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History of the Late War between Great Britain and the United States by David Thompson: Chapter 32

Chapter XXIII.

Arrival of a British naval and military Force on the Shores of the U. States—Troops land at the Mouth of the Pawtuxent and move on towards Washington—General Ross arrives at Bladensburg and finds the American Force strongly posted to oppose his Passage—The American Army routed—General Ross takes Possession of the American Capital—The British Forces again retire to the Seaboard and embark—Captain Gordon's Expedition up the Potomac—Captain Sir Peter Parker's Expedition up the Chesapeake—Descent upon Baltimore—Retreat and re-embarkation of the British.

During the period in which the operations of the campaign on the Niagara frontiers were transpiring, a naval force, consisting of five line of battle ships and a few frigates, was fitted out and placed under the com­mand of Vice-admiral Cochrane, for the purpose of visiting the coasts of the United States and laying waste her maritime cities and towns, with a view to putting a more speedy termination to the war so much deprecated by the enlightened men of both countries. This naval squadron was accompanied by several transports having on board a military force of from five to six thousand men under the command of Major General Ross. This armament arrived on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, along which it hovered a few days, occasionally bom­barding the towns and villages along the coast.

On the 21st, the squadron arrived at Benedict, at the mouth of the Pawtuxet, (about forty-seven miles from the city of Washington, the metropolis of the United States,) where General Ross disembarked his troops; from whence he proceeded to Nottingham, and on the following day to Upper Marlborough. On this march the British army met with but little or no opposition, except from a flotilla of about twenty gun-boats manned with about four or five hundred marines and seamen, under the command of Commodore Barney, an experi­enced and meritorious naval officer, but who was at length compelled, with the men under his command, to abandon and set fire to the boats, directing their flight to Bladensburg, there to join General Winder, who had, at that place collected a force of nearly nine thou­sand for the purpose of disputing with General Ross the road to the capital.

General Winder's army was visited by President Ma­dison accompanied by General Armstrong, the American Secretary of War, together with the United States At­torney General, before whom they passed in review on the morning of the 23d, at Old-Fields, about five miles distant from the city of Washington.

After the review, General Winder detached a column under Colonel Scott, to reconnoitre the force of the British with a view to harass them in their advance, and by which means so retard their progress that the Ameri­can army might gain as much strength as possible, whose ranks were hourly swelling by the arrivals of the militia from Baltimore and Annapolis and volunteers from Georgetown and its vicinity. General Ross had advanced within six miles of the enemy's camp, when Colonel Scott's column was discovered; but receiving a few volleys from the British advanced guard, they re­treated in rapid movement towards their camp. General Ross advanced his column about three miles further on the road to Washington, where he encamped during the night; but the enemy, dreading a nocturnal attack, retired about sunset towards Washington, to a position where they could encamp in greater security.

Early on the morning of the 24th, the British forces were in movement towards Washington, taking a route which kept General Winder's army on their left flank; but about noon the enemy was discovered strongly post­ed at Bladensburg, ready to dispute the passage at that place. The bridge was defended by a large brigade of artillery supported by a column of riflemen, with a divi­sion of infantry drawn up in an orchard in the rear; and a strong brigade of infantry under the directions of Gene­ral Stansbury was drawn up on the west side of the western branch of the river; and on the heights com­manding the great road to Washington were erected two batteries served by the seamen and marines commanded by Commodore Barney and Captain Miller, and support­ed by a body of infantry and riflemen; the other columns of the enemy were posted according to the situ­ation of the ground, in the best order of defence which suggested itself to the minds of their generals.

General Ross, taking a moment's survey of the dis­position of the enemy, formed his plan of attack. The 85th Light infantry regiment, and the light infantry companies of the different regiments constituting the British column—the whole under the command of Colo­nel Thornton—rushed forward with such irresistible impetuosity, supported by a division of infantry com­manded by Colonel Brooke, that the bridge was carried in a few minutes: and the enemy compelled to retreat in confusion and dismay towards the capital, carrying terror in their flight, and after the brief deliberations of a council of war hastily assembled, it was concluded that under present circumstances the metropolis was completely untenable by the American army under their present dispersed and disorganized state; it was, there­fore, ordered that General Smith should continue the retreat of the army through the city, and take up a posi­tion on the heights of Georgetown.

The loss sustained by the British in the engagement at Bladensburg, amounted to two hundred and forty-nine in killed and wounded, sixty-four of whom were of the former*.The loss of the American army only amounted to one hundred and eighty, in killed, wounded and missing||; but their loss in property was immense: no less than two hundred and sixty pieces of cannon, five hundred and forty barrels of gun-powder, and a hundred thousand cartridge mostly charged each with a ball and three buck-shot, were taken by the captors.

General Ross, meeting with no further resistance, continued his approach to Washington; and having the main body of his army encamped about a mile and a half from the city, he entered the metropolis at the head of six or seven hundred men, about 8 o'clock in the evening. Immediately on the entry of the detachment of British troops into the city, General Ross issued or­ders for the destruction of all the public buildings and public works together with the public library, the capi­tol and a frigate and sloop of war in the navy yard, almost ready for launching, with all the materials in the naval arsenal; pursuant to which they were all con­signed to one continued conflagration, in which it is to be regretted that an elegant hotel with a few other private buildings were consumed.

