Artists Rendering of the Battle of Bladensburg
(Copyright Richard Schlect; Courtesy NPS/Star Spangled Banner National Historic Trail)
During the War of 1812, British forces had control of the Chesapeake Bay for over a year by the summer of 1814. A U.S. military command was created under Brigadier General William Winder for the defense of Washington, D.C., Maryland, and eastern Virginia. Secretary of War John Armstrong believed these forces would be enough to protect the Capitol and the region.
On August 20, 1814, under the command of Major General Robert Ross over 4,500 seasoned British troops landed at Benedict, Maryland — 50 miles south of Bladensburg. The goal was to burn Capitol and federal buildings.
Secretary of State James Monroe was sent to spy on the British troops. He reported them “in full march.” President Madison ordered two bridges across the Eastern Branch of the Potomac (Anacostia River) destroyed to protect the Capitol, leaving the bridge at Bladensburg as the only crossing. American troops were sent toward Upper Marlborough to meet the British, but quickly retreated upon seeing the superior size of the British forces.
August 23, 1814 – Overnight in Bladensburg, General Winder assembled the American troops. He first positioned troops on the high ground above Bladensburg. During the night, however, the troops began retreating toward Washington, ending up on the low field just south of town.
The next morning, Winder discovered troops in new positions and weary from moving overnight. Leader arriving for the battle second guessed Winder’s positions. General Samuel Smith of Baltimore and his aide, Francis Scott Key, organized troops a half mile away from the bridge. During this chaos, President Madison arrived to survey the troops, heading for the previous position – the high ground the troops had abandoned. Passing the American forces, he nearly rode into British hands before an aide could stop him. Members of his cabinet began to arrive to watch the “defeat of the British.”
At noon, British forces entered Bladensburg. American troops fired across the river and bridge, forcing the British back behind buildings in Bladensburg. Reorganizing themselves, British forces set off a new weapon – the Congreve rocket. British troops attacked again, as the “rockets red glare” burst above the American’s heads. Americans, unclear of their support behind the, began to retreat down the Georgetown Pike. The second line collapsed as the first line retreated. Cannons were left behind. Soldiers broke and ran. Leaders attempted to reform a line, but were surrounded by advancing British troops.
Around 1:15 p.m., in the small valley that held the infamous Bladensburg Dueling Grounds, Kramer’s Militia — troops from Montgomery and Prince George’s County — met the advancing British forces. The British were now facing the largest onslaught of the day, less than an hour since starting the attack.Commodore Joshua Barney’s group of hired private soldiers, known as “flotiliamen,” led the final fight against the British. Barney had been left with orders to burn the “mosquito fleet” he commanded in the Patuxent River and his troops were to guard the lower Anacostia River bridge. Contradicting orders, they were directed by Barney to go to Bladensburg.
Flotilliamen arrived just as the British fired their first shots at the bridge. They formed a line on the Maryland/Washington, D.C. border on a small hill overlooking the battle. African American flotillaman Charles Ball watched as the militia below scattered and retreated.
Combining soldiers who were falling back from the battle, Barney’s Flotilliamen fired their cannons down the hill leading to significant British casualties. However, the better trained British troops encircled Barney’s position, overtaking his left and
ending the battle. Commodore Barney lay in the middle of the road with a shot to the leg, surrounded by his loyal flotillaman. He had ordered the soldiers to retreat three times before most retreated toward Washington, D.C.
British leaders General Ross and Admiral Cochrane met with Barney and offered him a pardon for giving their soldiers a fight. Barney accepted and watched as British forces marched toward Washington, D.C.. They were led by a group of formerly enslaved men freed by the British and called the “Colonial Marines.” Barney would die from this wound two years later. The bullet was removed from his leg and is preserved today by the Daughters of American Revolution Museum in Washington, D.C.
By four o’clock the battle was over and American forces were defeated. The British moved on to Washington D.C. By the end of the day, the Capitol, the President’s Mansion (White House), and many other public buildings were in flames.
Around noon on August 25, a hurricane-force storm extinguished the flames in the city. With no sign of support from British forces on the Potomac River and the mission accomplished, leaders called for retreat — back to the Patuxent River. At dusk, troops quietly withdrew to Bladensburg to gather their dead and wounded. Soldiers were miserable in sweltering August temperatures. They were tired, ill, and wounded. Troops were so exhausted that many died on the four-day march back.
Along the way, a few British stragglers were arrested by a group of citizens in Upper Marlboro and taken to a nearby jail. When word reached the British commanders, they immediately called for the arrest of Dr. William Beanes, a well respected doctor and town elder for exchange. Georgetown lawyer, Francis Scott Key, and U.S. Agent for Prisoner Exchange, John S. Skinner, were sent to arrange for Beanes’ release. They brought with them letters from British troops who testified as to the compassion that was received in Bladensburg. Key and Skinner rowed out to the British Fleet, now located in Baltimore Harbor.
On board the British vessel, Key and Skinner were detained until the Battle of Baltimore — the Defense of Fort McHenry — was finished. From this vantage point, Key would watch the “bombs bursting in air” and found the next morning that “the flag was still there.” His recent experience with “rockets red glare” in Bladensburg and this battle would inspire his writing of the poem that would become the United States of America’s national anthem, 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)