In July, 1814, after the British fleet had been in control of the Chesapeake Bay for more then a year, a separate U.S. military command was created under Brigadier General William Winder, for the defense of Washington, Maryland, and eastern Virginia. General John Armstrong, the Secretary of War, thought this command was more than enough to protect the Capitol and the region.
On August 20, 1814, over 4,500 seasoned British troops landed at the little town of Benedict on the Patuxent River and marched fifty miles overland bent on destroying the Capitol and other federal buildings.
President James Madison sent Secretary of State James Monroe out to reconnoiter and on August 23rd, Madison received a frightening dispatch from Monroe…”The enemy are in full march to Washington, Have the materials prepared to destroy the bridges, PS – You had better remove the records.” Incorrect deductions were drawn on the fact that the British troops maneuvered to give the Americans the impression that Baltimore was their destination. General Armstrong could not be convinced that Washington would be the target of the invasion and not Baltimore, an important center of commerce. There was much confusion trying to outguess the British. As a precaution, two bridges near the Navy Yard and across the Eastern Branch/Anacostia River were destroyed to protect the Capitol, thus leaving a route through Bladensburg as the logical approach. General Winder sent troops to Marlborough to intercept the British, but they hurried back when they learned the enemy was already on the move toward Bladensburg.
In Bladensburg, American troops began to be assembled by Winder, Armstrong, as well as the Secretary of State. General Smith, another American commander, used his aide – Francis Scott Key – to assemble his troops. Calvary units were positioned to the right of the turnpike, while the first and second American lines were positioned nearly a 1/2 mile apart from each other. The organization of the troops, the general concern about the size of the British army, and the lack of preparation by the troops would eventually lead to the undoing of the hastily assembled group.
As the British entered the town, they were greeted by the American troops firing the first volleys across the Eastern Branch. The British initially fell back and moved behind the buildings in Bladensburg. Soon though, the British set off their new weapon – the Congreve rocket. These rockets would eventually become the famous “rockets red glare.” British troops began to return fire as the rockets burst above the American’s heads. American leaders on the first line, unclear on their support from the second line, ordered retreat. American soldiers began to fall back and leave the field via the Georgetown Pike (now Bunker Hill Road). The second line, positioned approximately at the modern 40th Avenue, and the members of the Cabinet left the field of battle at or before this point. Cannons were left behind, soldiers moved in haphazard movements responding to the need to fight and the orders for retreat. General chaos reigned across the field of battle.
At Dueling Creek, Kramer’s Militia – troops from Montgomery and Prince George’s County – fought hard against the British but eventually retreated up the hill past Commodore Barney’s men. The strongest repulse against the British was made by Commodore Joshua Barney and his seasoned Floatillamen. Barney’s men were valiant fighters, however, the authorities in Washington “forgot” Barney for several days. Without orders, he and his men were tardy arrivals. Combined with Captain Miller’s Marines, Barney fired down the hill toward the British, causing significant British casualties. British troops were ordered into a single file line, encircling Barney’s placement and overtaking him. British losses were much larger than the Americans.
By four o’clock the battle was over and the Americans were defeated due, in many respects to delay, indifference and indecision on the part of the leaders – not the lack of heroism on the part of the soldiers.
The British then moved on toward the Capital. By the end of the same day, the Capitol building, the President’s Mansion and many other public buildings were in flames. The following day more buildings were burned. At about noon a tremendous storm of hurricane force descended upon the city halting further destruction. With their mission accomplished, the British feared the Americans would reassemble their forces and attack while they were in the vulnerable position of being a long distance from their fleet. The men were miserable in the sweltering temperatures. They were tired, ill and wounded. At dusk the troops quietly withdrew from the city. The troops were so exhausted that many died of fatigue on the four day march back to the ships, several deserted, but the body of men marched on.
Several of the British stragglers and deserters were arrested by citizens in Upper Marlboro. When the British commanders learned of the incident, they sent a small force back to Upper Marlboro and arrested William Beanes, a well respected doctor and town elder. Following his arrest, Georgetown lawyer Francis Scott Key and U.S. Agent for Prisoner Exchange John S. Skinner went to secure Bean’s release from the British. They brought with them letters from troops who testified as to the compassion that was received while tended to in Bladensburg. Brought on board one of the British vessels, Francis Scott Key would see the battle in Baltimore raging on and the flag standing at the end of the battle, leading to the writing of the Star Spangled Banner.
A Pictorial Field Guide to the War of 1812, from Google Books: (embedded document starts at point just before Battle of Bladensburg)