Norfolk Towne Assembly
The War of 1812 Part 3 - The Chesapeake Campaign, 1814
In our last post we examined the action in the Chesapeake Bay theater of operations during 1813. As we learned, the British purpose for the campaign in the Chesapeake Bay was to try to draw US Army Regulars away from the US/Canadian border to enable the British an easier time of invading the US from Canada. Once again, just as in the northern campaigns we discussed in Part 1, the British and Americans won some and lost some in the Chesapeake theater throughout 1813. After leaving the Bay at the end of 1813 to refit and resupply, the British returned in 1814, but with a new twist. The war in Europe was over!
Following Napoleon’s defeat and exile to the island of Elba in early 1814, Great Britain could focus its military might against the United States and the Admiralty replaced Warren with the more aggressive Cochrane. The move pleased Cockburn, who had remarkable intelligence on the region and remained second in command. He believed that his new commander understood the need not only to defeat but also to punish the Americans. The performance of the supporting British troops the previous year had been disappointing, and Cockburn hoped the crown would assign a more aggressive army commander as well.
American defenses on the Chesapeake remained weak. To further weaken them, on April 2, 1814, British Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane issued a proclamation saying that "all persons who may be disposed" to escape to and seek refuge on a British warship would receive their freedom and land in a British colony. In response, an estimated 3,400 enslaved people in Chesapeake coastal areas welcomed the invading British troops as emancipators and ran away from slavery for protection under the British flag. When enslaved people on a navigable river or bay saw the masts of a British ship or ships or saw British raiding parties who had landed on shore, they could use this opportunity to escape. Slaves stole fishing boats and dugout canoes from their owners to get away. Often, young men would escape first, and then lead British shore raiders back to the plantations and farms to help free the rest of their families as well.
Adm Cockburn recognized that these former slaves were valuable sources of information on local defense, terrain and conditions, militia movements, and where food supplies could be found and had his officers make regular use of them to gather intelligence. Additionally, about 120 escaped slaves fought for the British as Colonial Marines under the British naval command.
Meanwhile, the United States continued to send most of its newly raised Regular Army regiments to the Canadian theater, while the USS Constellation at Norfolk and the new sloops-of-war Erie and Ontario, nearing completion at Baltimore, remained blockaded in port. For the Americans, only an ad-hoc flotilla of barges and sloops, commanded by acting Master Commandant Joshua Barney, operated on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. In late April 1814, its fifteen vessels, with the sloop-rigged gunboat Scorpion as flagship, moved to harass the British base on Tangier Island. At the same time, a detachment of his 36th U.S. Infantry arrived in the St. Leonard, Maryland, area to oppose British raids in that region.
Barney’s flotilla attacked several smaller British vessels and forced them to flee southward to the safety of their warships. He pursued them until a ship-of-the-line bore down on the flotilla, which caused them to withdraw into the Patuxent River on Maryland’s Western Shore. After opposing winds forced his vessels into the shallow St. Leonard Creek, several shallow-draft British warships and auxiliaries blocked their exit. On 10 June, Barney counterattacked but did not break the blockade.
The Americans then planned a joint operation as a second attempt to free their flotilla. Secretary of War Armstrong sent Colonel Wadsworth to command the land forces, consisting of the understrength 36th U.S. Infantry; several companies of the 38th U.S. Infantry; two 18-pounder long guns and their crews; and a detachment of three 12-pounder field guns. Secretary of the Navy Jones augmented the ground forces with 110 marines with three light 12-pounders from the Washington Navy Yard.
As Wadsworth and Barney continued their planning, British Capt. Robert Barrie continued the blockade and sent barges carrying troops to raid farms and plantations throughout the region. On 11 June, members of the 45th Maryland Regiment fired on British raiders near Hallowing Point in Calvert County. In keeping with Admiral Cockburn’s standing order on resistance, Barrie deployed 170 marines who burned the farm of Capt. John Broome of the 31st Maryland Regiment. On June 15, after raiding Benedict, Maryland, the British penetrated upriver to Lower Marlboro, dispersed the local militia without a fight, and burned more than twenty-five hundred hogsheads of tobacco. On 18 June, the regulars of the 36th US Infantry tried to stop the British raids but did not force an engagement.
When the British appeared off Nottingham, Maryland, on 19 June, Secretary of War Armstrong sent about 280 men of the District of Columbia militia, including an infantry company, some dragoons, an artillery company with six field pieces, and a rifle company—to meet them. The dragoons leading the column saw smoke and believed the town had already been burned. However, a detachment of regulars from the 36th U.S. Infantry, supported by artillery, had prevented the British from capturing the town. The following day, the DC militia surprised a British raiding party near Benedict and captured several prisoners.
On 20 June, Barney received an order from Secretary of the Navy Jones to remove whatever military materiel he could salvage to Washington and destroy the flotilla. Before he could execute the order, Colonel Wadsworth convinced the secretary to countermand his order, suggesting that he could drive the blockaders away with artillery long enough for the flotilla to escape. A detachment of sailors from the flotilla joined the soldiers to build an artillery emplacement under the cover of darkness. Despite some early disagreement on where to dig, the Americans completed an earthen battery, complete with a furnace to heat shot and two powerful 18-pounders, on a bluff at the mouth of St. Leonard Creek. The field pieces were positioned on the high ground facing the Patuxent farther up-river, with regulars and marines in support. Fire from Wadsworth’s 18-pounders would signal the attack. At dawn on 26 June, the U.S. artillery opened fire on two British warships, as Barney’s barges closed and added their guns. Capt. Thomas Brown of HMS Loire, commanding in Barrie’s absence, saw that his ships’ guns could not silence the land batteries. He ordered his ships to shift their fire to the barges, but soon signaled a withdrawal, allowing Barney’s force to escape the creek and head up the Patuxent after suffering six killed and four wounded.
