On July 15, 1813, when Admiral Cockburn was spreading terror in the Chesapeake Bay country, General Philip Stuart, member from Maryland, arose in the House of Representatives and offered the following resolution:
"Whereas the seat of government, from the unprepared and defenseless state of the District of Columbia, is in imminent danger if an attack should be made thereon; and whereas the fleet of the enemy is understood to be within a few hours' sailing of the capital, and whereas the immense value of public property exposed to destruction, the great value of the public records, and other deeply interesting considerations, render it peculiarly important that any invasion of the metropolis should be met with vigor and successfully repelled, whereupon
"Resolved: That in the opinion of the House, a distribution of such arms as are in the possession of the government within the District of Columbia should be immediately made to be placed in the hands of all able-bodied men within the district willing to be embodied to perform military duty, and also in the hands of such members of the House as may be willing to receive them, to act against the enemy in any matter not incompatible with their public duties."
Here was a suggestion to do something. But in mid‑July Washington is oppressively hot. At that season of the year people who suggest doing something are unpopular. Not only was General Stuart proposing that the men of the town shoulder guns and knapsacks and execute military maneuvers in the broiling sun, but he was asking his fellow members of the House to set the example. Such energetic action would be almost as bad as being conquered by the p265British. Besides, Cockburn was so fully occupied in the Bay country that it seemed unlikely he would go out of his way to attack Washington which, though it was the seat of government and contained many fine buildings, was merely a straggling village of 8,000 inhabitants. At any rate, as the members mopped their brows, that was the more comfortable attitude to take.
After the House had gone into secret session to discuss the resolution a motion was made to lay it on the table. Indicative of the indifference of the House toward the emergency, 64 of the members voted in the affirmative, though the motion was defeated by ten votes. A motion to strike out the preamble was then carried and the resolution, in abbreviated form, was turned over to the Committee on Military Affairs.
The Committee lost no time in bringing in its report. Indeed, the speed with which it did its work suggested that it had been content to ask the opinion of the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of War. However the information was obtained, it was most reassuring. "The Committee on Military Affairs," read the report, "to whom was referred a resolution of yesterday, having relation to the present movement of the enemy, report, 'That they have examined into the state of preparation, naval and military, made to receive the enemy, and are satisfied that the preparations are, in every respect, adequate to the emergency, and that no measures are necessary on the part of the House to make it more complete.' "
Having thus met the matter to their satisfaction, the members dismissed it from their minds, hoped for the best and turned their attention to the more pressing problem of how to keep cool.
The inertia of the House was fully justified by subsequent events. In that summer the British fleet sailed up the Potomac but remained a good •70 miles from Washington. Almost a whole year passed before the capital had further cause for alarm. When it came, the House and the whole administration had an admirable, though unfortunate, precedent for doing nothing.
Events had moved rapidly in Europe. After the Russian campaign ended in rout and disaster, Napoleon organized a new army and invaded Germany. In October, 1813, the Battle of Leipsic was fought and lost by the French. Central Europe and Holland rose against Napoleon and the Allies invaded France. On March 31, 1814, p266Paris fell and the Emperor departed in exile to Elba. On June 27 a British expedition, composed of veteran troops released from the war in Spain, set sail from the Gironde for Bermuda. It was under the command of Major General Robert Ross, an Irishman who had distinguished himself under Wellington in the Peninsular War. Ross's mission, as outlined to him by the war office, was to create a diversion to relieve the American pressure on Canada. He was not to extend his operations at a distance from the coast nor to hold permanent possession of a conquered district. The point of his attack was to be determined by Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, in command of the British base at Halifax.
The Canadians were still smarting over the needless destruction done by the Americans to their own capital of York and to the towns of Newark and St. David's. Sir George Prevost had made known the feelings of his countrymen to Cochrane, and Cochrane accommodated himself to their desires. To the commanders of his ships from St. Croix to St. Mary's he gave orders to "destroy and lay waste such towns and districts upon the coast as you may find assailable." On June 2 he wrote a letter to Ross enjoining him to "assist in inflicting that measure of retaliation which shall deter the enemy from a repetition of similar outrages." To Secretary Monroe he penned another letter threatening fire and destruction unless the United States Government should offer to make reparations for the damage done in Canada. Whether by accident or design — some held that the letter was antedated — Cochrane's message did not reach Monroe until the destruction had been accomplished.
Ross's expedition reached Bermuda on July 24 and, after revictualing, set sail for the Chesapeake where it joined Cochrane's fleet. On August 15 the armada with Cochrane, Cockburn and Ross aboard, dropped anchor at the mouth of the Potomac River. There the three distinguished commanders engaged in a council of war and devised a plan of operations. In the Chesapeake was Commodore Joshua Barney with a strong flotilla of gunboats. Upon learning of the arrival of the British fleet Barney had taken refuge in the Patuxent River, a tributary of the bay, wide and deep enough at its mouth to harbor a modern fleet but narrowing into little more than a creek midway between Washington and Baltimore.
