Estonian soldiers leave their armored vehicle and take a defensive position during a simulated training exercise at Hohenfels Training Area, Germany during Saber Junction 14. Saber Junction is an annual large-scale, multinational military exercise, involving hundreds of aircraft and vehicles and thousands of personnel from 16 different nations.
The exercise prepares brigade-level units for worldwide contingency operations. With continuing budget constraints for the foreseeable future, current Pentagon strategy calls for the U.S. military to rely on partner nations — like Estonia – to carry out operations with minimal U.S. presence in their country. The United States has also been sending U.S. troops to train in Eastern Europe, including Lativia, Lithuania and Estonian as a sign of solidarity with Baltic states and to discourage Russia from further military adventures in Eastern Europe — like the Russian annexation of Ukraine.
The exercise also focuses U.S., NATO, and partner forces on concepts such as decisive land operations through the simultaneous combination of offensive, defensive and stability operations and on interoperability with partnered nations.
Within a few hours after winning the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24, British forces are on the march to Washington. Vice Admiral George Cockburn, commander of the naval forces in the expedition, wants to wreak havoc and vengeance on the Americans by burning their capital city (Pop. 8,000). But the Army commander, Major General Robert Ross, a battle-tested veteran of the Napoleonic Wars is adamant, only public buildings will be burned and personal property will be respected.
That standing order is put to the test almost as soon as Ross and Cockburn enter Washington on horseback, accompanied by less than 200 soldiers, sailors and Marines. Most of the 4,000-plus troops in the raiding expedition are resting from their long, hot marches from Benedict, Maryland on the Western shore of the Chesapeake to Bladensburg and the outskirts of Washington over the past two days in the heat and humidity of a Maryland August.
Gunfire erupts from a three-story private home near Capitol Hill, killing two British soldiers, wounding several others and killing the horse Ross is riding. Luckily for Washington, the general is unhurt. Ross, who initially thought he didn’t have enough men to capture a national capital, now wants to keep most of them out of the city to avoid looting, and worse. Three Americans are captured in the house where the shots came from and they turn about to be some of Commodore Joshua Barney’s flotilla sailors who gave the British a rough time during the Bladensburg scrap. Impressed by the dogged defense Barney’s men put up — when the rest of the Americans ran or were ordered to withdraw — Ross and Cockburn do not order the men hanged, even though others in their party are calling for blood.
Most of Washington’s inhabitants fled in panic when word came down about the defeat at Bladensburg. And the British were confronted by a virtually empty city.
First stop in the chastisement of the U.S. government for declaring war on Britain while it was battling Napoleon is the U.S. Capitol. British troops pile tables, chairs and desks in the House of Representatives chamber and set it alight with torches and gunpowder. They repeat the process over in the Senate but the sheet metal roof defeats their effort to start the blaze with Congreve rockets. So the troops have to ignite the Senate chamber the old fashioned way. At the time, the U.S. Supreme Court and the Library of Congress were house in the Capitol, so they went up in smoke, too.
Ross, Cockburn and company head down to the president’s mansion (it wasn’t called the White House back then) which they find empty but with the dining room table set to accommodate a dinner party or 40 — including chilled wine. The British officers make themselves at home, tuck into the food and toast “Jemmy” Madison and his wife, Dolley Madison. After leaving the battlefield when the outcome seemed certain, Madison stopped off a the White House for a glass of wine, and to re-consider the wisdom of relying on state militias rather than a large, well-trained standing army. President James Madison cleared out about an hour before the British arrived. The First Lady left with the White House silver, china, a few knickknacks accompanied by family friends and some cabinet members an hour or so before the president arrived. Contrary to popular belief, Mrs. Madison did not take the famous Gilbert Stuart oil portrait of George Washington with her. She ordered White House staff to take it with them or destroy it to keep such a symbol out of British hands. Again, luckily the men were able to break the heavy frame and whisk the canvas to safety.
Except for some souvenirs, like Madison’s ceremonial sword, the British burned everything in the executive mansion: furniture, rugs, books, government papers, clothes and linens. Cockburn also took some time out to wreck a local newspaper, the National Intelligencer, a pro-Madison paper that excoriated Cockburn for raiding and torching several towns up and down the Chesapeake Bay the previous summer. Cockburn wanted to burn the place down but when informed the newspaper was only a tenant, not the building owner, Cockburn — respecting the Irish-born Ross’ no damaging private property edict — settled for dragging all the paper and printing equipment into the street and burning or breaking it.
Under orders, the few sailors and Marines left in the city, torch and blow up the Washington Navy Yard on the Eastern Branch of the Potomac River (Anacostia River today), including two nearly completed new ships, the frigate Essex and the sloop-of-war Argus. The glow from the fire can be seen for miles in either direction.
