Posts tagged ‘Navy’

THIS WEEK in the War of 1812 (September 14-September 20, 1814) UPDATE

Silent Emblem.

September 14, Baltimore

UPDATES with final action in Fort Erie Siege September 17

Bombardment of Fort McHenry by Peter Rindlisbacher (Courtesy of Royal Canadian Geographic Society/Parks Canada)

Bombardment of Fort McHenry by Peter Rindlisbacher
(Courtesy of Royal Canadian Geographic Society/Parks Canada)

Some 20 Royal Navy ships – bomb and rocket vessels, frigates and troop-carrying barges – continue their futile assault on Fort McHenry and the outer defenses of Baltimore. The ships, blocked by sunken hulks, a chain boom and batteries on either side of the channel east of the fort leading to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, are forced to bombard McHenry from two miles out – beyond the range of the American guns.

An amphibious assault at an area west off the fort in the wee hours of the 14th is repulsed when Americans manning two fortifications outside McHenry, spot the British barges carrying infantry and open fire with deadly effect.

Meanwhile, Colonel Arthur Brooke, leading the land forces facing the Americans near heavily fortified Hampstead Hill in Baltimore finally receives a note from Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane. Cochrane, the expedition’s overall commander, explains that his ships in the Patapsco River won’t be able to offer supporting fire for any land attack on the other side of the city. It was up to Brooke to decide if he could take Baltimore with his force of less than 5,000 men. If not, Cochrane writes, it “would be only throwing the men’s lives away” and keep the expedition from performing other missions.

Brooke, has been planning a 2 a.m. attack on American General Samuel Smith’s 15,000-man force of soldiers, sailors, flotilla men, Marines, militia and volunteers spoiling for a little payback after the burning of Washington. But the note gives him pause – and an honorable out from an attack likely to end in failure. After a council of war with his officers, Brooke’s army slips away leaving campfire burning to fool the Americans into thinking the British were still there.

Francis Scott Key notes "that our flag was still there." Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Francis Scott Key notes “that our flag was still there.” Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

At daybreak on the 14th Cochrane calls off the bombardment. Maryland lawyer Francis Scott Key, stuck on a boat downstream from Fort McHenry during the attack, is thrilled to see the fort’s huge American flag still flying in the morning light. Fifty-years later, American General William Tecumseh Sherman will call it “the silent emblem of [our] country” but thanks to Key, the amateur poet, his opus “The Defense of Fort McHenry,” will immortalize the national flag as The Star Spangled Banner.

Brooke and his troops march back to where they first came ashore two days earlier and re-board the transports. Cochrane’s fleet eventually weighs anchor and heads for Canada. The Battle of Baltimore is over. Here is the seldom sung fourth, and final, verse of the poem that becomes the U.S. National Anthem …

Oh! thus be it ever, when free men shall stand

Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation!

Blest with victory and peace, may the heaven-rescued land

Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”

And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

*** *** ***

War Moves South

September 14-16, Mobile Bay

British leaders in London still have their eye on New Orleans and plan to send an invasion force there as part of the strategy to attack the United States from the north and south.

Maj. William Lawrence (War of 1812 Alabama, Facebok page)

Maj. William Lawrence
(War of 1812 Alabama, Facebok page)

In preparation for that operation, the British plan to attack Fort Bowyer overlooking Mobile Bay on the Gulf Coast. Major General Andrew Jackson, expecting a British thrust from Pensacola (in what was then Spanish Florida) has beefed up the earth and timber fortification with 160 Army regulars and 20 canon under the command of Major William Lawrence of the 2nd U.S. Infantry Regiment..

If the British capture the small fort, it will enable them British to move on Mobile, and then head overland to Natchez in Mississippi Territory and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, cutting off New Orleans from the north.

Four British ships under Captain William Percy land 60 Royal Marines, 60 pro-British Indians and a small canon nine miles from the fort, but they are repulsed by the Americans September 14. The British ships attack the fort the next day but canon fire from the fort damages one ship which runs aground. That ship is set afire by the British after the beached ship’s crew is rescued. The other three ships sail away on September 16 after losing 34 killed and 35 wounded in the land and sea attacks. American casualties are only four killed and four wounded.

*** *** ***

Fort Erie Sortie

September 17, Canada

The British siege of Fort Erie on the Canadian side of the Niagara River continues after 42 days.