The first objective, as agreed upon at the council, was the destruction p268of Barney's flotilla; the second was Baltimore; and the third, if occasion offered, was Washington and Alexandria. Cockburn, in particular, was described as enthusiastic for a bold dash on the capital once the gunboat flotilla had been destroyed. With this end in view, the squadron, on August 17, weighed anchor and moved up the bay to the Patuxent. (See Map VI)
Map VI. Washington Campaign
Madison was not altogether indifferent to the altered situation in Europe and the dangerous consequences that might ensue in the United States. But two factors worked against his taking energetic measures to protect the capital. One was the prospect of peace. The Czar of Russia had offered to mediate and Gallatin and John Quincy Adams were already abroad prepared to undertake negotiations so soon as the British Government should agree. In answer to their recommendation the President had called his cabinet and it had consented to waive the issue of impressment as a sine qua non of the discussion. More compelling than this hope, however, was the stifling influence of the Secretary of War. General Armstrong was brusque, short-tempered and positive in his opinions. He was the soldier, Madison the civilian. Madison knew how to wield a pen but he did not know how to wield a bludgeon, and a bludgeon was needed to impress Armstrong. Armstrong held firmly to the opinion that the British had no designs on Washington. There was not a single regular in the capital. Even so late as June a company of them had been encamped there but, in spite of the gathering storm, Armstrong permitted them to march off to the Canadian front.
However, on July 1 President Madison took matters into his own hands and called another meeting of the Cabinet to discuss measures of defense. Armstrong seems to have taken no more active part in the discussion than to provide a roster of the regular troops available for service in the neighborhood of Washington. It was thereupon agreed that the President should requisition the neighboring states of Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland for 12,000 militia, the majority of whom would be held in their respective states, ready to march. However, not less than 2,000 nor more than 3,000 were to be assembled for immediate service at some central point between the Potomac River and Baltimore. Finally, the District of Columbia militia, and various detachments of regulars p269amounting to about 3,000 in all, were to be put at the disposal of the commanding general. On paper this made a rather impressive little army of 15,000 men.
The question was who was to command them. Armstrong's preference was Major General Moses Porter, an old soldier of the Revolution who had risen from the ranks, and who was now in command of the 5th Military District, with headquarters in Norfolk. In this particular instance the Secretary of War was overruled by the President who, instead, selected Brigadier General William H. Winder, of Maryland. To save the feelings of General Porter the District of Columbia and the neighboring territory were divorced from his command and established as the 10th Military District.
William Winder was an estimable gentleman, springing from the best stock of Maryland. His ancestry and environment were irreproachable. He received a liberal education, moved from Somerset county to Baltimore and became a distinguished ornament of the Maryland bar in competition with such astute legal minds as Luther Martin, William Pinkney and William Wirt. At the outbreak of the war he relinquished his practice and patriotically offered his services to his country. He led Maryland troops to the Canadian border and there engaged in several campaigns. It will be recalled that he had the misfortune to be made prisoner along with General Chandler in the ill‑fated pursuit of Vincent after the capture of Fort George.
The close of Winder's career on the border was somewhat inglorious, though he was exonerated from blame. Upon being paroled he returned to Baltimore where he received all the honors customarily bestowed upon a returning hero. Yet, in spite of his distinction, the fact remained that he had never commanded a force larger than a brigade, he was not a soldier by profession and the services he had rendered, though adequate, had not been brilliant. His selection was not based entirely upon his military achievements. There was also a political consideration which weighed heavily with Mr. Madison in making the choice. The state of Maryland had a large Federalist contingent and, when Maryland was suffering under the heel of the invader during the preceding summer, the Madison administration rendered little or no assistance and the state had to depend upon its resources. Now the shoe was on the other p270foot. It was Washington that needed the assistance of Maryland and needed it badly. The Federalist governor of the state was Levin Winder, an uncle of the General. So, reasoned Mr. Madison and his advisers, if the nephew of the Governor were given command of the 10th District, Maryland might be expected to enter more heartily into the defense of the capital.
Never was an honor more fraught with impending disaster than that bestowed upon General Winder by President Madison. It was already known that a British expedition had set out for the United States and that its arrival was imminent. To meet the crisis, Winder had been given an army of 15,000 men but as yet it was an army on paper only. His superior, the Secretary of War, had not favored his appointment and did not promise the most complete cooperation. The newly created district was without magazines, provisions for forage, transport tools, general staff or troops. As one observer remarked, Winder "was left to the necessity of being his own commissary, his own secretary, his own vidette and to be himself his own express rider." In short, instead of finding glory, he was about to endure a nightmare lasting no less than six weeks.
Winder was notified of his appointment on July 5 and immediately entered with zeal upon his duties. At once the hopeless inefficiency of the preparations began to assert itself. General Armstrong delayed several days sending out the requisitions to the governors for the militia. When the Governor of Pennsylvania received his he replied that he lacked constitutional powers to raise his quota. At once Winder's paper army was reduced by 4,000 men. The Maryland quota called for 6,000, but Baltimore, Annapolis and Chesapeake Bay were as greatly threatened as Washington and Governor Winder was naturally unwilling to surrender all his troops for the defense of Washington.
The 2,000 or 3,000 militia that were immediately to be concentrated at a point between the Potomac and Baltimore failed to put in an appearance and Winder appealed to the Secretary of War. But General Armstrong, it appeared, had a pet aversion to keeping militia idle in camp before the arrival of the enemy. The Secretary, according to Winder, replied that "the most advantageous mode of using militia was upon the spur of the occasion, and to bring them p271to fight as soon as called out." This remarkable theory was to have an excellent practical test a few weeks later at Bladensburg.
