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The Short History of the War of 1812 in Maryland 

John Miller

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 impending battle.

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 army again.

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 blew.

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 their ships.

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 entrenchments.

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 British advance.

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 the city.

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 Fort McHenry.

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 McHenry’s artillery.

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.

Resources:

Browne, Patrick. Historical Digression, “A Tornado Saves Washington during the War of 1812.” Accessed July 11, 2014. http://historicaldigression.com/2012/03/26/a-tornado-saves-washington-during-the-war-of-1812/.

Gleig, George Robert (1827). The Campaigns of the British Army at Washington and New Orleans, 1814-1815. London: J. Murray,

Herrick, Carole. August 24, 1814 Washington in Flames. Falls Church, VA: Higher Education Publishing, 2005.

Ingraham, Edward D. A Sketch of the Events Which Preceded the Capture of Washington by the British on the Twenty Fourth of August, 1814. Philadelphia, PA: 1849.

Lord, Walter. The Dawn’s Early Light. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1972.

Muller, Charles C. The Darkest Day. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

Pitch, Anthony S. The Burning of Washington. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998.

Vogel, Steve. Through the Perilous Flight Six Weeks that Saved a Nation. New York: Random House, 2013.

The Navy Department Library, “The Defenses and Burning of Washington in 1814: Naval Documents of the War of 1812.” Accessed July 11, 2014. http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/burning_washington.html

 

Read other articles by John Miller