|An Overview of the British Attack on Washington and Baltimore from Galafilm's War of 1812.
In August 1814, the British launched a series of raids in the Chesapeake Bay area. According to Governor General George Prevost, the plan was to avenge the destructive American attacks on York and Port Dover by, “inflicting that measure of retaliation which shall deter the enemy from the repetition of similar outrages.”
More importantly, British leaders wanted to create a diversion in the East. They hoped the Chesapeake Bay campaign would send American troops scurrying back to defend the Eastern Seaboard and thereby weaken U.S. forces elsewhere.
Emboldened by earlier successes, British Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane developed a plan for a quick dash on Washington. US Secretary of War John Armstrong, meanwhile, refused to believe the British would attack the strategically insignificant capital. Armstrong instead concentrated his efforts on the defense of nearby Baltimore.
The American cabinet’s response to the landing of British troops in Chesapeake Bay was one of utter confusion. The poorly trained militia forces, hastily mustered under Baltimore lawyer William Winder, were easily routed by the seasoned British troops. Washington was quickly sacked and its public buildings burned. When the British tried to take Baltimore, they found it closely defended and retreated after a short siege.
It was a humiliating time for the Americans: their Capitol had been burned to the ground, their cherished citizen soldiers beaten by disciplined British regulars, and their government officials driven out of Washington and scattered throughout the surrounding countryside. They could salvage some pride, however, from the repulsion of the British at Baltimore.
For the British, the results of the campaign were also mixed: they had avenged the destructive American raids on Canada, but had failed to take the strategically important center of Baltimore. This failure, along with the later defeat at Plattsburg, played a role in the British decision to reduce their territorial demands at the Ghent negotiating table.
The Americans Prepare to Defend Washington and Baltimore
In the summer of 1814, Washington is no more than a dusty village with a few recently-erected federal buildings. Baltimore, on the other hand, is a wealthy seaport and unofficial naval base with several warships under construction. The port also happens to be home to several American privateers, such as Commodore Joshua Barney, who have been systematically harassing British shipping in the Atlantic.
U.S. Secretary of War, John Armstrong, is responsible for the defense of both cities. He thinks the British will be tempted to attack Baltimore and that they will leave Washington alone. “They certainly will not come here (Washington),” Armstrong says. “What the devil will they do here? No! No! Baltimore is the place... that is of so much more consequence.” Consequently, Armstrong concentrates his resources in the Baltimore area.
To coordinate the defense preparations, Armstrong proposes veteran artillery officer Brigadier General Moses Porter. But President Madison overrules the secretary of war and gives the command to the militia’s Brigadier General William Winder. In peacetime, Winder is a Baltimore lawyer. His appointment has less to do with his military acumen than with the fact that his cousin is the governor of Maryland. In the weeks preceding the British landing at Benedict, Winder asks to call up at least 4,000 militia troops. But he is rebuffed by the cabinet, which insists that they troops only need to be mustered “once there is evidence of clear and present danger.”
Once the British land at Benedict on the Patuxent River, even Armstrong has to admit that Washington is in danger. What follows is a series of blunders that belong more in the realm of buffoonery, than that of serious military strategy. Secretary of State James Monroe rides towards Benedict with an escort of cavalrymen. His mission is to count the British ships and men. Monroe however, is afraid to get within three miles of town. He has also forgotten to bring his telescope. After sneaking around the periphery of Benedict for three days, he concludes that there are 6,000 British troops (there are actually only about 4,500). Meanwhile, none of the other US leaders think to obstruct the roads and bridges which lead to the capital.
Winder is now finally allowed to muster the militia. By August 20, he has 9,000 men under arms. But he’s not certain of the British strategy - it appears that they intend to attack Washington, but they may also bypass the capital and march on to Baltimore. Consequently, Winder divides his force. He deploys 5,000 soldiers in the Baltimore area and splits the remaining men into two separate detachments under Tobias Stansbury and Samuel Smith.