For 18 days, between July 9 and 27, while awaiting the raising of his army, Winder traveled constantly on horseback through the country he was expected to defend. He was at Baltimore, Annapolis, Marlboro, the Wood Yard, Nottingham, Piscataway, Warburton, and Port Tobacco; several times at the same place and several times at Washington. That area is included in a triangle with sides roughly •30 miles in length, which gives some idea of the distance he must have covered.
Bladensburg, a few miles north of the national capital, Winder had selected as the rendezvous. Yet as late as July 23 he was writing to Armstrong: "It will be necessary that arms, ammunition, accoutrements, tents and camp equipage be deposited there for them [the troops]. I have no knowledge where these articles are in store nearest the point, nor under whose charge they are."
Already weary in mind and body Winder established his headquarters in Washington on August 1. At that late date no line of defense had been selected. Not a breastworks had been raised. Not a single tree was felled across a road to delay the march of the enemy. The total force assembled at Bladensburg amounted to one lone company of Maryland militia.
On August 18 a messenger dashed into Washington to announce the alarming news of the arrival of the British fleet in the Patuxent. Then, at last, the President ordered out all the militia and regulars near Washington and sent fresh requisitions to the near‑by governors for militia. Yet even at that late hour the Secretary of War remained unconvinced of the peril that hung over the capital. To General Van Ness, commander of the District of Columbia militia, who expressed grave anxiety over the situation, Armstrong replied, "What the devil will they do here? No, no; Baltimore is the place, Sir; that is of so much more consequence."
To Winder during the next few days Armstrong gave abundant advice. What he failed to provide was the means of carrying it out. While the commanding officer remained in Washington to catch up on his paper work and respond to the hundreds of miscellaneous duties that fell to his lot, James Monroe volunteered to go to the p272front to see what the enemy was up to. And so, at least for a time, was presented the rare spectacle of the Secretary of State of a nation acting as a vidette, a task which a staff officer might ordinarily have been expected to perform.
On August 19 the British fleet sailed •some 20 miles up the Patuxent, as far as the large ships dared go, and anchored off a small settlement known as Benedict. Under the protection of the guns of the men-of‑war the disembarkation began. Small boats loaded with soldiers put out for the shore and, as they landed, the men formed into line of battle while pickets were thrown out and all houses were seized. The precautions proved quite unnecessary. Not a single defender was in sight, not a shot was fired to break the serenity of the peaceful countryside on a fine summer day. If the Secretary of State was watching, he was carefully concealed. By 3 P.M. the whole force of 4,500 men was on Maryland soil without having met any opposition. Barney's flotilla of 30 gunboats had fled farther up the river.
At Benedict the invaders spent the night and the morning of the following day. About 4 P.M. of the 20th the troops were formed in column with advance guard, flank patrols and rear guard and marched northward on a road parallel with the river, keeping abreast of a force of barges which were going in search of Barney. Not American troops, but the southern Maryland climate turned out to be the most formidable enemy. It was a hot summer day; the air was humid and the afternoon sun beat down mercilessly upon the heads of the poor Britons, clad in heavy uniforms and every man weighted down with a gun, 60 rounds of ball cartridges; a knapsack containing extra shirts, boots and socks; a blanket; a haversack with provisions for three days, and a canteen filled with water. There were no horses except those of the officers and 100 sailors cursed and sweated as they hauled the expedition's meager artillery — one 6‑pounder and two 3‑pounders. Men who had been through the worst of the campaign in Spain and imagined that Spain was hot confessed that they had never felt anything equal to southern Maryland on an afternoon in August.
The troops had been cooped up aboard ship for several weeks and were out of condition for marching. The column had advanced only a few miles when the men began to collapse; first singly, then p273by half dozens, dozens and scores. It looked as though Ross was about to lose two‑thirds of his command without the firing of a single shot. After dragging along for •seven miles the army, completely exhausted, encamped for the night and waited for the stragglers to catch up. Hardly had the men finished their supper and laid down when a thunderstorm broke over their heads and drenched them.
On the 21st the army was up bright and early and the sun soon dried them out. They had now been in enemy country two days without seeing a single armed man. Camp was broken and the column advanced toward Nottingham. This day's march was less wearing as it led through a thick wood which afforded protection from the sun. For the first time the pickets captured two Americans armed with muskets. On being questioned the prisoners professed to know nothing of the American army, explaining that they were only out to shoot squirrels. They had some difficulty in explaining to their captors why they were hunting squirrels with bayonets on their guns. Light skirmishing began during the day, but when the British reached Nottingham they found the place deserted.
The following day, August 22, the column resumed its march in the direction of Upper Marlboro, the next settlement on the road and only •about 20 miles from Washington. Here the army encamped. In the middle of the night the troops were awakened by a series of loud explosions off to the east. They came from Barney's flotilla. The Commodore, it seems, had abandoned his boats, taking 400 sailors with him and leaving a skeleton crew with orders to blow them up to prevent their falling into the hands of the British. Thus, by Barney's own act and without an engagement, the expedition achieved its first objective. With the flotilla out of the way it was free to proceed either against Baltimore or Washington. At Upper Marlboro Ross remained during the morning of the 23rd, resting his troops and discussing with the members of his staff what his next move should be.
Though Ross did not know it, as he marched from Nottingham to Upper Marlboro quite an impressive American force was within striking distance of his flank. It was composed of 300 infantry regulars, 120 dragoons, 250 Maryland militia and 1,200 militia and volunteers from the District of Columbia: in the aggregate, 1,870 men. It carried with it 12 field pieces. Its ostensible mission was to p274harass the British without bringing on a general engagement. It had marched out of Washington by the Navy Yard bridge over the eastern branch of the Potomac River and continued •12 miles to a place called the Wood Yard. There, on the evening of the 21st, General Winder caught up with it and took command.
