Burning of Washington City

The Burning of Washington City
A watercolor of the White House shortly after its burning by the British on August 24th, 1814.  The painting, titled "The President's House" was by artist George Munger, Circa 1814-1815. Notes:  "The burned-out shell of a once elegant and imposing house stands alone in the landscape. It is the White House as it looked following the conflagration of August 24, 1814, the low point of the War of 1812. The fire was the work of British troops, the first--and only--foreign army to invade the capital city of the United States. . . . "Viewed from the northeast, from the public common, the empty scene is a vivid reminder of the elemental state of the capital city at that date. . . . "One prominent but puzzling detail is the S-curved shape above the near corner of the roof. It is most readily interpreted as part of a lightning protection system. Not a lightning rod, given its length, but rather part of the metallic conductor that encircled the roof, now torn from its mooring. This record of fact could also be interpreted ironically, since the British had destroyed what thunder and lightning could not." -  Kloss, William, et al. Art in the White House: A Nation's Pride. Washington, D.C.: The White House Historical Association, 2008.
The Burning of Washington occurred on August 24, 1814  after the British defeated the US Army at the Battle of Bladensburg.  Major General Robert Ross occupied Washington City and set fire to only public buildings that included the White House and U.S. Capitol, which were largely destroyed. 

Official British Account
of the Capture of Washington City

As reported in The Columbian Centinel December 7, 1814

Great Britain London Downing Street, Sept. 27

I have the honor to communicate to your Lordship, that on the night of the 24 th inst. After defeating the army of the United States that day, the troops under my command entered and took possession of the city of Washington. It was determined between Sir A. Cochrane and myself, to disembark the army at the village of Nenedict, on the right bank of the Patuxeut, with the intention of Co-operating with Rear-admiral Cockburn, in an attack upon a flotilla of the enemy?s gun boats, under of the command of Com. Barney. On the 20th instant, the ar-my command its march, having landing the previous day without opposition: on the 21st it reached Nottingham, and on the 22nd moved on to Upper Marlborough, a few miles distant from Pig Point on the Patuxent, where Admiral Cockburn fell in with and defeated the flotilla taking and destroying the whole. Having advanced to within 16 miles of Washington, and ascertaining the force of the enemy to be such as might authorize an attempt at carrying his capital, I determined to make it, and accordingly put the 1200 men appeared to oppose us but retired after firing a few shots.

On the 24 th the troops resumed their march, and reached Bladensburg, a village situated on the left bank of the eastern branch of the Pofowmac, about five miles from Washington. On the opposite side of that river the enemy was strongly posted on very commanding heights formed in two lines, his advance occupying a fortified house, which, with artillery, covered the bridge over the eastern branch, across which the British troops had pass. A broad and straight road, leading from the bridge to Washington ran through the position, which was carefully defended by artillery and riflemen. The disposition for the attack being made, it was commenced with so much impetuosity by the list brigade, consisting at the 85th light infantry and the army, under the command of Col. Thornton, that the fortified house was shortly carried, the enemy retiring to the higher grounds. In support of the light brigade I ordered up a brigade under the command of Col. Brooke, who with the 44th regiment, attacked the enemy's left, the 4th regiment pressing its right with such effect as to cause him to abandon his guns. His first line giving way, was driven on the second, which, yielding to the irresistible attack of the bayonet, and the well directed discharge of rockets, got into confusion and fled. The rapid flight of the enemy, and his knowledge of the country, precluded the possibility of many prisoners being taken, more particularly as the troops had, during the day, undergone considerable fatigue.

Capture and burning of Washington by the British, in 1814, by Richard Miller Devens.  This centennial rendering of U.S. Capitol is not accurate because  there was no center building or pediment in 1814. Historic.us Collection
The enemy's army amounting to 8 or 9000 men, with 3 or 400 cavalry, was under the command of Gen. Winder, being formed of troops drawn from Baltimore and Pennsylvania. His artillery, ten pieces of which fell into are hands, was commanded by Com. Barney, who was wounded and taken prisoner. The artillery I directed to be destroyed. Having halted the army for a short time, I determined to march upon Washington, and reached that city at 8 o?clock that night. Judging it of consequences to complete the destruction of the public buildings with the least possible delay, so that the army might retire without loss of time, the following buildings were set fire to and consumed- the capitol, including the Senate house and House of representation, the Arsenal, the Dock-Yard, Treasury, War office, President's Palace, Rope-Walk, and the great bridge across the Potewmac: In the dock-yard a frigate nearly ready to be launched, and a slope of war, were consumed. The two bridges leading to Washington over the eastern branch, had the enemy been destroyed by the enemy who apprehended an attack from that quarter.

The object of the expedition being accomplished, I determined, before any greater enemy force could be assembled, to withdraw the troops, and accordingly commenced retiring on the night of the 25th. On the evening if the 29th we reached Benedict, and re-embarked the following day. In the performance of the operation I have detailed, it is with the utmost satisfaction I observe to your Lordship that cheerfulness in undergoing fatigue, and anxiety for the accomplishment of the object, were conspicuous in all ranks

An attack upon an enemy so strongly posted could not be effected without loss. I have to lament that the wounds received by Col. Thornton, and the others officers and soldiers left at Bladensburg, were such as prevented their removal As many of the wounded as could be brought off were removed, the others being left with medical care and attendants. The arrangements made by Staff Sueg?n Baxter for their accommodation have been as satisfactory as circumstances would admit of. The Agent for British prisoners of war very fortunately residing at Bladensburg, I have recommended the wounded officers and men to his particular attention, and trust to his being able to effect their exchange when sufficiently recovered. -- Robert Ross, Major General

Engraving, Capture of the city of Washington, by , James Cundee, publisher, London : J. & J. Cundee, Albion Press, Circa 1815. Print shows British soldiers marching into Washington, D.C. and burning buildings during the War of 1812 - - Historic.us Collection

British Account of the 1814 Washington Campaign
By George Gleig

We found this place (a town or large village, capable of containing from a thousand to fifteen hundred inhabitants) completely deserted. Not an individual was to be seen in the streets, or remained in the houses; whilst the appearance of the furniture, &c., in some places the very bread left in the ovens, showed that it had been evacuated in great haste, and immediately before our arrival. The town itself stands upon the banks of the Patuxent, and consists of four short streets, two running parallel with the river, and two others crossing them at right angles. The houses are not such as indicate the existence of much wealth or grandeur among the owners, being in general built of wood, and little superior to cottages; but around the village are others of a far better description, which convey the idea of good substantial farm-houses, a species of mansion very common in the United States. For several miles in every direction the country was in a high state of cultivation; though, instead of the maize and wheat which we had hitherto seen, the fields were covered with an abundant and luxuriant crop of tobacco. This plant seems, indeed, to be at all times the staple commodity of that district; for, besides what was growing and unripe, we found numerous barns filled with the remains of last year's crop; the whole of which was, of course, seized in the name of His Majesty King George the Third. But in the main object of ou pursuit we were disappointed. The flotilla, which had been stationed opposite to Nottingham, retired, on our approach, higher up the stream; and we were consequently in the situation of a huntsman who sees his hounds at fault, and has every reason to apprehend that his game will escape.

