The Battle of Bladensburg

THE BATTLE OF BLADENSBURG.
I.
A review of this most disastrous and discreditable defense of
our Capital on August 24, 1814, on the part of those most
responsible for the same will not at this time be influenced by the
political conditions existing at that time, which made it very difficult
to get reliable testimony which was not biased to some extent.

I have undertaken this work of investigation from a sense of
duty and justice, and to serve the double purpose of inspiring
loyalty in the hearts of true patriots and a respect and honor for
the volunteer soldiers of our State who have never yet been found
wanting from the remotest colonial period to the present time.

The soldiers of Maryland and of the other States participating
in the engagement at Bladensburg have been the subjects of severe
criticism, during their lives and now; and it is my ambition to
remove the obloquy which has rested upon their good name, that
prompts me to lay bare every bit of testimony of any importance
bearing upon the case, and if I fail to give a thorough and comprehensive
history, it will be for want of space and time, for I
have been compelled to eliminate a great deal of testimony.

Of course nothing is more easy than to criticise the order of
battle of a defeated army: in fact the defeat itself shows defects;
but the blunders of the battle of Bladensburg are so appalling,
that it certainly does rob the victors of any credit which might
have come to them.

The field over which I have had to wander was very large,
covering the months preceding the battle, acts of Congress, of
the President and Cabinet, the public and private acts of the citizens
of Washington, Georgetown and Alexandria, Va., as well as
the expressions of the military men attracted to the Capital by
the menacing attitude of the army and navy of the enemy in the
Chesapeake.

Much of my testimony has been gathered from letters and reports
of those who participated in the defenses of Washington and
the battle of Bladensburg, so that if any errors have crept into
this paper or any contradictions become apparent, the responsibility
will not rest with me, for it is my only desire to give history as I
find it, supported by those who were instrumental in its making.
Soon, however, in the day of my labor did I realize that many
serious obstacles lay in my path ; first for the valueless investigation
of Congress shortly after the battle, called forth by the
righteous indignation of the people of Alexandria, Va., who had
been forced to surrender to Admiral Cockburn upon the most
exacting, indeed impossible terms.

The people of Maryland demanded to know why her soldiers
had not been allowed to do their whole duty to their country.

The people of Washington were also indignant that their own
militia, of which they were proud, had been ordered to retreat
without an effort to defend their homes, and finally a storm of
indignation from every quarter of our country. Every one wanted
to know who was responsible for the disasters of the day.

The utter failure of the Congressional Committee to call for
certain papers and witnesses, as well as the suppression of some
testimouy, in order to shield the administration, whom we will
show as the most culpable, and finally to throw the blame of the
disaster upon the shoulders of General Wm. H. Winder, the
commander, a relative of Levin Winder, the Governor of Maryland,
who had been selected by the President to command the
10th military district, it is said upon political grounds.

There was no personal objection to the selection of General
Winder, although he was entirely unknown to the people of
Washington, except his want of military experience; his patriotism
and courage were generally acknowledged.

He entered upon his duties under the greatest difficulty. He
had no means at his command and no way of creating them j the
military district, over which he now presided, had no magazines,
provisions or forage, and was without transport tools, without
a commissary or quartermaster's department, and himself without
a single officer on his staff, and finally without any troops.

The proclamatiou by the President on July 4th was a mere
matter of form and without any effect, for the States had only a
small number of troops with poor equipments, as Congress had
offered them no encouragement, and now, at the last moment, had
none to offer them; and to add to the general alarm, came the
daily reports of the depredations of the enemy on the shores of
Virginia and Maryland, and yet those in power could not be
made to believe that they would extend to the Capital, flattering
themselves that what had happened to every other nation in the
world could not happen to theirs.

At Washington at this time there was not a single company
of regulars, and no effort was made to get them within the
threatened area.

