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The Battle of Bladensburg

Sketch of Bladensburg
Pen and ink sketch of the action and fighting near Bladensburg on August 24, 1814 (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
On August 24, the British broke camp and moved northwest to the town of Bladensburg where they knew they could easily ford the Eastern Branch and cross into Washington. Here, the 4,000 seasoned English forces easily routed the American defenses led by General Winder and his larger but mostly raw force of 6,000 militia, 1,000 regulars, 400 men under Commodore Barney and 114 marines. The defeat at Bladensburg allowed the British to continue unopposed into Washington, D.C. where they sacked and burned many of the public buildings, including the U.S. Capitol, The White House and the U.S. Treasury Building.

The first of the battle's players to reach Bladensburg on August 24 was American Brigadier General Stansbury in command of 2,200 Baltimore militiamen, which he placed in a wedge shaped formation on the western side of the Eastern Branch. Three hundred and fifty yards to the formation's front was the Bladensburg Bridge, with the town itself just across the river. On the wedge's left flank was the road to Georgetown, on the right, the road to Washington.

Stansbury's forward defensive line consisted of a small series of earthworks. Here he placed two battalions of riflemen and his battery of small 6 pounders. Behind them an open field extended for 50 yards ending in an apple orchard where Stansbury positioned his second echelon troops.

Like his English counterpart, General Winder spent the morning of the 24th moving towards Bladensburg. With him and his forces were the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Treasury and the Attorney General. President Madison also rode for the town armed with a brace of pistols. Ahead of all of them rode Secretary of State Monroe.

For some unrecorded reason, upon arriving at Bladensburg, Monroe was dissatisfied by Stansbury's placement of the second line and apparently thought himself invested with the authority to move it.  Without Stansbury's knowledge, the Secretary moved the line 500 yards farther to the rear, out of the orchard and onto a hill void of cover. When 800 additional militia arrived from Annapolis, Monroe placed them on yet another hill, this one a mile behind Stansbury's front line. And when Winder's cavalry arrived, Monroe placed them in a ravine so deep they were unable to even see the battle much less participate in it.

Ross and Winder both reached Bladensburg around noon. Ross's main force waited outside of the town while a small group of soldiers scouted ahead for snipers. There were none, but the maneuver resulted in an hour long delay that gave Winder time to position his men.

Winder used the bulk of his force to establish a third line, well behind the "Monroe line". The line's right flank was positioned atop a small grassy knoll; the remainder simply stood in ranks in the center of a broad open field. There were two small detachments sent forward: a battery of three cannons placed on Stansbury's left flank, positioned to rake the orchard so as to cover any retreat of the forward line; and an additional battery of two cannons placed well forward on the Washington road to impede enemy movement down it. Barney arrived shortly after Winder's main body and positioned his men directly in the center of the third line.

Around 1 pm, Ross ordered his First Brigade across the bridge. The British advanced in neat, orderly ranks and as the American artillery opened fire, Ross answered with a battery of newly invented Congreve Rockets. The rockets were terribly inaccurate, but were terrorizing to the inexperienced American militia.  Winder suggested to the President that he and his Cabinet retire from the field. Madison agreed and they galloped off for Washington.

For a short time the American front line not only held steady, but subjected the enemy to a surprisingly high and accurate volume of fire. For a moment it appeared as though the British advance might crumble as its forward ranks broke and ran for the cover of nearby buildings. A cheer went up from the American side, but it soon subsided as Ross' First Brigade regained its composure and stormed across the bridge. It was too much for the defenders. The tip of Stansbury's wedge broke and ran for the apple orchard.

Observing this, General Winder, who was with Stansbury in the Baltimore militia's second line,
ordered two thirds of the line, a total of some 1,300 men, forward into the orchard. They never reached it. Cockburn had been quick to raise his rocket fire and it was now falling on the slowly advancing American second line. Between the rockets and the sight of the routed first line, these men too fled for cover.

General Winder and Brigadier General Stansbury repositioned themselves with the third American line and once again the British advanced. The British took three volleys of heavy fire then turned off the road and charged Winder's flank on the right over an open field. The American artillery fire became more intense and the charge slowed. Seizing the opportunity, Barney led his 500 sailors and marines in a rush against the center of Ross' force. The British were driven back to a wooded ravine, leaving several of their wounded officers in the hands of the Americans. Colonel William Thornton, who had led the British column was severely wounded, and General Ross had his horse shot from under him.

Taking of the City 
Wood engraving illustrating the taking of the city (Washington, D.C.) during the War of 1812 (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
Ross' Second Brigade advanced. Consisting of some 1,400 men formed into two regiments, Ross took personal command of one and moved to flank the Americans on the right. The second regiment advanced on the left while Cockburn moved his rockets to within 140 yards of the defending line.

Barney and his men were the only remaining effective resistance to the British advance and General Winder ordered a retreat. This order never reached Commodore Barney but with no ammunition, flanked on the right and deserted on the left, Barney ordered his own men to retreat. Captain Miller had been wounded and Commodore Barney had received a musket ball in the thigh. They were taken prisoner by Major General Ross.

General Ross, who had lost nearly three hundred men before getting across the river, gave great attention and care to the wounded Commodore. He so admired the bravery of the "blue jackets" that he paroled all the flotilla men, including the Commodore, on the spot. Ross ordered that Barney be taken at once into the city and his wounds treated.

The Battle of Bladensburg, at times referred to as The Battle for Washington was over, and Ross had yet to even deploy his third brigade.