On September 17, two columns of American troops totaling 1,600 men sortie from the fort and sneak up on three British artillery batteries under cover of a heavy rain. One column, commanded by Brigadier General Peter Porter, consists of volunteers from the New York and Pennsylvania militia and elements of the 23rd U.S. Infantry Regiment. Porter’s men capture Battery Number 3. The other column, commanded by Brigadier General James Miller, includes detachments from the 9th, 11th and 19th U.S. Infantry regiments. Miller’s group captures Battery Number 2.

But there is fierce fighting after the British regroup and counter attack. The Americans are driven out of batteries 2 and 3 and are unable to take Battery Number 1. Three of the six siege guns in Battery Number 3 are destroyed, but the Americans are unable to spike the guns in Battery Number 2 before retreating following the two-hour engagement in the trenches.

In the often hand-to-hand fighting, the Americans suffer 79 killed, 216 wounded and 170 captured. The British losses are 49 killed, 178 wounded and 382 captured. A few days later, the British commander, Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond, decides to break off the siege.

East Bastion and barracks of Fort Erie today. (photo by Ernest Mettendorf via Wikipedia)

East Bastion and barracks of Fort Erie today.
(photo by Ernest Mettendorf via Wikipedia)

September 14, 2014 at 11:57 pm Leave a comment

THIS WEEK in the War of 1812 (September 7-September 13, 1814) PART III

Battle for Baltimore.

British Major General Robert Ross

British Major General Robert Ross

September 12, 1814

At 3 a.m. the British fleet in the Patapsco River south of Baltimore are unloading thousands of British soldiers and sailors — including about 500 Colonial Marines, runaway American slaves who have joined the British who promised them freedom from servitude in return. The overall commander, Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, originally planned to depart the sultry and (in his mind) fever-ridden Chesapeake Bay after capturing and burning Washington. But unfavorable tides, storms in the Atlantic and the urging of his two sub commanders — Major General Robert Ross and Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn — persuades Cochrane to try and take Baltimore, the most pro-war city on the Atlantic Coast and home to numerous privateers (state-sanctioned sea-going raiders) that have been wreaking havoc with British shipping for the past three years.

By 7 a.m. more than 4,000 troops are ashore and Ross decides to begin marching while the rest of the troops, cannon and equipment are being landed and organized.  Baltimore is about 14 miles away and Ross is anxious to take his men across this neck of land between the Patapsco and Back rivers before it gets too hot and the Americans realize they are attacking from the land side.

Brigadier Samuel Smith, the overall American commander in Baltimore has sent the 3,200-man 3rd Maryland (militia) Brigade about half way between the American lines and the British landing point, as a tripwire to warn of the British advance and to slow it down. Brigadier General John Stricker, the brigade’s commander, posts his men across a narrow neck of land only about a half mile wide between two creeks, straddling the road from North Point to Baltimore. Stricker sends a small unit, consisting of two companies of the 5th Maryland Regiment and less than 100 members of the Baltimore Rifle Battalion, even farther forward to surprise the British as they advance.

 

Battle of Baltimore (Click on map to enlarge)

Battle of Baltimore
(Click on map to enlarge)

It is the Americans who are surprised when thy run into the lead elements of the British force. The 5th Maryland companies, standing in the middle of the road, fire two volleys and flee. The riflemen, with more accurate weapons, take cover in the tall grass and behind trees to fire at the British. One or two of their bullets strike the British commander, General Ross, mortally wounding him. Colonel Arthur Brook takes command.

By 2 p.m. the British force reachStrickler’s position and are surprised when the militia units do not run when fired upon by artillery and Congreve rockets as they did at Bladensburg. While the 5th Maryland, 27th Maryland and the six-gun Union Artillery battery stand their ground but the 51st Maryland begins to waver and finally flee, followed by the neighboring 39th Regiment. With hisleft wing collapsing,Strickler fears the now outnumbered 5th and 27th regiments will be overrun by the British who mount a bayonet charge. At 3:45 p.m.Strickler orders his troops to retreat a mile back to a line where the 6th Maryland is standing in reserve. The American losses are 24 dead, 139 wounded and 50 captured. By contrast British suffer 46 killed, 295 wounded. Brook decides not to pursue the Marylanders, leaving his attack on Baltimore, still 7 miles away, until the next day to give his hungry, thirsty and exhausted troops a rest.