In this posture the army continued during the night, having its right defended by the river, and its left extending considerably beyond the town, and secured, as usual, by a connected chain of outposts; nor was it put in motion, as had been done the day before, as soon as there was sufficient light to distinguish objects. There seemed, indeed, to be something like hesitation as to the course to be pursued,—whether to follow the gun-boats, or to return to the shipping; but, at last, the former proceeding was resolved upon, and the column set forward about eight o'clock, in the direction of Marlborough, another village, about ten miles beyond Nottingham. The road by which we travelled, as well to-day as during the whole of the excursion, was remarkably good; in some places rather heavy, from being cut through a sandy soil, but in general hard, dusty, and, to use an expressive phrase, having a sound bottom. Running, as it did for the most part, through the heart of thick forests, it was also well sheltered from the rays of the sun; a circumstance which, in a climate like this, is of no slight importance. To-day, our whole journey was of this description, nor did we reach a single cultivated spot till we approached the vicinity of Marlborough; when we found ourselves in a country not more fertile than beautiful. The ground, which had been hitherto perfectly flat, was now broken into the most graceful swells, generally cleared of wood to within a short space of the summits, and then crowned with hoar and venerable forests. The village itself lies in a valley formed by two green hills; the distance from the base of one hill to the base of the other may be about two miles, the whole of which was laid out in fields of corn, hay, and tobacco; whilst the slopes themselves were covered with sheep, for whose support they furnished ample means. But Marlborough is not, like an English village, compact, and consisting of one or two lanes: the houses are scattered over the plain, and along the sides of the hills, at considerable intervals from one another, and are all surrounded by orchards and gardens, abounding in peaches and other fruits of the most delicious flavour. To add to the beauty of the place, a small rivulet makes its way through the bottom, and winding round the foot of one of these ridges, falls into the Patuxent, which flows at its back.

During our progress to-day the same caution was observed which had been practised yesterday. Nor was it altogether unnecessary, several bodies of the enemy's horse occasionally showing themselves, and what appeared to be the rear-guard of a column of infantry evacuating Marlborough, as our advance entered. There was, however, little or no skirmishing, and we were allowed to remain in the village all night without molestation. But if we were not harassed, we were at least startled on the march by several heavy explosions. The cause of these we were at first unable to discover; but we soon learnt that they were occasioned by the blowing up of the very squadron of which we were in pursuit, and which Commodore Barney, perceiving the impossibility of preserving, prudently destroyed, in order to prevent its falling into our hands.

In Marlborough we remained not only during the night, but till past noon on the following day. The hesitation which had caused the loss of a few hours at Nottingham again interfered, and produced a delay which might have been attended with serious consequences. At length, however, orders were given to form, and we quitted Marlborough about two in the afternoon, taking the road to Washington. During this day's march there was more skirmishing than had yet occurred. We had scarcely got above three miles from the village, when the advanced guard fell in with a party of riflemen, who maintained a sharp contest before they gave way. The column, however, continued to move on without molestation, till arriving at a point where two roads meet, the one leading to Washington, the other to Alexandria, a strong body of troops, with some artillery, were observed upon the slope of a height opposite. The capture of Washington was now the avowed object of our invasion; but the General, like an experienced officer, was desirous of keeping his enemy in the dark as to his plan of operations. Whilst the advanced guard, therefore, reinforced by two additional companies, marched directly forward to dislodge the party from the heights, the rest of the army wheeled to the left, taking the road which leads, not to Washington, but to Alexandria. These movements were not lost upon the enemy, who, observing by the dust in what direction the main body had filed off, immediately began to retreat, without waiting for the approach of the detachment sent against them. As they ascended the hill, however, they made a show of halting and forming a line. Our men moved steadily on in column, covered by one company in extended order along the front; but the enemy, having merely thrown a few round shot with great precision among the skirmishers, broke once again into marching order, and were quickly hid by the rising ground. As soon as they had disappeared, the advance halted; and having remained for about an hour on a little hill to watch their motions, turned to the left, and followed the rest of the army, which they found advantageously posted at a place called Woodyard.

I Had almost forgotten to state that, from the first moment of our landing, the want of cavalry, so useful in obtaining information and reconnoitring the open country, was very sensibly felt. To remedy this evil, as far as it could by such means be remedied, orders had been issued to catch and bring in all the horses that were found in the fields or stables of any houses along the road; and these orders being punctually obeyed, there were now fifty or sixty in the camp. Upon these some of the artillery-drivers were mounted, and the command of the troop being given to an officer of experience, it was found of great service during the remainder of the march.

The advanced guard having joined the main body, the whole army, with the exception of a party which had been sent to the rear to bring up a convoy of provisions, was now bivouacked upon a rising ground, well defended by hedge-rows and thickets. The night, however, was not spent in as much quietness as usual. It was late before the troops got to their ground, consequently the piquets, for want of light, could not be posted in their customary good order, neither had there been time to examine the country in the neighbourhood of the position. The outposts were, therefore, kept in a state of constant anxiety by the frequent appearance of small parties of the enemy, who hovered about, probably with the design of cutting off stragglers, or perhaps of surprising, if they could, some of the piquets themselves. But whatever their intentions might be, the vigilance of the sentries contrived to render them abortive; nor did anything occur during the night productive of serious alarm; and the following day, being joined by the convoy which came up in safety, the column was again in motion, hastening across the country into the high road, which had been deserted for no other purpose than to mislead the Americans.

Having started on the 24th at an early hour, our march was for some time both cool and agreeable. The road—if road it could be called—wound for the first five miles through the heart of an immense forest, and being, in every sense of the word, a by-path, was completely overshadowed by projecting branches of trees, so closely interwoven, as to prevent a single sunbeam from making its way, even at noon, within the arch. We continued to move on, therefore, long after the sun had risen, without being sensible that there was not a cloud in the sky to screen us from his influence; whilst a heavy moisture continually emitted from the grass and weeds on both sides of us, produced a coolness which, had it been less confined, would have proved extremely pleasant. So far, then, we proceeded without experiencing any other inconvenience than what was produced by the damp and fetid atmosphere which we breathed; but no sooner had we begun to emerge from the woods and to enter the open country, than an overpowering change was perceived. The sun, from which we had been hitherto defended, now beat upon us in full force; and the dust rising in thick masses from under our feet, without a breath of air to disperse it, flew directly into our faces, occasioning the greatest inconvenience both to the eyes and respiration. I have stated this at length, because I do not recollect a period of my military life during which I suffered more severely from heat and fatigue; and as a journey of a few miles, under such circumstances, tells more than one of thrice the distance in a cool'day and along a firm wintry road, it is not surprising that before many hours had elapsed numbers of men began to fall behind from absolute inability to keep up.

Yet, in spite of all this, there was that in to-day's march which rendered it infinitely more interesting than any we had performed since the landing. We had learnt, from various quarters, that the enemy was concentrating his forces for the purpose of hazarding a battle in defence of his capital. The truth of these rumours we had no cause to doubt, confirmed as they were by what we had ourselves witnessed only the evening before; indeed the aspect of various fields on each side of the high road (which we had now regained), where smoking ashes, bundles of straw, and remnants of broken victuals were scattered about, indicated that considerable bodies of troops had passed the night in this neighbourhood. The appearance of the road itself, likewise, imprinted as it was with fresh marks of many feet and hoofs, proved that these troops could be no great way before us; whilst our very proximity to Washington, being now distant from it not more than ten or twelve miles, all tended to assure us that we should at least see an American army before dark.