The next day, August 25, the British send troops to destroy the Greenleaf Point Arsenal on the Potomac close to where the Eastern Branch flows into it. During the demolition, a well in which full barrels of gunpowder had been dumped is accidentally touched off — blowing the well, the arsenal and many British soldiers to smithereens. A few more British troops are killed when a savage storm — they called it a hurricane at the time — lashes Washington with thunder, lightning, high winds that uproot trees and a torrential downpour that snuffs out some of the fires and knocks down structures on the British. Later, Washington residents say the storm was sent by Divine Providence to save the city.
That night, just a day after entering Washington, Ross — fearing the Americans might reorganize the scattered militia and regular troops to counter-attack — orders a withdrawal, first to Bladensburg to drop off the most seriously wounded, and then back to Benedict, where the British fleet was waiting. There is no risk of an American counter attack. Brigadier General William Winder, who performed so abysmally at Bladensburg, has withdrawn his troops to Montgomery Court House in Maryland and is trying to find enough food and shelter for them. On the morning of August 26, Winder gets word that the British are heading for Baltimore and by late morning is moving out with the militia and regular Army regiments that fought at Bladensburg along with new troops from Western Maryland.
The Washington Post has a wonderful retelling of what happened in Washington after Ross and Cockburn left and Madison and his cabinet returned.
But wait, there’s more …
On August 27, a British naval squadron commanded by Captain James Gordon is sailing up the Potomac River, approaching Fort Washington, a star-shaped structure completed in 1809 on a Maryland bluff overlooking the river, south of Washington. Gordon’s little fleet of seven ships was sent by Cockburn 10 days earlier as a diversion to draw U.S. forces away from Ross and his troops attacking from the East. The squadron was also supposed to offer an escape route for the British troops if the raid on Washington went awry, but squalls, unfamiliar currents and shoals, stalled Gordon’s ships for days.
Now Gordon faces what is considered the main U.S. defense installation guarding the nation’s capital. But the U.S. commander has only enough men to man five of the fort’s 27 cannon. He is also low on ammunition. He’s also hearing (untrue) rumors that the British force that burned Washington is marching to attack him from the land.
The American commander and his officers decide to spike the guns, withdraw and blow up the fort — without firing a shot.
Gordon’s squadron sails to Alexandria, Virginia, the port where George Washington brought his tobacco to ship to England before the Revolution. Lacking any defense or useable cannon, the city fathers vote on August 28 to surrender to Gordon to avoid destruction. On August 29, Gordon demands all of the ships in the city — including those that have been scuttled to avoid capture — be surrendered to the British as well as all the supplies in Alexandria’s warehouses. By September 1, all 21 ships under Gordon’s control are stuffed full of supplies and merchandise like tobacco and he’s ordered to rejoin the fleet in Chesapeake Bay.
The night before, August 30, a party of about 200 British sailors and Marines launch a raid on Maryland’s Eastern shore, across the Chesapeake near Chestertown, to chase off Americans on the Eastern Shore who might be planning to reinforce Baltimore. The British are commanded by Sir Peter Parker, who has been leading another Royal Navy squadron on a diversionary mission on the Upper Chesapeake. But the Maryland militia, led by Lieutenant Colonel Philip Reed, is waiting for Parker and his men. They open up with cannon and musket fire, killing 14 British — including Parker — and wounding another 27. The Americans withdraw when they run out of ammunition. They suffer only three wounded and none killed.
Sources for this post:
1812: The War that Forged a Nation by Walter R. Borneman, 2004
1812: The Navy’s War by George C. Daughan, 2011
Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence by A.J. Langguth, 2007
The Dawn’s Early Light by Walter Lord, 1972
Through the Perilous Flight: Six Weeks That Saved The Nation by Steve Vogel. 2013
Our Flag Was Still There: The Sea History Press Guide to the War of 1812 by William H. White, 2012
August 24, Major General Robert Ross and nearly 4,500 British troops – veterans of the wars against Napoleon in Europe – are nearing the small Maryland town of Bladensburg on the Eastern Branch of the Potomac River (known today as the Anacostia River) and a main road that leads to Washington about 8 miles away.
On the other side of the shallow river, U.S. Army Brigadier General William Winder, is trying to organize a defense line after days of marching his troops back and forth, reacting to one rumor after another about which way the British are going: north to attack Baltimore or south to attack the young nation’s capital.
All spring and summer, despite warning signs that Britain – with the Napoleonic Wars at an end – is pouring troops into Montreal and Caribbean to launch multiple attacks on the United States, President James Madison and his cabinet keep sending U.S. troops to attack Canada along the Niagara Frontier. Now those troops are scattered across northern New York State from Fort Erie on the Canadian side of the Niagara River to Plattsburg on Lake Champlain.
Winder has few regulars to defend Washington. Instead he must rely on poorly trained militia from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. A recent change in Pennsylvania law prevents militiamen from leaving the Keystone State.
Secretary of War John Armstrong, a veteran of the Revolutionary War and a political schemer since 1783, according to “1812, The Navy’s War,” by George C. Daughan, is convinced Washington – a “city” of 8,000 with a few large but isolated government buildings – isn’t big enough to warrant attack. Armstrong gives Winder no direction, refusing to let him call out the militia until mid-July — almost the last minute in an era without railroads and the telegraph. And Winder, a political appointee (his uncle is governor of Maryland) without a strategic plan, immerses himself in minutia in the seven weeks since his appointment as commander of the Tenth Military District, which includes Washington. Neither he, nor Armstrong, reinforce Bladensburg or Fort Washington, the capital’s main defensive position overlooking the Potomac south of the city.
Now on the day of battle, Winder starts the morning with about 2,500 men – mostly militia. More militia groups start arriving at Bladensburg from all directions, Annapolis, Baltimore, Washington, topping out at between 5,000 and 6,000 troops. But most are poorly trained, ill-equipped and have never seen action.
Commodore Joshua Barney, a tough sailor who has been tying up the British Navy with his flotilla of row-galleys in the Chesapeake Bay since June, has marched his men and cannon to Washington after scuttling his fleet two days earlier when he is cornered on the upper Patuxent River north of the capital. Before riding out to Bladensburg, Winder orders Barney and his men to stay behind and guard a bridge into Washington – not on the route being taken by the British. The old seadog doesn’t want to be left out of the fight, and Barney forcefully persuades Madison — also on his way to the battle — to let his men march to Bladensburg with their heavy cannons. He leaves a token force behind to defend or destroy the bridge if the British break through, according to “Through the Perilous Flight,” by Steve Vogel.
Secretary of State James Monroe, arriving at Bladensburg before Winder, doesn’t like what he sees and takes it upon himself to re-order the deployment of the troops without consulting the Maryland militia commanders. Units are placed so far apart they cannot support each other in battle, according to Walter Lord’s 1972 classic on the Chesapeake campaign, “The Dawn’s Early Light.” The ambitious Monroe even moves a regular Army unit of Light Dragoons to a ravine where they can’t even see the battlefield. Winder arrives on scene only a little before the British and doesn’t have much time to undo Monroe’s handiwork.
At noon, Ross’s force of three brigades enters Bladensburg after a killing march through the blistering August heat in wool uniforms and carrying 18-pounds of cannon balls per man — they have no supply wagons. Many soldiers succumb to exhaustion and sunstroke. Ross thinks he is facing between 8,000 and 9,000 enemy soldiers. He has just three cannon, the Americans more than 20.
Nevertheless, Ross attacks. The first British rush across the bridge is broken up by cannon, rifle and musket fire from the Maryland units in the first line of defense. But the battle-hardened British attack across the bridge again and again. In addition to their cannon, the British have a Congreve rocket unit. The less-than-precise rockets do little damage but they unsettle the already jittery Americans. Members of the British 44th Regiment ford the shallow river above the bridge and threaten the American left flank. Confused orders and the rocket barrage eventually break the first American line.
The second American line holds out for a while and even tries to counter attack but then retreats in the confusion of the firs line running past them. As the battle begins to turn into a rout and militiamen flee the field in what would become known as the Bladensburg Races, Winder orders the third line of militia and Army regulars on Barney’s left flank to retreat. The Maryland militia on his right flank also evaporate after firing two or three rounds at the advancing British.
Word of the retreat doesn’t get to Barney and his 400 Marines and sailors covering the road to Washington on the right flank. They continue firing their five cannon—two Navy big guns and three Marine wheeled guns—into the attacking British and then counterattacking, crying “Board ‘em, Board ‘em” and driving the British back, according to the U.S. Naval Institute.
But the teamsters driving the supply wagons take off with the militia, taking Barney’s ammunition with them. Barney is shot through the thigh and as the British close in from three sides, he orders his men to retreat and join the forces needed to defend Washington. By 4 p.m. the battle is over. The British have lost 64 dead and 185 wounded. Only about 20 Americans are killed and 50 wounded but more than 100 are captured. Madison and his cabinet leave the battlefield when things start going sideways, heading for Washington and Virginia.
Barney is sitting under a tree when the British forces reach his position. Ross and Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn, commander of the naval units transporting and supporting Ross, congratulate the commodore on his unit’s fighting spirit. They see that his wound is treated at Bladensburg and grant him parole rather than take him prisoner.
Ross rests his men for two hours and then begins the march to Washington, just 7 miles away, at 6 p.m. August 24, 1814.
NEXT: Washington Burning
Editor’s Note: We’re back from some time off in the Rockies, so here’s the Friday Foto — a little later than usual.
Optical (Tactical) Illusion.
