At Bladensburg, 1814

Americans generally regard the War of 1812 as an engagement between Great Britain and the United States, a war lasting from 1812 to 1815.  Today’s post is about this conflict.  There was another war during this period, also sometimes referred to as the War of 1812; it involved the French invasion of Russia.  The 1812 Overture [1] reminds of this event as part of the Napoleonic Wars.

As with all history, there were a number of events that eventually led the United States into lethal conflict with Great Britain.  In this particular conflict, there were a series of British behaviors that the Americans found offensive, and these were triggered by the fact that Great Britain went to war against Napoleonic France in 1803 in a conflict lasting until April 1814.  In many ways, the Napoleonic War was an international conflict —a world war, perhaps— that involved Great Britain, Russia, Batavia, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Austria, Portugal, Prussia, Saxony, Sweden, Scandinavia, and Finland.

From the outbreak of war between Great Britain and Napoleonic France in 1803, British strategy involved the use of its considerable navy to halt or restrict trade with France by any other nation.  The British believed that Napoleon Bonaparte could be weakened economically and militarily by limiting the flow of goods into France.  Their strategy might even cause the people of France to rebel against their tyrant emperor.  At the time, the United States was emerging as a new nation.  The British naval blockade of French ports restricted the United States’ access to a much-needed trade partner, and of course, the American navy was much smaller than the British Royal Navy.

The first objectionable behavior was the British blockade of French ports; a second behavior involved the British policy of accosting ships in international waters and impressing sailors from foreign ships into service with the Royal Navy.  From the British perspective, this activity was understandable: The Royal Navy needed experienced sailors to man ships to establish their blockades.  To the Americans, the practice was illegal and objectionable.  Of course, trade with France benefitted the economic interests of the United States.  Leading to war with Great Britain were two related incidents:

On 22 June 1807, HMS Leopard accosted the USS Chesapeake off the coast of Virginia.  Leopard was supposedly looking for deserters from the Royal Navy.  Leopard’s attempt to intercept Chesapeake caused that ship to take flight.  After several British broadsides [2], Chesapeake surrendered (having fired only one shot in her own defense).  After arresting four crewmen, the British sent Chesapeake on her way [3].  Commanding Chesapeakeat the time was Captain James Barron, USN.  Baron was later court-marshaled and dismissed from the navy.  The incident, when publicized, enraged the American people, but President Thomas Jefferson, being no enthusiast of the American navy, ignored them.  He and the US Congress backed away from popular demands for open warfare with Great Britain.  While American leadership was searching for a backbone, the British navy reiterated its intent to inspect all non-British ships for deserters and contraband.

On 1 May1811, HMS Guerriere detained USS Spitfire off Sandy Hook, New Jersey and impressed Mr. John Diggio, a member of Spitfire’s crew and a citizen of Maine. In response, Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton directed USS President and USS Argus to patrol America’s coastal waters from the Carolina coast to New York.  In command of USS President was Commodore John Rodgers [4].  On 16 May, Rodgers sighted HMS Little Belt and, believing her to be HMS Guerriere, gave chase.  On more than one occasion during the hours-long pursuit, each ship’s captain signaled his demanded to know the other’s identity; neither captain would give up this information and so eventually, both ships engaged.  USS President was a much larger ship (more guns) and in raking HMS Little Belt, nine British seamen died, and 23 others were seriously injured.  The President lost one man killed in action.  Both captains later claimed that the other had fired the first shot.

A third objectionable British behavior was that they supplied firearms to hostile Indians and incited them to attack America’s western settlements.  Seeking to limit America’s westward expansion, the Indians became a useful British tool in achieving this policy.  The Indian’s murderous attacks achieved two things: it did hinder (although only slightly) American westward expansion, but it also created deep resentment toward both the British and the Indians.

On 18 June 1812, pressured by congressional war hawks, President James Madison declared war on the United Kingdom.  When publicized in London a few months later, the article appeared as a mere footnote on page 34 of the London Times.  The British were not impressed.  With most of its army and navy fighting against Napoleon in Europe, the Americans were a mere annoyance —a flea to be swatted aside until a later time.