It was now that we experienced the great usefulness of our badly mounted troopers, or as they were called by the private soldiers, our Cossacks. The country, from being extremely close, had become open on every side to a considerable extent, although thick groves, instead of hedges, frequently separated one field from another. This was exactly the ground on which cavalry could act with advantage; because they might lie in ambush behind these groves, totally unperceived, and when an opportunity offered, charge the column, before it had time to prepare for their reception. There were one or two places, indeed, where such events were confidently anticipated; whole rows of paling having been pulled up from the side of the road, and open spaces left, through which several squadrons of horse might gallop; and the consequence was that every man held his breath in expectation, and prepared himself to form square in a moment. It was here that the mounted drivers became peculiarly useful. They were divided into small parties of six or eight, and sent out in different directions to reconnoitre, two of them generally taking post at every suspicious corner, that one might give notice to the column, whilst the other watched the motions of an enemy. It so happened that these precautions were unnecessary, for whatever might be the strength of the Americans in cavalry, their General did not think fit to employ it in harassing our march. But the very knowledge that every danger was provided against, and that they could not be attacked without having time to make ready, gave to the soldiers a degree of steady confidence which they would otherwise have wanted; and the want of which, had the case been different, might have been productive of disorder at a moment when good order was of vital importance.

We had now proceeded about nine miles, during the last four of which the sun's rays had beat continually upon us, and we had inhaled almost as great a quantity of dust as of air. Numbers of men had already fallen to the rear, and many more could with difficulty keep up; consequently, if we pushed on much farther without resting, the chances were that at least one half of the army would be left behind. To prevent this from happening, and to give time for the stragglers to overtake the column, a halt was determined upon, and being led forward to a spot of ground well wooded, and watered by a stream which crossed the road, the troops were ordered to refresh themselves. Perhaps no halt ever arrived more seasonably than this, or bid fair to be productive of more beneficial effects; yet so oppressive was the heat, that we had not resumed our march above an hour, when the banks by the way side were again covered with stragglers; some of the finest and stoutest men in the army being literally unable to go on.

The hour of noon was approaching, when a heavy cloud of dust, apparently not more than two or three miles distant, attracted our attention. From whence it originated there was little difficulty in guessing, nor did many minutes expire before surmise was changed into certainty: for on turning a sudden angle in the road, and passing a small plantation, which obstructed the vision towards the left, the British and American armies became visible to one another. The position occupied by the latter was one of great strength and commanding attitude. They were drawn up in three lines upon the brow of a hill, having their front and left flank covered by a branch of the Potomac, and their right resting upon a thick wood and a deep ravine. This river, which may be about the breadth of the Isis at Oxford, flowed between the heights occupied by the American forces and the little town of Bladensburg. Across it was thrown a narrow bridge, extending from the chief street in that town to the continuation of the road, which passed through the very centre of their position; and its right bank (the bank above which they were drawn up) was covered with a narrow stripe of willows and larch trees, whilst the left was altogether bare, low, and exposed. Such was the general aspect of their position as at the first glance it presented itself; of which I must endeavour to give a more detailed account, that my description of the battle may be in some degree intelligible.

I have said that the right bank of the Potomac was covered with a narrow stripe of willow and larch trees. Here the Americans had stationed strong bodies of riflemen, who, in skirmishing order, covered the whole front of their army. Behind this plantation, again, the fields were open and clear, intersected, at certain distances, by rows of high and strong palings. About the middle of the ascent, and in the rear of one of these rows, stood the first line, composed entirely of infantry; at a proper interval from this, and in a similar situation, stood the second line; while the third, or reserve, was posted within the skirts of a wood, which crowned the heights. The artillery, again, of which they had twenty pieces in the field, was thus arranged: on the high road, and commanding the bridge, stood two heavy guns; and four more, two on each side of the road, swept partly in the same direction, and partly down the whole of the slope into the streets of Bladensburg. The rest were scattered, with no great judgment, along the second line of infantry, occupying different spaces between the right of one regiment and the left of another; whilst the cavalry showed itself in one mass, within a stubble field, near the extreme left of the position. Such was the nature of the ground which they occupied, and the formidable posture in which they waited our approach; amounting, by their own account, to nine thousand men, a number exactly doubling that of the force which was to attack them.

Plan of Campaign and Battle of Bladensburg from Benjamin J. Lossing's Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812. The Battle of Bladensburg took place on August 24th, 1814. The defeat of the American forces allowed British forces to capture and burn the public buildings of Washington, D.C. It has been called "the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms."
In the mean time, our column continued to advance in the same order which it had hitherto preserved. The road, having conducted us for about two miles in a direction parallel with the river, and of consequence with the enemy's line, suddenly turned, and led directly towards the town of Bladensburg. Being of course ignorant whether this town might not be filled with American troops, the main body paused here till the advanced guard should reconnoitre. The result proved that no opposition was intended in that quarter, and that the whole of the enemy's army had been withdrawn to the opposite side of the stream, whereupon the column was again put in motion, and in a short time arrived in the streets of Bladensburg, and within range of the American artillery. Immediately on our reaching this point, several of their guns opened upon us, and kept up a quick and well-directed cannonade, from which, as we were again commanded to halt, the men were directed to shelter themselves as much as possible behind the houses. The object of this halt, it was conjectured, was to give the General an opportunity of examining the American line, and of trying the depth of the river; because at present there appeared to be but one practicable mode of attack, by crossing the bridge, and taking the enemy directly in front. To do so, however, exposed as the bridge was, must be attended with bloody consequences, nor could the delay of a few minutes produce any mischief which the discovery of a ford would not amply compensate. But in this conjecture we were altogether mistaken; for without allowing time to the column to close its ranks, or to be joined by such of the many stragglers as were now hurrying, as fast as weariness would permit, to regain their places, the order to halt was countermanded, and the word given to attack; and we immediately pushed on at double quick time, towards the head of the bridge. While we were moving along the street, a continued fire was kept up, with some execution, from those guns which stood to the left of the road; but it was not till the bridge was covered with our people that the two-gun battery upon the road itself began to play.—Then, indeed, it also opened, and with tremendous effect; for at the first discharge almost an entire company was swept down; but whether it was that the guns had been previously laid with measured exactness, or that the nerves of the gunners became afterwards unsteady, the succeeding discharges were much less fatal. The riflemen likewise began to gall us from the wooded bank with a running fire of musketry; and it was not without trampling upon many of their dead and dying comrades that the light brigade established itself on the opposite side of the stream.

When once there, however, everything else appeared easy. Wheeling off to the right and left of the road, they dashed into the thicket, and quickly cleared it of the American skirmishers; who, falling back with precipitation upon the first line, threw it into disorder before it had fired a shot. The consequence was, that our troops had scarcely shown themselves when the whole of that line gave way, and fled in the greatest confusion, leaving the two guns upon the road in possession of the victors. But here it must be confessed that the light brigade was guilty of imprudence. Instead of pausing till the rest of the army came up, the soldiers lightened themselves by throwing away their knapsacks and haversacks; and extending their ranks so as to show an equal front with the enemy, pushed on to the attack of the second line.

The Americans, however, saw their weakness, and stood firm, and having the whole of their artillery, with the exception of the pieces captured on the road, and the greater part of their infantry in this line, they first checked the ardour of the assailants by a heavy fire, and then, in their turn, advanced to recover the ground which was lost. Against this charge the extended order of the British troops would not permit them to offer an effectual resistance, and they were accordingly borne back to the very thicket upon the river's brink; where they maintained themselves with determined obstinacy, repelling all attempts to drive them through it; and frequently following, to within a short distance of the cannon's mouth, such parts of the enemy's line as gave way.