The 5th Maryland Militia Regiment at the Battle of North Point. (National Guard Heritage Series)

The 5th Maryland Militia Regiment at the Battle of North Point.
(National Guard Heritage Series)

*** *** ***

As the British prepare to attack Baltimore by sea, defenders block the entrance to the city’s inner harbor by sinking old ships between Whetstone Point — where Fort McHenry stands guard — and Lazaretto Point, where an artillery battery was set up. A chain barrier was stretched across the space and a string of barges, and as a last line of defense, the sloop-of-war Erie. General Smith, a Revolutionary War veteran and U.S. senator from Maryland began strengthening Baltimore’s defense — especially Fort McHenry — when the British began raiding the Chesapeake shoreline in 1813.

There were about 1,000 Army soldiers and militiamen inside the fort. Smaller earthworks fortifications were set up west of the five-sided masonry fort to prevent the British from sailing around the Fort McHenry and attacking Baltimore by land from the south. Most of the seaside fortifications are manned by some 1,000 sailors, Marines and Commodore Barney’s flotilla men, many of whom were black freemen.

*** *** ***

September 13

Shortly after daybreak, the British begin bombarding Fort McHenry and some of the shore batteries. Five of Royal Navy’s eight bomb ships are drawn up two miles from Fort McHenry. Thy have fearsome names like Devastation, Terror and Volcano and can hurl 200-pound shells up to two-and-a-half miles. The Americans briefly return fire but even their biggest guns can’t reach more than a mile and a half. There is also a ship, the Erebus, firing Congreve rockets. The bombardment continues all day and into the night where “the rockets’ red gleaming” illuminated the fort and its enormous 15-star, 15-stripe flag. Farther down the Patapsco River, American lawyer and poet Francis Scot Key has a good view of the attack but it is one he can do without. Key and John Stuart Skinner have sailed out to the British fleet to negotiate the release of a Maryland physician, Dr. William Beanes, who was taken prisoner for arresting at gunpoint British deserters and looters. The British agree to release Beans but keep all three men aboard ship until the battle is over.

Fort McHenry’s commander, Major George Armistead estimates 1,500 and 1,800 projectiles are fired at the fort. Only about 400 fall within the compound. The noise and concussion are almost unimaginable, however. At one point the bomb ships move a half a mile closer but they are now within range of some of the American big guns and after taking some hits, they are ordered back to their original position. Cochrane, the overall British commander sends a message to Brooke, the Army commander, saying the Navy can’t penetrate Baltimore’s waterside defenses and won’t able to support his attack on Baltimore’s fortifications. The message doesn’t reach Brooke for hours.

Fort McHenry today (Defense Department photo)

Fort McHenry today
(Defense Department photo)

General Smith has between 15,000 and 16,000 troops under his command, including 1,000 sailors, Marines and flotilla men. The American trenches flow all around Hampstead Hill, the American strong point. By 9 a.m. the British land forces have come within sight of he American lines, which are stronger, more extensive and heavily armed than Brooke had been led to believe. After assessing the situation and estimated the Americans may have 20,000 men and more than 100 canons, Brooke probes for a weakness in the America lines but is repulsed very time.

With only 4,500 men, Brooke knows it,s a big risk to attack an entrenched, larger force. However, with fire support from the Navy (he still hasn’t gotten Cochrane’s note) Brooke begins to think he might be able to pull it off. After a council or war, Brooke and his officers plan to launch a nighttime assault at 2 a.m. September 14.

Next Week: Star Spangled Banner and Fort Erie Holds On

September 11, 2014 at 1:18 am Leave a comment

THIS WEEK in the War of 1812 (September 7-September 13, 1814) PART II

Battle on the Lake.

September 11

Macdonough's victory on Lake Champlain (U.S .Naval History and Heritage Command)

Macdonough’s victory on Lake Champlain
(U.S .Naval History and Heritage Command)

On the same day the British threaten Baltimore, Captain George Downie’s 16-vessel fleet rounds Cumberland Head just southeast of Plattsburgh, New York and almost immediately attacks the 14-ships and gunboats led by Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough.