Secretary Monroe's reconnaissance had not been particularly successful and, indeed, Winder had great difficulty in getting any reliable information as to the strength and nature of Ross's army. As a matter of fact, from the reports he received, he was under the impression that the British numbered 10,000, more than double their actual strength. This serves to explain why he let them pass from Nottingham to Upper Marlboro without attacking. Throughout the brief campaign the Americans assumed not only that they were facing veterans but also a much superior force.
The approach to Washington from the east was protected by the eastern branch of the Potomac which also goes under the name of Anacostia River. From Bladensburg, •five miles to the north of the capital, to the point where the branch joins the main stream below the town, the river was not fordable. Two bridges spanned the stream directly east of the town. Thus, if the bridges were destroyed the British would be forced to enter Washington by the Bladensburg road. Even if the attacking forces had been equipped with pontoon bridges the banks of the river were such that the pontoons could have been thrown across only with the greatest difficulty. That was why Winder believed he could make this approach secure and had selected Bladensburg as his rendezvous.
But Winder was not at all sure that Washington was the objective, an uncertainty in which he was encouraged by the Secretary of War. He, personally, felt that Annapolis was the more likely goal, since it had a good harbor and would afford an opportunity for cooperation between the British land force and the fleet and would serve admirably as a jumping‑off place for an attack on Baltimore. On the other hand, he was afraid that Ross might march against Fort Washington, which stood on the east bank of the Potomac south of the capital, take the fort in the rear and cooperate with a British squadron coming up the river for an attack on Alexandria and the capital from the south. In case of an attack on Fort Washington he would himself need the bridges to cross his own force and go to its p275aid. The uncertainty as to Ross's next move and a desire to meet every eventuality led Winder to divide his army, basing half of it on Bladensburg and the other half on the bridges. It also made him reluctant to burn the bridges.
Upon learning that Ross was at Upper Marlboro, Winder fell back •five miles from the Wood Yard to Battalion Old Fields, the junction of three roads leading respectively to Bladensburg, the eastern branch bridges and the Alexandria ferry. Here he spent the night of the 22nd and was joined by the President and the members of his Cabinet. Next morning the diminutive Commander-in‑Chief, wearing a hat with a tall cockade in an effort to look as martial as possible, solemnly reviewed the troops as they broke camp and packed up in preparation for whatever the day might bring forth. Winder was considerably cheered by the arrival of Barney and his sailors. Having dragged their guns by hand all the way from the Patuxent they were thoroughly exhausted. The President and most of his Cabinet returned to Washington while the Commanding General went out on another of his scouting expeditions.
Meanwhile a brigade of Baltimore militia, about 2,000 strong, under the command of Brigadier General Tobias Stansbury, was arriving in Bladensburg. It occurred to Winder that this would be a good time to combine his forces so he sent word to Stansbury to move forward from Bladensburg along the road to Upper Marlboro. In the afternoon he himself rode off to confer with Stansbury. Hardly had he left Battalion Old Fields when scouts arrived there to announce that Ross had left Upper Marlboro and was advancing on the American position by the way of the Wood Yard. A messenger caught up with Winder before the general had gone five miles and reported the alarming news. Winder, who had failed to find Stansbury anywhere on the road to Upper Marlboro, at once sent word to him to withdraw to Bladensburg and defend it at all cost, while he returned to his troops at Battalion Old Fields. Actually Stansbury had received a false report that the British were advancing from Upper Marlboro on him and had quickly withdrawn to a position on Lowndes Hill, just east of Bladensburg.
When Winder arrived at Battalion Old Fields the baggage trains had been sent back to Washington and his troops had taken position to meet the enemy, who were now seen advancing •not more than a p276mile away. Fearful of being overwhelmed, Winder gave the order to retreat. Once their backs were turned to the enemy the raw troops felt their courage leaving them. The commissary wagons which should have supplied them with food had been commandeered to remove the official records from the capital, and they had drawn only two rations since leaving Washington. On the night of the 23rd they had been awakened and frightened by a false alarm that the British were coming. They had marched and countermarched to no purpose, and they were losing confidence in their leader. Tired, hungry and dispirited they set off for the capital. With the thought of the British regulars behind them, each step they took was faster than the preceding one. They did not slow up until they reached the eastern branch and were safely over the Navy Yard bridge.
Winder had been in the saddle since daylight and already had worn out two mounts. It was growing dark, but a sense of duty impelled him to go •three miles more to report in person to the President, though there could not have been much for him to tell that the President did not already know. The little town of Washington was seething with all sorts of rumors. Winder's horse was by this time played out, so he left it at an inn and, because he did not know where to find a fresh one, proceeded back to camp by foot.
Arrived at the camp Winder was not satisfied that the preparations for blowing up the bridges were adequate. He thought more powder was needed. Instead of leaving these details to a subordinate he set out again in the dark to find Commodore Tingey, commanding the Navy Yard near by, get him out of bed and ask for more explosives. On the way he fell into a ditch, sprained his ankle and wrenched his shoulder. The strain of the past weeks evidently was telling on him. He had exhausted his body by keeping constantly on the move and exhausted his mind by listening to counsel not only from the high officers of government but from the countless busybodies and cranks who found ready access to his headquarters with their pet theories of what should be done in the nation's hours of peril. Finally, between 2 A.M. and 3 A.M., according to his own account, he lay down to snatch an hour or two of sleep.