Leaving Smith’s brigade in Washington, Winder and Monroe, march off towards Benedict at the head of Stansbury’s men. The Americans bump into the advancing British troops and Winder promptly orders a retreat to Battalion Old Fields, about five miles south of Washington.
It finally dawns on Winder that Bladensburg is the strategic key to Washington. He orders Stansbury to deploy his troops to the east of the village in the best possible defensive position. Winder consults President Madison and the cabinet at every opportunity; the politicians in turn hover over his every move.
At first, Stansbury does exactly as ordered. On August 23, however, he sends Winder a message saying he’s just received a report (which will prove false) that the British are a mere six miles away and heading straight for Bladensburg. Stansbury decides to retreat at once. On the following morning, Stansbury sends another message: fearing that the British might cut him off, he continues his retreat back towards Washington. Winder orders Stansbury to stop the withdrawal and sends Smith’s force to join him at Bladensburg. Winder himself will meet them at the village.
Secretary of State James Monroe arrives at Bladensburg first though, and orders one regiment to fall back a quarter mile from the front line. This leaves the forward guns and rifles without support. By the time Winder gets there, it’s too late to make any changes.
The British Attack on Baltimore
On September 12, General Robert Ross and his troops land at North Point and begin the 12-mile trek to Baltimore. At the same time, Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane sails up the Patapsco River to try and reduce Fort McHenry, an important part of Baltimore’s defense.
The British soldiers soon encounter a small force of Americans sent out to delay their advance. When Ross rides forward to see what’s happening, a sniper’s bullet kills him.
Colonel Arthur Brooke takes over command of the British troops and meets the enemy forces again at Boulden’s Farm. After a short but intense engagement, the Americans are beaten back. This is a costly victory for the British, who have 46 killed and 300 wounded.
Meanwhile, Cochrane has been busy getting his lighter ships over the Patapsco River shoals. His larger ships simply cannot make it, so he will have to make do with five bomb ships, a rocket ship, four light frigates, and six brigs and sloops of war. Shortly after dawn on September 13, he’s in position to bomb Fort McHenry. He opens fire from two miles away. By 2 PM, thinking that the fort must have been considerably damaged, Cochrane moves closer to the target. His vessels are immediately hit with such intense fire that he has to call them back and resume the long-range attack.
Shortly before midday, Brooke emerges into open country outside of Baltimore and finds himself confronted by the Loudenslager Hill fortifications. To attack, the British will have to cross two miles of open ground and ford a steep-banked creek under enemy fire. After a few probing attacks, Brooke decides he cannot carry off a frontal advance. But he has already formed another plan: Cochrane’s marines will make a night time diversionary attack on “Roger’s Bastion” at the southern end of Loudenslager Hill. While this is taking place, Brooke’s troops will silently form up on the Philadelphia Road opposite the northeast angle of the Loudenslager line. If the marines’ attack is successful, then Brooke’s men will launch a silent bayonet attack on the unsuspecting Americans.
It is a bold plan. Unfortunately for the British, Cochrane’s marines are spotted by the Americans and don’t even get a chance to land. Shortly after 2 am, when Brooke realizes Cochrane has failed, he orders a retreat. The British have lost General Robert Ross and failed to neutralize Fort McHenry. Outnumbered and facing the daunting defenses of the Loudenslager Hill fortifications, the decision to call off the Chesapeake campaign is a prudent one.
This failure to take Baltimore will ultimately have repercussions at the Ghent peace negotiations taking place in Belgium. The British negotiators are counting on military successes to improve their bargaining position. Without these victories the British give up their territorial demands at the talks.
The American Defense of Baltimore
It is now obvious that Baltimore will be the next British target. The citizens of Baltimore decide to take defense of their city into their own hands and form a, “Committee of Vigilance and Safety.” This committee decides that every able-bodied man will contribute to the defense effort in one way or another: if they can’t fight they will be put to work wielding shovels. Revolutionary war veteran and militia officer Samuel Smith is invited to command the army. The Baltimore volunteers are soon building a long earthen wall along the top of Loudenslager Hill on the outskirts of town. These defensive works are fortified with artillery and will effectively protect the eastern and northeastern approaches to the city.