Macdonough has his four larger ships anchored close to shore in the narrow area of Plattsburgh Bay, putting the British sailing ships at a maneuvering disadvantage – especially if the wind dies, which it does. Additionally, the Saratoga, Eagle, Ticonderoga and Preble are rigged with spring cables, heavy lines attached to anchors at either side of the ship, allowing them to swing almost 180 degrees so the guns can be brought to bear on the enemy without having to rely on the sails to maneuver in battle.

The fighting is fierce. Within 15 minutes, Downie, the British commander is killed when an American canon ball strikes a gun carriage on the Confiance, which smashes into the commander. Macdonough is knocked unconscious twice, first when he’s struck by falling debris and later he’s struck by the decapitated head of one of his crew.

 

Map of Battle of Lake Champlain

Map of Battle of Lake Champlain

(Click on map image to enlarge)

The British Chub and the American Preble are lost when Chub runs aground and the Preble when canon fir disables the ship and it drifts away from the battle.

The spring cable idea works brilliantly when most of the guns on one side of the Saratoga are knocked out of action. The cables are hauled to swing the ship’s other side around to face the enemy and pour broadsides into the larger British ship.

After two and a half hours, the last British ships strike their colors and surrender. Seeing the naval disaster, Prevost decides to withdraw his army over the strong objections of his officers and heads back to Montreal. Historians will later call this the turning point of the war.

NEXT: Another British Assault — on Baltimore

September 10, 2014 at 1:35 am Leave a comment

THIS WEEK in the War of 1812 (September 7-September 13, 1814) PART I

War on Three Fronts.

Brigadier General Alexander Macomb deploys his small force at the Battle of Pattsburgh, N.Y.

Brigadier General Alexander Macomb deploys his small force at the Battle of Pattsburgh, N.Y.

September 7, 1814

Sir George Prevost, the governor general of Canada has reached the Saranac River in New York State opposite Plattsburgh, N.Y. Prevost is waiting to coordinate with a Royal Navy force that is sailing down Lake Champlain for a combined operation to drive down the long narrow lake between New York and Vermont and then proceed down the Hudson River Valley all the way to New York City.

The idea is to split off the anti-war states of New England from the rest of the United States while another British force sails up from the Caribbean to attack the U.S. Gulf Coast — particularly New Orleans. Two of the three brigades in Prevost’s command are battle-tested troops from the Duke of Wellington’s campaigns against Napoleon in Spain and Portugal.

While he waits for the navy, Prevost’s 10,000 troops have swept aside small American units aiming to delay his southern march at places like  Chazy and Beekmantown. The Americans have been felling trees across roads, burning bridges and changing the direction of signposts as part of their delaying tactics. Once at the Saranac, Prevost deploys his men and builds artillery emplacements to attack the town while awaiting Captain George Downie and his fleet of four ships and 12 gunboats. Some tentative attacks across the Saranac are repulsed by U.S. Army regulars under Major John Wool.

Earlier in the summer, then-Secretary of War John Armstrong (the same guy who said the British wouldn’t bother attacking Washington) orders 4,000 regulars at Plattsburgh to march to Sacketts Harbor on Lake Ontario to protect  a vital navy yard and supply center. That leaves Brigadier General Alexander Macomb with about 1,500 troops to defend Plattsburgh. Although they are regulars, many of them are green recruits or recovering from wounds or illness. Macomb calls for militiamen from New York and Vermont to reinforce him. About 2,000 come but many of them are equally untrained and nearly useless. Macomb assigns them to dig trenches and fortifications.

U.S. and British fort and batteries at Plattsburgh, N.Y. 1814

U.S. and British forts and batteries at Plattsburgh, N.Y. 1814

*** *** ***

In early September, Major Zachary Taylor (future Mexican War commander and U.S. President) leads an expedition of 350 U.S. Army regulars and Illinois Territory militia up the Mississippi River to recapture Fort Shelby just outside the village of Prairie du Chien (in what is now Wisconsin) which had fallen to a combined force of 650 Native American warriors and a few British and Canadian troops.

On September 4, Taylor’s force is camped on Credit Island in the Mississippi near present day Davenport, Iowa. Indians under the Sauk leader Black Hawk attack, killing two guards.  In addition to the Sauk, the Native American force includes warriors from the Fox, Kickapoo, Winnebago and Sioux tribes. The following morning during a series of skirmishes between Taylor’s troops and the Indians, British canon open fire on  the U.S. forces, wounding 11 soldiers and forcing Taylor to withdraw downstream to Fort Cap au Gris near St. Louis, Missouri.