At the beginning of the war, the British adopted a defensive strategy in dealing with the Americans. Initially, offensive operations were limited to the border separating Canada and the United States, and in the western regions where American settlements were sparsely populated and poorly defended.  The prevailing attitude among these western settlers was utter disdain for a government that failed to protect them from Indian and Redcoat depredations.  Elsewhere, underscoring early America’s regionalism, the War of 1812 was unpopular among those living along the eastern seaboard; among those who depended on trade for their livelihood.

In any case, the American’s initial efforts against the British were unfocused, contrary to the United States’ long-term interests, and grossly inept.  The British handed the Americans defeats at Detroit, Queenstown Heights, and Montreal.  Finally, in 1813, the Americans won the Battle of Lake Erie and managed to defeat the Tecumseh Confederacy [5].  Meanwhile, the Royal Navy blockaded American seaports which allowed the British to raid the American coastal regions at will.  One of these actions involved the British Army’s assault on the city of Washington. Great Britain’s land war against the United States began in earnest after the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1814. Thousands of British combat veterans were reassigned to the American continent.

What the British wanted most of all was a quick end to the war with the United States; war is expensive, and the British had been at it since 1803.  Accordingly, a new British strategy evolved: seizure of New England and New Orleans: isolate and control US trading hubs and transportation routes north and south. In addition to destroying American trade, the British sought to demoralize the American population by attacking their main central seaboard cities: beyond Boston and New Orleans was Washington, Baltimore, Charleston, and Savannah.

Major General Robert Ross
Major General Robert Ross

Major General Robert Ross [6], appointed to command all British land forces along the Atlantic Coast, arrived in Maryland directly from the Napoleonic War. He had been wounded at the Battle of Orthez but recovered sufficiently to command all British forces along the Atlantic Coast.  He confidently led his 4,500-man army from Benedict, Maryland towards Washington.

Brigadier General William H. Winder [7], appointed to command the American forces in defense of Washington, theoretically commanded fifteen-thousand militia, but his professional force at arms consisted of only 120 dragoons, 300 regular infantry, 360 sailors and 120 Marines.  In reality, the American militia involved 6,500 poorly trained, inadequately equipped, and undisciplined citizen-soldiers.  With but few exceptions, America’s militia excelled in only one area: it’s rate of march in retreat.

On 20 August 1814, Winder ordered his force to advance south toward Long Old Fields and Woodyard to confront the British force at Upper Marlboro.  After a brief clash with General Ross’ advance units late in the day on 22 August, (and, fearing a British night attack [8]), Winder ordered a retreat.  It occurred to Winder that Bladensburg was the key to a solid defense of Washington.  Whoever controlled Bladensburg would command the roads to Baltimore and Annapolis —roads along which reinforcements were moving to join Winder.  Bladensburg also lay on one of the only two routes available to the British for an advance on Washington.  Winder ordered Brigadier General Tobias Stansbury to move his force of men to Bladensburg and “… take the best position in advance of Bladensburg, and should you be attacked, resist for as long as possible. [9]

Stansbury immediately deployed his force [10] on Lowndes Hill where he hastily dug earthworks for artillery emplacements.  The road from Annapolis crossed Lowndes Hill; the road from Upper Marlboro extended to its south and west.  The roads to Washington, Georgetown, and Baltimore all intersected behind it and the town of Bladensburg.  Stansbury’s position dominated the likely British approach and controlled all vital lines of communication.

Early in the morning of 23 August, Winder advised Stansbury by courier that he had withdrawn across the Eastern Branch of the Anacostia River with the intention of firing the lower bridge. Surprised, Stansbury subsequently developed an unreasonable fear that the British might turn his right flank. Rather than strengthening his commanding position, he decamped and marched his exhausted troops across the Bladensburg Bridge, which he failed to destroy, to a brickyard two miles further on. Stansbury thus squandered his only tactical advantage over the approaching British [11].

Behind Stansbury’s right flank was a brigade of Washington militia under Brigadier General Walter Smith. Smith’s brigade occupied a strong position behind a creek and along the crest of a small rise, but Smith had not conferred with Stansbury about this position and there was a gap of a mile between them.  Smith’s position would do Stansbury no good at all.

Joshua Barney c. 1800Commodore Joshua Barney commanded the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla.  His sailors and Marines manned artillery batteries that briefly held off the British advance on the upper hill of the present-day Fort Lincoln Cemetery. Barney’s men manned two 18-pound guns and three 12-pound guns, which had come from the Washington Navy Yard.  To Barney’s left were the 1st Regiment of District Militia, an artillery battery under Major George Peters, and a provisional battalion of regulars under Lieutenant Colonel William Scott. The 2nd Regiment of District Militia was posted as a reserve behind Peters and Scott.

