Attack on Washington

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As part of the War on the Chesapeake during the "Second War for Independence", the British sought to draw away the American attack on it's Canadian colony with a blockade of the Chesapeake and raids on major towns and cities. Realizing the poor preparation and weak defense of the nation's capital, the British attacked and burned many of the public buildings of the infant capital.

The Battle of Bladensburg
Brigadier-General William Winder to the Secretary of War

Baltimore, 27 August 1814

When the enemy arrived at the mouth of Potomac, of all the militia which I had been authorized to assemble there were but about 1,700 in the field, from 13 to 1400 under general Stansbury near this place, and about 250 at Bladensburg, under lieutenant colonel Kramer; the slow progress of draft, and the imperfect organization, with the ineffectiveness of the laws to compel them to turn out, rendered it impossible to have procured more.

The militia of this state, and the contiguous parts of Virginia and Pennsylvania, were called on en masse, but the former militia law of Pennsylvania had expired on the 1st of June or July, and the one adopted in its place is not to take effect in organizing the militia before October. No aid, therefore, has been received from that state.

After all the force that could be put at my disposal in that short time, and making such dispositions as I deemed best calculated to present the most respectable force at whatever point the enemy might strike, I was enabled by the most active and harrassing movements of the troops, to interpose before the enemy at Bladensburg, about 5000 men, including 350 regulars, and commodore Barney's command. Much the largest portion of this force arrived on the ground when the enemy were in sight, and were disposed to support in the best manner the position which general Stansbury had taken. They had barely reached the ground before the action commenced, which was about one o'clock, P. M. of the 24th instant, and continued about an hour.

The contest was not as obstinately maintained as could have been desired, but was by parts of the troops sustained with great spirit and with prodigious effect, and had the whole of our force been equally firm, I am induced to believe the enemy would have been repulsed notwithstanding all the disadvantages under which we fought. The artillery from Baltimore, supported by major Pinkney's rifle battalion and a part of captain Doughty's from the Navy Yard, were in advance to command the pass of the bridge at Bladensburg, and played upon the enemy, as I have since learned, with very destructive effect; but the rifle troops were obliged after some time to retire, and of course artillery. Superior numbers, however, rushed upon them and made their retreat necessary, not however without great loss on the part of the enemy. Major Pinkney received a severe wound in his right arm, after he had retired to the left flank of Stansbury's brigade. The right and center of Stansbury's brigade, consisting of lieutenant colonel Ragan's and Shutez's regiments, generally gave way very soon afterwards, with the exception of about forty rallied by colonel Ragan, after having lost his horse and a whole or a part of captain Trower's company, both of whom general Stansbury represents to have made, even thus deserted, a gallant stand. The fall which lieutenant colonel Ragan received from his horse, together with his great efforts to sustain his position, rendered him unable to follow the retreat; we have, therefore, to lament that this gallant and excellent officer has been taken prisoner. He has, however, been paroled, and I met him here recovering from the bruises occasioned by his fall. The loss of his services at this moment is serious. The 5th Baltimore regiment, under lieutenant colonel Sterret, being the left of brigadier general Stansbury's brigade, still, however, stood their ground, and except for a moment, when part of them recoiled a few steps, remained firm and stood until ordered to retreat with a view to prevent them from being out flanked.

The reserve under brigadier general Smith, of the district of Columbia, with the militia of the city and Georgetown, with the regulars and some detachments of the Maryland militia, flanked on their right by commodore Barney and his brave fellows, and lieutenant colonel Beall, still were to the right on the hill and maintained the contest for some time with great effect.

It is not with me to report the conduct of commodore Barney and his command, nor can I speak from observation, being too remote; but the concurrent testimony of all who did observe them, does them the highest justice for their brave resistance, and the destructive effect they produced on the enemy. Commodore Barney, after having lost his horse, took post near one of his guns, and there unfortunately received a severe wound in the thigh, and he also fell into the hands of the enemy.

Captain Miller, of marines, was wounded in the arm fighting bravely. From the best intelligence there remains but little doubt that the enemy lost at least four hundred killed and wounded, and of these a very unusual portion killed. Our loss cannot, I think, be estimated at more than from thirty to forty killed, and fifty or sixty wounded.

You will readily understand that it is impossible for me to speak minutely of the merit or demerit of particular troops so little known to me from their recent and hasty assemblage. My subsequent movements, for the purpose of preserving as much of my force as possible, gaining reinforcements and protecting this place, you already know.

John Brannan, ed. Official Letters of the Military and Naval Officers of the United States During the War with Great Britain in the Years 1812, 13, 14, & 15 With Some Additional Letters and Documents Elucidating the History of that Period. (Washington: 1823), pp. 400-402.