General Winder's headquarters was a deserted place, without a
secretary, and even the customary guard at his door was absent
until the latter part of July. Here sat the commander of the
10th military district, now the most important in the country,
powerless to direct or even assist in any movement and absolutely
ignored by the President and Cabinet.

It was announced from time to time by the National Intelligencer,
an administration paper published by a native of London,
that the British were committing depredations on the shore of the
Chesapeake, and had as many as 5000 men within 50 miles.

For fifteen months before the actual invasion of the capital the
enemy had certainly given evidence of their intention to control
the commerce of the Chesapeake Bay ; Havre de Grace, Frenchtown,
Georgetown and Frederickton on the Bay shore, and Hampton,
Va., had been attacked and burned and its citizens carried
off into captivity.

On July 15th, 1813, General Philip Steuart, a member of
Congress from the eastern part of Maryland, a veteran of the
Revolution, offered a resolution in Congress, directing the government
to arm the citizen soldiers of Maryland and Washington as
well as the States calling for arms, that the invaders might be
received properly should they attempt to extend their operations
to the larger cities ; but that body struck out the enacting clause
and actually adjourned without taking any steps to defend the city.

In the early part of April, 1814, the attention of the President
was called to the defenseless condition of Washington and Alexandria,
but no notice was taken of it.

On the 1st of May a delegation of business men of these two
cities waited upon the President and pointed out several places
around the city which should be immediately fortified, and suggested
that the Governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia
should be asked to have their troops in readiness to march to the
defense of the Capital at the shortest possible notice, as the danger
of an invasion was imminent. The President listened attentively
and promised to bring the matter to the attention of the Cabinet
at their next meeting, which was done the next day. Here it was
discussed informally but no action was taken, the President stating
that he thought they were over-excited j that in his opinion
the enemy had no intention of attacking Washington ; but that
possibly Baltimore and Philadelphia might be compelled to defend
themselves. The matter was then dropped and referred to no
more until too late for action.

June came and still that strange and fatal apathy pervaded the
official circles of the government, and there seemed no thought of
action in this entire military district of which Washington was a
part. Only 2,154 effective men of the regular army were in
reach,—one-half at New York, one-fourth at Fort McHenry,
Baltimore, and the other quarter divided between Annapolis, Fort
Washington and St. Mary's, besides a company of marines at
Fort Washington on the Potomac; 500 recruits for the army from
North Carolina who were in a camp of instruction near Washington.

These were actually seut to the northwestern frontier as late
as July 25th and at a time when the public mind was filled with
alarm because of the frequent reports of depredations committed
upon the citizens of the Eastern Shore of Maryland by Sir Peter
Parker, and yet the President and Cabinet saw nothing menacing
in the attitude of the enemy, and so stated. *

On the 6th of June it became known to the authorities in
Washington that the Emperor of Russia and the King of Prussia
* I wish to record the tact just here that many of these statements of derelictions
on the part of the President and others are strongly denied hy their friends.
had entered Paris on March 30th with 180,000 men. The President
was informed soon after officially by our Minister at Paris
that Louis XVIII was now on the throne of France; that Bonaparte
was a prisoner, and that peace now reigned in France; that
the actual embarkation of the British army had begun, including
a number of Wellington's veteran regiments, and that it was no
secret that their destination was the Chesapeake Bay.

On July 9th General Winder addressed a communication to the
President, detailing certain plans which he thought necessary for
the defense of the Capital, and asking that steps be taken at once
to carry them out, as the enemy's fleet in the Chesapeake Bay was
being greatly reinforced, and closing his letter with these words
underscored: " The enemy is now within three hours' march of
Baltimore, less than that of Annapolis, one and one-half days of
Washington." To this very important letter no answer was
returned and the suggestions were not carried out in any detail.

