“The rockets’ red glare/The bombs bursting in air” represents the climax of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as well as the principal image that many Americans have of the War of 1812. But the image that so inspired eyewitness Francis Scott Key at the successful defense of Baltimore in September 1814 had struck such terror into American soldiers a few weeks before that they fled the battlefield in droves, opening Baltimore to bombardment –and, more immediately, Washington, D.C. to burning by British forces.
The Battle of Bladensburg, occurring on August 24, 1814, was nicknamed the “Bladensburg Races” for the disgraceful manner in which American militia fled the field. It left the nation's capital vulnerable within hours--and that's exactly what happened. (I described that process in an earlier post.) That’s one reason why the United States government over the years has allowed it to be overrun by suburban residences, a cemetery, parkland, and commercial developments.
It deserves to be better known. Americans would then understand that our military history is more rife with disaster than they could ever imagine. In other words, it didn’t start with Afghanistan or Iraq, or even Vietnam, folks. Nearly all of the political and military figures on the American side failed to distinguish themselves.
The British had nearly all the advantages on their side as their invasion force landed in Maryland in early August 1814: top commanders with more than 20 years in the field; a tough force, continually battle-tested by the Napoleonic Wars; and a desire to avenge the burning of government buildings in York (today’s Toronto) in the American campaign to take Canada the year before.
With Napoleon exiled (albeit, as it turned out, only temporarily), the British government thought it could spare a few troops to fight in North America. The total allotted—a mere 4,000—was only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands committed to the titanic struggle against the French emperor, but it was still more than the number of regulars that United States could muster.
The instructions for Major-General Robert Ross, a key subordinate in the Duke of Wellington’s Peninsular Campaign, were merely that he create a diversion along the U.S. coast to relieve the pressure by American forces against Canada. That it turned into a great deal more owed much to the spectacular unpreparedness of American civil and military authorities.
Secretary of War John Armstrong bore particular responsibility for the American failure in this campaign. Henry Adams, in his History of the United States During the Administrations of James Madison, is properly scathing about the monumental irresponsibility of this “indolent man, negligent of detail”:
“Armstrong's management of the Northern campaign caused severe criticism; but his neglect of the city of Washington exhausted the public patience. For two years Washington stood unprotected; not a battery or a breastwork was to be found on the river bank except the old and untenable Fort Washington, or Warburton. A thousand determined men might reach the town in thirty-six hours and destroy it before any general alarm could be given. Yet no city was more easily protected than Washington, at that day, from attack on its eastern side; any good engineer could have thrown up works in a week that would have made approach by a small force impossible. Armstrong neglected to fortify.”
The commander chosen by President James Madison to defend the Chesapeake, Brigadier General William Winder, was not much better. A fine, even brilliant, lawyer before the war, he had only a year of soldiering under his belt, and that had not been terribly distinguished, ending with his capture in the Canadian campaign. His chief qualifications were, in fact, familial rather than political: his Federalist uncle, the governor of Maryland, would be far better disposed toward providingmilitia for the defense of this region with a close relative in charge, Madison figured.
It was an appointment as disastrous as Armstrong’s. Preoccupied with paperwork and with riding around the region to get a better sense of the terrain, Winder merely grumbled that he didn’t have enough militia. He made no effort during the six weeks between his appointment and Bladensburg to select lines of defense or erect entrenchments.
Part of the problem was utter confusion about British intentions. Winder didn’t know if the invaders would assault Washington (via the Potomac River) or Baltimore (then the nation’s third-largest city), via the Patuxent River—or if they simply wanted to clear out the harassing flotilla of gunboats expertly put together by Joshua Barney. Eventually, with intelligence gleaned in raids over the last year by Admiral George Cockburn, the cautious Ross was persuaded that he would find little resistance if he attacked Washington.
The British had better intelligence (courtesy of escaped slaves) than the Americans. Knowing nothing except that British ships were rumored to be in the Potomac area, Secretary of State James Monroe rode out of Washington to scout the countryside. What he saw at Benedict, Md., convinced him that the British were making a thrust at DC. He wrote to the President, advising him to secure important government documents and records.