The headline of this Marine Corps photo should be “That’s why they call it camouflage.” Marines with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, Marine Rotational Force-Darwin report by radio under camouflage netting that makes an interesting — and confusing — shadow pattern. These two Marines are radioing in a mock mass casualty report during a rehearsal of a live-fire artillery exercise at Bradshaw Field Training Area in Australia’s Northern Territory.
It’s all part of Exercise Koolendong 2014. In addition to mass casualty medical response in a remote area, combat air control and air-ground coordination, and combat engineer explosives training, the 16-day bi-lateral exercise focused on establishing a U.S. Marines-Australian Defence Forces combined headquarters element, and directing ground, aviation and logistics capabilities in austere conditions.
To see more photos of this part of the exercise click here.
Since 2012, U.S. and Australian forces have been working closely on training and operational exercises in the hot, remote scrubland at the northern tip of Australia,. The planned rotation of up to 2,500 Marines for six months every year in Darwin starting in 2016, is part of the U.S. strategic “pivot” to Asia after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Your 4GWAR editor is away in Colorado on vacation.
The 4GWAR blog will resume Saturday, August 23 with the FRIDAY FOTO (a little bit later than usual).
August Build-up .
While the guns are largely silent this week, armies are in motion in northern New York and Lower Canada, along the upper Mississippi River and in and around the Chesapeake Bay all in preparations for major battles on Lake Champlain, outside Washington and Baltimore and on the Niagara Frontier and Illinois Territory.
The British siege of the U.S. held fort continues in Canada just across the Niagara River from Buffalo, New York. After their failed three-column assault on the fort August 15, the British forces settle in for a long siege, firing cannon balls into the stronghold.
The British have no tents and the soldiers suffer in the heavy Autumn rains under crude shelters made from bark and branches. Reinforcements from the 6th and 8th regiments of foot, veterans of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, arrive to replace the nearly 900 troops killed, wounded or captured in the Aug. 15 attack.
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Major Zachary Taylor with more than 350 U.S. regulars and militiamen is preparing to sail and row up the Mississippi River to recapture Fort Shelby, near present day Prairie du Chien, in the Illinois Territory.
A small number of British and Canadian troops are awaiting the attack, along with many Indian allies, mostly Sauk warriors under Black Hawk.
The fort, where the Wisconsin River joins the Mississippi, is a vital outpost for controlling the fur trade with the Indians in the region.
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In Montreal, preparations are underway for a British attack on Northern New York. Sir George Prevost, Governor General of Canada, is assembling an army of 10,000 to march on Plattsburgh, New York, accompanied by a hastily constructed British fleet to seize control of Lake Champlain, opening the way for the British to march down to New York City
A force of 3,400 mostly green troops under General Alexander Macomb await them in Plattsburgh, Four small ships and 10 gunboats are poised for action under Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough in the waters off Plattsburgh.
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After almost two years of raiding both sides of the Chesapeake Bay, the British are ready to strike at Washington and Baltimore. Major General Robert Ross begins landing a force of 4,000 soldiers and sailors August 19 at Benedict , Maryland on the Western shore of the Chesapeake. Ross’ troops veterans of the wars in Europe, march toward Bladensburg, Maryland where they would have to cross a bridge over the Eastern Branch of the Potomac River to reach Washington.
Commodore Joshua Barney, who has harried the British in the Chesapeake with a tiny fleet of gunboats, rowed like galleys, during June and July is pursued up the increasingly shallow Patuxent River by the British. Under orders from Washington, he scuttles his flotilla August 22 and has his sailors and Marines drag the vessels’ cannons overland to Bladensburg where Brigadier General William Winder is trying to set up a defense.
But Winder, a political appointee, has no realistic plans and by August 23 he has gathered only about 6,000 Maryland and Virginia militia to defend the bridge at Bladensburg.
Hats of India
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was in India earlier this month to meet with top officials of the new government, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj as well as military leaders.
Among the formal events during the visit — a wreath-laying ceremony at the Amar Jawan Jyoti War Memorial at India Gate in New Delhi, the capital.
Longtime visitors to the 4GWAR blog know your humble editor is fascinated by the traditions and ceremonies of militaries around the world. Needless to say we were taken with the ceremonial uniforms in this photo including the cockscomb-like folds of the headgear worn by the two military policemen carrying the wreath. We’ve looked in vain for what this not-quite-a-turban is called. Anyone who knows, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or post a comment below.
We do know the officer walking behind Secretary Hagel is wearing the campaign hat of India’s the Gorkha Regiments – the fierce mountain fighters first recruited by the British from Nepal in colonial days. And in the background a soldier wears a red beret which may, or may not, signify he is a member of the paratrooper regiment. Again, anyone with knowledge, please email or comment.
To see more photos of this visit, click here.