The battle of Bladensburg, 24 August 1814, was a British victory during the War of 1812 that left Washington vulnerable to attack. The fall of Napoleon had allowed the British to move relatively large numbers of troops across the Atlantic. Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane soon had over 4,000 men at Bermuda, amongst them a contingent 3,000 strong under Major-General Robert Ross that had sailed directly from south west France. Cochrane decided to use his new army to support Rear-Admiral Sir George Cockburn, who had spent the first part of the summer campaigning in that area.
Cochrane and Cockburn decided to attack a fleet of American gunboats that had taken shelter in the Patuxent River, and if possible move on to attack Washington. The Patuxent River runs from north to south, east of Washington, and was big enough in 1812 to allow the British to operate a fleet of small boats on the river.
Ross’s troops landed close to the mouth of the Patuxent River on 19 August and began to march up the river towards the gunboats. On 22 August the commander of that fleet, Commodore Barney, destroyed fifteen of his gunboats and retreated towards Washington, hoping to defend the road that led through Bladensburg to the capital.
Washington was very vulnerable to attack. Most members of the American government believed that Baltimore was far more likely to be attacked than Washington and so the capital was left unfortified. Over the spring of 1814 this began to worry some members of the government, and so on 2 July a new Military District No. 10 was created around the city. Unfortunately General William H. Winder, a Marylander and a relative of the Governor of the state was appointed to command the district. Winder’s recent military experience had come on the Niagara Front, where he had been captured by the British at the battle of Stoney Creek after mistaking British for American troops. Winder had been exchanged in the spring of 1814 and was a purely political appointment, made by President Madison against the wishes of the Secretary of War.
In theory Winder had command of 1,000 regulars and 15,000 militia, but when the British landed he only had 1,500-1,600 men under his command and most of them were near to Baltimore. Winder did not perform well as the British approached Washington, he did have a difficult task. The British had a choice of routes they could have taken from the Patuxent. If Washington was the target they could move west to attack Fort Washington and then move up the Potomac or north west to Bladensburg, cross the East Branch river and attack Washington from the north east, or even move north to attack Baltimore.
Accordingly as the British moved up the Patuxent to Upper Marlsborough and then moved towards Bladensburg, Winder failed to act. On 21 August he was only five miles south west of Upper Marlsborough. On the next day he pulled back to Old Fields, and then on 23 August retired into Washington. On the previous day the population had begun to abandon the capital, although President Madison and his cabinet remained in the city, where they would play a part in the American defeat.
Despite Winder’s inactivity, Bladensburg was not entirely undefended. Barney’s 400 sailors had been joined by 1,450 local militia and 420 regulars, under the command of General Tobias Stansbury. He had taken up a defensive position on the western bank of the East Branch River. Secretary of State Monroe arrived on the scene on the morning of 24 August, and began to interfere with Stansbury’s deployment. He was followed by 5,000 more militia, and finally by General Winder himself, who arrived to take command just before the British attacked.
The British only had 2,600 troops, under the command of Major-General Ross, but they were all experienced regulars. The American position seemed quite strong, at least to General Ross. He described the Americans as being “strongly posed on very commanding heights, formed into two lines”, with artillery covering the bridge over the East Branch.
The main weakness in the American position was the lack of regular troops. When the British attacked over the bridge the militia only stood their ground for a short time, before abandoning the field. Part of the panic was apparently caused by Congreve Rockets fired into their ranks. Only Barney’s sailors stood and fought, until they were outflanked by the British, at which point Barney ordered them to retreat. Barney himself was badly wounded in the fighting.
Although the battle rapidly turned into a British victory, it was not without cost. The British suffered 64 dead and 185 wounded, three times the American casualties of 26 dead and 51 wounded. The lack of American prisoners was attributed to the speed of their retreat.
The British victory at Bladensburg left Washington exposed to attack. Madison and his cabinet were forced to flee into the surrounding countryside, while later that day the British entered the city. In the previous year the Americans had captured York, the capital of Upper Canada, and burnt the parliament buildings and Government House. In retaliation the British now burnt the White House, the Capitol, the Treasury and the War Office and seized large quantities of munitions. On the next day they began their march back to their ships.