Smith guesses the British will choose the quickest and simplest route to Baltimore: a march overland from North Point. Alexander Cochrane, meanwhile, is likely to sail his naval force up the Patapsco River and try to silence Fort McHenry’s batteries. Smith reinforces Fort McHenry and sends out his best troops to delay the land advance. The 3rd Brigade, under Brigadier General John Stricker, takes up position near Bread and Butter Creek, about half way between North Point and Baltimore. On September 12, Robert Ross’s British troops land at North Point as Smith had guessed they would.
Stricker sends a small force ahead to harass the redcoats with a bit of hit-and- run firing. This stalls the British advance long enough that Ross rides forward to see what’s happening. A sniper’s bullet kills him.
Stricker’s detachment delays the advancing British for the best part of the afternoon before retreating to the Baltimore side of Bread and Butter Creek. When the British decide to make camp rather than pursue the withdrawing Americans, Stricker’s force retreats all the way back to Baltimore.
The following day, the defenders of Baltimore repel several minor British attacks on the city’s defenses. During the night of September 13, people in Baltimore watch the terrible fireworks as the British Navy bombs Fort McHenry.
Unable to bomb Fort McHenry into submission and facing a superior force protected by well-built defenses, the British decide to retreat.
After the humiliating sack of the nation’s capital, the successful defense of Baltimore becomes an important source of pride for the United States.
On the morning of September 12, 1814, a British force of 9,000 (Editor's note: This number seems to fluctuate between 3000 and 9000 in various sources) men landed at North Point, Maryland, with the intention of marching inland and capturing Baltimore. Brig. Gen. John Stricker, commander of the 3d Brigade of the Maryland militia, was ordered to delay the British advance so that the defense entrenchments around the city could be completed. The 5th regiment was assigned the task of holding the American right flank.
Despite two hours of artillery and rocket fire, the 5th Maryland stood their ground. After inflicting some 300 casualties, the 5th was order to fall back to a new position in front of the Baltimore trenches. The British army, exhausted by the fighting and surprised by the stubborn defense of the Maryland militia, withdrew, while the British navy failed to silence the guns of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. Thwarted on land and sea the British force sailed away. The successful defense of Baltimore, after the humiliating capture of Washington, shored up the confidence of the American people and directly contributed to the ending of the War of 1812. Moreover, an American militia regiment had withstood two hours of difficult fighting against British veterans of the Napoleonic wars. Today's 1st and 2d Battalions, 175th Infantry, Maryland Army National Guard, carry on the gallant traditions of the 5th Maryland.
(Editor's note: During the Battle of North Point, the commanding officer of the British ground troops, General Robert Ross was killed while inspecting forward positions. There is both legend and controversy over what actually occurred. As a descendant of the legendary heroes, I have my own bias. Henry McComas)
by Christopher T. George
Who Shot General Robert Ross?
Legend has it that Wells and McComas had seen Ross at Bladensburg on August 24, 1814, when the British routed the American militia under Brig. Gen. William H. Winder before sacking Washington. Early on the morning of September 12, as the British advanced toward Baltimore, the story goes, the word was passed down the line, "Remember, boys, General Ross rides a white horse today."
How would the Americans have known what color horse Ross would have been riding? In an 1831 reminiscence, the Royal Navy lieutenant who took Ross's body down to the landing place clearly remembered "the dead general 's servant leading a magnificent black horse"!
Be that as it may, the story goes that our heroes recognized Ross as he rode up Long Log Lane (present-day Old North Point Road). McComas said, "I see a mark." To which Wells replied, "So do I." They each took shelter behind separate trees and "fired simultaneously." (To be cynical, the latter is essential so they can get equal credit for the one bullet that killed Ross!) As Ross fell, the British troops fired toward the telltale smoke and both fell dead. When his body was recovered several days later, it was thought that McComas had been in the act of reloading when he was shot through the heart. Wells meanwhile is said to have been shot through the back of the head.