Madison was beginning to doubt the wisdom of his choice of a commander. He even suggested to the Secretary of War that he take over, but Armstrong declined to interfere. Heartily enjoying the p277situation was another old soldier. Major General James Wilkinson was in the capital and relieved of duty, awaiting an inquiry into his futile campaign against Montreal. But he was willing to forget the insults and injuries he had endured from his government and magnanimously offered to take command, defend the capital from the invader or die in the attempt. His services, however, were declined and he lived to set down in his memoirs just what ought to have been done, a much more agreeable task to him than trying to do it.
Daylight of the 24th found the commanding general little refreshed by his nap. It has been said that he was handicapped by interference from those higher up. On this occasion he invited it, sending a messenger to the President appealing to him and the Cabinet for counsel and advice. President and Cabinet were not long in responding cordially. They were soon at his side — the President, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Navy, the Attorney General and the Secretary of the Treasury. The Secretary of War was late in showing up. And there the military commander, the President and government argued and debated what Ross might or might not do.
The suspense, however, did not last long. Suddenly a messenger burst in upon the council of war to announce that Ross had broken camp at Old Fields and was already well on his way to Bladensburg. So Bladensburg it was to be, after all.
Immediately the little group broke up. Monroe offered to gallop ahead and look to the disposition of the troops on the field. Winder had his men called to arms and set himself at the head of the column. At last the Secretary of War appeared. President Madison hastily outlined the situation and the measures that were being taken to meet it, and asked if Armstrong had any suggestions. The Secretary replied that he had not, but remarked wryly that it was to be a fight between regulars and militia and that the latter would undoubtedly be beaten.
The President now set out courageously for the scene of the battle, accompanied by the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Navy, and the Attorney General. The Secretary of the Treasury was indisposed and did not take the field, but presented the President with a pair of dueling pistols which the latter thrust into his holster. These, combined with his cockade, made him appear more martial p278than ever. Unfortunately, in the heat of the battle or the confusion of the retreat, some miscreant stole the President's pistols. The Secretary of the Navy was feeling none too happy as he had had to submit to a dressing down from Commodore Barney in the best nautical language. The Commodore had been ordered to stay behind with his guns and sailors and defend the Navy Yard. This was not to his liking and he expressed himself so volubly and profanely that the crestfallen Secretary was prevailed upon to change the order and send him on the double to the front.
As Winder, the District Militia and the other miscellaneous units hastened from Washington, things were in considerable confusion at Bladensburg. Stansbury, on learning that Ross was making for the place, called a council of war to discuss what should be done. Though Winder had ordered Stansbury to hold the position at all cost, Stansbury's council took upon itself to overrule the Commander, contending that the attempt would be futile. During the night he and his command moved from their strong position on Lowndes Hill and started off for Washington. Winder heard of the movement and ordered Stansbury to stay where he was. Again Stansbury called a council and again the council overruled the Commander. It was only upon receiving the order a third time that Stansbury decided to obey it and remain at Bladensburg.
The village of Bladensburg, composed of a few scattered houses, stood on the east bank of the Potomac's eastern branch which, at this point high upstream, was little more than a wide ditch, everywhere fordable. The highway from Baltimore to Washington passed over a narrow bridge, turned abruptly to parallel the stream, then ran west for about 60 yards where it forked; one fork going on to Washington, the other making an angle of 45 degrees and leading to Georgetown. In the field in the angle formed by the two roads were stationed a battery of volunteer artillery from Baltimore, six 6‑pounders and 160 men under Captains Myers and Magruder, placed inside breastworks that had been constructed for heavy guns. The front of the works had been hastily reduced in height but, even so, the 6‑pounders were slightly tilted so that they could not fire at point-blank range. They did, however, cover the bridge with oblique fire. Supporting the battery was Major William Pinkney, who for the time being had exchanged the robes of the hustings for a p279uniform, and commanded 160 riflemen. On that day he had no need to black beneath the eyes to appear dramatic. The setting was dramatic enough. To the rear and left were two companies of militia; and, forming a line 50 yards behind, in supporting distance and protected by an orchard, were two newly organized militia regiments commanded by Lieutenant Colonels Ragan and Schutz and the well-trained and uniformed 5th Regiment of Lieutenant Colonel Sterett, of Baltimore. The whole force was on a hill that sloped generally toward the river.
As the Washington road leaves Bladensburg it continues to climb, and a mile from the village the hills through which it passes attain considerable height. Here the District militia, including infantry and artillery, the several small units of regulars and Virginia militia, Barney's flotilla men and marines deployed as they came up after their hurried march from Washington to form a second line. Barney planted his guns in the center of the road and on the hill to the right.
The whole of the American force numbered between 6,000 and 7,000 men, about equally divided between Stansbury's Marylanders who were on the scene at the start and the troops that had followed Winder from Washington. But the contour of the land was such that the troops from Washington were concealed from the view of those nearer Bladensburg and, in the excitement preceding the battle, Winder neglected to inform the latter of the arrival of reinforcements. Consequently, though the total American force outnumbered the British force by almost two to one and had an overwhelming superiority in artillery, Stansbury's men imagined that they were a forlorn hope — 3,000 militiamen pitted against 10,000 British regulars!
