THIS WEEK in the War of 1812 (August 24-August 30, 1814)
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
Entry filed under: National Security and Defense, Naval Warfare, THIS WEEK in the War of 1812, Washington, Weaponry and Equipment. Tags: amphibious warfare, Army, Battle of Bladensburg, Commodore Joshua Barney, Maj. Gen. Robert Ross, Marine Corps, Navy, Topics, War of 1812 Bicentennial, War of 1812 in Maryland.