The Battle of Bladensburg began on 24 August when British Colonel William Thornton led his 85th Light Infantry Brigade into the advance on Bladensburg.  Baltimore artillery and well-aimed rifles impeded his advance for a time, but he and his men eventually moved forward under fire in loose order.  Unfortunately for Winder, Baltimore’s solid shot artillery was of little use against scattered skirmishers.  Ultimately, Thornton’s advance forced the Baltimore artillery to retreat with only five of their six guns.

The British 1st Battalion, 44th Regiment of Foot managed to ford the Eastern Branch of the Anacostia River above the bridge.  As they prepared to envelop the American left, General Winder commanded the Fifth Maryland to initiate a counter-attack against them; it was during this engagement that the First and Second Maryland broke ranks and fled the battlefield.  In the heat of the battle (fog of war), General Winder’s orders became confused or were misunderstood.

The British pressed their advantage but were soon engaged by Smith’s brigade and Commodore Barney’s sailors and Marines.  Thornton’s brigade made several frontal attacks across the creek, but each time his advance was thwarted by Barney’s naval artillery and counter-attacks by Marines [12].  With the British attempting to isolate American positions, General Winder directed an orderly withdrawal [13].  Smith’s brigade initially fell back in good order, but it wasn’t long before nearly every American militia unit went into full retreat.  It was the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American Arms —later referred to as the Bladensburg Races.

Bladensburg Marines
Marines at Bladensburg

Commodore Barney, however, did not receive Winder’s order to withdraw.  With fewer than three rounds of canister shot and charges per gun, Barney’s sailors and Marines held their positions against British frontal assaults for well over two hours; in some instances, the Marines counter-attacked the British with ferocity and resolve [14].  But Barney’s situation worsened when the drivers of ammunition carts joined in the general retreat.  Eventually, the British 1st Battalion, 4th Regiment, and 1st Battalion, 44th Regiment made an attempt to surround Barney’s land flotilla.  Observing this, Barney ordered his men (and the president) to retreat to avoid capture.  Barney, himself badly wounded in the thigh by musket shot, was captured.

The British suffered far more casualties than the Americans, most of these inflicted by the sailors and Marines in Commodore Barney’s flotilla, but the fact is that the American militia ran from the field of battle to save themselves.  British casualties included 64 killed in action with an additional 185 seriously wounded.  Americans reported killed in action numbered 10 or 12 with 40 wounded and 100 captured [15].  Modern scholars argue that of the American captured, most suffered serious injury.

In any case, on the evening of 25 August, Major General Ross led his force into the city of Washington. As British soldiers set fire to government buildings throughout the city, General Ross and his staff enjoyed a quiet dinner in the Presidential Mansion (now called the White House) before setting it ablaze.  It was the first and last time that a foreign army ever occupied the United States capital.

CMC House MB Washington
The Commandant’s House

But there was one government building spared from the British torch.  Out of respect for the Marines who so valiantly defended their country’s capital at Bladensburg, the British spared the Marine Barracks located at 8th & I Streets in southeast Washington.  It was then, and continues to be, the home of the Commandant of the Marine Corps [16].  There are scholars today who argue that this story is a myth; they say that the Marine Barracks was simply overlooked by storming British soldiers.  The argument appears implausible (and revisionist) in light of the fact that the British did locate and set fire to the Washington Navy Yard, which was (and is) just down the street from the Marine Barracks.  For anyone intent on burning down government buildings, Marine Barracks Washington would be impossible to overlook.

Post script:  On the morning of 12 September 1814, Major General Robert Ross led his men to what would become the Battle of North Point, a part of the larger Battle of Baltimore.  Advance elements encountered American skirmishers, and as General Ross rode forward to personally direct his troops, American sharpshooters shot him through the right arm into his chest.  History recalls the two men that likely fired the fatal shot: Daniel Wells, aged 18 years and Henry McComas, aged 19 years.  General Ross succumbed to his wounds while being returned to the British Fleet.

Endnotes:

[1] Written in 1880 by Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

[2] British guns resulted in the death of three Americans and serious injury to eighteen others.

[3] All four crewmen were later tried for desertion and one of these men was hanged.

