The Battle of Bladensburg took place during the War of 1812. The defeat of the American forces there allowed the British to capture and burn the public buildings of Washington, D.C. It has been called "the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms."
For the first two years of the War of 1812, the British had been preoccupied with the war against Napoleon Bonaparte on the continent of Europe. Although the Royal Navy controlled Chesapeake Bay from early 1813 onwards, lack of troops restricted them to mounting comparatively small-scale raids, the largest of which was the Battle of Craney Island, which involved 2,000 troops from the British Army and Royal Marines.
By April 1814, Napoleon had been defeated and was exiled to the island of Elba. Large numbers of British troops were free to be sent to North America. Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, the Governor General of Canada and commander in chief in North America, planned for a dual invasion of the United States. He personally led one invasion into the state of New York from Canada, headed for Lake Champlain. Meanwhile, a brigade under Major General Robert Ross, consisting entirely of veterans from the army of the Duke of Wellington, was transported to Chesapeake Bay to "effect a diversion on the coasts of the United States of America in favor [sic] of the army employed in the defence of Upper and Lower Canada."
Although Ross commanded the troops, the point of attack was to be decided by Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, the commander in chief of the Royal Navy's North American Station. Cochrane concentrated four ships of the line, twenty frigates and sloops of war and twenty transports carrying Ross's troops at Tangier Island. Cochrane's energetic second in command, Rear Admiral George Cockburn, was in favour of a quick attack on Washington, although Ross was not so eager. His troops had been confined aboard their transports for nearly three months, he lacked cavalry, artillery and transport, and he was wary of the American Chesapeake Bay Flotilla lurking in the Patuxent River. The first objective was to capture or destroy the American flotilla, and Ross's orders were to stay near the shipping and not to risk an attack on the American capital.
In Washington, the United States Secretary of War, John Armstrong, did not believe the British would attack the strategically unimportant city of Washington. He believed that the likely target would be the militarily more important city of Baltimore. Armstrong was only half right; the British invasion, ultimately, would launch attacks on both Baltimore and Washington.
Cochrane dispatched two forces to make diversions. The frigate HMS Menelaus and some small craft threatened a raid on Baltimore, while two frigates and some bomb ketches and a rocket vessel ascended the Potomac River, an expedition which resulted in the successful Raid on Alexandria. His main body proceeded into the Patuxent. Ross's troops landed at Benedict on 19 August, and began marching upstream the following day, while Cockburn proceeded up the river with ships' boats and small craft. By 21 August, Ross had reached Nottingham, and Commodore Joshua Barney was forced to destroy the gunboats and other sailing craft of the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla the next day, and retreat overland towards Washington.
From Nottingham, Ross continued up the Patuxent to Upper Marlboro, from where he could threaten to advance on either Washington or Baltimore, confusing the Americans. He might have taken the capital almost unopposed had he advanced on 23 August, but instead he rested his men and organised his force. On the night of 23–24 August, at the urging of Rear Admiral Cockburn and British Army officers under his own command, Ross decided to risk an attack on Washington. He had four infantry battalions, a battalion of Royal Marines, a company of a Corps of Colonial Marines locally recruited from black refugees from slavery, a rocket brigade also from the Royal Marines, 50 Royal Sappers and Miners, 100 gunners from the Navy and 275 sailors to carry supplies. His force totalled 4,370 men, with one 6-pounder gun, two 3-pounder guns and sixty rocket-launching frames. Rear Admiral Cockburn accompanied his force.
Ross had a choice of two routes by which he could advance: from the south via Woodyard or from the east via Bladensburg. The former route would involve finding a way across an unfordable part of the Eastern Branch of the Potomac (now called the Anacostia River) if the Americans destroyed the bridge on the route. In the morning of 24 August, Ross made a feint on the southern route, before suddenly swerving northwards towards Bladensburg.
On 2 July 1814, the United States Army had designated the area around Washington and Baltimore as the Tenth Military District. Its commander was Brigadier General William H. Winder, who had practiced law in Baltimore before being commissioned as a Colonel in 1812 and who had been recently exchanged after being captured at the Battle of Stoney Creek in July 1813. Winder could theoretically call upon 15,000 militia in total, but he actually had only 120 Dragoons and 300 other Regulars, and 1,500 poorly trained and equipped militia at his immediate disposal. On 20 August, he ordered his force to advance south to the vicinity of Long Old Fields and Woodyard, off modern Route 5, to confront the British at Upper Marlboro. There was a brief clash with Ross's leading troops on 22 August, and Winder ordered a hasty retreat to the Long Old Fields.
Though Winder rode with the force directly challenging the British, he realized that Bladensburg was the key to the defense of Washington. Bladensburg commanded the roads to Baltimore and Annapolis, along which reinforcements were already moving towards the capital. It also lay on one of the only two routes available to the British for an advance on Washington, the preferable route, as it happened, because the Eastern Branch was easily forded there. On 20 August, Winder had ordered Brigadier General Tobias Stansbury to move from Baltimore to Bladensburg and "...take the best position in advance of Bladensburg... and should he be attacked, to resist as long as possible."