In this state the action continued till the second brigade had likewise crossed, and formed upon the right bank of the river; when the 44th regiment moving to the right, and driving in the skirmishers, debouched upon the left flank of the Americans, and completely turned it. In that quarter, therefore, the battle was won; because the raw militia-men, who were stationed there as being the least assailable point, when once broken could not be rallied. But on their right the enemy still kept their ground with much resolution; nor was it till the arrival of the 4th regiment, and the advance of the British forces in firm array to the charge, that they began to waver. Then, indeed, seeing their left in full flight, and the 44th getting in their rear, they lost all order, and dispersed, leaving clouds of riflemen to cover their retreat; and hastened to conceal themselves in the woods, where it would have been madness to follow them. The rout was now general throughout the line. The reserve, which ought to have supported the main body, fled as soon as those in its front began to give way; and the cavalry, instead of charging the British troops, now scattered in pursuit, turned their horses' heaas and galloped off, leaving them in undisputed possession of the field, and of ten out of the twenty pieces of artillery.

This battle, by which the fate of the American capital was decided, began about one o'clock in the afternoon, and lasted till four. The loss on the part of the English was severe, since, out of two-thirds of the army, which were engaged, upwards of five hundred men were killed and wounded; and what rendered it doubly severe was, that among these were numbered several officers of rank and distinction. Colonel Thornton, who commanded the light brigade, Lieutenant-Colonel Wood, commanding the 85th regiment, and Major Brown, who led the advanced guard, were all severely wounded; and General Ross himself had a horse shot under him. On the side of the Americans the slaughter was not so great. Being in possession of a strong position, they were of course less exposed in defending, than the others in storming it; and had they conducted themselves with coolness and resolution, it is not conceivable how the battle could have been won. But the fact is, that, with the exception of a party of sailors from the gun-boats, under the command of Commodore Barney, no troops could behave worse than they did. The skirmishers were driven in as soon as attacked, the first line gave way without offering the slightest resistance, and the left of the main body was broken within half an hour after it was seriously engaged. Of the sailors, however, it would be injustice not to speak in the terms which their conduct merits. 

They were employed as gunners, and not only did they serve their guns with a quickness and precision which astonished their assailants, but they stood till some of them were actually bayoneted, with fuzes in their hands; nor was it till their leader was wounded and taken, and they saw themselves deserted on all sides by the soldiers, that they quitted the field. With respect to the British army, again, no line of distinction can be drawn. All did their duty, and none more gallantly than the rest; and though the brunt of the affair fell upon the light brigade, this was owing chiefly to the circumstance of its being at the head of the column, and perhaps also, in some degree, to its own rash impetuosity. The artillery, indeed, could do little; being unable to show itself in presence of a force so superior; but the six-pounder was nevertheless brought into action, and a corps of rockets proved of striking utility.

Our troops being worn down from fatigue, and of course as ignorant of the country as the Americans were the reverse, the pursuit could not be continued to any distance. Neither was it attended with much slaughter. Diving into the recesses of the forests, and covering themselves with riflemen, the enemy were quickly beyond our reach; and having no cavalry to scour even the high road, ten of the lightest of their guns were carried off in the flight. The defeat, however, was absolute, and the army which had been collected for the defence of Washington was scattered beyond the possibility of, at least, an immediate reunion; and as the distance from Bladensburg to that city does not exceed four miles, there appeared to be no further obstacle in the way to prevent its immediate capture.

An opportunity so favourable was not endangered by any needless delay. While the two brigades which had been engaged remained upon the field to recover their order, the third, which had formed the reserve, and was consequently unbroken, took the lead, and pushed forward at a rapid rate towards Washington.

As it was not the intention of the British Government to attempt permanent conquests in this part of America, and as the General was well aware that, with a handful of men, he could not pretend to establish himself, for any length of time, in an enemy's capital, he determined to lay it under contribution, and to return quietly to the shipping. Nor was there anything unworthy of the character of a British officer in this determination. By all the customs of war, whatever public property may chance to be in a captured town, becomes, confessedly, the just spoil of the conqueror; and in thus proposing to accept a certain sum of money in lieu of that property, he was showing mercy rather than severity to the vanquished. It is true that if they chose to reject his terms he and his army would be deprived of their booty, because without some more convenient mode of transporting it than we possessed, even the portable part of the property itself could not be removed. But, on the other hand, there was no difficulty in destroying it; and thus, though we should gain nothing, the American Government would lose probably to a much greater amount than if they had agreed to purchase its preservation by the money demanded.

Burning of Washington from A new history of the United States: The Greater Republic, By Charles Morris,  Engraving of British burning the United States Capitol on 24 August 24th, 1814 - Historic.us Collection
Such being the intention of General Ross, he did not march the troops immediately into the city, but halted them upon a plain in its immediate vicinity, whilst a flag of truce was sent forward with terms. But whatever his proposal might have been, it was not so much as heard; for scarcely had the party bearing the flag entered the street, when it was fired upon from the windows of one of the houses, and the horse of the General himself, who accompanied it, killed. The indignation excited by this act throughout all ranks and classes of men in the army, was such as the nature of the case could not fail to occasion. Every thought of accommodation was instantly laid aside; the troops advanced forthwith into the town, and having first put to the sword all who were found in the house from which the shots were fired, and reduced it to ashes, they proceeded without a moment's delay to burn and destroy everything in the most distant degree connected with Government. In this general devastation were included the Senate-house, the President's palace, an extensive dock-yard and arsenal, barracks for two or three thousand men, several large storehouses filled with naval and military stores, some hundreds of cannon of different descriptions, and nearly twenty thousand stand of small-arms. 

There were also two or three public rope walks which shared the same fate, a fine frigate pierced for sixty guns, and just ready to be launched, several gun brigs and armed schooners, with a variety of gun-boats and small craft. The powder-magazines were set on fire, and exploded with a tremendous crash, throwing down many houses in their vicinity, partly by pieces of the walls striking them, and partly by the concussion of the air; whilst quantities of shot, shell, and hand-grenades, which could not otherwise be rendered useless, were cast into the river. In destroying the cannon a method was adopted which I had never before witnessed, and which, as it was both effectual and expeditious, I cannot avoid relating. One gun of rather a small calibre was pitched upon as the executioner of the rest, and being loaded with ball and turned to the muzzles of the others, it was fired, and thus beat out their breechings. Many, however, not being mounted, could not be thus dealt with; these were spiked, and having their trunnions knocked off, were afterwards cast into the bed of the river. All this was as it should be, and had the arm of vengeance been extended no further, there would not have been room given for so much as a whisper of disapprobation. But unfortunately it did not stop here; a noble library, several printing-offices, and all the national archives were likewise committed to the flames, which, though no doubt the property of Government, might better have been spared. It is not, however, my intention to join the outcry which was raised at the time against what the Americans and their admirers were pleased to term a line of conduct at once barbarous and unprofitable. On the contrary, I conceive that too much praise cannot be given to the forbearance and humanity of the British troops, who, irritated as they had every right to be, spared, as far as possible, all private property, neither plundering nor destroying a single house in the place, except that from which the General's horse had been killed.

Whilst the third brigade was thus employed, the rest of the army, having recalled its stragglers, and removed the wounded into Bladensburg, began its march towards Washington. Though the battle came to a close by four o'clock, the sun had set before the different regiments were in a condition to move, consequently this short journey was performed in the dark. The work of destruction had also begun in the city before they quitted their ground; and the blazing of houses, ships, and stores, the report of exploding magazines, and the crash of falling roofs, informed them, as they proceeded, of what was going forward. It would be difficult to conceive a finer spectacle than that which presented itself as they approached the town. The sky was brilliantly illumined by the different conflagrations; and a dark red light was thrown upon the road, sufficient to permit each man to view distinctly his comrade's face. Except the burning of St. Sebastian's, I do not recollect to have witnessed at any period of my life a scene more striking or more sublime.