The Battle of Bladensburg
Commodore Joshua Barney to the Secretary of the Navy

Farm at Elk Ridge, 29 August 1814

This is the first moment I have had it in my power to make a report of the proceedings of the forces under my command, since I had the honour of seeing you at the camp at the "Old Fields." On the afternoon of that day, we were informed that the enemy was advancing upon us. The army was put under arms, and our positions taken; my forces on the right, flanked by the two battalions of the 36th and 38th, where we remained some hours; the enemy did not make his appearance. A little before sun-set general Winder came to me, and recommended that the heavy artillery should be withdrawn, with the exception of one 12 pounder to cover the retreat. We took up our line of march, and in the night entered Washington by the Eastern Branch bridge. I marched my men, &c. to the marine barracks, and took up quarters for the night, myself sleeping at commodore Tingey's, in the navy yard. About 2 o'clock general Winder came to my quarters, and we made some arrangements for the morning. In the morning I received a note from general Winder, and waited upon him, he requested me to take command, and place my artillery to defend the passage of the bridge on the Eastern Branch, as the enemy was approaching the city in that direction. I immediately put my guns in position, leaving the marines and the rest of my men at the barracks, to wait further orders. I was in this situation when I had the honour to meet you, with the President and heads of departments, when it was determined that I should draw off my guns and men, and proceed towards Bladensburg, which was immediately put into execution. On our way, I was informed the enemy was within a mile of Bladensburg - we hurried on. The day was hot, and my men very much crippled from the severe marches we had experienced the days before, many of them being without shoes, which I had replaced that morning. I preceded the men, and when I arrived at the line which separates the district from Maryland, the battle began. I sent an officer back to hurry on my men; they came up in a trot; we took our position on the rising ground, put the pieces in battery, posted the marines under captain Miller, and the flotilla men, who were to act as infantry, under their own officers, on my right, to support the pieces, and waited the approach of the enemy. During this period the engagement continued, and the enemy advancing, our own army retreating before them, apparently in much disorder. At length the enemy made his appearance on the main road, in force, and in front of my battery, and on seeing us made a halt. I reserved our fire. In a few minutes the enemy again advanced, when I ordered an 18 pounder to be fired, which completely cleared the road; shortly after, a second and a third attempt was made by the enemy to come forward, but all were destroyed. They then crossed over into an open field, and attempted to flank our right; he was there met by three 12 pounders, the marines under captain Miller, and my men, acting as infantry, and again was totally cut up. By this time not a vestige of the American army remained, except a body of five or six hundred, posted on a height on my right, from whom I expected much support, from their fine situation.

The enemy from this period never appeared in force in front of us; they pushed forward their sharp shooters; one of which shot my horse under me, who fell dead between two of my guns. The enemy, who had been kept in check by our fire for nearly half an hour, now began to out-flank us on the right; our guns were turned that way; he pushed up the hill, about two or three hundred, towards the corps of Americans stationed as above described, who, to my great mortification, made no resistance, giving a fire or two and retired. In this situation we had the whole army of the enemy to contend with. Our ammunition was expended; and, unfortunately, the drivers of my ammunition wagons had gone off in the general panic. At this time I received a severe wound in my thigh; captain Miller was wounded; sailing master Warner killed; acting sailing master Martin killed; and sailing master Martin wounded; but to the honour of my officers and men, as fast as their companions and messmates fell at the guns, they were instantly replaced from the infantry.

Finding the enemy now completely in our rear, and no means of defense, I gave orders to my officers and men to retire. Three of my officers assisted me to get off a short distance, but the great loss of blood occasioned such a weakness, that I was compelled to lie down. I requested my officers to leave me, which they obstinately refused; but upon being ordered they obeyed, one only remained. In a short time I observed a British soldier, and had him called, and directed him to seek an officer; in a few minutes an officer came, and on learning who I was, brought general Ross and admiral Cockburn to me. Those officers behaved to me with the most marked attention, respect and politeness, had a surgeon brought, and my wound dressed immediately. After a few minutes conversation, the general informed me (after paying me a handsome compliment) that I was paroled, and at liberty to proceed to Washington or Bladensburg; as also Mr. Huffington, who had remained with me, offering me every assistance in his power, giving orders for a litter to be brought, in which I was carried to Bladensburg; captain Wainwright, first captain to admiral Cochrane, remained with me, and behaved to me as if I was a brother. During the stay of the enemy at Bladensburg, I received every marked attention possible from the officers of the army and navy.

My wound is deep, but I flatter myself not dangerous; the ball is not yet extracted. I fondly hope a few weeks will restore me to health, and that an exchange will take place, that I may resume my command, or any other that you and the President may think proper to honour me with.

John Brannan, ed. Official Letters of the Military and Naval Officers of the United States During the War with Great Britain in the Years 1812, 13, 14, & 15 With Some Additional Letters and Documents Elucidating the History of that Period. (Washington: 1823), pp. 405-407.




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