To make matters worse Monroe, for reasons best known to himself and without consulting Stansbury, moved Ragan's and Schutz's regiments and Sterett's 5th back •a quarter of a mile, so that they were too far in the rear to support the artillery that had been pushed out front and also lost the cover of the orchard and stood in clear view of the British. When Stansbury discovered what had been done the British advance guard was already coming into view. While these preparations were being made to receive the attack, the President and his Cabinet rode majestically over the field inspecting the disposition of the troops. In fact so absorbed was the President that he p280was on the point of crossing the Bladensburg bridge and riding right into the British lines when an American outpost fortunately warned him of his danger.
As disturbed as were the President, the Commanding General and the other dignitaries in that moment of peril, their anxiety was no great than that of one John P. Kennedy, a modest private in the rear rank of one of the companies of Colonel Sterett's 5th Regiment. The 5th was distinguished as a regiment of dandies and the young man was living up to its reputation. Before leaving home he assumed that victory would crown the American arms and that such a victory would undoubtedly be followed by a victory ball, probably in the White House itself. Therefore, to make sure that he would be dressed as befitted a soldier of the 5th, he packed into his knapsack a pair of white duck trousers and a pair of patent-leather dancing slippers. On the night before the battle the regiment was aroused out of its sleep by a report that the British were coming. The young man took off his marching boots and, in the darkness and excitement, could not find them. Then he thought of the slippers, fished them out of his knapsack and put them on, expecting to recover his boots at dawn. But before dawn the regiment shifted its position. So here he was waiting for the engagement to begin and about to become famous as probably the only private ever to fight a battle in dancing pumps!
It was now high noon. As the Americans looked anxiously out toward Bladensburg they saw the British Light Brigade appear, the men magnificent in their scarlet coats, marching six abreast with the cadenced step of regulars. In sorry contrast was the appearance of the American force which had been so hastily brought together. Part of the Baltimore militia was uniformed but, said an observer in the British ranks, the rest looked like a group of country people.
Without hesitating an instant the Light Brigade started to cross the bridge on which the American 6‑pounders were trained. At the command of Captain Myers and Magruder the guns thundered, and the shells hurtled across the field. The first shot killed one Briton and wounded two, driving the brigade back in temporary confusion. For a moment Bladensburg seemed free of the enemy as the attackers took cover behind Lowndes Hill and the houses in the village. But in a few minutes they rallied and returned to the attack, wading p281through the stream above the bridge and heading straight for the center of the American line. One American militia company fired a single volley, then broke and fled to the rear. The rest stood fast.
The British advanced and again the volunteer artillery in the front line poured shot into them and Pinkney's riflemen joined in with a volley. Once more the Light Brigade was driven back, but now it was reinforced and came on a third time. Six time Pinkney's men loaded and fired but their best efforts were not enough to stem the red tide which was momentarily growing larger and nearer. So close were the British now that the volunteer artillerymen could no longer bring their guns to bear. To escape capture they unlimbered and rushed their guns to the rear, spiking the only one that they were forced to leave behind. Pinkney's men also fell back taking station beside the 5th Regiment. Pinkney himself was wounded. Not even his worst enemy could deny his fortitude and courage that day.
The three infantry regiments on the hill were having their own troubles. The British had now laid down a barrage of Congreve rockets. These were a new and terrifying weapon which, the inventor believed, would eventually replace artillery. The rockets had a range of •two miles and came over with a crazy roar. To men in trenches or under cover they gave little concern, but to the troops of Sterett, Schutz and Ragan who stood open to view, thanks to Colonel Monroe's dispositions, they proved a very definite menace. The first volleys flew high but those that followed were lower and grazed the heads of the militiamen. What with the rockets and the confusion caused by the retirement of Pinkney's riflemen, Ragan's and Schutz's men next were seized by the surrounding panic and with a few marked exceptions turned and raced for the rear. Sterett's 5th, on the contrary, moved boldly forward to attack, keeping their line like regulars, and firing a volley at the enemy. But its men were getting severe punishment from the British who had now reached the orchard which might have sheltered the Americans and which prevented them from giving punishment in return. Other enemy troops were working their way to its rear. Winder, who had stationed himself well to the front, saw the predicament of the 5th and ordered it to retire. The regiment up to this point had behaved with gallantry; but, once its back was turned to the enemy, its men lost control of themselves and joined in the general rout.
p282 Nothing was now left of the American advance forces and first line and the British proceeded relentlessly against the second line which, up to this time, had taken no part in the battle. As the redcoats came into view on the road Barney's men let them have a salvo from the guns, driving them into the fields on either side. The artillery stationed to the left of Barney joined in but had little effect on the attackers. Believing that the day was lost at Bladensburg, and before more than a few units in the second half of his army had been engaged, Winder ordered a general retreat, hoping to halt and reorganize his straggling army before Washington. Barney's flotilla men, however, continued to hold fast. They were veterans of many a battle at sea and the noise of cannon and the whiz of shot and shell were familiar music to them. The British attempted a flanking attack but the flotilla men beat it off, killed several of the officers who were leading it and pursued the fleeing foes with cries of "Board 'em!" But Barney's brave band was not for long. Five hundred sailors could not hold off 3,000 British regulars. Soon the sailors were being assailed on the flanks and in the rear. Barney himself was badly wounded and he and most of his men surrendered to the enemy. At this point Ross and Cockburn appeared on the scene and recognized Barney whom they knew by reputation as a gallant sailor. They treated him with unusual courtesy, had his wounds treated by a British surgeon and removed him to a field hospital at Bladensburg.