On July 29th the people of Washington rose in their indignation
and the militia rebelled against their commander. General
Winder openly criticised the President for his criminal inactivity
at such a time, when the enemy was almost at their door. The
soldiers refused to serve under Winder, believing him the cause
of the delay, and finally demanded the resignation of General
Armstrong, the Secretary of War, as well as that of General
Winder. This was followed, says Armstrong, by the President
requesting him to retire from the active duties of the War Department
for a time to satisfy the excited public. In reply he
told the Executive that he did not see how he could be held responsible
for the excited state of affairs, as he had not been consulted
at any time, and that, had he been, he would certainly have
opposed the appointment of General Winder, who had never had
the confidence of the public or soldiers.

General Armstrong's retirement at this time was fortunate for
his own reputation, for the defenseless condition of the capital
was now acknowledged by all. No one could now be found, even
among the personal and political friends of the President, to defend
the administration.

This condition of affairs at the seat of government was well
known to the enemy, for their officers disguised easily made their
way into the city, mingled with the people, frequented the hotels
and taverns, and passed in and out of the city at pleasure, being also
aided by treacherous Americans in the pay of Admiral Cockburn.

It was decided about the middle of July at a cabinet meeting
that the Governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia
should be called upon to assemble all their available forces, so
that at short notice they could march to the seat of war, and the
number was placed at 13,000, quite a formidable number on
paper, but of this number only a few hundred could be gotten
together. Strange to say, this order was not issued for ten days.

The alarming news received on the 19th of August caused the
authorities to do more active work, yet only a limited number of
men were available, for want of arms.

About this time a messenger reached Washington with the
information that a large body of soldiers and a number of warships
had arrived to reinforce the British already in the Chesapeake
Bay. This left no shadow of doubt in the minds of even
the cabinet that an enterprise of great magnitude was intended.

On the morning of August 16th, twenty-two of the enemy's
ships reached the Chesapeake Bay and proceeded up to join the
force stationed at the mouth of the Patuxent River. The whole
body then ascended that river, and on the 19th began landing
troops at the ancient village of Benedict, about 40 miles south of
Washington. Great consternation followed the receipt of this
news at the Capital, and that it was in great danger no one
doubted for a moment.

On August 22nd the State troops from "Virginia and Pennsylvania
began to arrive. The next day came the Maryland brigade,
except the 5th Infantry under Lieut.-Col. Joseph Sterett and
Pinkney's riflemen, which did not get in until sunset of the 23rd.

By noon of the 24th between 6 and 7000 militia, including about
400 regulars, were in and around Bladensburg.

At ten o'clock on the morning of the 24th it was known to
General Winder that the enemy was rapidly moving towards Bladensburg,
and he proceeded to arrange his troops to meet their
advance.

General Tobias E. Stansbury, the commander of the Maryland
brigade and a veteran of the Revolution, being called upon, gladly
assisted General Winder in placing his troops in position, and this
was not an easy undertaking, for there was considerable confusion,
many of the companies being of the rawest kind of militia, their
officers excited and their men not under perfect control.

The plan of battle decided on was not the work of much time
and was far from perfect, but was not without merit. It provided
for three lines of defense.

The first line consisted of the Baltimore brigade under General
Stansbury. Pinkney's riflemen (150 men), the 5th Maryland
Infantry (500 men), which had arrived only a few hours before,
had only a short rest, and had been without food for twenty
hours; the Maryland Infantry under Col. Ragan (550), the
Maryland Infantry under Col. Schutz (800), and last, but not the
least, the two Baltimore batteries of Artillery (150), the American
under Capt. Robert B. Magruder and the Franklin under
Capt. Joseph Myers, in all about 2200 men. On the Georgetown
road, a company of Riflemen, one of Infantry, one of Artillery
and one of Cavalry.

The second line of defense consisted of two commands of
Washington militia under Colonels Magruder and Wm. Brent,
two companies of light artillery composed of the gentlemen of
Washington, forming a brigade under General AValter Smith of
that city; also two companies of Georgetown troops and a company
of volunteers from Alexandria, Va., with Kramer's Infantry
and Col. Beall's Infantry from Anne Arundel County.