The Upper Mississippi River during the War of 1812. 1: Fort Bellefontaine U.S. headquarters; 2: Fort Osage, abandoned 1813; 3: Fort Madison, defeated 1813; 4: Fort Shelby, defeated 1814; 5: Battle of Rock Island Rapids, July 1814 and the Battle of Credit Island, Sept. 1814; 6: Fort Johnson, abandoned 1814; 7: Fort Cap au Gris and the Battle of the Sink Hole, May 1815. Map of the upper Mississippi River during the War of 1812 Key: 1: Fort Bellefontaine U.S. headquarters 2: Fort Osage, abandoned 1813 3: Fort Madison, defeated 1813 4: Fort Shelby, defeated 1814 5: Battle of Rock Island Rapids, July 1814 and the Battle of Credit Island, Sept. 1814 6: Fort Johnson, abandoned 1814 7: Fort Cap au Gris and the Battle of the Sink Hole, May 1815. (Map by Bill Whittaker via Wikipedia)

The Upper Mississippi River during the War of 1812. 1: Fort Bellefontaine U.S. headquarters; 2: Fort Osage, abandoned 1813; 3: Fort Madison, defeated 1813; 4: Fort Shelby, defeated 1814; 5: Battle of Rock Island Rapids, July 1814 and the Battle of Credit Island, Sept. 1814; 6: Fort Johnson, abandoned 1814; 7: Fort Cap au Gris and the Battle of the Sink Hole, May 1815.
Map of the upper Mississippi River during the War of 1812 Key: 1: Fort Bellefontaine U.S. headquarters 2: Fort Osage, abandoned 1813 3: Fort Madison, defeated 1813 4: Fort Shelby, defeated 1814 5: Battle of Rock Island Rapids, July 1814 and the Battle of Credit Island, Sept. 1814 6: Fort Johnson, abandoned 1814 7: Fort Cap au Gris and the Battle of the Sink Hole, May 1815.
(Map by Bill Whittaker via Wikipedia)

On Sept. 7, Taylor sends militia Captain James Callaway, a grandson of Daniel Boone, with a party of troops to build a fort on a bluff overlooking the east side of the Mississippi near present day Warsaw, Illinois. The outpost is named Fort Johnson. Black Hawk makes plans to harass the Americans again.

Credit Island is the fourth time Black Hawk has thwarted American plans to establish a military presence in the Mississippi Valley. The Americans’ plan is to challenge British control of the fur trade with the Indians. Black Hawk’s previous battles with U.S. forces along the Mississippi were at Fort Madison, Fort Shelby and Rock Island Rapids (see map below).

Taylor and Black Hawk will meet again in battle nearly 20 years later in the Black Hawk War of 1832.

Editor’s Note: The U.S. Army’s UH-60 helicopter is named for Black Hawk

*** *** ***

September 9

Captain George Downie, Royal Navy, heads south on Lake Champlain with his fleet of four ships: the 37-gun frigate HMS Confiance, the 16-gun brig Linnet, and two 11-gun sloops, the Chubb and Finch. Downie has also assembled 12 gunboats with a total of 17 guns among them.

Waiting for Downie near Plattsburgh is an American squadron of four ships: the 26-gun corvette (light frigate) Saratoga; the 20-gun brig, Eagle;  the 17-gun schooner Ticonderoga and the 7-gun sloop Preble. Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough has also assembled 10 gun boats, some of them rowing galleys, with a combined total of 16 guns.

Both the British at their shipyard at Ile aux Noix, Canada and the Americans at Otter Creek on the Vermont shore, have engaged in an arms race all summer trying to build boats as fast as possible to get naval superiority on the lake. The Americans’ Eagle  was completed only a few days before the battle. The British were still doing carpentry and rigging work on the just completed Confiance as it sailed into battle with a shortage of sailors. To make up the shortfall, Downie is using British soldiers who are new to navy ways.

On the night of September 9, a raid across the Saranac River by 50 Americans destroys a British Congreve rocket battery just 500 yards from Fort Brown, one of the three main American fortifications (see map above).