[4] Commodore Rodgers was an insightful and competent naval officer. Anticipating war with Great Britain, he had all ships of his squadron properly fitted for wartime service at sea. He led his ships to sea within the hour of learning about President Madison’s declaration of war.

[5] A league of Indians in the Great Lakes region of the United States involving the Shawnee leader Tecumseh who set into motion a long series of hostile acts directed at westward-moving Americans.  The confederation fell apart after Tecumseh’s death in 1813.

[6] Robert Ross (1766-1814) was an Irishman who began service with the British Army in 1789.  Between 1789-1814, Ross fought Krabbendam, Netherlands, Alexandria, Egypt, Naples, Italy, and in Spain at Corunna, Roncesvalles, Sorauren, and Orthez.

[7] Winder (1775-1824) was a Maryland attorney commissioned as an Army colonel at the outset of the War of 1812.  Captured at the Battle of Stoney Creek in 1813, he was later exchanged for a captive British officer.  Winder was appointed to command the 10th Military District (encompassing Washington and Baltimore) on 4 July 1814.

[8] Earlier, Winder had been captured during a British night attack.

[9] Williams, John S.  History of the Invasion and Capture of Washington, and of the Events Which Preceded and Followed.  Harper & Brothers, New York, 1837.

[10] Stansbury commanded the First, Second, and Fifth Regiments of Maryland Militia; three volunteer rifle companies, and two batteries of Baltimore artillery.

[11] If we bemoan the fact that American militia “cut and run” in the face of the British Army, we must have nothing but scorn for the hundreds of government officials who hastily departed the city of Washington to safer locations further south –although it may have been a prudent decision based solely on their understanding that the British would give no quarter to any captured American official.

[12] The number of Marines participating in the Battle of Bladensburg was 120; it was, at the time, one-third of the total force of United States Marines.

[13] General Winder’s battle plan had made no provision for withdrawal; without designated fallback positions, the militia simply retreated from the battlefield and headed for all points south of Bladensburg.

[14] Commanding the Marines under Barney’s command was none other than President James Madison.

[15] Heidler’s Encyclopedia of the War of 1812.

[16] This is the reason why the home of the Commandant of the Marine Corps at Marine Barracks, Washington, is the oldest continually used public building inside the nation’s capital.

Published by

Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

13 thoughts on “At Bladensburg, 1814”

    1. I’m happy you stopped by, Warren … and glad that I could help fill in a few missing pieces. There are those among us who want to re-write our nation’s history so that it fits their anti-American narrative. I’m doing what I can to ensure that doesn’t happen.

      Semper Fidelis …

      Like

  1. Important point you made so well: Untrained and undisciplined militia or troops are worse than useless. On the other hand well trained units, even having fewer troops than the enemy will often win the battles. Ah, factual history. I even like some of our many myths. Keep at it Mustang, you have now reached Real Marine Historian position. Semper Fi.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Today’s guard and reserve is only marginally improved from the early 1800s; corrupted leadership always results in inefficient (and wasteful) military organizations.

      Like

  2. I also appreciate all of this. Honestly, I graduated high school in 1970 and I swear all I remember about the American greats was that George Washington admitted to chopping down a cherry tree and had a heck of a cold time at Valley Forge. The rest of America’s history was at the same level. God, I can’t imagine what kids are not being told today. Eliminate the history and eliminate the culture and the country. Sad.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Most history courses in high school are survey courses … not designed for depth but rather for basic familiarization and overview. In college the emphasis becomes gender studies and revisionist tripe. I find that the actual facts are more interesting than some “commie professor’s” uninformed point of view.

      Like

  3. What an in-depth report of this time in our history. I still know very little of the facts surrounding this historic battke and what transpired before the White House was burned (dinner). To know there but 120 Marines deployed was astonshing.

    What happened to Commodore Joshua Barney? From what I recall, grievous wounds were frequently fatal (infection, blood loss, etc.).

    Semper Fi, Sir.

    Like

    1. Captain Barney died in 1818 as a result of medical complications from his wound at Bladensburg. Thanks for stopping by Koji.

      Like

  4. Important to remind ourselves about that part of the world and it’s history…. It helps explains the mindset of the Russians and their defensive posture… Thanks for this as my knowledge base was limited to the 1812 overture.

    Like

Comments are closed.