Battle of Bladensburg
In July, 1814, after the British fleet had been in control of the Chesapeake Bay for more then a year, a separate 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 was more than enough to protect the Capital.
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.” To the later regrets of President Madison and his advisers, Monroe’s reports were ignored. Incorrect deductions were drawn on the fact that the British troops maneuvered to give the Americans the impression that Baltimore was their destination, and General Armstrong could not be convinced that Washington would be the target of the invasion and not Baltimore, an important center of commerce. As a precaution, two bridges across the Anacostia River were destroyed to protect the Capital, 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 entering Bladensburg. Finally, several regiments of the Maryland Militia were called from Baltimore to defend the Capital.
The strongest repulse against the British was made by Commodore Joshua Barney and his almost 600 seasoned Marines and sailors. They were valiant fighters, however, the authorities in Washington “forgot” Barney for several days. Without orders they were tardy arrivals on the field of contest. Had they been supplied with sufficient ammunition and supporting infantry, the course of the battle could have been changed.
Even though the Americans numbered about 7,000, they were poorly trained, equipped and deployed. The determined sweep of the British was so strong that a general route began which swept the defenders back to Washington. By four o’clock the battle was over and the Americans were defeated due to delay, indifference and indecision.
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 98 degree 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. Four days later on August 30th, they re-embarked at Benedict. Three weeks later the British assaulted Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor.