2014, marks a year of importance
in American history. First, you have the 150th
commemoration of the Civil War, which I have been
writing about this year as it pertains to the 1864
Confederate Raid on Washington. This year also marks the
100th commemoration of the Great War, or World War One,
which began on July 28, 1914. However, I want to
concentrate on the year 1814. America had been at war
for two years with Britain, which had been at war with
France since 1803. Although the War of 1812 occurred
during the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, America’s war on
Britain was not part of that war.
On June 1, 1812, President James Madison
went before Congress asking for a declaration of war against
England. President Madison stated that Britain had illegally
boarded U.S. ships and pressed American men into British service.
This was due to Britain’s war with France causing manpower on
board British Naval Ships to run low. The British declared it was
to find navy deserters who may have taken a job with American
merchants. In 1807, the British actually fired upon an American
ship and boarded it, taking three Americans and one British
deserter. This became known as the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair.
Another reason was for the economy. Britain forbade neutral
countries to trade with European countries at war with England,
and the British Navy enforced this order. Britain blockaded U.S.
ports. Last but not least, tension with the Native Americans on
the Western Frontier with Britain began encouraging the violence.
There were other issues, but these were the four biggest, and with
a 19 to13 vote, the Senate voted in favor of war on June 18, 1812.
As the war in France ended with Napoleon
in 1814, the British decided to take a closer look at the war
being waged against the United States. The decision was made to
send more troops to America. Up until 1814, most of the fighting
had taken place on the Atlantic Ocean, along the border of Canada,
and the western frontier with Native Americans. The British
did control the Chesapeake Bay for almost a year, but without
sufficient numbers, they were unable to launch a full scale
attack. The U.S. began looking at their own defenses along the
Chesapeake Bay, which resulted in some minor skirmishes.
Leading up to August 1814, attempts to
defend Washington were shot down by the U.S. Congress, and the
threats of the British of attacking Washington were not taken
seriously. With the exception of a new military district being
created and commanded by Brigadier General William H. Winder, not
much went into fortifying Washington. U.S. Secretary of War John
Armstrong did not believe that Washington would be targeted by the
British simply because it was unimportant, both commercially and
strategically. If the British were to attack any city near the
Chesapeake Bay, Baltimore was a more likely target.
The British commanders, Vice Admiral
Alexander Cochrane, Major General Robert Ross, and Rear Admiral
George Cockburn all studied the maps of the Chesapeake Bay. Rear
Admiral Cockburn was in favor of attacking Washington, whereas
Ross was worried about the condition of his troops, since they had
been confined on the ships for three months. But both commanders
agreed, however Vice Admiral Cochrane had the final decision since
he was in command of the Royal Navy American Station.
The attack on Washington was a three prong
plan. While Vice Admiral Cochrane remained at Benedict, Maj. Gen.
Ross would march by land, while Rear Admiral Cockburn sailed up
the Patuxent River covering the British infantry’s right flank. A
small squadron of the British Navy had sailed into the mouth of
the Potomac River to raid Alexandria, Virginia. U.S. Commodore
Joshua Barney’s flotilla, which was rumored to be in the area,
needed to be found and destroyed. A diversion toward Baltimore
would keep troops there rather than sending them to Washington.
On August 18, a massive British fleet had
sailed into the Patuxent River. A day later, the British had
landed at Benedict, Maryland. By August 21, Ross’ troops had moved
into Nottingham. Major General Ross wanted to keep marching until
he reached Upper Marlboro, where he could threaten Baltimore or
Washington, depending on the route he wanted to take.
On August 24, the route to Washington lay
on two roads. The first would take the British by way of Woodyard,
but if the bridges over the Potomac River were destroyed it could
delay the British advance. The other way to Washington was to move
east via Bladensburg. Major General Ross would start off south, by
way of toward Woodyard, and then move to Bladensburg. The British
force was estimated to about 4,500 men, three cannon, and sixty
frames of the Congreve rockets.
By late morning, the American and British
armies began their march to Bladensburg. The day was hot, and the
temperature would max out at 100 degrees. Fatigue quickly sat in
on the armies. Francis Scott Key and Brigadier General Walter
Smith had arrived at Bladensburg ahead of the American army.
There, they scouted out positions on a high piece of ground
overlooking a ravine, Bladensburg, and the Eastern Branch.
Soon, the American army arrived and began
taking up positions. They would eventually deploy into three lines
as the British advanced from the south. Across the Eastern Branch
laid a bridge, which no one destroyed. By the time that the
American army would be fully concentrated, their numbers would be
estimated at about 5,900 men, mostly militia, Marines, and
Regulars. The Americans, too, had about twenty-two pieces of
artillery that would be positioned along the Washington and
Georgetown Roads. President James Madison arrived to watch the
By noon, after seeing that Bladensburg was
abandoned, Rear Admiral Cockburn and Maj. Gen. Ross debated the
American defenses, and Ross quickly ordered the attack. The
American battle lines appeared strong although they lacked
supporting distance. With two other brigades about one to two
miles behind, the British Light Infantry began to cross the
Eastern Branch when the American artillery opened. The British,
suffering many casualties, began to deploy their lines on the
other side of the bridge and used the landscape to try and conceal
themselves from the American artillery.