On 22 August, Stansbury deployed his force on top of Lowndes Hill, just to the east of Bladensburg. The road from Annapolis ran across the hill, and the road from Upper Marlboro ran to its right and rear. The roads to Washington, Georgetown, and Baltimore intersected behind it. From this position, Stansbury dominated the approaches available to the British while controlling all lines of communication.
At 2:30 a.m. on 23 August, Stansbury received a message from Winder, announcing that he had withdrawn across the Eastern Branch and that he intended to fire the lower bridge. Surprised, Stansbury was seized by an irrational fear that his right flank would be turned. Rather than further strengthen an already commanding position, he immediately decamped and marched his exhausted troops back across Bladensburg bridge, which he did not burn, to a brickyard 1.5 miles (2.4 km) miles further on. In doing so, he had thrown away almost every tactical advantage available to him.
Stansbury's force consisted of the 1st (Ragan's), 2nd (Schutz's), and 5th (Sterrett's) regiments of Maryland Militia, three companies of volunteer riflemen commanded by Major Thomas Pinckney and two companies of Baltimore artillery, with six guns. Ragan's and Schutz's regiments were hastily-drafted amalgamations of companies, without uniforms. Sterrett's 5th Maryland Regiment was a "Dandy" regiment of uniformed volunteers.
Stansbury chose a defensible position, but not the best position, on the western side of the Eastern Branch of the Potomac, opposite the town of Bladensburg. The Baltimore artillery were posted in an earthwork which had been hastily constructed by Colonel Decius Wadsworth (the United States Army's Commissary General of Ordnance) to the north of the bridge. The earthwork was intended for larger weapons, and the field guns had a restricted field of fire through its embrasures. They could not prevent the bridge from being seized with oblique fire. The three Maryland Militia infantry regiments were posted in line to the south of the earthwork, too far away to protect the guns and exposed to British fire. Both Winder and Secretary of State James Monroe later tinkered with Stansbury's dispositions. Monroe moved companies and detachments about without correcting the major faults of his position, while Winder moved the three militia regiments into even more exposed positions further behind the Baltimore artillery's redoubt, although Monroe reinforced them with a militia artillery company under Captain Benjamin Burch.
Behind Stansbury's troops and to his right were a brigade of militia under Brigadier General Walter Smith of the District of Columbia militia, which had marched up from Long Old Fields to the south. Although Smith's brigade was strongly posted behind a creek, Smith had not conferred with Stansbury before deploying his brigade, so there was a gap of a mile between them, and Smith's men could not support Stansbury. Also, if Stansbury was overcome, Smith's left flank would be open to attack. A battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Kramer lined the creek. Joshua Barney's men, with two 18-pounder guns and three 12-pounder guns drawn from the Washington Navy Yard, were posted astride the Washington turnpike. To Barney's left was the 1st Regiment of "District" Militia, an artillery company under Major George Peter with six 6-pounder guns and a provisional battalion of regulars under Lieutenant Colonel William Scott. The 2nd District Militia and some companies of Maryland militia were posted behind Peter and Scott.
To Smith's right rear in turn was a column under Colonel William Beall, which had just arrived from Annapolis. A regiment of Virginia Militia under Colonel George Minor was delayed by administrative confusion and arrived on the field only as the battle ended.
Stansbury's troops were tired from two days' constant alarms and redeployments, and Smith's and Beall's men were equally exhausted from having force-marched to the battlefield through a hot and humid summer day, with many diversions and unnecessary panics.
Around noon on 24 August, Ross's army reached Bladensburg. Stansbury's tactical errors quickly became apparent. Had he held Lowndes Hill, Stansbury could have made the British approach a costly one (although this would involve fighting with the East Branch at his back, which would not improve his men's morale and might be disastrous in the case of a hasty retreat). Had he held the brick structures of Bladensburg, which were ready-made mini-fortresses, he might have embroiled Ross's troops in bloody street fighting. Because the bridge had not been burned, it had to be defended. Stansbury's infantry and artillery were posted too far from the river's edge to contest a crossing effectively.
The British advance was led by Colonel William Thornton's 85th Light Infantry and the three light companies of the other line battalions. Although the Baltimore artillery stopped Thornton's first rush across the bridge, they had solid shot only, which was of little use against scattered skirmishers. Pinckney's riflemen, posted to protect the American guns, were driven back and as Thornton's men closed in, the Baltimore artillerymen retreated with five of their cannon, being forced to spike and abandon another.
The British 1/44th Regiment had meanwhile forded the East Branch above the bridge. As they prepared to envelop the American left, Winder led a counter-attack against Thornton by Sterrett's 5th Maryland militia, joined by other detachments. As the 5th Maryland exchanged fire with British infantry in cover on three sides, Schutz's and Ragan's drafted militia regiments broke and fled under a barrage of Congreve rockets. Winder issued confused orders for three of Captain Burch's guns to fall back rather than cover Sterrett's retreat, and the 5th Maryland and the rest of Stansbury's brigade fled the field.