Waterfront fire during the burning of the Washington Navy Yard, 1814 on the Anacostia River. Watercolor on laid paper by artist William Thornton, 1759-1828, artist, Circa 1814-15 
Having advanced as far as the plain, where the reserve had previously paused, the first and second brigades halted; and forming into close column, passed the night in bivouac. At first this was agreeable enough, because the air was mild, and weariness made up for what was wanting in comfort. But towards morning a violent storm of rain, accompanied with thunder and lightning, came on, which disturbed the rest of all who were exposed to it. Yet in spite of the inconvenience arising from the shower, I cannot say that I felt disposed to grumble at the interruption, for it appeared that what I had before considered as superlatively sublime, still wanted this to render it complete. The flashes of lightning vied in brilliancy with the flames which burst from the roofs of burning houses, whilst the thunder drowned for a time the noise of crumbling walls, and was only interrupted by the occasional roar of cannon, and of large depots of gunpowder, as they one by one exploded.

I need scarcely observe, that the consternation of the inhabitants was complete, and that to them this was a night of terror. So confident had they been of the success of their troops, that few of them had dreamt of quitting their houses or abandoning the city; nor was it till the fugitives from the battle began to rush in, filling every place as they came with dismay, that the President himself thought of providing for his safety. That gentleman, as I was credibly informed, had gone forth in the morning with the army, and had continued among his troops till the British forces began to make their appearance. Whether the sight of his enemies cooled his courage or not I cannot say, but according to my informant, no sooner was the glittering of our arms discernible, than he began to discover that his presence was more wanted in the senate than in the field; and having ridden through the ranks, and exhorted every man to do his duty, he hurried back to his own house, that he might prepare a feast for the entertainment of his officers, when they should return victorious. For the truth of these details I will not be answerable; but this much I know, that the feast was actually prepared, though, instead of being devoured by American officers, it went to satisfy the less delicate appetites of a party of English soldiers. 

The taking of the city of Washington in America, Published by G. Thompson No. 43 Long Lane, October 14th, 1814, wood engraving that shows a view from the Potomac River, of Washington, D.C. under attack by British forces under Major General Ross, August 24, 1814.

When the detachment sent out to destroy Mr. Maddison's house, entered his dining parlour, they found a dinner-table.spread, and covers laid for forty guests. Several kinds of wine in handsome cut-glass decanters were cooling on the sideboard; plate-holders stood by the fire-place, filled with dishes and plates; knives, forks, and spoons, were arranged for immediate use; everything in short was ready for the entertainment of a ceremonious party. Such were the arrangements in the dining-room, whilst in the kitchen were others answerable to them in every respect. Spits loaded with joints of various sorts turned before the fire; pots, saucepans, and other culinary utensils stood upon the grate; and all the other requisites for an elegant and substantial repast were in the exact state which indicated that they had been lately and precipitately abandoned.

The reader will easily believe that these preparations were beheld, by a party of hungry soldiers, with no indifferent eye. An elegant dinner, even though considerably over-dressed, was a luxury to which few of them, at least for some time back, had been accustomed; and which, after the dangers and fatigues of the day, appeared peculiarly inviting. They sat down to it, therefore, not indeed in the most orderly manner, but with countenances which would not have disgraced a party of aldermen at a civic feast; and having satisfied their appetites with fewer complaints than would have probably escaped their rival gourmands, and partaken pretty freely of the wines, they finished by setting fire to the house which had so liberally entertained them.

I have said that to the inhabitants of Washington this was a night of terror and dismay. From whatever cause the confidence arose, certain it is that they expected anything rather than the arrival among them of a British army; and their consternation was proportionate to their previous feeling of security, when an event, so little anticipated, actually came to pass. The first impulse naturally prompted them to fly, and the streets were speedily crowded with soldiers and senators, men, women, and children, horses, carriages, and carts loaded with household furniture, all hastening towards a wooden bridge which crosses the Potomac. The confusion thus occasioned was terrible, and the crowd upon the bridge was such as to endanger its giving way. But Mr. Maddison, as is affirmed, having escaped among the first, was no sooner safe on the opposite bank of the river, than he gave orders that the bridge should be broken down; which being obeyed, the rest were obliged to return, and to trust to the clemency of the victors.

In this manner was the night passed by both parties; and at daybreak next morning the light brigade moved into the city, whilst the reserve fell back to a height about half a mile in the rear. Little, however, now remained to be done, because everything marked out for destruction was already consumed. Of the Senate-house, the President's palace, the barracks, the dockyard, &c., nothing could be seen, except heaps of smoking ruins; and even the bridge, a noble structure upwards of a mile in length, was almost entirely demolished. There was, therefore, no further occasion to scatter the troops, and they were accordingly kept together as much as possible on the Capitol Hill.

Of the city of Washington I have purposely declined attempting any minute description, because it possesses no leading features, by catching which I might hope to convey to a person who has not seen it, something like an accurate notion of the whole. It was then, and is, I believe, still in its infancy, few of the streets being finished, and many containing not more than three or four houses, at wide intervals from each other. But its situation gives to it advantages such as few capitals either in the new or old world can boast of, and if it continue to be the head of the American States for another century, it will become, I doubt not, one of the most flourishing cities in existence. America is, and always will be, a commercial nation, nor can a single town throughout the whole of that vast continent boast of a better harbour than Washington. Standing upon the Potomac, one of the most navigable of all the rivers that empty themselves into the Chesapeake, the depth of which is sufficient to float a frigate for some way above the town, it possesses unrivalled facilities for the carrying on of an extensive trade; whilst its distance from the coast is such as to place it, in a great measure, beyond reach of insult from an enemy. Such an assertion, coming from one who has just detailed the particulars of its capture, may, indeed, appear to partake not slightly of the nature of a paradox; but there is no denying that the fall of Washington ought to be attributed much more to the misconduct of the Americans themselves, than to the skill or enterprise of those who effected it. Had the emergency been contemplated, and in a proper manner provided against, or had the most moderate ingenuity and courage been displayed in retarding the progress of our troops, the design, if formed at all, would have been either abandoned immediately, or must have ended in the total destruction of the invaders.

Like other infant towns, Washington is but little ornamented with fine buildings; except the Senate-house, I really know of none worthy to be noticed. This however is, or rather was, an edifice of some beauty. It stood, where its ruins now stand, upon a mound called the Capitol Hill, and near a trifling stream named the Tiber; from which circumstances these modern republicans are led to flatter themselves that the days are coming when it will rival in power and grandeur the Senate-house of ancient Rome herself. It was built entirely of freestone, tastefully worked and highly polished; and, besides its numerous windows, was lighted from the top by a large and handsome cupola. Perhaps it could not be said to belong to any decided style of architecture; but its central appearance was light, airy, and elegant. After traversing a wide and spacious entrance-hall, you arrived at the foot of a handsome spiral hanging staircase; on the right of which were two spacious apartments, one above the other, which were occupied as sitting chambers by the two houses of representatives. From these branched off several smaller rooms, fitted up as offices, and probably used as such by the various officers of state. On the right of the staircase, again, were two other apartments equal in size to those on the left, with a like number of smaller rooms branching off from them. These were furnished as a public library, the two larger being well stocked with valuable books, principally in modern languages, whilst the others, filled with archives, national statutes, acts of legislature, &c., were used as the private rooms of the librarians.

