar weapons, cutlasses and pistols, and fought the British at close quarters. The enemy's First Brigade fell back badly mauled and Barney returned to his cannon.

Now Ross' Second Brigade advanced. Consisting of some 1,400 men formed into two regiments, Ross took personal command of one and moved to flank the Americans on the right. The second regiment advanced on the left while Cockburn moved his rockets to within 140 yards of the defending line.

Again the American third line, cemented by Barney's veterans, held. Held that is, until Winder ordered the line to fall back to the city of Washington itself, effectively ending American resistance to the British advance on the capitol. Even though it appeared that Ross' forward movement had again been checked, it was difficult to see through the heavy smoke that now hung over the battlefield, and Winder was afraid that reinforcements would enable his British adversary to succeed in at least one of his flanking maneuvers. The Battle of Bladensburg, at times referred to as The Battle for Washington was over, and Ross had yet to even deploy his third Brigade.

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