Meanwhile, the British attempted to outflank the batteries by landing marines, supported by a Congreve rocket boat. By this time, the 12-pounders had exhausted their supply of shot, and the light field guns had also ceased firing. Wadsworth ordered a detachment toward the shoreline to oppose the landing but, when the 36th U.S. Infantry started moving to reposition, the inexperienced 38th U.S. Infantry, who had received directions to follow the 36th wherever it went, followed suit. Ignorant of Wadsworth’s orders, the militia thought the army was retreating and joined the movement as well. Left without support, Wadsworth ordered his 18-pounders spiked and rode to the rear to try to rally his confused men. The colonel brought them back toward their original positions, but by then, the British had already retired. A company of the 36th U.S. Infantry returned to the abandoned battery and retrieved the guns, equipment, and five wounded men left behind during the retreat. With the departure of the flotilla from St. Leonard Creek, the town of St. Leonard was unprotected, and troops were sent to recover any military stores worth saving and to scuttle two gunboats that Barney had left behind. British forces ascended the creek on 2 July, and after a brief skirmish, laid waste to the town. Near nightfall, loaded with hogsheads of tobacco and other plunder, the British retreated to the safety of their ships.
Having learned from spies in Europe that the British were preparing to send an infantry division to the Chesapeake, President James Madison created the 10th Military District to encompass Virginia north of the Rappahannock River, the District of Columbia, and the entire state of Maryland. Over Armstrong’s objection, Madison appointed Brig. Gen. William H. Winder to the command, apparently because he was the nephew of the Maryland governor, and Madison hoped his appointment would help garner Federalist support for the war in the state. General Winder discovered the region was unprepared. In a 9 July letter to Secretary of War Armstrong, he lamented that at best his district had only about one thousand regulars, which included artillerymen in fixed fortifications. The understrength and partially trained 36th and 38th U.S. Infantry constituted his only mobile force, which left most of the burden on militia. He further reminded the secretary that the British, having conducted extensive reconnaissance for over a year, could land almost anywhere with little to no warning.
For his next move, Cockburn suggested that landing an army at Benedict, Maryland, would simultaneously threaten Washington, Annapolis, and Baltimore, thus fixing the militia in their local areas and allowing the British to deal with American defenses piece-meal. In June, Lt. Gen. Sir George Prevost, Commander in Chief of British Forces in North America, wrote to Cochrane that U.S. forces had raided the town of Port Dover in Upper Canada the previous month and destroyed private property as well as military targets. Cochrane took the news as an order to retaliate in kind, although Cockburn had already been doing so, and directed the indiscriminate destruction of farms and towns.
After leaving a few ships on the Patuxent, Admiral Cockburn divided the rest of his force into two squadrons. One sailed toward Baltimore, while he personally led the other to the mouth of the Potomac. With British forces appearing in three major thoroughfares at once, Cockburn kept Winder guessing where the British would make their main effort. Meanwhile, he launched small raids up and down the coast. Along Maryland’s Western Shore, British troops burned the villages of Huntingtown and Prince Frederick after dispersing the local militia without much of a fight. In mid-July, Cockburn turned his attention to Virginia’s Northern Neck, attacking the town of Nomini Ferry, burning, and pillaging several buildings and plantations. The following month, the British admiral sent twenty barges up the Yeocomico River. Elements of the 47th Virginia Regiment, under the command of Capt. William Henderson, attacked and killed several the Royal Marines as they came ashore on 3 August, but ran low on ammunition and retreated. The British then burned and pillaged Henderson’s plantation as well as other farms in the immediate area. After the British laid waste to the village of Kinsale, hundreds of slaves flocked to the British.
On 6 August, Cockburn pushed up Virginia’s Coan River, where the Lancaster County militia put up a stout fight before they withdrew. The raiders again burned farms, confiscated supplies, and seized three schooners. Having completed nine raids in twenty-five days, the British seemed to be everywhere at once.
The Washington Offensive
On 14 August, Cochrane’s flagship, HMS Tonnant, rendezvoused with Cockburn’s advance squadron at the mouth of the Potomac River. Two days later, transports carrying Maj. Gen. Robert Ross and the veteran 4th, 21st, 44th, and 85th Regiments of Foot and a detachment of the Royal Artillery arrived from Europe. Added to the Royal Marine battalions with the fleet, Cochrane now had a substantial land force. Cockburn advocated striking Washington, but Cochrane and Ross doubted the wisdom of such a move, reasoning that the distance of the capital city from the proposed landing point would make their ground force too vulnerable. Cockburn eventually won the argument, however, by pointing out that small British forces had easily dispersed the militia in the past.
