Battle of Bladensburg
|Battle of Bladensburg|
|Part of the War of 1812|
Map of the campaign and battlefield of Bladensburg, from Benjamin J. Lossing's Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812
|United States||United Kingdom|
|Commanders and leaders|
|William H. Winder||Robert Ross|
|4,500 marines & regulars
60 rocket launchers
|Casualties and losses|
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 the Chesapeake Bay from early 1813 onwards, lack of troops restricted them to mounting small-scale raids, the largest of which was the Battle of Craney Island, which involved 2,000 men of the British Army and the Royal Marines.
By April 1814, Napoleon had been defeated and was exiled to the island of Elba. Large numbers of British troops were now free to be used in North America. Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, Governor General of Canada and commander in chief in North America, personally led an invasion into New York from Canada, heading for Lake Champlain. At the same time, a brigade under Major General Robert Ross, composed mainly of veterans from the Duke of Wellington's army, 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".
Ross commanded the troops, but the point of attack was to be decided by Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, 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 second in command, Rear Admiral George Cockburn, favoured a quick attack on Washington, but Ross was not eager. His men had been confined aboard their transports for nearly three months, and he lacked cavalry, artillery and transport. Ross was also wary of the American Chesapeake Bay Flotilla, lurking in the Patuxent River. His first objective had to be the capture or destruction of the American flotilla.
In Washington, the U.S. Secretary of War, John Armstrong, did not believe the British would attack Washington, since it was strategically unimportant. He felt the most likely target would be the city of Baltimore, which offered more commercial targets and plunder than the little town of Washington. Armstrong was half right; the British would launch attacks against 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 that 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 some of the 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 force of about 200 men of the Corps of Colonial Marines, which was composed of locally recruited black refugees from slavery, a rocket detachment from the Royal Marines battalion, 50 Royal Sappers and Miners, 100 gunners from the Navy and 275 sailors to carry supplies. His force totaled 4,370 men, with one 6-pounder gun, two 3-pounder guns and sixty frames for launching Congreve rockets. 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 only recently been exchanged after his capture at the Battle of Stoney Creek in July 1813. Winder in theory could call upon 15,000 militia, but he actually had only 120 Dragoons and 300 other Regulars, plus 1,500 poorly trained and under-equipped militiamen at his immediate disposal. On 20 August, Winder ordered his force to advance south towards Long Old Fields and Woodyard (off modern Route 5) to confront the British forces at Upper Marlboro. After a brief clash with Ross's leading units on 22 August, Winder ordered a hasty retreat to the Long Old Fields.
Although he rode with the forces directly challenging the British invaders, Winder realized that Bladensburg was the key to Washington's defence. Bladensburg commanded the roads to Baltimore and Annapolis, along which reinforcements were moving to join him. The town also lay on one of the only two routes available for the British to advance on Washington, in fact the preferred route because the Eastern Branch was easy to ford there. On 20 August, Winder ordered Brigadier General Tobias Stansbury to move from Baltimore to Bladensburg, "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 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.
At 2:30 a.m. on 23 August, Stansbury received a message from Winder, informing him that he had withdrawn across the Eastern Branch and he intended to fire the lower bridge. Surprised, Stansbury was seized by an irrational fear that his right flank could be turned. Instead of strengthening his commanding position, he immediately decamped and marched his exhausted troops across Bladensburg bridge, which he did not burn, to a brickyard 1.5 miles (2.4 km) further on. He had thus thrown away almost every tactical advantage available to him.
Winder now had at least 1,000 regulars from the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps, plus about 7,000 less than dependable militia and volunteers from the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. Official reports of his strength range from 5,000 to 9,000 men. Winder's report to the Secretary of War stated that he was able "By the most active and harassing movement of the troops to interpose before the enemy at Bladensburg about 5,000." Ross, the British commander, estimated the American force at between 8,000 and 9,000 men, with 300-400 cavalry. From other contemporary sources, the forces available for the defense of Washington probably numbered about 7,170, of which 6,370 were at Bladensburg.
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 William Pinkney, and two companies of Baltimore artillery, with six 6-pounder guns. Ragan's and Schutz's regiments were hastily organised amalgamations of companies, all without uniforms. Sterrett's 5th Maryland Regiment was a "Dandy" regiment of uniformed volunteers.
Stansbury chose a defensible position, though hardly the best one available, on the west side of the Eastern Branch of the Potomac, opposite the town of Bladensburg. The artillery was posted in an earthwork hastily constructed by Colonel Decius Wadsworth, Army's Commissary General of Ordnance, to the north of the bridge. The earthwork had been designed for heavier weapons, and the 6-pounder field guns had a restricted field of fire through its embrasures. They could not use oblique fire to prevent the bridge from being seized. The Maryland militia infantry regiments were posted in a line of battle south of the earthwork, too far away to protect the artillery and exposed to British fire. Both Winder and Secretary of State James Monroe later tinkered with Stansbury's dispositions. Monroe moved companies and detachments without correcting the major faults in Stansbury's position, while Winder moved the three militia regiments into even more exposed positions behind the Baltimore artillery's redoubt, though Monroe reinforced them with a militia artillery company under Captain Benjamin Burch.