Back to Washington streamed the District Militia, the Virginia Militia and the odd lots of regulars with Winder at their head. They were not a beaten army, for most of them had not yet had a chance to fight, and there was still some semblance of order. Winder halted them near the capital. He had directed Stansbury to retreat by way of the Washington road and hoped there would be time to reorganize the Marylanders and make a last stand before the town with a combined force. But the British attack had been launched in such manner as to drive Stansbury's men in the direction of the Georgetown road instead of the Washington road. Thus as the two halves of the army retired they moved farther and farther apart. None of Stansbury's men showed up in Washington. Winder now held a hurried consultation with the Secretary of War and the Secretary of State. They agreed that the defense of the town was hopeless under p283the circumstances and Winder received their permission to evacuate the capital and continue his retreat through Georgetown in the hope of reassembling his army at Montgomery Court House. As the weary and crestfallen men resumed their march to the west, Washington lay open to the enemy.
Throughout these trying days, while the President was so much at the front, the First Lady of the Land maintained an anxious vigil at the White House. On the morning of the 22nd Mr. Madison had set out to join Winder, first asking his beloved Dolly if she had the courage and firmness to remain alone until his return. She assured him that she had no fear except for him and the success of the army. In her charge the President left the cabinet papers and, begging her to take care of herself, he mounted his horse and rode off.
In spite of his official duties the President had time in the course of the day to scrawl two notes in pencil and dispatch them by messenger to his wife. In the last he told her that the enemy was stronger than had been imagined and might reach the capital. He directed her to have the carriage ready to enter at a moment's notice. Dolly set to work packing the cabinet papers into trunks and stowing the trunks in the carriage. Rumors of disloyalty in the town reached her and increased her alarm for the President's personal safety. The guard of 100 men which had been left to protect the White House vanished. She felt very much alone, except for the presence of a loyal servant, French John, who offered to spike a cannon at the gate and lay a train of powder which would blow up the British if they attempted to enter the executive mansion. Dolly declined this well-intentioned, if fantastic, proposal.
There was little sleep in Washington on the night of the 23rd, but nothing serious happened. While she waited for news Dolly was disturbed by terrifying rumors. Anonymous letters were received threatening the President's life by dagger or poison. There were reports of British spies disguised in women's clothing trying to gain access to the White House to seize the cabinet papers. A less courageous woman than Dolly Madison might well have lost her nerve and fled. Dolly's one thought, however, was the President. From sunrise until noon she repeatedly took out her spyglass and searched the horizon in the hope of catching sight of her husband returning with his friends. All she saw were groups of soldiers "wandering in p284all directions as if there was a lack of arms or of spirit to fight for their own fireside."
Yet, in the midst of fear and confusion, the women of Washington did not forget the strict conventions of society. A dinner had been planned at the White House for the 24th to which the Secretary of the Navy, his wife and daughter had been invited. As Dolly waited expectantly for news of the President a servant handed her a letter. Excitedly she opened it, hoping it might contain some news of him and the fortunes of the battle.
"My dear Madam," it began, "In the present state of alarm and bustle of preparation for the worst that may happen, I imagine it will be more convenient to dispense with the enjoyment of your hospitality today, and, therefore, pray you to admit this as an excuse for Mr. Jones, Lucy and myself. Mr. Jones is deeply engaged in dispatching the marines and attending to other public duties. Lucy and I are packing with the possibility of having to leave; but in the event of necessity we know not where to go nor have we any means yet prepared for the conveyance of our effects. I sincerely hope and trust the necessity may be avoided but there appears rather serious cause of apprehension. Our carriage horse is sick and our coachman absent, or I should have called last evening to see your sister. Yours very truly and affectionately, E. Jones."
The lady of the Secretary of the Navy had observed the customary amenities. Had General Ross seen the letter he would, no doubt, have admitted the hopelessness of conquering a nation of such indomitable women, however scornfully he may have regarded the men.
The afternoon wore on. The distant boom of guns shook the windows of the White House. At three o'clock Dolly, perhaps to quiet her nerves, sat down to pen a note to her sister, Anna Payne Cutts: "Will you believe it, my sister? We have had a battle or skirmish near Bladensburg and here I am still within sound of the cannon! Mr. Madison comes not. May God protect us! Two messengers covered with dust come to bid me fly; but here I mean to wait for him."
Mr. Carroll, a friend, had come to urge her to leave. He did not conceal his ill‑humor when she refused. But there was still much to be done. A wagon had somehow been obtained and Dolly superintended the packing of silver plate and other valuables to be consigned p285to the Bank of Maryland, though she doubted if they would ever reach their destination. Then there was the great portrait of Washington by Gilbert Stuart which hung in the White House. It would be sacrilege to allow it to fall into the hands of the British. Two gentlemen fortunately arrived at this moment to help in the work of rescue. The canvas was obstinate and could not be got from the heavy gold frame. Dolly gave orders to smash the frame and the portrait was soon on its way to safety in Georgetown.
At any moment the British might appear. There was still neither sign of nor word from the President. Finally Dolly was prevailed upon to leave. She entered her carriage, the coachman whipped up the horses and the First Lady and the cabinet papers were off to the hills of Virginia that never seemed more hospitable.