The British decided to deal with Barney’s flotilla at Nottingham, clearing any militia from the banks of the Patuxent River, before committing to striking Washington. At 0200 on 19 August, Ross’ army began an unopposed landing at Benedict, and all were ashore the following day. Ross took his time getting his men on the road to Nottingham, which they reached late on the twenty-first. Meanwhile, Cockburn led the naval advance up the Patuxent, the barges and boats moving parallel to Ross’ column. Barney had moved his flotilla above the bend in the river at Pig Point, as far as the increasingly narrow and shallow Patuxent allowed. Realizing that the flotilla was doomed, Barney marched with most of his men toward Washington to join forces with Winder. He left Lt. Solomon Frazier in command of 120 men with orders to burn their boats if the British approached. Barney also ordered Captain Miller to bring his company and the three 12-pounders to join him on the road from Upper Marlboro.
On the morning of 22 August, Cockburn’s barges rounded Pig Point and spotted the flotilla. He wrote:
“I landed the marines under Captain Robyns on the left bank of the river, and directed him to march round and attack, on the land side. . . . I plainly discovered Commodore Barney’s broad pendant in the headmost vessel, a large sloop [Scorpion], and the remainder of the flotilla extending in a line astern of her. Our boats now advanced . . . but on nearing them, we observed the sloop . . . to be on fire, and she soon afterwards blew up. I now saw clearly that they were all abandoned, and on fire, with trains to their magazines; out of the seventeen vessels . . . sixteen were in quick succession blown to atoms, and the seventeenth . . . we captured. “
On the same day, Secretary of the Navy Jones notified Master Commandant John O. Creighton, commanding Washington’s naval defenses, that six British ships were “ascending the Potomac” and had passed Kettle Bottom Shoals. Admiral Cochrane had ordered these ships to act in support of the main effort by Ross, or to stand ready to evacuate the troops should their line of retreat be cut. The squadron included two frigates, three bomb vessels, and a rocket-firing ship, which the British believed adequate to destroy Fort Washington and deal with any American gunboats.
By the afternoon of 22 August, Ross’ infantry occupied Upper Marlboro, as Winder concentrated his forces at Long Old Fields—about eight miles from Washington. Cochrane congratulated Cockburn on the destruction of Barney’s flotilla, which he believed was the primary goal of the expedition. Cockburn chose to ignore the order and persuaded the hesitant Ross to advance on the American capital. He then informed Cochrane that he found:
“Ross determined (in consequence of the Information he has received & what he has Observed of the Enemy), to push on towards Washington . . . I shall accompany him & of course afford him every Assistance.”
At Long Old Fields, Winder had about 330 regulars in a battalion that combined companies from the 36th and 38th U.S. Infantry. Barney added 400 beached flotillamen and Miller’s 103 marines. Secretary of the Navy Jones ordered forces from Delaware Bay to come to Winder’s aid, although none reached closer than Baltimore before the British attacked. He also ordered Captains David Porter and Oliver Hazard Perry, then in the capital, to prepare to aid in defending its river approach.
On 4 July Armstrong had issued a call for ninety-three thousand militiamen from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania, which was reorganizing its forces, had no units available. The District of Columbia militia was organized as the Columbian Division consisting of two brigades. The 1st Brigade numbered 1,070 men, with a regiment each from Washington and Georgetown, and two companies each of light artillery and riflemen. The 2nd Brigade, from Alexandria, numbered about five hundred men. It took up station across the Potomac near Piscataway, Maryland, where it could either support Fort Washington or threaten the rear of Ross’ column. To help counter the British presence near Washington, Maryland’s 3d Division at Baltimore detached a 1,300-man brigade to Winder on 20 August. They arrived at Bladensburg, Maryland, close to the border with the District of Columbia, two days later with one battalion each from the 1st and 2d Maryland Regiments and began to build earthworks. Joining them on 23 August were the 5th Regiment, Maryland Volunteer Infantry; the 1st Maryland Rifle Battalion; and the American and Franklin Artillery Companies, each with three 6-pounders.
Late on 22 August, Winder ordered the 1st Columbian Brigade and a composite battalion toward the Woodyard on the road to Upper Marlboro. Meanwhile, a detachment of militia was sent on reconnaissance to figure out British intentions. The 60th Virginia Regiment, arrived from Falls Church, but many of the men lacked powder or flints. After sleeping on the floor of the House of Representatives on the night of the twenty-third, they reported to the arsenal at Greenleaf Point, where they were supplied with the needed items. With the British still at Upper Marlboro on the morning of 23 August, Armstrong convinced the President Madison that since the British had no cavalry or artillery, they could not storm the city. Both he and General Winder believed that Annapolis was the British goal. By 2 PM however, Ross revealed his intentions.
After leaving a rear guard at Upper Marlboro, the army marched toward Washington. The 1st, or Light Brigade, included the veteran 85th Regiment of Foot and the light infantry companies from all four regiments, plus one company each of British and colonial marines. The 2d Brigade included the 4th and 44th Regiments of Foot, while the 3d Brigade was composed of the 21st Foot and the 2d Battalion of Royal Marines. They were followed by detachments of sailors, shipboard marines, and artillery.
The British advance guard easily forced the American’s reconnaissance detachment to retire and then conducted some countermarches to confuse the Americans. Before the retreating American detachment arrived at Long Old Fields, Secretary of State Monroe, who fancied himself as more of a military man than a diplomat, wrote to President Madison:
“General Winder proposes to retire. . . . The enemies are in full march to Washington. Have the materials prepared to destroy the bridges. P.S. – You had better remove the records.”