The British pressed on and were engaged by Smith's brigade and Barney's and Peters's guns. Thornton was badly wounded and his light infantry were driven back with heavy casualties but as the 1/44th threatened Smith's open left flank, Winder ordered Smith to retreat also. Winder's orders to retreat apparently did not reach Barney. Barney's ammunition had run out, and the drivers of the carts with his reserve ammunition joined in the general rout. His 400 sailors and Marines were overwhelmed in hand to hand fighting by the British 1/4th and 1/44th Regiments. Barney himself was badly wounded with a musket ball in the thigh. Beall's troops were also driven from the hill they held, after an ineffectual resistance.
Winder had not given any instructions before the battle in the case of a retreat and as the American militia left the battlefield, he issued contradictory orders to halt and reform, or fall back on the Capitol where Secretary of War John Armstrong, Jr. hoped vainly to make a stand, using the federal buildings as strongpoints, or retreat through Georgetown to Tenleytown. Most of the militia simply fled the field with no destination in mind, or deserted the ranks to rejoin their families.
Although the British had suffered heavier casualties than the Americans (many inflicted by Barney's guns), they had completely routed the defenders. The British casualties were 64 dead and 185 wounded. Some of the British dead "died without sustaining a scratch. They collapsed from heat exhaustion and the strain of punishing forced marches over the five days since landing at Benedict". Heidler's Encyclopedia of the War of 1812 gives the American loss as "10 or 12 killed, 40 wounded" and "about 100" captured. Henry Adams and John S. Williams both give the American casualties as 26 killed and 51 wounded. Joseph A. Whitehorne says that the Americans lost "120 taken prisoner, many of these wounded". Ten cannon were captured by the British.
Following their victory at the Battle of Bladensburg, the British entered Washington D.C. and burned many US government and military buildings
The hasty and disorganized American retreat led to the battle becoming known as the Bladensburg Races from an 1816 poem. The battle was termed "the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms" and "the most humiliating episode in American history." The American militia actually fled through the streets of Washington. President James Madison and most of the rest of the federal government had been present at the battle, and had nearly been captured. They too fled the capital, and scattered through Maryland and Virginia. That same night the British entered Washington unopposed and set fire to many of the government buildings in what became known as the Burning of Washington.
Lieutenant General Prevost had urged Vice Admiral Cochrane to avenge the Raid on Port Dover on the north shore of Lake Erie earlier in the year, in which the undefended settlement had been set ablaze by American troops. Cochrane had issued a proclamation that American property was forfeit; only the lives of the civilian inhabitants were to be spared. He had issued a private memorandum to his captains however, which allowed them to levy what was effectively protection money in return for sparing buildings. In practice, there was little or no looting or wanton destruction of private property by Ross's troops or Cochrane's sailors during the advance and the occupation of Washington. However, when the British later withdrew to their ships in the Patuxent, discipline was less effective (partly because of fatigue) and there was considerable looting by foraging parties and stragglers and deserters.
After Major General Ross was killed at the Battle of North Point on 12 September 1814, his descendants were given an augmentation of honour to their armorial bearings and their family name was changed to the victory title Ross-of-Bladensburg in memory of Ross' most famous battle.
The lineages of the 5th Maryland Regiment and the Columbian Division are perpetuated by the present-day 175th Infantry (ARNG MD) and the HHD/372nd Military Police Battalion (ARNG DC), respectively, two of only nineteen Army National Guard units with campaign credit for the War of 1812. The lineages of the old 36th and 38th Infantry Regiments are perpetuated by three currently active battalions of the 4th Infantry (1-4 Inf, 2-4 Inf and 3-4 Inf).
Order of battle
* Foot (Infantry)
o 1st Battalion, 4th (King's Own) Regiment of Foot
o 21st Regiment (Royal North British Fusiliers)
o 1st Battalion, 44th (East Essex) Regiment of Foot
o 85th Regiment of Foot (Bucks Volunteers)(Light Infantry)
o 1350 Royal Marines
+ 2nd Battalion, commanded by Major James Malcolm (Royal Marines officer)
+ Companies of Colonial Marines from 3rd Battalion, commanded by Major Lewis
+ composite battalion (formed from ship-based Marines) commanded by Captain John Robyns
Not listed in order of battle:
* Regiment of Light Dragoons - 2 troops
* Maryland Milita
o Ragan's 1st Regiment
o Schutz's 2nd Regiment
o Sterrett's 5th Regiment
o Pickney's volunteer riflemen
o Artillery units - Myer and Magruder
* 1st and 2nd Columbian Brigades
* Annapolis Militia
* District Cavalry
* Colonel Scott's Regular Detachment
* United States Marine Corps
* Chesapeake Bay Flotilla