The President's house, on the other hand, though likewise a public building, was remarkable for nothing except the absence of taste exhibited in its structure. It was small, incommodious, and plain; in no respect likely to excite the jealousy of a people peculiarly averse to all pomp or parade, even in their chief magistrate. Besides these, there were also a custom-house, several banking-houses, and a school or college, all claiming to themselves the distinction of public works; but in them there was a plainness amounting almost to coarseness, and a general air of republicanism, by no means imposing. With respect to the number of inhabitants which Washington contained, I confess that I cannot pretend to give an opinion: but if any judgment may be formed from the extent of ground covered by what is considered as the town, I should say that they amounted to somewhere about sixty thousand. George Town, the quarter where the President's house stood, is compact and regular, containing, I should conceive, at least twenty thousand souls within itself; nor can the population of the other quarters be estimated at less than double that number.

Such was then the city of Washington, of which our hasty and unfriendly visit did not allow us to take a very minute survey. I return now to the movements of the British army.

I have stated above that our troops were this day kept as much together as possible upon the Capitol Hill. But it was not alone on account of the completion of their destructive labours that this was done. A powerful army of Americans already began to show themselves upon some heights, at the distance of two or three miles from the city; and as they sent out detachments of horse even to the very suburbs, for the purpose of watching our motions, it would have been unsafe to permit more straggling than was absolutely necessary. The army which we had overthrown the day before, though defeated, was far from annihilated; it had by this time recovered its panic, began to concentrate itself in our front, and presented quite as formidable an appearance as ever. We learnt, also, that it was joined by a considerable force from the back settlements, which had arrived too late to take part in the action, and the report was, that both combined amounted to nearly twelve thousand men.

Whether or not it was their intention to attack, I cannot pretend to say, because it was noon before they showed themselves; and soon after, when something like a movement could be discerned in their ranks, the sky grew suddenly dark, and the most tremendous hurricane ever remembered by the oldest inhabitant in the place came on. Of the prodigious force of the wind it is impossible for one who was not an eye-witness to its effects to form a conception. Boofs of houses were torn off by it, and whirled into the air like sheets of paper; whilst the rain which accompanied it resembled the rushing of a mighty cataract rather than the dropping of a shower. The darkness was as great as if the sun had long set, and the last remains of twilight had come on, occasionally relieved by flashes of vivid lightning streaming through it; which, together with the noise of the wind and the thunder, the crash of falling buildings, and the tearing of roofs as they were stript from the walls, produced the most appalling effect I ever have, and probably ever shall, witness. The storm lasted for nearly two hours without intermission, during which time many of the houses spared by us were blown down, and thirty of our men, besides several of the inhabitants, buried beneath their ruins. Our column was as completely dispersed as if it had received a total defeat; some of the men flying for shelter behind walls and buildings, and others falling flat upon the ground, to prevent themselves from being carried away by the tempest; nay, such was the violence of the wind, that two pieces of light cannon, which stood upon the eminence, were fairly lifted from the ground, and borne several yards to the rear.

When the hurricane had blown over, the camp of the Americans appeared to be in as great a state of confusion as our own; nor could either party recover themselves sufficiently during the rest of the day to try the fortune of a battle. Of this General Boss did not fail to take advantage. He had already attained all that he could hope, and perhaps more than he originally expected to attain; consequently, to risk another action would only be to spill blood for no purpose. Whatever might be the issue of the contest, he could derive from it no advantage. If he were victorious, it would not do away with the necessity which existed of evacuating Washington; if defeated, his ruin was certain. To avoid fighting was therefore his object, and perhaps he owed its accomplishment to the fortunate occurrence of the storm. Be that, however, as it may, a retreat was resolved upon; and we now only waited for night, to put the resolution into practice.

There was, however, one difficulty to be surmounted in this proceeding. Of the wounded, many were so ill as to preclude all possibility of their removal, and to leave them in the hands of an enemy whom we had beaten was rather a mortifying anticipation. But for this there was no help; and it now only remained to make the best arrangements for their comfort, and to secure for them, as far as could be done, civil treatment from the Americans.

It chanced that, among other prisoners taken at Bladensburg, was Commodore Barney, an American officer of much gallantry and high sense of honour. Being himself wounded, he was the more likely to feel for those who were in a similar condition, and having received the kindest treatment from our medical attendants, as long as he continued under their hands, he became, without solicitation, the friend of his fellow-sufferers. To him, as well as to the other prisoners, was given his parole, and to his care were our wounded, in a peculiar manner, intrusted,—a trust which he received with the utmost willingness, and discharged with the most praiseworthy exactness. Among other stipulations, it was agreed that such of our people as were left behind should be considered as prisoners of war, and should be restored to us as soon as they were able to travel; and that, as soon as they reached the ships, the Commodore and his countrymen would, in exchange, be released from their engagements.

As soon as these arrangements were completed, and darkness had come on, the third brigade, which was posted in the rear of our army, began to withdraw. Then followed the guns, afterwards the second, and last of all the light brigade, exactly reversing the order which had been maintained during the advance. Instead of an advanced guard, this last now furnished a party to cover the retreat, and the whole procession was closed by the mounted drivers.

It being a matter of great importance to deceive the enemy and to prevent pursuit, the rear of the column did not quit its ground upon the Capitol till a late hour. During the day an order had been issued that none of the inhabitants should be seen in the streets after eight o'clock; and as fear renders most men obedient, the order was punctually attended to. All the horses belonging to different officers were removed to drag the guns, no one being allowed to ride, lest a neigh, or even the trampling of hoofs, should excite suspicion. The fires were trimmed, and made to blaze brightly; fuel enough was left to keep them so for some hours; and finally, about half-past nine o'clock the troops formed in marching order, and moved off in the most profound silence. Not a word was spoken, nor a single individual permitted to step one inch out of his place, by which means they passed along the streets perfectly unnoticed, and cleared the town without any alarm being given. Our pace, it will be imagined, was none of the most tardy, consequently it was not long before we reached the ground which had been occupied by the other brigades. Here we found a second line of fires blazing in the same manner as those deserted by ourselves; and the same precautions in every respect adopted, to induce a belief that our army was still quiet.—Beyond these, again, we found two or three solitary fires, placed in such order as to resemble those of a chain of piquets. In a word, the deception was so well managed, that even we ourselves were at first doubtful whether the rest of the troops had fallen back.

When we reached the ground where yesterday's battle had been fought, the moon rose, and exhibited a spectacle by no means enlivening.—The dead were still unburied, and lay about in every direction completely naked. They had been stripped even of their shirts, and having been exposed in this state to the violent rain in the morning, they appeared to be bleached to a most unnatural degree of whiteness. The heat and rain together had likewise affected them in a different manner; and the smell which rose upon the night air was horrible.

There is something in such a scene as this extremely humbling, and repugnant to the feelings of human nature. During the agitation of a battle, it is nothing to see men fall in hundreds by your side. You may look at them, perhaps, for an instant, but you do so almost without being yourself aware of it, so completely are your thoughts carried away by the excitation of the moment and the shouts of your companions.—But when you come to view the dead in an hour of calmness, stripped as they generally are, you cannot help remembering how frail may have been the covering which saved yourself from being the loathsome thing on which you are now gazing.—For myself, I confess that these reflections rose within my mind on the present occasion; and if any one should say that, similarly situated, they would not rise in his, I should give him no credit for a superior degree of courage, though I might be inclined to despise him for his want of the common feelings of a reasonable being.