Just before nightfall, General Winder ordered his forces at Long Old Fields to retreat across the Eastern Branch of the Potomac (now called the Anacostia River) and ordered the American forces to form a defensive line on the river’s right bank at Bladensburg. Since the Eastern Branch was too deep to ford between Bladensburg and its confluence with the Potomac, and Ross had no means to build bridges, Winder believed the Americans could easily prevent him from entering Washington south of Bladensburg either by defending or destroying the two bridges that spanned the lower reaches of the Eastern Branch. A third bridge, however, existed at Bladensburg itself, just above the head of navigation. Here, the Eastern Branch narrowed and even became fordable in places. Winder was convinced that an advance toward Washington would come that way.
As panic struck Washington, clerks loaded government records for shipment to safety. When he realized that no one had carried out his orders to destroy the two lower bridges over the Eastern Branch, Winder had the commandant of the Washington Navy Yard, Capt. Thomas Tingey, supply the necessary boats and powder, with Barney’s men protecting them until the job was complete. He then ordered the East Capitol Bridge set on fire.
The Battle of Bladensburg, 24 August 1814
As the Americans fell back to Bladensburg, Admiral Cochrane directed his subordinates to return to Benedict. Arguing that “we must go on,” Cockburn convinced Ross to disregard Cochrane’s order, and on the morning of 24 August, the British resumed marching toward Washington. Meanwhile, after some hesitation as to where best to set up his main defensive line, Winder deployed his forces. He ordered the 1st Columbian Brigade, The US Army regulars, and a 140-man squadron of the 1st U.S. Dragoons to march to Bladensburg at once. Barney, left behind at the site of the lower bridges, requested and received the president’s permission to follow with his brigade. Madison and his entourage went out as well, nearly riding into the path of the British advance guard before observant forward skirmishers redirected them to a place of relative safety. As the troops arrived, Winder had little time to sort out and position units, resulting in a haphazard defense.
Stansbury had placed the six 6-pounders of his two artillery companies in an earthen battery position—called a barbette—about 350 yards from the Bladensburg Bridge and deployed his riflemen in the brush along the river’s western bank. On orders from Winder, the rest of Stansbury’s brigade was placed in a second line to cover the junction on the Georgetown Pike, where the Washington Pike forked toward the capital. Two battalions were arrayed on the line in an orchard with another in support. When the Columbian Brigade arrived, Wadsworth positioned one of its artillery companies, with three 6-pounders, on the Georgetown Pike to the left of Stansbury’s second line, and Winder sent the Navy Yard Rifles to the left flank. Laval’s dragoons, along with several militia cavalry units, took a position behind and to the left of Stansbury’s line.
Monroe suggested that the horsemen occupy a deep ravine, but the ground proved so low that the troopers could see nothing to their front. He then, without consulting either Stansbury or Winder, ordered Schutz and Ragan to move their troops five hundred yards to the rear where they could support neither Sterrett nor the skirmishers. The move left the forward deployed artillery companies and riflemen without infantry support to oppose an attack. Before Stansbury could correct the error, British units appeared outside of Bladensburg.
Winder formed a third defensive line on high ground just beyond where Turncliff Bridge crossed the stream at the bottom of the ravine. Just north, or left, of the road, he positioned one of the Columbian Brigades with the Army regulars extending to the left, supported by six light field guns. The District of Columbia Rifles and Union Rifles took up positions forward of this line to dominate the ravine. When Barney’s command arrived, he placed his heavy guns on the Washington Pike to the right of Smith’s brigade and extended to the right with sailors acting as infantry and Miller’s marines. Finally, a composite brigade of eight hundred men drawn from three Maryland regiments arrived from Annapolis just ahead of the British advance and took position on a hill to Miller’s right. Winder, however, never told the commanders what he expected them to do. By noon, the hastily assembled defenders numbered about seven thousand, mostly inadequately trained militia.
The British Army consisted of about four thousand veterans. The Light Brigade arrived first. Ross decided to attack at once and ordered Colonel Thornton to advance the Light Brigade across the bridge without waiting for the 2d and 3d Brigades. When the Americans near the bridge noticed the 85th Foot preparing to attack, they opened fire with artillery. To minimize casualties, Thornton ordered his men to form behind the cover of nearby Lowndes Hill, prompting the Americans to believe the British were retreating. However, the 85th Foot re-formed and advanced. At the same time, Ross had his Royal Marine Artillery fire their Congreve rockets at the American first line.
Thornton, mounted on his horse and waving his sword, led his men across the bridge. They reached the far side, fanned out to secure the bridgehead, and drove the Americans from the riverbank. The severely wounded Pinckney ordered his riflemen to withdraw, and despite the quickness of the British advance, the artillerymen brought most of their guns. Thornton deployed his men in open order and urged them forward in a rush toward the second American line. Stansbury’s battalions withstood the first onslaught and forced the British back toward the riverbank. Stansbury ordered the 5th Maryland, with remnants of the rifle battalion, to counterattack the Light Brigade as it re-formed in the orchard. They advanced and held their own, trading volleys with the British, until Thornton extended his line to overlap their flanks. Meanwhile, Ross ordered Colonel Brooke to advance the 2d Brigade against the flanks of the American second line battalions as rocket fire concentrated on the militiamen.
The 4th Foot crossed the bridge and pressed Stansbury’s right flank as the 44th Foot forded upstream and attacked the left. Upon seeing the 5th Maryland pressed on three sides, Winder ordered a withdrawal. Thornton’s redcoats then resumed their advance, with Brooke’s 4th and 44th Foot threatening the left and right flanks, respectively, of what remained of Stansbury’s line. Unnerved by the rocket fire, many of the militia were unable to resist further. They managed two volleys and then began to retire. Although the withdrawal started in good order, it soon became a rout. As British forces advanced on the retreating 5th Maryland, it too dissolved.