A congreve rocket vintage 1806 (Courtesy British Science Museum/http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/)

A Congreve rocket vintage 1806
(Courtesy British Science Museum/http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/)

Unfavorable winds keep Downie from attacking the American squadron on September 10. McDonough, the American commander, uses the extra time to drill his crews. While the British have a slight edge in the number of guns and boats they possess. Nearly all the U.S. vessels are equipped with carronades, short range canon that fire heavier projectiles while Downie’s ships have mostly long guns that have a longer range but fire a slightly lighter and less damaging shot.

*** *** ***

September 11

The Royal Navy with a huge fleet of bomb ships, rocket battery ships and troop ships sails into the Patapsco River in Maryland, about 8 miles from Baltimore. Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane’s plan is to land the 4,000 soldiers that took Washington at North Point and have them attack Baltimore from the land. At about the same time, the British fleet will bombard Fort McHenry, the guardian of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, into surrender and then attack the city from the sea.

What the British don’t know is that the American commander, Brigadier General Samuel Smith, is a very different man from Major General William Winder, the hapless U.S. commander at Bladensburg. They also are unaware that the citizens of Baltimore — military and civilian, black and white, male and female — are not about to roll over and be put to the torch like Washington.

Troops have been pouring into Baltimore and a massive military engineering project is well underway: digging trenches, gun emplacements and just generally beefing up the city’s fortifications.

NEXT: Battle on Lake Champlain, North Point and Fort McHenry

 

 

 

 

 

September 8, 2014 at 1:18 am Leave a comment

THIS WEEK in the War of 1812 (August 31-September 6, 1814)

A Crucial Week.

White House after the 1814 fire by George Munger (White House Historical Association)

White House after the 1814 fire by George Munger
(White House Historical Association)

Official Washington is in ruins. The White House and the Capitol have been torched as have the headquarters of the State, Navy and War departments. The armory at Greenleaf Point has been destroyed. Under orders from Navy Secretary William Jones, sailors and Marines have blown up and torched the Washington Navy Yard to keep its supplies, munition stockpiles and two almost completed new ships out of British hands. The Royal Navy has captured Alexandria, Virginia — just a few miles south of Washington — emptying its storehouse of food, tobacco, cotton, and flour. The U.S. Army and local militia have been humiliated on the battlefield of Bladensburg, Maryland. President Madison and his cabinet are wandering the roads around Washington, trying to reorganize the government and the war effort. It is the most desperate time in the young life of the United States of America — perhaps the most desperate ever.

And yet, the United States fights on this week from the Mississippi River to the English Channel, from the New York Canadian border to the Chesapeake Bay.

August 31

Sir John Sherbrooke with a force of 2,000 sails down from Halifax and attacks the coast of Maine, which is still a part of Massachusetts. By September 3 he has captured Castine, Hampden and Bangor.

September 1

The USS Wasp, a 22-gun sloop-of-war, cruising the western approaches to the English Channel, sinks the 18-gun brig HMS Avon.

The same day, just south of Montreal, Sir George Prevost, the governor general of Canada, starts marching an army of 12,000 to cross the border and attack Plattsburgh, New York. Plattsburgh  on crucial Lake Champlain. Only about 3,000 troops, mostly green militia, defend Plattsburgh under Brigadier Alexander McComb. It is to be a combined arms operation with the Royal Navy taking out American vessels defending Plattsburgh.

USS Wasp in 1814 (via Wikipedia)

USS Wasp in 1814
(via Wikipedia)

On the Potomac

The eight-ship Royal Navy squadron of Captain James Gordon departs Alexandria September 2 with 21 prize vessels, all stuffed with loot. Navy Secretary Jones, furious with the U.S. military’s poor showing against the British, decides to make Gordon’s journey a memorable one — ordering the Navy, assisted by Army regulars and Virginia and Maryland militia, set up cannon batteries on either side of the Potomac on bluffs overlooking the river.

The first, near Belvoir plantation in Virginia, is commanded by Captain Oliver Hazzard Perry, the hero of the Battle of Lake Erie the previous year. The other, by Captain David Porter, another naval hero who harassed the British whaling fleet in the Pacific Ocean before his ship, the USS Essex was defeated off the coast of Chile in late 1813. Neither battery has enough fire power to effectively battle Gordon ‘s little fleet which includes bomb ships and rocket ships as well as the frigate HMS Seahorse. After duking it out with Gordon’s ships for nearly three days, Perry is forced to withdraw when heavy shellfire strikes several of his cannon and wounds his men.  Porter has few cannon (his on big gun arrives just 30 minutes befre the British) and even less ammunition. When his ammunition runs out September 5, Porter breaks off fighting and withdraws. It takes x days, but Gordon sails on and rejoins the main British fleet in Chesapeake Bay on September x.