The British brought up the Congreve
rockets and placed them into action. The sound would be enough to
bring fear into the first line. President Madison even got a
chance to hear these famous rockets fly through the air, although,
they were not very accurate in hitting their intended target.
Supported by the Congreve rockets, more British soldiers poured
over the Eastern Branch from Bladensburg, causing the American
front line to fall apart. Brig. Gen. Winder tried desperately to
reform the battle line, but the sound of the rockets was enough to
cause panic in the ranks.
As even more British troops arrived on the
field, and began marching over the Eastern Branch, there, they
would press the American flanks. It wasn’t long before the second
battle line collapsed. As the third line of defense formed and
came under attack, Commodore Barney’s artillery poured deadly fire
into the British ranks. The British charged several times, but the
third line would not break. They kept pouring deadly fire from
artillery into their ranks, as well as volley after volley of
musketry. But with the other two battle lines gone, Commodore
Barney and his Marines and sailors were forced to retreat once
Brig. Gen. Winder gave the order.
The British army took the field of battle,
but at a deadly cost. They lost 309 men killed, wounded, or
captured. The American army lost 220 men killed, wounded, or
missing. The British would rest their troops, then pick up the
road, and march directly to Washington.
Back at Washington, civilians were already
fleeing, grabbing what they could carry. First Lady Dolly Madison
began packing things up that she could take with her, when at 3:00
p.m. she received a message “to quit the city.” She left the
Capital by 3:30 p.m. One of the items she managed to save was a
portrait of George Washington. She would have burned it if she
couldn’t take it, to keep it from the British. So she ordered one
of her servants to take the painting of Washington.
Major General Ross allowed his fatigued
army to rest for about two hours before moving to Washington.
After seeing to the wounded, Maj. Gen. Ross formed up a brigade of
able bodied men, and along with Rear Admiral Cockburn, marched for
the capital six miles away. Marching at dusk, under moonlight,
along Maryland Avenue, the British, under a white flag entered
Washington. The advance of the British army was met by a volley of
musketry, with one of the shots striking Maj. Gen. Ross’ horse,
the third horse of the day for Ross. After searching a nearby
house, they found it emptied. The house was set on fire, as this
is where the shots came from.
After waiting for an American official to
come out to talk about the surrender of the capital, at about 8:20
p.m., Ross and Cockburn saw flames coming from the Naval Yard,
which the Americans had burned. With no one to meet for the
parley, as Washington, for the most part was abandoned, Ross and
Cockburn discussed the next step. Rear Admiral Cockburn wanted to
burn the entire city, but Maj. Gen. Ross settled for the
destruction of firing the public buildings. The Capital building,
Treasury Department, State Department, and the War Department were
all set on fire. After eating a fine dinner in the White House,
the British set fire to it. During the night, as Washington
burned, a storm moved in, putting most of the fires out.
As the morning of August 25 dawned, Maj.
Gen. Ross ordered the buildings to be re-fired. During the morning
and early afternoon, the British took inventory of all the stores
of supplies that were left behind. By late afternoon, another
severe storm blew in. The storm battered the British army
bivouacked on Capital Hill, causing many soldiers to run for cover
in the near by houses. It poured for two hours. During the climax
of the storm, the winds were strong enough to knock down
buildings, lift roofs off, and move some houses off their
foundation. The wind was violent, as one British officer recalled:
“that two pieces of cannon which stood upon the eminence were
fairly lifted from the ground and borne several yards to the
rear.” Some weather experts believe a tornado hit Washington
during the British occupation.
With rumors of a large American force
marching to Washington, Maj. Gen. Ross ordered the army to begin
its withdrawal. During the night, the British kept the camp fires
burning bright, and quietly marched off on the road to
Bladensburg. Since his army was so fatigued from being aboard the
ships that brought them to America, being exhausted from marching
in the heat of summer, and fighting a battle at Bladensburg, Maj.
Gen. Ross didn’t want to take the chance of meeting the American
The British reached Bladensburg around
midnight on August 26, where Maj. Gen. Ross halted for an hour.
The dead still littered the ground from the battlefield that
occurred there two days prior. Major General Ross would leave the
dead for the Americans to bury, and those wounded who were able to
travel on carts and wagons were loaded up to move with the column.
Those men who were critical would remain behind.
