Napoleon’s abdication in April 1814 harbored serious strategic consequences for the United States, for it released thousands of veteran British soldiers for service in the War of 1812. Worse yet, the British government, angered by the burning of York (Toronto) in April 1813 and Port Dover, Ontario, in June 1814, authorized British senior commanders to embark upon an officially sanctioned policy of retribution. Ross, with his single brigade of four veteran regiments (Fourth, 21st, 44th, and 85th) under Cols. Arthur Brooke and William Thornton, were about to become the cutting edge of that policy. He was conveyed to Chesapeake Bay by Adm. Alexander Cochrane and united with a squadron under Adm. George Cockburn. On August 19, 1814, Cockburn landed Ross’s force of 4,500 men at Benedict, Maryland, while he sailed up the Pautuxent River in search of Commodore Joshua Barney’s gunboat flotilla. Barney subsequently destroyed his fleet and marched overland to Washington, D. C., which was only lightly defended. Cockburn then left the fleet to join up with Ross at Upper Marlborough and prevailed upon him to advance upon the American capital, 28 miles distant. To take such a small but veteran force, lacking any cavalry whatsoever, through the heart of enemy country was an audacious ploy, indeed. But danger was Ross’s calling, and he undertook the task with abandon.
The British soldiers advanced in excellent order as far as Bladensburg, Maryland, where, on August 24, 1814, they encountered a force of nearly 7,000 militia under Gen. William H. Winder. Winder squandered his numerical advantage by deploying in three mutually unsupportive lines, and Ross decided to attack immediately. Thornton’s brigade was ordered to charge across a heavily defended defile to his front while Brooke’s men attempted a flanking movement. The leading British elements were badly shot up and Thornton seriously wounded, yet Winder was unable to coordinate his withdrawal. In the ensuing fracas, the entire American army panicked and stampeded. The only real resistance came from a small knot of sailors and marines under Commodore Barney, who stood his ground magnificently until surrounded. Ross, having sustained 300 casualties-and having lost another horse-personally directed the final battlefield activities of the army. He then resumed advancing and occupied Washington that night. However, while accompanying the vanguard, he was fired upon by two snipers, who killed his mount. Ross was unhurt, but he ordered the house from which the shots originated burned-and the British began implementing their retaliatory policy with a vengeance.
Accordingly, the White House, Congress, and all public property were summarily reduced to ashes. Ross, however, was never happy with the practice of state-sponsored vandalism, and he strictly forbade his soldiers from looting private property. Several unlucky violators were caught and summarily flogged. Then, having humiliated the United States thoroughly and garnered additional laurels for himself, the general retraced his steps back to Benedict, where he reembarked on August 30, 1814. From beginning to end it was one of the War of 1812’s most spectacular and remarkable episodes. The entire affair underscored the military unpreparedness of the United States, especially when dealing with so talented and capable an enemy as England.
The Marines and Sailors
The British force of 4,000 men under General Ross landed at Benedict, Maryland on 19 August 1814, and from there set out for Washington. Five days after landing, impeded only by the Maryland sun which prostrated twelve men, they reached the village of Bladensburg just outside Washington, where they came in contact with Winder’s men. ‘On first sight,’ recounted a supercilious British officer, ‘the Americans might have passed off very well for a crowd of spectators come out to view the approach of the army.’
To the west of the village of Bladensburg was the River Anacostia, and Winder’s militia were drawn up on high ground on the far side with the seamen and Marines astride a road in the rear on the right flank. After delivering their Congreve rockets, Ross ordered his army to cross the river and attack the American position. At the first whoosh of the rockets, Winder’s militia threw away their muskets and fled. The Marines and seamen, however, stood fast. The Commodore Barney busied himself with his guns and Marine Captain Miller deployed the Marines as infantry. Ross pushed on unconcernedly until his advanced guard reached the rising ground on which Barney and Miller had sited their guns and formed the Marines. Boldly the British charged. The Commodore himself checked the laying of each piece. Then at last he gave the order to one gun to fire. As he reported, ‘I reserved our fire. In a few minutes the British advanced, when I ordered an 18 pounder to be fired, which completely cleared the road.’ The Commodore was guilty of no exaggeration, for the British afterwards said that the seamen gunners’ initial blast of grape and canister blew an entire company off the road. As the sailors stood to their guns, a hail of musketry swept down on the advancing foe from the Marines. Twice more the British re-formed and charged; twice more they were thrown back. The last repulse was actually followed by a counter-attack by the Marines and cutlass-swinging sailors shouting, ‘Board ’em! Board ’em!’ But by now both the Commodore and Captain Miller had been wounded. And General Ross, having seven times Barney’s force, worked flanking columns expertly round the thin line of Marines and seamen. With more than a fifth of the Marines killed or wounded, and with a bullet through his own thigh, Commodore Barney gave orders to retire. Although the redcoat had been stopped for two hours and had suffered 249 casualties, they could not be kept from their goal. Almost every public building in Washington was put to the torch, including the White House and the Capitol. The Commandant’s house was the one structure that escaped; legend has it that General Ross spared the house because it ranked as ‘married quarters’.