When it was finally determined what the British intentions were, Madison and Monroe hurried to Bladensburg. Monroe, conferring with one of Winder’s subordinates, adjusted the placement of troops. Nobody seemed bothered by the fact that Monroe was a civilian—he had, actually, more combat experience, by virtue of his Revolutionary War record, than either Winder or Armstrong. But he made the change without telling Winder, thus worsening coordination of troop movements.
Officially, the Battle of Bladensburg lasted between three and four hours, but for all effects and purposes it might as well have been five minutes—the point at which iron-tube canisters fired by the British, the so-called “Congreve rockets,” began to rain terror over the Americans. Winder was supposed to have 6,900 men at his disposal, but they were as inconstant as summer fireflies.
One after another American line of militia broke and fled. Historian Daniel Walker Howe called the panic that followed "the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms.” Among those who escaped: Francis Scott Key, serving as an aide to Gen. Samuel Smith.
My prior post on General Henry Hull and the fall of Detroit discussed some of the difficulties attendant on the Madison administration’s reliance on the militia. The disastrous reaction of these provisional, inexperienced, undisciplined soldiers began a slow but decisive turn away from militia on the part of subsequent Presidents. For all their fears of what a standing army could mean to civil liberties and fiscal prudence, Americans increasingly came to believe that such soldiers could not be depended on.
One serviceman who proved that he could be was Barney. The Revolutionary War seadog was the one American who recognized the danger from the British forces early on, concocted an inventive plan to ward off the threat, then did not buckle when the odds were against him. The flotilla of barges that he had built and assembled had continually harassed the British until, faced with that navy’s overwhelming force, he had reluctantly scuttled the vessels just before Bladensburg lest they fall into the wrong hands.
On the morning of battle, Barney convinced Madison to allow him to take most of his men away from guarding a bridge to forming another line of defense, near a road the British would take. Even after the rest of the American forces melted away in the face of the Congreve rockets, Barney and his men poured fire into the enemy. Grievously wounded and finally overwhelmed by superior British numbers, Barney was visited by Ross and Vice Admiral Alexander Cockrane, commander in chief of the Royal Navy's ships on the North American Station. The “flotillaman” and his crew “have given us the only fighting we have had," Cochrane told Ross.
A comparison of casualties bears out Cockrane’s statement. American losses totaled approximately 25 killed and 41 wounded. But the British left 64 men killed and 185 wounded on the battlefield. In other words, if the other American units had put up anywhere close to the resistance that Barney and his men had, Ross might have thought twice about any further offensive maneuvers against the Americans, let alone the devastating one he was about to unleash on Washington.
The will to fight was not the only example provided by Barney that was lost on his countrymen. Another was the willingness to use and reward anyone who backed American arms, even if they happened to be slaves. A crucial part of Barney’s mixed group of sailors and Marines consisted of African-Americans. (Opportunities to serve were better in the Navy because of the need to fill positions; the result was that roughly 15% to 20% of all posts were manned by African-Americans.)
One of the key figures in Barney’s force was an escaped slave, Charles Ball, a cook and seaman. When the fighting in the battle had turned hottest, Ball had manned the cannon to Barney’s left until his the latter’s bad wound had ended the resistance of the U.S. forces.
An American republic committed to freedom, however, did not realize until way too late—if it ever really did—how self-destructive its policy on slavery was. During the Chesapeake campaign, a regiment of ex-slaves known as the Colonial Marines had trained under Cockburn. According to an estimate by Harper’s contributing editor Andrew Cockburn, his naval ancestor might have been responsible for the liberation of approximately 6,000 slaves in the conflict.
A half-century later, Union commanders, at least partly from necessity, came to see the wisdom of British use of African-Americans. Emancipated slaves provided vital intelligence to the North in the Civil War, and their courage under fire was celebrated in Glory.