Winder's plan was for the units from the first and second lines to rally behind the third line, but his orders were unclear, and instead, the withdrawing troops raced down the Georgetown Pike toward Washington and away from the battle. As the fleeing infantry passed the dragoons, several of the horsemen joined the retreat. After an out-of-control artillery wagon hit and injured their commander, the remaining dragoons withdrew toward Georgetown. President Madison saw the debacle unfold and by 2 PM he made his way back to Washington to prepare to evacuate the government.
After forcing the District of Columbia militiamen guarding Turncliff Bridge to scatter, Ross’ men ran into stiffer resistance as fire from Barney’s five guns in the road halted their advance, and the 6-pounders hammered the British as well. To counter this Ross ordered a wider flanking movement. The remaining militia fired two ineffective volleys and then retreated, leaving the American right flank exposed. Upon seeing this, Marine Maj. Miller led the sailors and marines in a counterattack that briefly checked the threat to the American artillery. With most artillery ammunition spent, civilian drivers fleeing, and enemy troops dangerously near, Barney ordered his sailors and marines to spike their guns and to retreat as best they could. The British captured Barney and Miller, both wounded, and several their men before they could evacuate their position.
British units moving against the left of the American third line also enjoyed success. The nervous Columbian militiamen of the 1st Regiment opened fire on the advancing British too soon and retreated after two ineffective volleys. Knowing that a large part of his third line was giving way, a shaken Winder ordered the withdrawal the rest of his brigade to form a new line, which it did in good order. The regulars remained in position until Winder personally ordered them to join Smith’s brigade, over Scott’s objection, before they had fired a shot. When the supporting artillerymen received the order to retreat, they fired one last volley, limbered their guns, and skillfully withdrew. The British had inflicted about one hundred casualties on the Americans but incurred close to three hundred of their own. Losses among officers were especially high, due in part to Ross ordering the Light Brigade’s hasty assault without waiting for the follow-on forces.
The Burning of Washington
The American defeat at Bladensburg opened the way for Ross to enter Washington. Most of Winder’s army fled through the city and did not stop until reaching Georgetown. Disheartened and concerned about their private property, many militiamen left the ranks and returned home. Armstrong, Monroe, and Winder debated whether to make a last stand on Capitol Hill. The Secretary of War suggested that the stout limestone walls of the Capitol made an ideal strongpoint, but Monroe and especially Winder believed that the army had been reduced to a point at which it could not offer a credible defense. Rather than risk capture, General Winder recommended that they retreat to the heights beyond Georgetown. Meanwhile, President Madison’s wife, Dolley, supervised the evacuation of the executive mansion—or White House—and left for Virginia. The president with some key aides fled first to Virginia then to Montgomery Court House (now Rockville), Maryland.
After allowing his exhausted, albeit victorious, troops a short rest, Ross led the 3d Brigade into the city late on the twenty-fourth. At about sunset, British soldiers set the House of Representatives, Senate, and the Library of Congress ablaze. Shots fired from the vicinity of Robert Sweall’s house killed one and wounded three British soldiers and shot Ross’ horse from under him. Unable to find those responsible, Ross ordered the house burned. Meanwhile, Captain Tingey and the last clerks and sailors evacuated the Navy Yard after demolishing it and setting the nearly completed frigate Columbia and sloop-of-war Argus on fire to prevent their capture. Admiral Cockburn ordered the president’s mansion and the nearby Treasury building looted and burned. The buildings were quickly fully engulfed in flames, but a hard rain limited much of the damage. With their objective accomplished, the British troops began their return march to Upper Marlboro late on the twenty-fifth. By 29 August they were back in Benedict and began loading aboard their vessels. They rejoined the fleet two days later.
August 1814 British Raids and the Attack on Fort McHenry
While Ross and his men returned to their transports, Capt. James Gordon’s Potomac River squadron arrived opposite Fort Washington on 27 August and remained just out of range of its batteries. In preparation for a dawn attack, Gordon had his bomb vessels begin firing their heavy mortars. General Winder had earlier ordered the fort’s commander to blow up the magazine, destroy the works, and evacuate the fort if attacked from its landward side. He did not wait however and as soon as the first shells fell, he destroyed the fort and fled with his 60-man garrison. With the fort reduced, Gordon headed for Alexandria, with its fully stocked warehouses and harbor crowded with merchant vessels. The mayor and city leaders surrendered the city on 28 August, trusting Gordon’s promise that he would only seize property of military or commercial value and would not burn or loot the town if he met no resistance.
After the army returned to the transports, a courier ship brought Gordon orders to rejoin the fleet. The return proved more dangerous than the raid. Capt. David Porter of the U.S. Navy had come to Washington with one hundred sailors and marines to man the frigate Columbia. With the ship having been destroyed in the burning of the Navy Yard, the sailors and marines joined forces with General Hungerford, who had positioned infantry and field artillery along the riverbank near White House Landing to harass Gordon’s ships as they struggled to get back down the river. Despite the artillery fire, all eight British warships and twenty-one heavily laden prize vessels made it down the river to rejoin the fleet.
Two days after the British left Washington, President Madison and most of his cabinet returned to the nation’s capital. Recriminations over who was responsible for the Bladensburg debacle followed, and much blame fell on Armstrong. No longer enjoying the president’s favor, Armstrong resigned and went home to New York with James Monroe taking over, serving as both Secretary of State and Secretary of War.