So much for the legend. What of the facts? It is certain enough that Wells and McComas were privates in Captain Edward Aisquith's militia rifle company which saw action at Bladensburg. According to the muster role of Aisquith's company to be seen in the manuscripts department of the Maryland Historical Society, both were "killed in the advance" on September 12 just prior to the Battle of North Point. Indeed, both did die in the skirmish in which Ross received his fatal wound, a short while before the British under new commander Col. Arthur Brooke engaged Brig. Gen. John Stricker's Third Brigade of Militia near Bear Creek where Patapsco Neck narrows (in the vicinity of present-day Battle Acre), and eventually, at cost. drove the Americans from the field.
Whether either Wells or McComas fired the fatal shot that killed Ross is another question entirely. British official reports relate that Ross was shot in the right side, through the bridle arm, but the accounts vary between saying that a rifleman killed the general or that a musketball (in contrast to a lighter rifleball) did the damage.
Advocates of the Wells and McComas theory are able to come up with a number of biographical facts about the two dead riflemen.
We know, for example, that Wells and McComas were both apprentices who worked in the city's leather industry. Henry McComas, whose mother and father came from Harford County, worked for Felix Jenkins in the business of making saddles, harnesses and trunks. Wells, meanwhile, was apprenticed to Edward Jenkins, who had a business specializing in making saddlery. It is also known that Daniel Wells, born to an Annapolis family, had a grandfather of the same name who fought in the American Revolution.
We also know that in the mid-1850's the military companies of Baltimore thought highly enough of the two fallen heroes to form a Wells and McComas Monument Association to honor their memory. In 1858, the remains of the two riflemen were disinterred from their vault in Greenmount Cemetery, laid in state in the old Maryland Institute, and reburied in Ashland Square at Monument and Gay Streets. In 1873, after funding had been raised by public subscription (in a manner similar to the way citizens raised the money to build the Battle Monument), a 21-foot high obelisk of Baltimore County marble was built over their grave. According to the inscriptions on the base, at death, Daniel Wells was "aged 19 years, 8 months, and 13 days" and Henry G. McComas "aged 18 years, 11 months, and 22 days." However. no claim is made on the monument that the boys shot Ross. Nineteenth century historian J. Thomas Scharf viewed this as highly significant. "Thus it will be seen," he wrote in a letter to the press, "that the comrades of Wells and McComas, who erected the monument to their memory, did not claim that they killed General Ross."
A quite different school of thought maintains that it was not a rifleman who shot Ross at all but a regular militiamen. It is known that there were several militia units in the vicinity of the deadly skirmish. In this period, militia infantrymen regularly loaded their muskets with a "buck and ball", that is, they would load the barrel with buckshot along with a musketball. In his 1913 book, The British Invasion of Maryland, William M. Marine reports a conversation that allegedly took place in the English Lake District in 1846. An American, Henry Wilson, "met a gentleman at the dinner table" who claimed to have been Ross's aide de camp and who related that Ross's wound had been "caused by a musket ball and a buck-shot." This "evidence" is taken by the anti-Wells and McComas camp as being proof that another unit, perhaps the Independent Blues, a company of the Fifth Regiment, did the deed. The muskets of the Independent Blues, were, it is said, loaded with "buck and ball." The unit's commander, Capt. Aaron R. Levering, is alleged to have seen an officer ride up at the head of the enemy line. He is deported to have ordered his men, "Take good aim, there's an officer." The militiamen saw the British officer fall from his horse and from the description of his uniform it was thought that it was Ross.
We may never know the truth of the matter. A friend of mine, archaeologist Kathy Erlandson, who has carried out work on the North Point battlefield, has talked of investigating General Ross's remains in St. Paul's Graveyard in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She would like to ascertain if there is evidence of buckshot in Ross's remains. If that were so it would finally lay to rest the Wells and McComas story.