The British moved onward toward upper
Marlboro and by 7:00 a.m., another halt was ordered. Back on the
march, Upper Marlboro was reached by noon. The soldiers quickly
broke ranks and rested. Some of others went about town plundering,
and taking anything of value such as food that would fit into a
knapsack. Doctor William Beanes and some locals had placed a few
British stragglers in jail when they moved through the town
earlier on the march to Washington. The British learned about
these arrests and went to Doctor Beanes’ house, and arrested him
and two others.
While the British were in Upper Marlboro,
the Presidential party returned to Washington. It was important
for the President to begin the rebuilding process of the town. But
then an alarm was heard, cannonading coming from the direction of
the Potomac River. At 6:00 p.m., a squadron of British vessels
under the command of Captain James Gordon, was making its way up
the Potomac River, to the community of Alexandria.
Approaching Fort Warburton (later renamed
Fort Washington), the British cannons opened fire, bombarding the
fort for nearly two and a half hours before a massive explosion
occurred, destroying the fort. The fort however was vacant. The
Americans had over 3,000 pounds of black powder in the powder
magazine with trails of black powder leading from it. When one of
the British bombs landed near it, a spark sat it ablaze and it
The next morning, Maj. Gen. Ross marched
out of Upper Marlboro, and would continue his movements until he
reached Benedict at around noon on August 28, encamping there for
the night. By August 30, Maj. Gen. Ross’ soldiers had boarded
Meanwhile, on August 28, the Common
Council of Alexandria greeted the British vessels on the Potomac
River, after sailing down the Potomac River for about six miles.
Captain Gordon offered no terms to the councilmen, but stated that
as long as no harm came to his ships, no harm would come to the
town. Meanwhile, back at Washington and at Georgetown, panic once
again set in. But if they must fall under the British flag, they
will follow Alexandria’s example. After the British invasion, many
communities would brand Alexandria as cowards.
By 10:00 a.m., on August 29, Alexandria
was given terms of surrender by Captain Gordon. He gave the
council one hour to review the terms ordering all supplies to be
handed over such as armaments, merchandise and ships. After that
time, Alexandria surrendered. The British took 21 vessels, 15,000
barrels of flour, 800 hogshead of tobacco, and thousands of
dollars of other merchandise.
On August 31, another British vessel
arrived at Alexandria with orders for Gordon to withdrawal. The
British vessel came under attack at various points along the way
including a makeshift battery at White House Bluffs. Gordon sent
two vessels ahead to attack the battery at the White House Bluffs,
with hopes of dislodging the battery. For four days, the British
bombarded the position while Gordon waited for the winds to change
direction to hurry down the Potomac River.
On September 5, as Gordon’s ships made
their way back down the Potomac River, they attacked the American
position of White House Bluffs. After slipping by with little
damage, the British sailed toward Indian Head. They were again
attacked, but sailed right on through with very little damage. By
September 9, Gordon’s Expedition had ended right where it had
started at the Chesapeake Bay. From there, the British would turn
to attack Baltimore, Maryland.
After the news of the burning of
Washington, the 45,000 people of Baltimore knew it was only a
matter of time before they too, would see the British ships in the
Chesapeake Bay. Baltimore was the third largest city in the United
States during that time. It was also a place where privateers
captured or collected bounty from over five hundred British ships,
as well as fanned the war with Britain.
Since 1813, Baltimore had already built up
their defenses for a possible British raid. The city officials
called upon Major General Samuel Smith, commanding the Maryland
Militia Third Division to defend the city. Aside from the Maryland
militia, Major George Armistead commanded the Fort McHenry
garrison. There was also a naval presence at Baltimore too.
On August 27, 1814, Major General Smith
ordered Brigadier General Stansbury’s militia to Baltimore, but
due to the fighting at Bladensburg, his brigade was still
scattered. Major General Smith had decided that Baltimore will not
end up as another “Bladensburg Race.” The citizens were told to
find and gather any tools, such as pickaxes, shovels and wheel
barrels. The next day, all people would begin digging or improving
Militia from Virginia and Pennsylvania
also reported to Baltimore. Major General Smith began to look at
the area of what might become a battleground. He became interested
in North Point Peninsula. It was here, at the tip, where the
Patapsco River emptied into the Chesapeake Bay. It was a perfect
place for the British to land their ground forces. Major General
Smith would send Brigadier General John Stricker to deploy his
command there, and buy as much as time as he could to stall the
As Maj. Gen. Smith made his plan, he was
given more authority, including commanding all forces in Baltimore
over Federal Brigadier General William Winder. This made Brig.
Gen. Winder very upset. On September 5, Brig. Gen. Winder received
his orders defending Ferry Branch. Brigadier General Winder kept
pleading to Maj. Gen. Smith about changing his orders, but Smith
ignored him, as he had a city to defend.