In the rear of this line was the third line, consisting of the
Pennsylvania and Virginia troops, under General Douglass of
Virginia, and in front of this line were the works of Barney,
who in the closing hours of that memorable day was to cover
himself with glory. Stall's Infantry, Waring's Infantry, Scott's
U. S. Regulars, Smith's brigade and Peter's Artillery, formed
part of this line.

The plan of battle was arranged by Winder and Stansbury to
prevent the enemy from crossing the bridge which led into Bladensburg,
which, however, should have been destroyed early in
the day. It was left to the Baltimore brigade to check the advance
of the enemy, the Baltimore Artillery and Pinkney's Riflemen
to hold the bridge, supported in the rear left by the 5th Md.
Infantry, and on the rear right by the infantry under Ragan and
Schutz. In the event of the falling back of this line, the second
line was to flank the enemy, assisted by the artillery, who were to
give them a flank attack, enabling the first to reform and charge
the enemy with the bayonet. Assuming that they would not fall
back, the third line was to move forward, supporting Barney's
batteries and fire canister while they were in range, which would
be a signal to the other batteries occupying raised ground to pour
their shot into the ranks of the retreating foe, the cavalry to
charge should the enemy re-form or be reinforced.


This was the plan of battle, and as we examine it upon the
map, it certainly impresses us as being an excellent one, which, if
carried out, should have resulted in victory for General Winder;
but unfortunately it was not carried out in any detail. Indeed so
badly was it interpreted that history records the defeat of about
7000 Americans by about 1500 British. Though this is not true,
it has been repeated by writers from time to time, and to correct
this and to give a fair and truthful account of the battle I have
undertaken this history.

Many distinguished historians have fallen into this same error.
Even Mr. Roosevelt in his History of the Navy in the War of
1812 briefly continues this statement, and speaks of the battle of
North Point in language incomprehensible to me, for the story
told by the participants should confirm or correct these errors.

When all the diflerent commands had been placed in position,
it gave to the brigade of Stansbury the post of honor, and placed
upon their shoulders a great responsibility; for upon the valor of
these troops depended the fate of the day. Unfortunately for all
most interested, they were not permitted to show their courage cy
ability.

When the trumpet announced the near approach of the enemy,
the President, James Madison, James Monroe, Secretary of State,
Gen. James Armstrong, Secretary of War, and the Attorney-
General, accompanied by a number of friends, all on horseback.
rode upon the hill overlooking the field, near the Georgetown
road. Mr. Monroe rode some distance forward and seemed to
examine the jrositions of the various commands critically, after
which, returning to the side of the President, he conversed with
him in a low voice and rode rapidly away. A most unfortunate
thing this proved to be, for it resulted in the removal of the 5th
Md. Infantry as the support of the Baltimore artillery, and the
Maryland regiments of Eagan and Schutz from the right as the
support of the Pinkney's riflemen and the falling back of the
cavalry and artillery on the Georgetown pike, thus leaving the
right and left of the firing line entirely exposed, disconcerting the
plans of Winder and Stansbury.


This order was given and executed without the knowledge of
or consent of these two generals during a conference which took
place only a short distance away. This order coming from some
one high in authority, General Winder dared not countermand it,
as he could have done in time to save or preserve his plan of
defense.


General Stansbury was so angry when he saw upon his return
to his former position what had been done, that he threatened to
leave the field, and said in a loud and angry voice, " That the
order was an outrage, and could only result in disaster."
We will now detail in a brief way the history of the battle of
Bladensburg gathered from the reports of those who participated
in the fight, which I believe to be technically correct.


At twelve o'clock the detachment which had been sent forward
to locate and annoy the approaching enemy, returned and went to
the rear. In a few moments the enemy's advance guard was seen
in the road and began firing rockets which reached the unprotected
regiments of Sterett, Pagan and Schutz, who were now more
than a quarter of a mile in the rear of the riflemen and artillery.

