Battle of Bladensburg
During the war, the British Army crushed an ill-prepared American force at Bladensburg, Maryland, in a battle that cleared the path to Washington, DC
A British force inflicted “the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms”
The war between Britain and the United States had grown uglier and harsher the longer it continued. In July 1814, Governor-general Sir George Prevost in Canada had made a request to Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, commander of the Royal Navy’s North American Station, to retaliate for American outrages – the most notable being the burning of government buildings by American troops in York, Ontario. In compliance, Cochrane ordered his forces to “destroy and lay waste” to American towns on the Atlantic coast. There was to be a larger target of British vengeance that summer, though. Together with his Royal Navy colleague, Rear Admiral George Cockburn, and their British Army counterpart, Major General Robert Ross, they conceived a plan to strike at the capital of the United States – Washington, DC. Ross was an immensely experienced officer, having served all over Europe during the Napoleonic Wars, which had just come to a temporary end.
On 16 August, a British expeditionary force formed in Chesapeake Bay. Cockburn’s ships landed Ross’s army of about 3,400 troops at Benedict on the Patuxent River on 19 August 1814. A diversionary attack of a few ships was sent to Baltimore to convince the Americans that the Maryland city was the true object, thereby keeping them from putting the bulk of their forces in front of Washington, DC. By 20 August, Ross was at Nottingham in Maryland, having encountered only scattered American opposition.
The Tenth Military District had been formed to organise American forces in the area under a single command, but the commander of American forces in and around the capital, Brigadier General Winder – a Baltimore lawyer and political appointee of President James Madison – was ill suited for the job. He was unable to delegate responsibilities to anyone else and exhausted himself trying to do everything.
Winder did have a suitably large body of troops at his command, as some 9,000 militiamen had turned out when called to the colours, with about 50 artillery pieces, but the bulk of these – 5,000 men and 30 guns – were at Baltimore. Just 2,500 men and a dozen artillery pieces were at Washington, DC, the actual destination of the British force. Of Winder’s total force under arms, there were just 900 US Army regulars and only 400 cavalry.
Ross’s army, in contrast, was full of veterans from the duke of Wellington’s ‘Invincibles’, fresh from the Napoleonic
Wars. Winder’s maladroit handling of his men exacerbated his difficulties. Most of his soldiers were not organised into a coherent
fighting force. Making matters worse, Secretary of War John Armstrong left the capital’s defences in an utterly inadequate state, thinking the British would strike at Baltimore instead.
The Battle of Bladensburg
Ross’s troops next strode 16 kilometres (ten miles) from Nottingham to Upper Marlboro on 22 August, where they encamped. Ross now needed to find a crossing of the Potomac. On the morning of 24 August, the Americans destroyed two bridges over the river’s East Branch, but Ross started north for Bladensburg, where another crossing might be made.
Winder was in the US Navy Yard in Washington, DC with President Madison and Secretary of State James Monroe when news of Ross’s movement towards Bladensburg reached them. They all made their way there. Ross approached Bladensburg and found Winder waiting for him, his army haphazardly arrayed in three lines, its arrangement having been dictated
more by the time in which Winder’s poorly managed forces had arrived at Bladensburg.
The Bladensburg bridge had not been destroyed. The leading elements of Ross’s army came upon it around noon on 24 August. The intrepid veterans of the 85th Foot rushed over the bridge through a storm of musketry and cannon fire from the men of Winder’s first line. President Madison, who had been present on the battlefield, quickly retired to a respectful distance once the shooting started. The American troops were taken aback by the relentless charge of the 85th and soon were on the run.
The second American line, anchored in place by the Fifth Maryland Volunteer Regiment, held on under British pressure for a while, but soon retreated. This caused the poorly trained militiamen alongside to melt and hurry after them, with the movement collapsing into a desperate flight.
There was now just the third line left to Winder. This was positioned about 1.5
kilometres (one mile) from Bladensburg and was composed of the sailors and marines under US Navy Commodore Joseph Barney. Barney’s gunboat flotilla had been penned in the Patuxent by Cockburn’s move upriver several days earlier. He had scuttled his useless gunboats and then dragged his artillery into position near to Bladensburg, deploying across the road to Washington, DC. He opened fire as the British 85th Foot, pursuing the fleeing American soldiers, came into range.
This held up the British advance, but only temporarily. Instead of reorganising his troops to form a new defensive line, Winder sent them orders to retreat. The battle was over.
Bladensburg was an unmitigated disaster for the Americans, who retreated at full speed in the direction of the capital. American losses stood at 26 dead and 51 wounded. British losses were heavier, with 64 killed and 185 wounded, but the battle had gone entirely in their favour. The road to a defenceless Washington, DC was now wide open.
LEFT: US General William Winder was thoroughly outclassed at Bladensburg
Sailors and marines under the command of Commodore Barney made a final stand against the British, but couldn’t stop them from entering the US capital