On to Baltimore

The combined British Army-Navy-Marines force that burned Washington marches out of the city August 25, fearing a counter attack by U.S. troops. At first it looks like thy are headed for Baltimore but its only a feint to confuse the Americans. The plan works and Army Brigadier William Winder musters his scattered troops and heads for Baltimore. The British eventually turn south and return to Benedict on Maryland’s western shore whre the 4,500-man raid-in-force disembarked August 19. The British re-board their transport ships September x, ostensibly to head for Rhode Island where the overall commander, Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, wants to wait out the “fever season” of the hot, humid, mosquito-ridden conditions of the Chesapeake in late summer. Cochrane plans to attack Baltimore after that.

September 4

Up on the Niagara border between New York State and Canada, the British are still besieging Fort Erie on the Canadian side. Major General Jacob Brown, although not fully recovered from his wounds at Lundy’s Lane, has resumed command of the fort after his successor, Brigadier General Edmund Gaines is wounded.

The Americans launch a raid outside the fort on a British artillery battery. The battle– often hand-to-hand combat — lasts nearly six hours before a severe thunderstorm rakes the battlefield.

Secretary of War John Armstrong by Rembrandt Peale

Secretary of War John Armstrong by Rembrandt Peale

Also on September 4, Secretary of  War John Armstrong resigns. Armstrong refused to call out the militia or build defenses until the last minute when Washington was threatened with invasion. It didn’t take Armstrong long to realize he has lost the confidence of President Madison and annoyed nearly everyone in the cabinet. Secretary of State James Monroe, who screwed up the troop displacement at Bladensburg, is named Secretary of War.

September 5

Two setbacks in the far west. In Michigan, a resourceful Lieutenant Miller Worsley and 77 men in canoes, trick and capture two American warships on Lake Huron: he USS Tigress and the USS Scorpion. In what is known as the Illinois Territory, Major Zachary Taylor heads a small force  of 350 regulars and militia attempting to recapture a fort near what is now Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. The soldiers are defeated and turned back by an alliance of tribes including Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, Winnebago and Sioux .

September 6

The British army heading down from Montreal stops before reaching Plattsburgh, to await word on the progress made by the Royal Navy on Lake Champlain.

September 5, 2014 at 12:56 am Leave a comment

THIS WEEK in the War of 1812 (August 24-August 30, 1814)

PART I

Bungled Battle.

Last Stand at Bladensburg by Charles H. Waterhouse (Collection of the National Museum of the Marine Corps) (

Last Stand at Bladensburg by Charles H. Waterhouse
(Collection of the National Museum of the Marine Corps)

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.

Map of the Battle of Bladensburg  (About History.com)

Map of the Battle of Bladensburg
(Military History About.com)

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.

The recently unveiled Bladensburg Battle monument featuring (left to right) A U.S. Marine, Commodore Joshua Barney and Charles Bell, a freed slave and one of Barney's flotilla men. (DC War of 1812 blog)

The recently unveiled Bladensburg Battle monument featuring (left to right) A U.S. Marine, Commodore Joshua Barney and Charles Bell, a freed slave and one of Barney’s flotilla men.
(DC War of 1812 blog)

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

August 25, 2014 at 12:53 am Leave a comment

THIS WEEK in the War of 1812 (August 17–23, 1814)

August Build-up .

Niagara Frontier 1813-1814 (Map courtesy Parks Canada and the Royal Canadian Geographic Association)

Niagara Frontier 1813-1814
(Map courtesy Parks Canada and the Royal Canadian Geographic Association)

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.

FORT ERIE

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.

*** *** ***

FORT SHELBY

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.

*** *** ***

LAKE CHAMPLAIN

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.

*** *** ***

CHESAPEAKE BAY

Commodore Joshua Barney (Maryland Historical Society)

Commodore Joshua Barney
(Maryland Historical Society)

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.

August 19, 2014 at 2:29 am Leave a comment

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