TIME MACHINE: BATTLE OF BLADENSBURG
August 24, 2014 marked the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bladensburg, which was a major conflict fought during the War of 1812. The battle was fought on August 24, 1814 in Bladensburg, Maryland; and played a major role in the fate of the United States’ capital, Washington D.C. and a future battle fought around Baltimore, Maryland.
Although the Royal Navy had controlled the Chesapeake Bay region since early 1813, the lack of substantial British troops due to the Napoleonic Wars had limited to mounting small-scale raids. However, Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated by April 1814, leaving the British Army to focus full attention to the war on the North American continent. Major General Robert Ross, assumed command of veterans from the Duke of Wellington’s army and other British troops serving along the East Coast. They were transported to Chesapeake Bay to create a diversion from a British invasion of New York, led by Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, Governor General of Canada and commander in chief in North America. Although Ross commanded the troops, the point of attack was to be decided by Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s North American Station.
When Ross and Cochrane’s forces arrived at the town Benedict, along the Patuxent River, President James Madison sent Secretary of State James Monroe to reconnoiter. President Madison received a dispatch from Secretary Monroe on August 23 that stated – “The enemy are in full march to Washington, Have the materials prepared to destroy the bridges, PS – You had better remove the records.” Unfortunately, Madison and his advisers ignored Monroe’s warning and reports. The Washington and Baltimore area served as the Tenth Military District and it was under the command of General William H. Winder, who had been an attorney before the war broke out. In theory, Winder was supposed to have at least 15,000 militia troops, but he actually had only 120 Dragoons and 300 other Regulars, plus 1,500 poorly trained and under-equipped militiamen at his immediate disposal. Secretary of War John Armstrong, Jr. and other advisers incorrectly assumed that the British were destined for Baltimore and that Washington would not be attacked since he deemed it strategically unimportant.
Winder ordered the destruction of the two bridges across the Anacostia River as a precaution to protect the Capital. This act left a route through Bladensburg as the logical approach. He also sent troops to Marlborough to intercept the British at Upper Marlboro on August 20. Unfortunately, those troops quickly returned when the Americans learned that British troops were already entering Blandesburg. Following a brief clash with Ross’ leading forces on August 22, Winder ordered a hasty retreat. Several Maryland militia regiments were summoned from Baltimore to defend Washington. Winder ordered Brigadier General Tobias Stansbury to move from Baltimore to Bladensburg and take the best position in advance of Bladensburg in order to resist as long as possible. The latter deployed his force atop Lowndes Hill, just east of Bladensburg. The road from Annapolis crossed the hill, and the road from Upper Marlboro ran to its south and west. Furthermore, the roads to Washington, Georgetown, and Baltimore all intersected behind between it and Bladensburg. From this position, Stansbury dominated the approaches available to the British while controlling the lines of communication. Then on August 23, Stansbury received a message from Winder, informing the former that he had withdrawn across the Eastern Branch and he intended to fire the lower bridge. A surprised Stansbury was seized by an irrational fear that his right flank could be turned. Instead of strengthening his commanding position, he immediately removed his exhausted troops and marched across Bladensburg bridge, which he did not burn. Stansbury ended up tossing away almost every tactical advantage available to him.
The British forces reached Bladensburg on August 24, around noon. Around noon on 24 August, Ross’s army reached Bladensburg and Stansbury’s tactical errors quickly became apparent. Had he continued to hold Lowndes Hill, Stansbury could have made the British approach a costly one. With the use of Bladensburg’s brick structures, which were ready-made mini-fortresses, Stansbury might have drawn Ross’s troops into bloody street fighting. Since Stansbury failed to burn the bridge, he was forced to defend it. Stansbury’s infantry and artillery were posted too far from the river’s edge to contest an effective crossing. The British sweep across the Bladensburg Bridge proved to be very strong. Although the Americans repulsed the British forces three times by artillery fire and launched a counter-attack led by U.S. Naval officer Commodore Joshua Barney and his almost 600 seasoned Marines and sailors. Despite their valiant repulse, the authorities in Washington simply forgot about Barney for several days. Without orders they were tardy arrivals on the field of contest. Had they been supplied with sufficient ammunition and supporting infantry, the course of the battle could have been changed. But in the end, Barney and his men were flanked and overwhelmed by British forces. Barney was wounded and captured.
Although the British had suffered heavier casualties than the Americans, thanks to Barney’s guns; they had completely routed the defenders. The British are believed to suffer casualties of 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. General Winder had not given any instructions to his commanders before the battle in regard to a possible retreat. When the American militia left the battlefield, he issued contradictory orders – either to halt and reform, fall back on the Capitol where Secretary of War Armstrong hoped vainly to make a stand using the Federal buildings as strong points, or retreat through Georgetown to Tenleytown. Most of the militia simply fled the field with no destination in mind, or deserted the ranks to see to the safety of their families. The Americans actually fled through the streets of Washington, D.C. President 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.