In Bladensburg the brigade halted for an hour, while those men who had thrown away their knapsacks endeavoured to recover them. During this interval I strolled up to a house which had been converted into an hospital, and paid a hasty visit to the wounded. I found them in great pain, and some of them deeply affected at the thought of being abandoned by their comrades, and left to the mercy of their enemies. Yet, in their apprehension of evil treatment from the Americans, the event proved that they had done injustice to that people; who were found to possess at least one generous trait in their character, namely, that of behaving kindly and attentively to their prisoners. As soon as the stragglers had returned to their ranks, we again moved on, continuing to march without once stopping to rest during the whole of the night. Of the fatigue of a night march none but those who have experienced it can form the smallest conception. Oppressed with the most intolerable drowsiness, we were absolutely dozing upon our legs; and if any check at the head of the column caused a momentary delay, the road was instantly covered with men fast asleep. It is generally acknowledged that no inclination is so difficult to resist as the inclination to sleep; but when you are compelled not only to bear up against that, but to struggle also with weariness, and to walk at the same time, it is scarcely possible to hold out long. By seven o'clock in the morning, it was found absolutely necessary to pause, because numbers had already fallen behind, and numbers more were ready to follow their example; when throwing ourselves upon the ground, almost in the same order in which we had marched, in less than five minutes there was not a single unclosed eye throughout the whole brigade. Piquets were of course stationed, and sentinels placed, to whom no rest was granted, but, except these, the entire army resembled a heap of dead bodies on a field of battle, rather than living men.

In this situation we remained till noon, when we were again roused to continue the retreat. Though the sun was oppressively powerful, we moved on without resting till dark, when having arrived at our old position near Marlborough, we halted for the night. During this day's march we were joined by numbers of negro slaves, who implored us to take them along with us, offering to serve either as soldiers or sailors, if we would but give them their liberty; but as General Ross persisted in protecting private property of every description, few of them were fortunate enough to obtain their wishes.

We had now proceeded a distance of thirty-five miles, and began to consider ourselves beyond the danger of pursuit. The remainder of the retreat was accordingly conducted with more leisure; our next march carrying us no farther than to Nottingham, where we remained during an entire day, for the purpose of resting the troops. It cannot, however, be said that this resting-time was spent in idleness. A gun-brig, with a number of ships' launches and long-boats, had made their way up the stream, and were at anchor opposite to the town. On board the former were carried such of the wounded as had been able to travel, whilst the latter were loaded with flour and tobacco, the only spoil which we found it practicable to bring off.

Whilst the infantry were thus employed, the cavalry was sent back as far as Marlborough, to discover whether there were any American forces in pursuit; and it was well for the few stragglers who had been left behind that this recognizance was made. Though there appeared to be no disposition on the part of the American General to follow our £teps and to harass the retreat, the inhabitants of that village, at the instigation of a medical practitioner called Bain, had risen in arms as soon as we departed; and falling upon such individuals as strayed from the column, put some of them to death, and made others prisoners. A soldier whom they had taken, and who had escaped, gave information of these proceedings to the troopers, just as they were about to return to head-quarters; upon which they immediately wheeled about, and galloping into the village, pulled the doctor out of his bed (for it was early in the morninr), compelled him, by a threat of instant death, to liberate his prisoners; and mounting him before one of the party, brought him in triumph to the camp.

The wounded, the artillery, and plunder, being all embarked on the 28th, at daybreak on the 29th we took the direction of St. Benedict's, where we arrived, without any adventure, at a late hour in the evening. Here we again occupied the ground of which we had taken possession on first landing, passing the night in perfect quiet; and next day, the boats of the fleet being ready to receive us, the regiments, one by one, marched down to the beach. We found the shore covered with sailors from the different ships of war, who welcomed our arrival with loud cheers; and having contrived to bring up a larger flotilla than had been employed in the disembarkation, they removed us within a few hours, and without the occurrence of any accident, to our respective vessels.

"Cockburn in the Chair" from A Popular History of the United States by William Cullen Bryant, C. Scribner's sons, 1881. Engraving of British Admiral Cockburn (1772-1853) in the chair of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives during the burning of Washington D.C., on 24 August 1814. Historic.us Collection

Such is a plain impartial account of the inroad upon Washington, an affair than which the whole war produced none more brilliant or more daring. In whatever light we may regard it, whether we look to the amount of difficulties which it behoved him to overcome, the inadequacy of the force which he commanded, or the distance which he was called upon to march, in the midst of a hostile population, and through deep and trackless forests, we cannot deny to General Ross the praise which is his due, of having planned and successfully accomplished an expedition which none but a sagacious mind could have devised, and none but a gallant spirit carried into execution. Among the many important transactions which then occupied the public attention, the campaign at Washington was, I believe, but little spoken of; and even now, it is overwhelmed in the recollections of the all-engrossing Waterloo; but the time will probably come, when he who at the head of four thousand men penetrated upwards of sixty miles into an enemy's country; overthrew an army more than double his own in point of numbers; took possession of the capital of a great nation, and having held it as long as it suited his own purposes to hold it, returned again in triumph to his fleet, will be ranked, as he deserves to be ranked, among the number of those who have most successfully contributed to elevate Great Britain to the height of military glory on which she now stands. It has been said that the entire merit of this brilliant expedition is due, not so much to the brave man who conducted it, as to Sir George Cockburn, at whose suggestion it was undertaken. To the great gallantry and high talents of Sir George Cockbuxn no one who served within the compass of the Bay of Chesapeake will refuse to bear testimony; nor is it improbable that in attributing to him the original design of laying Washington itself under contribution, common report speaks truly. But with whomsoever the idea first originated, to General Ross belongs the undivided fame of having carried it into effect. From Sir George Cockburn, and indeed from the whole fleet, the army received every assistance which it was in the power of the fleet to bestow; but had no Ross been at the head of the land forces, the capital of the United States would have suffered no insult. I have ventured to make these remarks, not with any design of taking away, in the slightest degree, from the well-earned reputation of the living; but merely as an act of justice towards the memory of the gallant dead, whose services have hardly received all the notice, either from the Government or the country, which they deserved.

Of the degree of military sagacity exhibited on both sides, during the progress of hostilities, it scarcely becomes me to speak. Perhaps our leader delayed something too long in making up his mind as to the ultimate end to be pursued, after the troops had penetrated so far into the interior as Marlborough. Had he pushed on at once, it is barely possible that Washington might have fallen at a less expense of human life than actually occurred. Perhaps, too, he commenced the attack at Bladensburg with a degree of precipitancy which hindered him from taking advantage of an open ford, and compelled him to expose his troops to the fire of the enemy's artillery whilst crossing a narrow bridge in a single column. But these errors, if errors they may be termed, were amply compensated by the perfect success of his operations; whilst in every other particular his conduct was beyond the reach of censure. In his choice of ground for halting, in the order both of his advance and retreat, and in the rapidity of his movements as soon as his plans had been arranged, General Ross exhibited himself in the light of an able and diligent commander. No man could possess more than he a soldier's eye in examining the face of a country; and in what little manoeuvring the circumstances permitted, he displayed the proficiency of one well practised in the arts of campaigning. It will be recollected,that on the 23rd, the day previous to the battle, we fell in with a strong body of the enemy, to deceive whom we wheeled off from the main road, and took the direction of Alexandria. The plan was attended by the most perfect success; the party deceived being in fact the advanced guard of the main army. Thinking that Alexandria, and not Washington, was threatened, the American General abandoned a strong position, which he had seized on the main road, harassed his troops by a needless march towards that town; and discovered his mistake only time enough to occupy the heights of Bladensburg a very few minutes before we came in sight.

