In 1813, British Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane captured Tangier Island off the coast of Virginia, and from there staged raids all along the Virginia and North Carolina coasts. After a brief respite during the winter in the early months of 1814, Cochrane returned. That April, Emperor Napoleon I abdicated the French throne, and tens of thousands of British troops were released from Europe for service in North America against the fledgling United States, whose war the British considered a mere sideshow. The Duke of Wellington assigned Cochrane 5000 of his best troops under Maj Gen Robert Ross, all veterans of the Peninsular Campaign, for operations against Americans. Ross’ brigade’s first operation was to neutralize the American Chesapeake Flotilla in its anchorage. Commodore Joshua Barney, who only had about 400 sailors and marines, fired his ships and withdrew toward Washington DC. Ross then advanced to Upper Marlboro, for where he could advance on either Washington or Baltimore.
US Secretary of War John Armstrong vehemently assured President James Madison that the British would attack Baltimore as it was a far larger city and much more economically important. Washington was only a city of 8000 and Baltimore was major commercial and shipbuilding center. However, Washington was the American seat of government and Europeans could not fathom a country continuing a war with its capital in enemy hands. Ross marched on Washington.
The defense of Washington was entrusted to Gen William H Winder, a political general (nephew of the governor of Maryland) and one who was just recently returned to service after a prisoner exchange. Winder had few regular troops other than Barney’s men and his militia was slow to mobilize. He called for all militia to concentrate on Bladensburg, about 9 miles northeast of Washington (a 1 ½ hour drive today). The first to arrive under BG Tobias Stansbury dug in on Lowndes Hill which commanded or protected the crossroads from Washington, Baltimore, Georgetown and Annapolis, to include the bridge and fords over the Anacostia River. Stansbury was in a strong position but abandoned it to when Winder sent his order to concentrate on the other side of the river, otherwise, he felt, he’ll become isolated and destroyed. Stansbury withdrew to a brickyard where he was unable to cover the river which allowed the British to cross unimpeded. Stansbury’s initial disposition provided the rallying point for Winder’s converging command, and eventually its defensive position.
Winder’s regulars of the 1st Infantry Bn, and 1st Sqdn of Light Dragoons, Maryland militia, Washington militia under BG Walter Smith, Barney’ sailors and marines, and members of the government all massed at Bladensburg. President Madison, armed with two dueling pistols, Sec. Armstrong, and Secretary of State James Monroe joined Winder’s command, and promptly began tinkering with his dispositions. Five different “commanders” shuffled the American army around, none correcting the flaws in Stansbury’s initial set. Monroe’s changes were most egregious, as he moved some of Stansbury’s men too far back to be of use. Even worse some of the militia from Washington were unarmed as they’d been promised muskets by Winder. Some were given muskets but had to return their flints because a supply officer needed them recounted. In summary, the Washington militia was partly unarmed, most of the Maryland militia was exposed, the American artillery could not support them, and there was a large gap left between the Maryland and Washington contingents.
When Ross arrived across the river outside Bladensburg on 24 Aug 1814, Winder’s dispositional flaws were readily apparent for all British officers to see. The view of the American lines from the bridge was better from the bridge than Winder’s position. Ross’ advanced guard under Col William Thornton quickly seized the moment and crossed the river. Thornton drove straight at the gap between the Maryland and Washington militia. Winder with some Maryland troops counterattacked Thornton’s right but repulsed. As Thornton was about turn Smith’s left flank, he was assaulted by Barney’s marines and sailors whom checked his advance. For a moment it looked as if the British initial advance was stopped. However, Winder thought Thonton was about to turn Smith so he ordered Smith to withdraw to close the gap. At this moment Winder’s retreating militia routed as a volley of Congreve rockets sailed overhead which terrified the militiamen. Their disorganized retreat caused the rest of the army to break. Barney’s men didn’t get the order and fought on, but the retreat swept away Barney’s supply wagons, and they eventually ran out of ammunition.
The American army, almost 5000 strong, disintegrated. Its chaotic retreat was memorialized in an 1816 poem as the “Bladensburg Races”. The militia streamed back through Washington. Their presence was the first sign to First Lady Dolly Madison that the battle was lost. She was preparing a victory dinner for the President and 20 guests when informed of the imminent arrival of British troops. Dolly Madison attempted to save as many of the White House’s valuables as she could, and even had a copy of a life sized portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart saved. She had the White House gardener break the frame and cut it out, just before the British arrived. After her and the government’s hasty departure, some Washingtonian opportunists looted the White House and the government buildings which the British chased off. Ross and his officers dined on Dolly’s dinner as their men set fire to the government buildings. After the meal and many toasts using the Presidential crystal, they torched the White House, then known as the “Presidential Palace. The Capitol building, Treasury building, War and State building, and the Library of Congress were also destroyed. Ross spared civilian homes and the Patent office (after being convinced that the patents were privately owned), and the Marine Barracks, in recognition of Barney’s spirited defense at Bladensburg. Rear Adm Cockburn, Ross’ second, went to the office of the National Intelligenser newspaper and confiscated all the “c’s” off the printing press, so the paper couldn’t print stories about him.
That evening, a bad thunderstorm and tornado eventually forced the British to quit the capitol and return to their ships, and this was when British discipline broke down and widespread looting and pillaging occurred by the retreating British. The President stopped at a tavern that night and slept in the homestead of a Quaker family in Brookville MD that night.