While all of this was going on around Washington, a small British squadron under Capt. Sir Peter Parker appeared off Kent Island with orders to create a diversion that would keep Eastern Shore militia from reinforcing Baltimore or Washington, and to seize material worth prize money. After burning and looting two farms, Parker learned that two hundred men of the 21st Maryland Regiment, under the command of Revolutionary War veteran Lt. Col. Philip Reed, had gathered near Chestertown. Late on 30 August, Parker landed with 125 sailors and marines and raided two farms called Waltham and Chantilly before moving against the militia camp.
Ordering his men to form a line near his campsite and on a slight rise at a clearing called Caulk’s Field, Reed prepared to contest the raiders’ progress. He arranged four infantry companies in line, with an artillery company and its 5 light cannon in the center, facing the open field. In the woods just forward of the clearing, Reed deployed a company of riflemen to act as skirmishers. With the light of a full moon, and guided by a captured slave, Parker’s force approached the American line. When the column was within seventy paces, the riflemen opened fire. Parker’s men instantly deployed into battle formation and drove the riflemen back toward the right of Reed’s main line. Thinking that the militia were retreating, the British surged ahead to exploit their success. Instead of being routed, the Americans repulsed the British advance with blasts of grapeshot and musketry. The British re-formed their men and tried to turn Reed’s left flank, but once again the Marylanders stood firm. The fighting continued for more than an hour until both sides had nearly exhausted their ammunition.
A crucial turning point in the fighting came when Parker was struck in the leg. Not believing that the wound was serious, he continued to urge his men forward. A piece of buckshot, however, had nicked his femoral artery and he bled to death. Other British casualties included fourteen dead and twenty-seven wounded, as compared to one dead and three wounded Americans. The defeated British returned to their ships to rejoin the fleet.
Meanwhile, back on Maryland’s Western Shore, former Maryland governor Robert Bowie, 65-year-old Dr. William Beanes of Academy Hill, and a few other leading citizens of the area outside Washington had rounded up and imprisoned a few stragglers, wounded, and deserters from Ross’ army once it had embarked. One of the detainees escaped and informed the British general—incorrectly—that Dr. Beanes and others were killing the stragglers. Ross sent 60 men back to Upper Marlboro to investigate. Finding that the Americans were holding stragglers and hiding deserters, the British threatened to burn the town unless they were returned. To show that they were serious, they took the doctor and other citizens as prisoners.
During the following two weeks, Adm. Cochrane wavered as to his next target since he recognized that his primary mission was to draw U.S. forces away from Canada. He wrote to First Lord of the Admiralty Lord Melville on 3 September that once all his troops were re-embarked and fleet united, he intended to sail northward, and raid Rhode Island. After a rest and refit in Nova Scotia, he would then return south in October to strike the Carolinas, Georgia, and ultimately, New Orleans, Louisiana. However, before he left the Chesapeake, he wanted to take some action against Baltimore. Home to hundreds of privateers that had long plagued British commercial shipping, he told Melville that “this town must be laid in ashes.” The question, in Cochrane’s mind, was whether to attack now while the Americans were still demoralized following the destruction of their capital or later after he had attacked Rhode Island. Gen. Ross had almost decided to head to Rhode Island first, but Adm. Cockburn persuaded both the general and Admiral Cochrane that the time was right to strike Baltimore.
Fortunately for the Americans, they had now had over a year to improve Baltimore’s defenses. After the first British vessels had appeared near Baltimore in 1813, Maryland Governor Levin Winder had ordered the local militia commander, General Samuel Smith, to assume responsibility for improving the city’s inadequate defenses. Although a sitting U.S. senator, Smith proved an excellent choice for the task of enhancing Baltimore’s defenses.
His priority had been to improve Fort McHenry, situated at Whetstone Point, where the Patapsco River split into the Northwest Branch, which led directly into the city’s harbor, and the Ferry, or Middle, Branch. Through significant effort he had gotten more cannon from a variety of sources and had Fort McHenry’s commander, Maj. Lloyd Beall, replaced with the cooperative veteran Maj. George Armistead. By September 1814, Smith had created a credible defense system for Baltimore’s harbor.
Fort McHenry’s well-trained garrison consisted of sixty regulars of the U.S. Army Corps of Artillery commanded by Capt. Frederick Evans and seventy-five members of the Baltimore Fencibles, a volunteer militia artillery company in federal service commanded by Capt. Joseph H. Nicholson. Across from Fort McHenry on the Northwest Branch was a battery of three 18-pounder guns at Lazaretto Point commanded by Lt. Solomon Frazier. This installation was manned by 45 flotillamen acting as gunners and an added 114 serving as infantry. The Lazaretto guns not only reinforced Fort McHenry, but also covered a log-and-chain boom, backed up by sunken hulks, which obstructed the harbor entrance. Eight barges commanded by Lt. Solomon Rutter, each manned by a crew of 34 flotillamen and armed with an 8- or 12-pounder in the bow, stood behind the line of hulks to reinforce this obstacle. The fact that the Northwest Branch was narrow and too shallow to admit deep-draft warships further strengthened the defense of Baltimore’s harbor.
The Battle of Baltimore, 12–14 September 1814
On 10 September, observers on Federal Hill watched as British warships scouted the mouth of the Patapsco. The next day more vessels probed farther up the river and by noon on 11 September, enemy transports and escorting warships anchored off North Point and alarm guns sounded throughout the city. Unlike Winder at Bladensburg, Smith intended to conduct an active defense.