The moving of these regiments forced out of position another battalion,
disconcerting the whole line of defense and support, in full
view of the enemy, in range of their rockets, and without any
service to the batteries or themselves.

The enemy seeing the weakness of the firing line and the
unprotected position of the riflemen and artillery, sent increased
numbers of rockets at the 5th Eegiment, The British had now
reached the apple orchard and had the protection the 5th Md.
Regiment would have had had they been allowed to remain.

By this time the whole plan of battle had been so disarranged
that the chance was gone to correct the grave errors which had
been committed by some one other than General "Winder. The
enemy was now seen en masse coming down the hill just beyond
Bladensburg and rapidly pressing forward to the bridge which
they could never have crossed had the original plan of battle been
adhered to.

The attacking line of the British was about 1500 to 2000
strong with some heavy field pieces, General Robert Ross commanding,
with Admiral Cockburn in charge of sailors and marines.

The enemy was not long in crossing the bridge, although
the first attempt was not successful owing to the splendid service
of the two Baltimore batteries and Pinkney's riflemen; but soon
this small body, certainly not more than 350 men, was confronted
by the whole attacking line composed of veterans of many battles.

Yet the enemy were driven back by the raking fire of Pinkney's
riflemen and were compelled to take shelter behind an old house
which had previously given shelter to a portion of the 5th Regiment
and which had been left to the enemy by the removal of the
5th Maryland.

The British advanced again under a heavy fire of the Marylanders
so fierce that it swept away whole files of the advancing
enemy.*

The enemy was now reinforced and fell heavily upon our artillery
and riflemen who alone commanded the pass from the bridge,
who finding no support coming to their aid fell back to a position
commanding the road. General Stansbury in complimenting these
soldiers afterwards said, "You did your work nobly, for you had
* Major Geo. Peter assisted Col. Thornton of the British advance in the hospital
after the battle, who was badly wounded and left in Washington in our care,
who remarked to Major Peter, "that just before they crossed the bridge the fire
of the American artillery was the heaviest he had ever experienced." The JVatirnial
Intelligencer stated in their first issue after the battle, that over two hundred
of the enemy's dead were found at this spot and buried by the citizens of Washington.
to contend with the whole British force, and it is astonishing that
you were able to maintain your position so long and to be able to
withdraw so successfully."


The enemy in formidable numbers now began pressing the
second line, when a company of District militia becoming panicstricken,
broke and ran, throwing their arms upon the ground.

This cowardly behaviour was the beginning of the end of that
disastrous day. The whole force of the British was now hurled
against the 5th Md. Eegiment and the batteries of Magruder and
Myers, but the gallant men of these commands not only checked
their advance, but the 5th Regiment pressed their lines so strongly
at the point of the bayonet that the British were compelled to fall
back to the margin of the stream, where they stubbornly maintained
their position until again reinforced by a part of the Grenadier
or 2nd brigade. Thus strengthened they pressed forward
and soon turned the left flank of our army, sending a flight of
rockets into Stansbury's brigade, then the regiments of Ilagau and
Scluitz broke and fled in great disorder. Colonels Ragan and Schutz
did all they could do to rally their men, and even General Stansbury
in a loud voice commanded these colonels to cut down the
fugitives. General Winder rode hurriedly in front of them and
begged them to halt, but without avail. General Stansbury, although
seeing the case hopeless, ordered the 5th Regiment to
stand firm, which they did, until both flanks were turned, when

General Winder ordered them to fall back to a slightly elevated
position near the Washington road, and dashed away. The whole
body of the enemy was now again pushing for the 5th, when an
orderly notified Stansbury to hold the enemy in check while he
attempted to rally the frightened militia who were retreating
towards Washington and Georgetown. Stansbury held a council
of his officers and submitted the order to them, and by their
unanimous advice began retreating. As his troops filed down the
road, he again received orders to make a stand at this place, but
refused to obey, saying that nothing but complete annihilation of
his command could result from making a stand at this place, as
he was outnumbered five to one.