Next day. General Ross having accomplished the object of his expedition to Washington, ordered a retreat which was commenced that evening and continued next day to Benedict. During the progress of these affairs, Captain Gordon of the Sea Horse, with a naval force under his command, ascended the Potomac; but, in consequence of the difficulties which presented them­selves in the navigation of that river with vessels of large dimensions, he did not reach Fort Washington until the 27th, upon which he immediately opened a bombardment; but the officer commanding that garrison gave orders for spiking the guns and blowing up the works without the least show of resistance. Captain Ovcjian then passed on to the town of Alexandria, the municipal authorities of which, in order to save the town from destruction, stipulated for the surrender of all public stores together with twenty-one sail of merchant shipping with their cargoes then lying in the harbor.

Captain Sir Peter Parker, to whom was entrusted the command of another division of the fleet with which to ascend the Chesapeake, on the night of the 30th of August, landed a body of seamen and marines, in all amounting to one hundred and twenty, near a place called Georgetown Cross Roads, where a body of the militia of Maryland was stationed. The enemy, apprized of this movement, were drawn up in much greater force than Captain Parker was led to anticipate, in front of their camp. Still the intrepid captain, thinking of no­thing but conquest, pressed forward with his handful of brave followers, and while animating them in the fury of the combat, received a buck-shot in the thigh, which penetrated the femoral artery, yet continuing to cheer his men to the conflict, he fell and terminated a life ren­dered immortal in the recollections of his countrymen; after which the enemy pouring upon them in overwhelm­ing numbers, compelled them to retire to their boats and abandon the enterprise.

Admiral Cochrane now assembled his whole squadron in the waters of the Chesapeake, determined on a de­scent upon the city of Baltimore; for which purpose the fleet ascended the bay, and on the 11th of September, they came to an anchor off the mouth of the Potomac River, about fourteen miles distant from Baltimore. Early on the following morning, General Ross debarked his troops amounting to nearly six thousand, under co­ver of the gun-boats, at a place called North Point. On receiving intelligence of this movement. Brigadier Gene­ral Striker, who had been detached with a force of between three and four thousand infantry, with a large park of artillery, a corps of cavalry and a body of rifle­men, to resist the approach of General Ross, took a position at the junction of the several roads which led to the city, having a body of light troops in his front under Major Heath, for the purpose of annoying the British and checking their advance. The point at which General Ross had effected a landing is a kind of peninsu­la formed by the Patapsco and Back rivers, across which Major Heath had thrown up an entrenchment; but, on the advance of the British column, this position was hastily abandoned with little or no resistance.

In a short time the British forces came up with the column under General Striker, which was discovered to be strongly posted with the right resting on Bear Creek and the left covered by a swamp almost imper­vious. General Ross continued to advance under the fire of the enemy's riflemen and light troops; and al­ways too prodigal of his own safety in the field, placed himself in front of his advance, who had now become engaged with that of the enemy. While in this situa­tion, with his hat waving in the air, animating his troops, he received a rifle ball in his breast which proved to be mortal.

The command of the expedition now devolved on Colonel Brooke, for whom General Ross immediately sent, and to whom he yielded his instructions; and after taking an affectionate leave of that officer and his per­sonal staff, and ejaculating "my dear wife," he breathed his last, deeply lamented by the whole army he had so recently commanded. Colonel Brooke continued to move forward on the enemy's position, and commenced a general attack; a few minutes after the commence­ment of which the signal was given to charge the enemy's line, when a rapid advance took place; and the whole of General Striker's army was completely routed and driven in confusion at the point of the bayonet. The enemy's position was then taken possession of, to­gether with two pieces of field ordnance which the enemy's artillery, in their precipitation, were unable to take from the field.

On the following morning, Colonel Brooke continued to advance till he arrived within a mile and a half of Baltimore, intending an immediate assault upon that place; but upon reconnoitring the works with which the enemy had surrounded the city, he discovered that all those hills, with which its ambient vicinity abounds, were completely studded with fortifications and redoubts, the whole of which were connected by breastworks and defended by an army of fifteen thousand men, ex­clusive of a numerous train of artillery commanded by Generals Stansbury and Foreman, and a body of seamen and marines under Commodore Rogers.

During the land operations against Baltimore, a pow­erful and well concerted plan of attack was attempted against Fort Mc. Henry commanding the entrance of the harbor of Baltimore, with a view to the reduction of that fort, that the naval force might approach the town and co-operate with the army; but in consequence of a number of vessels having been previously sunk by the enemy across the entrance, it was found impracticable to approach sufficiently near to render any assistance; the enterprise was therefore given up.

Next morning, the 15th, between one and two o'clock, the British army retreated a few miles from Baltimore, where they remained the whole of that day, with an intention to draw the American forces from their defences for an attack; but finding the enemy no way disposed to hazard a field engagement, the retreat was continued the next morning to North Point, where the troops were re-embarked, together with about two hun­dred of the most respectable inhabitants of Baltimore, prisoners of war. The loss of the Americans is said, in their own accounts, not to exceed one hundred and eighty killed and wounded; while, on the same autho­rity, the British loss amounted to six hundred including a number of prisoners.

*General Ross to Earl Bathurst, dated, on board the Tonnant, 30th August, 1814.

||General Winder to General Armstrong.

By the report of the committee appointed to investigate the amount of public property lost to the United States at the cap­ture of Washington, it is estimated at nine hundred and sixty-nine thousand, one hundred and seventy-one dollars.

[Public Domain mark] Copyright/Licence: This work was published in 1922 or earlier. It has therefore entered the public domain in the United States.