Behind Stansbury's troops and to his right was a brigade of District of Columbia militia under Brigadier General Walter Smith, which had marched from Long Old Fields. Smith's brigade was strongly posted behind a creek, but Smith had not conferred with Stansbury before deploying his brigade, and there was a gap of a mile between them. Smith's men would be unable to support Stansbury, and if Stansbury were 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, a militia 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 have involved fighting with the East Branch at his back, which not improve his men's morale and might have been disastrous in 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. Pinkney'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 conscripted militia 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's light brigade made several frontal attacks over the creek, but were repulsed three times by artillery fire, and were counter-attacked by Barney's detachment. Thornton was badly wounded and his light infantry were driven back with heavy casualties. However, as the 1/44th threatened Smith's open left flank, Winder ordered Smith to retreat also.
Smith's brigade fell back initially in good order, but Winder's orders to retreat apparently did not reach Barney, and his situation worsened when the civilian drivers of the carts carrying his reserve ammunition joined the general rout, leaving the Marine gun crews with fewer than three rounds of canister, round shot and charges in their caissons. Barney's 300 sailors and 103 Marines nevertheless held off the British frontal attacks. Eventually, as the British 1/4th and 1/44th Regiments enveloped their left flank, Barney ordered his men to retreat to avoid capture. Barney himself was badly wounded in the thigh with a musket ball and was taken prisoner. 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 see to the safety of their families.
Although the British had suffered heavier casualties than the Americans (many inflicted by Barney's guns), they had completely routed the defenders. 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 the Americans lost "120 taken prisoner, many of these wounded". Ten cannon and a color were captured by the British.
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 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 fact, 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 by 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 by a royal warrant dated 25 August 1815, and their family name was changed to the victory title Ross-of-Bladensburg in memory of Ross's 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), 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
(Major General Robert Ross)
- 1st (Light) Brigade (Colonel William Thornton) (1100 men)
- 85th Regiment of Foot (Bucks Volunteers)(Light Infantry)
- Light companies, 1/4th, 21st, 1/44th Foot
- Company of Royal Marines, commanded by Lt Athelstan Stevens, detached from the Royal Marine battalion
- Rocket Detachment of 26 Royal Marine Artillery gunners, commanded by Lt John Lawrence, likewise detached from the Royal Marine battalion
- Company of Colonial Marines overseen by Captain Reed of the 2nd West India Regiment
- 2nd Brigade (Colonel Arthur Brooke) (1460 men)
- 3rd Brigade (Colonel Patterson) (ca. 1460 men)
- composite battalion (formed from ship-based Marines) commanded by Captain John Robyns and guarding the shoreline at Benedict
Note: there were a total of 1350 Marines
- Regulars (total: 960 to 1160 all ranks).
- 1 Squadron, Regiment of Light Dragoons, commanded by Colonel Jacint Laval, 140 horses.
- 1 Infantry Battalion, United States Regulars commanded by Colonel William Scott - variously reported at either 300 or 500 men all ranks.
- Detachment of 103 United States Marines and 300 US Navy Flotilla men (sailors), under command of Commodore Joshua Barney, 400 (approx) all ranks with 5 heavy artillery pieces (two 18 pounders (naval) and three wheeled 12 pounders (USMC).
- Militia (total: 6,203)
- District of Columbia 1st Regiment of Militia, Colonel George Magruder, 535 all ranks
- District of Columbia 2nd Regiment of Militia, Colonel Wm. Brent, 535 all ranks
- Company of District of Columbia Union Rifles, Captain John Davidson, 116 all ranks
- Company of District of Columbia Rifles, Captain John Stull, 116 all ranks
- Detachment of Navy Yard Rifles (volunteers), Captain John Doughty, 116 all ranks
- Detachment of Captain Maynard, 100 men all ranks
- Detachment of Captain Waring, 100 men all ranks
- District of Columbia Dragoons, 50 horse
- Battery, The Washington Irish Artillery, Captain Ben Burch, ? x 6-pounders, 150 all ranks
- Battery, The District of Columbia Militia Artillery, Major George Peters, ? x 6-pounders, 150 all ranks.
- 1st Regiment, Baltimore County Militia, Colonel Jonathan Shutz, 675 all ranks
- 2nd Regiment, Baltimore County Militia, Colonel John Ragan, 675 all ranks
- 5th Baltimore City Regiment, Colonel Joseph Sterrett, 500 all ranks
- 1 Battalion, Baltimore Rifles, Major William Pinkney, 150 all ranks
- 2 Batteries, Baltimore Militia Artillery, ? x 6-pounders, 150 all ranks
- Annapolis Militia, Colonel Hood, 800 all ranks
- Battalion, Maryland State Militia, 250 all ranks
- Harford County Light Dragoons 240 horse
- Virginia Militia Dragoons, 100 horse (amalgamated with Laval's Dragoons during the battle)
- 60th Virginia Militia Regiment, Colonel George Minor, 700 all ranks (Arrived late and without ammunition and held in reserve)
- The James City Light Infantry, 100 all ranks. (their colors were captured by the British)
- Total Regular and Militia: 7,163 to 7,363
- 2 x 18-pounder guns
- 3 x 12-pounder guns
- 23 x 6-pounder guns
||This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (December 2007)|
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