War of 1812: Battle of Bladensburg

William Winder
Brigadier General William Winder. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Battle of Bladensburg - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Bladensburg was fought August 24, 1814, during the War of 1812 (1812-1815).

Armies & Commanders

Americans

  • Brigadier General William Winder
  • 6,900 men

British

  • Major General Robert Ross
  • Rear Admiral George Cockburn
  • 4,500 men

Battle of Bladensburg - Background:

With the defeat of Napoleon in early 1814, the British were able to turn increasing attention to their war with the United States.

A secondary conflict while the wars with France raged, they now began sending additional troops west in an effort to win a swift victory. While General Sir George Prevost, the governor-general of Canada and commander of British forces in North America, commenced a series of campaigns from Canada, he directed Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, the commander in chief of the Royal Navy's ships on the North American Station, to make strikes against the American coast. While Cochrane's second-in-command, Rear Admiral George Cockburn, had been actively raiding the Chesapeake region for some time, reinforcements were en route.

Learning that British troops were en route from Europe, President James Madison summoned his cabinet on July 1. At the meeting, Secretary of War John Armstrong argued that the enemy would not attack Washington, DC as it lacked strategic importance and offered Baltimore as a more likely target.

To meet a potential threat in the Chesapeake, Armstrong designated the area around the two cities as the Tenth Military District and assigned Brigadier General William Winder, a political appointee from Baltimore, who had previously been captured at the Battle of Stoney Creek, as its commander. Provided with little support from Armstrong, Winder spent the next month traveling in the district and assessing its defenses.

The reinforcements from Britain took the form of a brigade of Napoleonic veterans, led by Major General Robert Ross, which entered the Chesapeake Bay on August 15. Joining with Cochrane and Cockburn, Ross discussed potential operations. This resulted in a decision to make a strike towards Washington, DC, though Ross had some reservations with the plan. Dispatching a decoy force up the Potomac to raid Alexandria, Cochrane advanced up the Patuxent River, trapping the gunboats of Commodore Joshua Barney's Chesapeake Bay Flotilla and forcing them further upstream. Pushing forward, Ross began landing his forces at Benedict, MD on August 19.

Battle of Bladensburg - The British Advance:

Though Barney considered trying to move his gunboats overland to the South River, Secretary of the Navy William Jones vetoed this plan over concerns that the British might capture them. Maintaining pressure on Barney, Cockburn forced the American commander to scuttle his flotilla on August 22 and retreat overland towards Washington. Marching north along the river, Ross reached Upper Marlboro the same day. In position to attack either Washington or Baltimore, he elected for the former. Though he most likely could have taken the capital unopposed on August 23, he elected to remain in Upper Marlboro to rest his command.

Comprised of over 4,000 men, Ross possessed a mix of regulars, colonial marines, Royal Navy sailors, as well as three guns and Congreve rockets.

Battle of Bladensburg - The American Response:

Assessing his options, Ross elected to advance on Washington from the east as moving to the south would involve locating a crossing over the Potomac's Eastern Branch (Anacostia River). By moving from the east, the British would advance through Bladensburg where the river was narrower and a bridge existed. In Washington, the Madison Administration continued to struggle to meet the threat. Still not believing the capital would be a target, little had been done in terms of preparation or fortification.

As the bulk of the US Army's regulars were occupied in the north, Winder was forced to largely rely on recently called militia.

Though he had desired to have part of the militia under arms since July, this had been blocked by Armstrong.  By August 20, Winder's force consisted of around 2,000 men, including a small force of regulars, and was at Old Long Fields. Advancing on August 22, he skirmished with the British near Upper Marlboro before falling back. That same day, Brigadier General Tobias Stansbury arrived at Bladensburg with a force of Maryland militia. Assuming a strong position atop Lowndes Hill on the eastern bank, he abandoned the position that night and crossed the bridge without destroying it (Map).

Battle of Bladensburg - The American Position:

Establishing a new position on the west bank, Stansbury's artillery built a fortification which had limited fields of fire and could not adequately cover the bridge. Stansbury was soon joined by Brigadier General Walter Smith of the District of Columbia militia. The new arrival did not confer with Stansbury and formed his men in a second line nearly a mile behind the Marylanders where they could not offer immediate support. Joining Smith's line was Barney who deployed with his sailors and five guns. A group of Maryland militia, led by Colonel William Beall formed a third line to the rear.

Battle of Bladensburg - Fighting Begins:

On the morning of August 24, Winder met with President James Madison, Secretary of War John Armstrong, Secretary of State James Monroe, and other members of the Cabinet. When it became clear that Bladensburg was the British target, they moved to the scene. Riding ahead, Monroe arrived at Bladensburg, and though he had no authority to do so, tinkered with the American deployment weakening the overall position. Around noon, the British appeared in Bladensburg and approached the still-standing bridge. Attacking across the bridge, Colonel William Thornton's 85th Light Infantry was initially turned back (Map).

Overcoming American artillery and rifle fire, a subsequent assault was successful in gaining the west bank. This forced some of the first line's artillery to fall back, while elements of the 44th Regiment of Foot began enveloping the American left.

Counterattacking with the 5th Maryland, Winder had some success before the militia in the line, under fire from the British Congreve rockets, broke and began fleeing. As Winder had not issued clear orders in case of a withdrawal, this quickly became a disorganized rout. With the line collapsing, Madison and his party departed the field.

Battle of Bladensburg - Americans Routed:

Pressing forward, the British soon came under fire from Smith's men as well as Barney's and Captain George Peter's guns. The 85th attacked again and Thornton was badly wounded with the American line holding. As before, the 44th began moving around the American left and Winder ordered Smith to retreat. These orders failed to reach Barney and his sailors were overwhelmed in hand-to-hand fighting. Beall's men to the rear offered token resistance before joining the general retreat. As Winder had provided only confused directions in case of retreat, the bulk of the American militia simply melted away rather than rallying to further defend the capital.

Battle of Bladensburg - Aftermath:

Later dubbed the "Bladensburg Races" due to the nature of the defeat, the American rout left the road to Washington open for Ross and Cockburn. In the fighting, the British lost 64 killed and 185 wounded, while Winder's army suffered only 10-26 killed, 40-51 wounded, and around 100 captured. Pausing in the intense summer heat, the British resumed their advance later in the day and occupied Washington that evening. Taking possession, they burned the Capitol, President's House, and Treasury Building before making camp. Further destruction ensued the next day before they began the march back to the fleet.

Having inflicted a severe embarrassment on the Americans, the British next turned their attention to Baltimore. Long a nest of American privateers, the British were halted and Ross killed at the Battle of North Point, before the fleet was turned back at the Battle of Fort McHenry on September 13-14. Elsewhere, Prevost's thrust south from Canada was halted by Commodore Thomas MacDonough and Brigadier General Alexander Macomb at the Battle of Plattsburgh on September 11 while a British effort against New Orleans was checked in early January. The latter was fought after peace terms had been agreed to at Ghent on December 24.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "War of 1812: Battle of Bladensburg." ThoughtCo, Nov. 17, 2016, thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-battle-of-bladensburg-2361365. Hickman, Kennedy. (2016, November 17). War of 1812: Battle of Bladensburg. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-battle-of-bladensburg-2361365 Hickman, Kennedy. "War of 1812: Battle of Bladensburg." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-battle-of-bladensburg-2361365 (accessed September 21, 2017).