Smith directed several small units to reinforce the light forces already screening on the south bank of the Patapsco. He then instructed Brig. Gen. Stricker to deploy his entire 3d Brigade of three thousand men forward to Patapsco Neck to delay the British as they advanced along the single road that led to the city. The 3d Brigade consisted of five infantry regiments, a battalion of riflemen, a company of artillery, and a regiment of cavalry, all from the Baltimore area and was arguably the most capable of the three Maryland militia brigades.
At about 3 PM the brigade began its march down the North Point Road. It halted at approximately 8 PM just below the junction with Trappe Road, where the neck of land narrowed to less than one mile wide between Bread and Cheese Creek on the north and Bear Creek on the south. Stricker chose this ground based on earlier reconnaissance. He set up camp behind a strong pike-rail fence at the edge of a wood line facing a large field where, except for the cover provided by the Bouldin farm, the enemy would have to cross an open area. As volunteer militia companies from Hagerstown, Maryland, and Pennsylvania arrived to reinforce his brigade, he attached them to several of his subordinate regiments and prepared for battle. He ordered Capt. Dyer, commanding in the place of the wounded Major Pinckney, to advance the 1st Maryland Rifle Battalion, accompanied by the 5th Maryland Cavalry. The riflemen formed a skirmish line two miles farther down the neck, and then Lt. Col. Biay led the one hundred forty troopers of the 5th Maryland Cavalry one mile farther and deployed as scouts to warn of the enemy’s approach.
At 3 AM on 12 September, British gun brigs came in close to North Point to lend naval gunfire support if needed and the first landing boats pulled toward shore loaded with red-coated soldiers. Soon after, the Light Brigade, now consisting of all the light infantry companies and the 85th Foot, was ashore. At about 7 AM, Ross sent them ahead under the command of Maj. Timothy Jones to reconnoiter. Ross told his second in command, Colonel Brooke, to supervise the rest of the landing and advance with the 21st Foot and the artillery as soon as possible to attack that morning. By 0800, six field pieces and two howitzers, plus their horses and limbers, had landed and advanced inland. Brooke caught up with Ross at the Gorsuch farm to report, just as a British patrol brought in some captured American cavalrymen. The general ordered Brooke to go back and hurry the troops along as American troops were probably in the area.
Stricker plan was for Dyer’s riflemen to retard the enemy’s progress until the two forward regiments in the first line took up the fight against the leading British units. After forcing the British to deploy into battle formation, the first line would hold, if possible, without risking becoming decisively engaged, and then withdraw through the second line to take position on the right of McDonald’s regiment. The second line would then take up the battle, repeat the tactic of the first, and withdraw to McDonald’s left. The reunited brigade would then engage in a fighting withdrawal back to Hampstead Hill.
The plan got off to a bad start. Based on a false rumor that British marines had landed to his rear, Dyer ordered the riflemen to fall back before they had fired a shot. Displeased by the unauthorized retreat, Stricker ordered Dyer and the cavalrymen who had returned from scouting to take positions on the front line to the right of the 5th Maryland. When the cavalry pickets reported that a British advance party was at the Gorsuch farmhouse, several officers of the 5th Maryland Regiment volunteered to lead their companies for a strike. Maj. Heath of the 5th Maryland advanced with Capt. Levering’s Independent Blues and Capt. Howard’s Mechanical Volunteers of that regiment, along with Capt. Aisquith’s Sharp Shooters from the rifle battalion, and Lt. Styles’ detachment of artillerymen with one gun. They deployed about a half mile forward, and the two hundred fifty Americans quickly started a sharp skirmish with the British advance guard. After sustaining some casualties, the Americans withdrew while continuing a running fight through the thick woods.
Ross and Cockburn heard the firing and rode forward to assess the situation. The American foray surprised Ross and caused him to overestimate his opponent’s strength. He decided to bring his army’s main body forward quickly, and just as he turned in the saddle to tell Cockburn, a round of ball and buckshot struck him in the arm and chest, and he fell from his horse mortally wounded as aides and subordinate officers rushed to his aid. Ross died as he was carried back to the landing site for medical treatment. His death shocked the British, and Colonel Brooke assumed command. He brought up reinforcements that drove Heath’s men back to the main American line.
While bringing up his own artillery, Brooke perceived a several hundred-yard gap between the American left and the Back River, and he moved to exploit it. Seeing the British move toward his left flank, Stricker ordered the 39th Maryland to the left of the 27th Maryland and ordered the 51st Maryland to form at a right angle to protect his vulnerable left flank. Such a maneuver under fire was beyond the capabilities of the inexperienced troops, and instead of forming where Stricker wanted them, they milled about in confusion. Sensing the moment was right to attack, at 2:30 PM Brooke launched a furious assault concentrated on Stricker’s left flank. Both sides traded volleys, but the 51st Maryland became confused and broke, taking part of the 39th Maryland along with them.
While the left crumbled under the fire of Brooke’s 4th Foot, the more reliable troops on Stricker’s right held firm. Blasted with musketry and grapeshot, the 21st and 44th Foot suffered heavy casualties assaulting the 5th and 27th Maryland. After an hour of heavy fighting, Stricker, whose orders were to fight a delaying action, directed his infantry and artillery to fall back to join the 6th Maryland at Cook’s Tavern. While the British claimed that they drove and scattered the Americans from the field, Stricker reported most of his units had re-formed. Rather than ordering his troops to move forward to exploit their success, Brooke remained on the battlefield until the morning of 13 September. Stricker listed his losses as 24 killed, 139 wounded, and 50 men captured. In addition to General Ross, the British suffered 38 killed, 251 wounded, and 50 men missing.