As he was crossing a narrow stream an orderly came to him
greatly excited and demanded to know why he disobeyed the
commander's order. His reply was, " Tell your commander that
I am responsible for the disobedience and will answer for it when
required."


General Armstrong some months after the battle said that he
did not believe that the order came from General Winder, for no
military man would give such an order, or expect Stansbury to
hold in check so large a body of men unless he was sure of reinforcements;
that the order came from some oue higher in
authority than Winder, for there was now no line of defenses to
be depended on but the seamen and marines under Barney, and
they were behind earth-works and could not move.


It is my opinion that General Winder did give that order, for
those above him by this time were near the city of Washington,
and the manner of Winder at this time was that of a man who
had lost his head. In proof of this I will state that after the
retreat of the second line, composed of three companies or battalions,
the remaining troops closed up their ranks and prepared
to receive the enemy, when General Winder rode up to an officer,
who happened to be the Hon. Wm. D. Merrick of Maryland and
the adjutant of the command, and in an excited manner ordered
them to fall back. Mr. Merrick pointed to Col. Scott, the commander,
who was on foot, his horse having been killed only a
short time ago. Col. Scott heard the order, and recognizing Gen.
Winder, said angrily, " Does Gen. Winder order me to fall back
when my men are in good order anctTCHxious to fight ? " But fall
back they did, and after this he ordered the 5th Md. Eegiment to
hold the British, a thing utterly impossible at the time, as the
full force of the enemy, 4 or 5000 men, were now employed and
marching upon Barney and the marines.

The American army had early in the day been hopelessly
divided, and at the near approach of the attacking party, the
President and Cabinet who were still mounted and standing on
an eminence about a mile from the most advanced position, became
alarmed at the condition of affairs created by Col. Monroe,
and perhaps at the suggestion of some one of his party now made
an effort to concentrate the forces as had been the plan of Gen.
Stansbury from the very first, but it was now too late, for it
meant the total destruction of any command to attempt to cross
that space now covered by the guns of the enemy on Lowndes'
Hill. Remember, that the British had crossed the bridge and
were in possession of a vacant house which had previously sheltered
a company of riflemen, and emerging from behind this house
they presented an unbroken front. It can be seen that if the
Baltimore brigade had not been moved from this position, it being
the most defensible Stansbury could have found, as he was protected
by an apple orchard and with another brigade near at hand,
it would have without doubt altered the fortunes of that day.

At two o'clock nothing stood between the enemy and Washington
but the batteries of Barney, and upon that armed position
they poured a hail of shot, and concentrating their forces made a
vicious attack upon the centre; but like the hero that he was
Barney maintained his position for some time. His left was soon
carried by the British marines, but the seamen of Barney drove
them back, and when they rallied it was seen that they had
suffered a severe loss, but the next attack was made by the combined
forces and ended the day's battle, for Barney at this
moment was severely wounded and fell, and before he could rise,
was a prisoner. His life was saved by the timely arrival of a
humane officer, for a British bayonet was almost at his throat.

The history of the enemy's work in our defenseless capital is
known to every one, the destruction by fire of the public and
private property, the destruction of some and the mutilation of
other works of art, the hasty retreat of that enemy in a tremendous
rain and thunder storm, leaving 300 to 400 unburied where
they fell, and their wounded to be cared for by our own surgeons
and citizens, the most dangerously wounded being taken into the
houses at Bladensburg.

The National Intelligencer is authority for the statement that
the enemy lost about 500 killed and wounded, and 500 missing,
of which number only a few made any effort to rejoin their companions.
The loss of the Americans was 76 killed and wounded and
about 3000 missing, who all, it is said, found their way home.