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

History of War - - CONTENTS -

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.

Amer­i­can de­fences

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

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