Having carried out his mission, Stricker withdrew toward Worthington’s Mills and took new positions as Smith had ordered. General Winder arrived with Brig. Gen. Douglass’ Virginia brigade from the south of town and some regulars not deployed elsewhere, including a company of U.S. dragoons under Capt. Burd. These forces joined Stricker on the left flank and apart from the main American line. They were positioned to attack the right flank of Brooke’s army if it continued its advance on Hampstead Hill.
Following a heavy rain on the night of 12–13 September, Brooke had his men moving toward Hampstead Hill at 0530. A short while later, he could hear Cochrane’s bomb ships shelling Fort McHenry and assumed victory. However, when he reached the junction of the North Point and Philadelphia Roads, the sight of the American defensive line stunned Brooke. He had assumed that the force he had driven off at great cost the day before at North Point were the main American force. After realizing his error, he tried to maneuver toward the entrenchments on Smith’s left flank, and quickly met Winder’s and Stricker’s men arrayed on high ground in prepared positions above the Belair Road. When Brooke withdrew back toward the Philadelphia Road, Stricker and Winder advanced their brigades in a demonstration that threatened his rear. By the afternoon of 13 September, Brooke was content with merely sending patrols to probe Smith’s main line for weaknesses, looking toward the possibility of a risky night attack.
In the meantime, Admiral Cochrane believed that if he could pound Baltimore’s harbor defenses into submission, his ships could enter the harbor and enfilade the Hampstead Hill line with their naval guns to help Brooke in driving off the American defenders. Due to the shallowness of the river, Cochrane only advanced one frigate, five bomb ships, and one rocket-firing ship toward Fort McHenry. Each bomb vessel had one 10-inch and one 13-inch mortar that could fire a 200-pound exploding shell or an incendiary shell every five minutes. They began firing toward Fort McHenry from nearly two and a half miles away by 7 AM. When the Fort artillerymen tried to reply with their larger caliber guns, they realized the mortars’ greater range allowed the British to remain beyond their reach and ceased firing by 10 AM.
The British continued their bombardment against the fort, but Cochrane could tell that his weapons were not having the desired effect. He wrote to Cockburn who was ashore with Brooke:
“It is impossible for the Ships to render you any assistance . . . It is for Colonel Brooke to consider . . . whether he has Force sufficient to defeat so large a number as it [is] said the Enemy has collected; say 20,000 strong or even less number & to take the Town.”
Meanwhile, large bombs continued to fall inside the fort’s walls or to explode overhead. Captain Evans noted that some shells “as big as a flour barrel” fell nearby and did not explode. At 2 PM, a shell scored a direct hit on bastion number four and its 24-pounder, killing Lt. Clagett and Sgt. Clemm of the Baltimore Fencibles and wounding several others. Frustrated, Cochrane ordered his bomb ships closer, a move that brought them within range of the fort’s larger guns. After American fire damaged two bomb ships and damaged the rocket ship so badly that it had to be towed to safety by the accompanying frigate, the admiral ordered his vessels to retire to a safer distance. Cochrane continued long-range firing through the night and into the early morning hours of 14 September.
After considering his options, Cochrane ordered Capt. Napier of HMS Euryalis to lead twenty ship’s boats loaded with nearly twelve hundred sailors and marines to slip into Ferry Branch and threaten Fort McHenry from its landward side. Under a driving rain, eleven of the boats became separated and drifted toward the Lazaretto, where Lieutenant Frazier’s flotillamen and nearby Pennsylvania riflemen prepared to repel the landing. On realizing their mistake, the British pulled back toward their fleet. The nine remaining boats continued up Ferry Branch until detected by the men at Fort Babcock. They opened fire and were soon followed by the guns at Fort Covington. Other batteries in and around Fort McHenry added their fire to punish Napier’s force as it retreated.
By 4 AM, 14 September, the British firing began to slacken and at 7AM it ceased altogether. Soldiers on Hampstead Hill worried the fort had fallen, but the post had withstood the onslaught. With naval forces unable to outflank Hampstead Hill, Brooke’s only options were to conduct an unsupported attack against a strongly entrenched enemy or to retreat. After weighing the advantages and disadvantages, he decided on withdrawal. By 15 September, Cochrane’s ships re-embarked the exhausted troops. British operations in the Chesapeake had effectively ended for the season and before long, Cochrane headed to Halifax, and Cockburn left for Bermuda. The British kept their naval base and a small contingent of colonial marines on Tangier Island until March 1815, the month following ratification of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war.
The British had launched their Chesapeake campaign to serve as a diversion, not an invasion. While they had done considerable damage to the people and economy of the Chesapeake Bay region and inflicted severe damage to the morale of the people by burning Washington DC, they had failed to carry out their aim of forcing the government to redirect US Army Regulars away from the Canadian border or to capture either of the two major ports in the Bay area.
We hope you found Part 3 of our series on the War of 1812 to be interesting and informative. In Part 4 of our series on the War of 1812, we will be looking at the campaign in the southeast along the gulf coast. Please join us again in two-weeks for this next chapter.
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