With respect to the Americans, again, criticism necessarily degenerates into unqualified censure. From the beginning to the end of the affair, they acted in no one instance like prudent or sagacious men. In the first place, they ought on no account to have risked a general action in an open country, however strong and steep; and, secondly, they deserved to suffer much more severely than they did suffer, for permitting an enemy's army to penetrate beyond Nottingham. In allowing us to land without opposition, they were perhaps guilty of no great mistake; but having done so, instead of concentrating their forces in one place, they ought to have harassed us with continual skirmishing; felled trees on each side, and thrown them across the road; dug deep ditches at certain intervals; in a word, it was their wisdom to adopt the mode of warfare to which their own habits, as well as the nature of their country, invited them.

In America, every man is a marksman from his very boyhood, and every man serves in the militia; but to bring an army of raw militia-men, however excellent they might be as marksmen, into a fair field against regular troops, could end in nothing but defeat. When two lines oppose each other, very little depends upon the accuracy with which individuals take aim. It is then that the habit of acting in concert, the confidence which each man feels in his companions, and the rapidity and good order in which different movements can be executed, are alone of real service. But put these raw militia-men into thick woods, and send your regular troops to drive them out, and you will immediately lose all the advantages of discipline, and reduce your battle to so many single combats.

Here, therefore, lay their principal error: had they left all clear, and permitted us to advance as far as Nottingham, then broken up the roads, and covered them with trees, it would have been impossible for us to go a step beyond. As soon as this was effected, they might have skirmished with us in front, and kept our attention alive with part of their troops, till the rest, acquainted as they doubtless were with every inch of the country, had got into our rear, and, by a similar mode of proceeding, cut off our retreat. Thus we should have been taken in a snare, from which it would have been no easy task to extricate ourselves, and might, perhaps, have been obliged in the end to surrender at discretion.

But so obvious and so natural a plan of defence they chose to reject; and determining to trust all to the fate of a battle, they were guilty of a monstrous error again. Bladensburg ought not to have been left unoccupied. The most open village, if resolutely defended, will cost many men before it falls; whereas Bladensburg, being composed of substantial brick houses, might have been maintained for hours against all our efforts. In the next place, they displayed great want of military knowledge in the disposition of both their infantry and artillery. There was not, in the whole space of their position, a single point where an enemy would be exposed to a cross fire. The troops were drawn up in three straight lines, like so many regiments upon a gala parade; whilst the guns were used as connecting links to a chain, being posted in the same order, by ones and twos, at every interval.

In maintaining themselves, likewise, when attacked, they exhibited neither skill nor resolution. Of the personal courage of the Americans there can be no doubt; they are, individually taken, as brave a nation as any in the world. But they are not soldiers; they have not the experience nor the habits of soldiers. It was the height of folly, therefore, to bring them into a situation where nothing except that experience and those habits will avail; and it is on this account that I repeat what I have already said, that the capture of Washington was more owing to the blindness of the Americans themselves than to any other cause.

The Battle of Bladensburg

Joshua Barney - In the first year of the war of 1812,  Barney engaged in privateering on behalf of the United States. On April 24th, 1814, he was commissioned a captain in the navy and appointed to the command of the flotilla for the defense of Chesapeake bay. He was ordered to the defense of Washington in July and severely wounded and taken prisoner in the battle of Bladensburg. For his gallant conduct in the defense of the capital he received a sword from the city of Washington and a vote of thanks from the Georgia legislature. The ball in his thigh was never extracted, and the distress from the wound obliged him to return from a mission to Europe in October 1815. He resided on his farm at Elk-ridge until 1818, when, after a visit to the west, he purchased a large tract in Kentucky, and was on the way thither when he was taken ill at Pittsburgh and died.

Commodore Barney's little force of five hundred flotillamen proceeded by forced march to Bladensburg, accompanied by Captain Samuel Miller and 120 U.S. Marines, and five pieces of heavy artillery from his flotilla and from the Washington Navy Yard. Following were two ammunition wagons which he had hastily procured.

General Winder had drawn up his forces to cover the road for some distance west of town, on the west bank of the eastern branch of the Potomac, in a fine position to defend the bridge over which the British must pass. President Madison, Secretary of War General Armstrong, and Secretary of State James Monroe were also there, but they hindered far more than they helped by giving conflicting orders.

Arriving at 1 PM, at the same time the British had begun attacking General Winder's forward line, he arranged his artillery in battery at the center of the second line position on the west bank of the eastern branch of the Potomac. The Commodore himself directed the artillery (2 eighteens and 3 twelve-pounder ship's guns mounted on carriages), while Captain Miller of the Marines commanded the rest of the force -- 120 Marines and 370 flotillamen armed as infantry.

As at Bunker Hill, the two first attacks of the British were bloodily repulsed, chiefly by Barney's guns. By his own account, "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 met there by three 12-pounders, and 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 which I expected much support from their fine position."

As the British attempted their flanking movement, the Commodore ordered Captain Miller and the flotillamen-infantry to charge, while he poured a destructive fire upon their flank. The charge was executed with great celerity and determination; the veterans of the 86th and 4th -- the "King's Own Regiment" -- giving way before it, pursued by their assailants, the sailors crying out to "board `em." They were driven back to a wooded ravine 3, leaving several of their wounded officers in the hands of the Americans. Colonel William Thornton, who bravely led the attacking British column, was severely wounded, and General Ross had his horse shot under him.

It would have been well for the honor of America if all who were present on that day had behaved with the same decision and effect as Commodore Barney and his command. Their heroic resistance saved the combat at Bladensburg from being an unqualified disgrace to American arms. "It was a magnificent stand; the slightest follow-up of Barney's counterattack might have produced an American victory. As it was, the road to Washington now lay open." But while they were sustaining the credit of their country, the other troops had disappeared, and in the confusion of their retreat, the wagons containing the ammunition for the cannon and small arms had been carried off. The British light troops acting en tirailleur had, in consequence of the total absence of any support, gained positions on his flanks near enough to produce effect with their fire, and to wound and kill several of his best officers. Captain Miller had been wounded in charging the enemy; and Commodore Barney himself, after having had his horse killed under him, received a musket ball in the thigh. 

The force of the enemy was constantly increasing, for the lack of ammunition for Barney's artillery ended the only effective resistance to the British advance. When it became evident that a reinforcing column of Virginia militia could not arrive in time to aid the gallant flotillamen, who were obstinately maintaining their position against fearful odds, and that further resistance would be useless, General Winder ordered a general retreat. The retreat order was never passed to Barney's command, but with no ammunition, flanked on the right and deserted on the left, the Commodore knew that the end had come. He ordered the guns spiked and the men to retreat. The officers and men who were able to march effected the retreat in excellent order; but the Commodore's wound rendered him unable to move, and he was made prisoner.

General Ross, who had lost nearly three hundred men before getting across the river, gave great attention and care to the wounded Commodore; he so admired the bravery of the "blue-jackets" that he paroled all the flotillamen, including the Commodore, on the spot. 5 The General ordered that he be taken at once into the city and his wounds treated.

The City of Washington presented Commodore Barney a sword, "as a testimonial of his distinguished gallantry and good conduct in the Battle of Bladensburg." The blade is inscribed, "In testimony of the intrepidity and valor of Commodore Joshua Barney, and the handful of men under his immediate command in the defense of the City of Washington on the twenty-fourth of August, 1814."


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