On September 10, the British navy moved
down the Potomac River where they concentrated on the Chesapeake
Bay. From there, they began sailing to Baltimore. By this time,
Maj. Gen. Smith had about 10,000 troops, mostly militia, to defend
On September 11, signal guns fired
announcing the arrival of the British. Vice Admiral Alexander
Cochrane made plans to attack Baltimore using a two prong attack.
He was unaware that Baltimore was waiting for the British to
arrive. He ordered Major General Robert Ross and Rear Admiral
George Cockburn to advance on the city by way of North Point,
while the British navy continued by sea to Baltimore, and attack
On September 12, at 4:00 a.m., the British
ground forces were on American soil. By dawn, 4,700 soldiers,
marines, and sailors began their advance on Baltimore, twelve
miles away. Later in the morning, Brigadier General John Stricker
discovered the British advance. He readied his men for the battle
ahead. But after a few hours had passed, Brig. Gen. Stricker
decided to force Maj. Gen. Ross’ hand, and draw him into a fight.
By 1:30 p.m., the first shots were exchanged by the men of Ross’
and Stricker’s commands.
Major General Ross quickly ordered up two
of his regiments to the front. As the British infantry arrived
with Maj. Gen. Ross at the head, a bullet stuck his right arm and
went into his chest. At the same time, Maj. Gen. Stricker’s
skirmish line fell back to the main line. British Colonel Arthur
Brooke took over for the fallen Ross, and within an hour, advanced
on Brig. Gen. Stricker’s main line. As two British infantry
regiments charged the center of the main line, and after twenty
minutes of heavy fighting, Stricker’s men fell back. Stricker lost
163 men killed or wounded and another 50 taken prisoner. For the
British, the battle of North Point wasn’t as costly in numbers,
but they lost Major General Robert Ross, as he died later from his
wounds. For those at Baltimore, the battle of North Point bought
them time to finish their defenses.
At dawn on September 13, British Colonel
Brooke began his advance on Baltimore. As the British approached
Hampstead Hill, they were faced with an earthwork that was about
three miles wide. The interior featured one hundred cannon and
about ten to fifteen thousand troops, all ready to defend the
eastern approach to Baltimore. The rain fell upon Colonel Brooke’s
men. Colonel Brooke attacked the position on the right, which he
was able to overrun, but he knew a frontal assault would be
devastating to his rank and file. After meeting with his officers,
Colonel Brooke decided to withdraw before dawn the next morning.
While Colonel Brooke was advancing toward
Baltimore, British Vice Admiral Cochrane, with about nineteen
ships, began testing the defenses of Fort McHenry. At about 6:00
a.m. Congreve Rockets and mortar shells began screaming and flying
through the air. The British ships were just out of range of
fort’s guns. The one thousand man garrison under Major Armistead
would have to wait for the British ships to move in closer before
they would return the fire. For the next twenty-five hours the
British bombarded Fort McHenry.
Francis Scott Key had been aboard the
British vessel HMS Tonnant. He met with British commanders and the
Prisoner Exchange Officer Colonel John Stuart Skinner to help
release Dr. William Beanes, who had been arrested after the
Burning of Washington. The British agreed to let them go, but they
would have wait until after the battle of Baltimore was decided to
be released. During the night, Key watched the “the rockets’ red
glare, the bombs bursting in air” as the rain fell.
During the night’s bombardment, a shell
had landed in the powder magazine, but the shell failed to
explode. Major Armistead quickly ordered the powder to be moved to
a safer location. The British landed a small force on shore to try
and pull some of Maj. Gen. Smith’s men away from the harbor
opening, but the British force was unable to fool Maj. Gen. Smith.
The British ships moved in closer and the Americans were finally
able to open their artillery.
By dawn, the storm had passed and the
British bombardment came to an end shortly afterward. They had
fired over 1,500 rounds at Fort McHenry with no success. As the
defenders of Fort McHenry took down the tattered storm flag and
raised the garrison flag that was used for reveille, a portion of
the British land force fired at the flag.
By sunrise, Francis Scott Key anxiously
waited for the fog to lift, so he could see which flag now flew
over Fort McHenry. With much relief, he saw the American flag
flying over Fort McHenry. Key became inspired by the site, and
would write the poem “Defiance of Ft. McHenry” that would become
our National Anthem on March 3, 1931. The poem was based upon the
British song “To Anacreon in Heaven.”
With Fort McHenry still in American
possession, and Colonel Brooke falling back from near Baltimore,
Vice Admiral Cochrane ordered his ships back. He was running low
on ammunition and to retry to take the city by force would not
prove anything. During the battle of Fort McHenry, the Americans
had four killed and twenty-four wounded. The British had one man
wounded that was on the vessel which took a hit from Fort
After the American victories at the battle
of Plattsburgh, Baltimore and New Orleans, the War of 1812
officially came to an end by the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on
December 24, 1814. The U.S approved the treaty on February 16,
1815, and by February 18, the War of 1812 was over.