Late in the afternoon the victorious British column arrived on the outskirts of the capital. A party, which for some reason included General Ross's charger, was sent forward to demand the capitulation of the town. But the government offices were deserted; there was no responsible official with whom to deal. When the party reached a point opposite a house owned by Albert Gallatin a single shot rang out and the General's horse dropped dead with a bullet in his side. The house from behind which the shot had come was immediately ordered to be burned while search was begun for the culprit. He was not found, though the act was commonly attributed to one of Barney's men.
If there had been compassion in Ross before, it was stifled by this inhospitable reception. From now one he took a keen and personal interest in the destruction of public property. Under the orders of Ross and Cockburn the firebrand was applied generously, and shortly the Capitol, the Arsenal, the Treasury, the War Office and the White House were in flames. To save it from capture Commodore Tingey himself ordered the firing of the Navy Yards and the ships that rode at anchor there, including a new ship of the line. This section of the town was soon a roaring furnace. Before long the great bridge over the Potomac between the capital and the Virginia shore was added to the conflagration. The British, fearing reinforcements from Virginia, fired it at the Washington end; the Virginians, to halt the British, fired it at the Virginia end.
Earlier in the evening the President had reached Washington. p286Taking a boat at the foot of the White House grounds he had crossed the Potomac; and now, accompanied by Attorney General, the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Charles Carroll of Bellevue and Mr. Tench Ringgold, he was again on horseback traveling a rough Virginia road. Behind him his capital and his hopes were going up in flames. Fugitives from Washington who recognized him muttered insults or cursed the President to his face. Political enemies were to accuse him of personal cowardice, laugh at his discomfiture. Rhymesters were to sing satiric songs commemorating "the Bladensburg Races" and putting insulting words into the mouth of his beloved Dolly:
"Sister Cutts and Cutts and I
And Cutts's children three,
Shall in the coach, and you shall ride
On horseback after we."
The punishment was greater than Mr. Madison's crime deserved. It had been a long, hard day; the longest and hardest in his career. From dawn until long past midnight he had been almost continually in the saddle. How a man over 60 years of age could survive such physical punishment was a marvel. Under Mr. Madison's quiet, unobtrusive exterior there was tough fiber. In the middle of the night the presidential party arrived at a wayside inn that was little more than a hovel. But to the President it appeared as magnificent as the finest of palaces. For Indies it was Dolly, still courageous and with her faith in him undiminished. Just then, more than anything else in the world, the President needed her.
Throughout the 25th, the British remained in Washington and made themselves thoroughly at home. The gayest spirit among the visitors was Cockburn, who had proposed the raid and was delighted with its success. In a jestful mood and casting dignity to the winds he rode through the town on a brood mare while a black foal trotted at its mother's side. The National Intelligencer, official organ of the administration, had bitterly denounced Cockburn as a marauder and the Admiral now seized the opportunity for revenge and ordered the establishment burned. He was restrained by residents living near by who pleaded that their homes would be endangered, and compromised by having the offices of the publication sacked p287and the type dumped into the street. "See that all the C's are destroyed," he admonished his men, "so that the editors can no longer vilify my name."
Other marauders singled out the Tripoli Monument in the Navy Yard and, in high good humor, amputated the thumb and index finger of the "Genius of America" who pointed to the inscription, robbed "History" of her pen and removed the palm from the head of "Fame."
The work of vandalism received a sudden and unexpected check when one of the invaders tossed a firebrand into a dry well. The well happened to be stored with kegs of powder; there followed an explosion in which 12 soldiers were killed and 30 wounded. This disaster considerably dampened the ardor of the incendiaries.
As evening came on strict orders were issued to all the natives to remain indoors. The injunction was hardly needed, for there broke over the city a thunderstorm almost of tornado proportions. Trees were uprooted and houses were blown down. The British camp was said to have borne the brunt of the wind and rain. Once more the local elements were doing their best to discourage the enemy.
When the rain had ended and a few bold spirits ventured to look out of doors they noticed an unusual quiet in the British camp. Further stealthy investigation revealed that the place was deserted. Under cover of the storm the raiders had slipped out of the town. As a matter of fact Ross realized the weakness of his force and the distance he was from his base. He was fearful that, once the Americans had recovered from their surprise, they would collect a large force to cut him off and destroy him. So, by forced marches, he hurried his men back by the road they had come and did not slacken the pace until they were safe again on the boats.
In the battle of Bladensburg the British loss was more severe than that of the Americans. A British surgeon estimated it at 150 men killed and 300 or 400 wounded, though the official report gave the total as 64 killed and 185 wounded. The Americans, with their backs to the wall and fighting for the possession of their nation's capital, had been considerably less profligate with their blood. Their total loss was 26 killed and 51 wounded.
When news of the treatment meted out to Washington reached the rest of the country indignation ran high; except, of course, p288among the extreme Federalists who looked upon it as the just desert of the administration's folly. But the attitude of the Federalists was balanced by the attitude of His Majesty's Loyal Opposition in England which soundly berated the government for the conduct of its armed forces. "A return to barbarism," commented The British Annual Register. "It cannot be concealed that the extent of the devastation practiced by the victors brought a heavy censure upon the British character not only in America but on the Continent of Europe." "Willingly would we throw a veil of oblivion over our transactions at Washington," chimed in The London Statesman. "The Cossacks spared Paris, but we spared not the capital of America."
England had its political die‑hards, too.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 15 Nov 13