Main Content

At the beginning of 1814 the United States had been at war with Great Britain for little more than a year and a half. Angered by British interference with American shipping, impressment of sailors, and affronts to U.S. sovereignty, President James Madison led a divided nation into war. The south and west were eager for military moves to eradicate the threat posed by Britain's Native American allies, but New England was not enthusiastic about a conflict that would further disrupt its commercial trade. While the tiny U.S. Navy won a series of improbable victories at sea, victory in the land war proved elusive as U.S. attempts to invade Canada and drive the British from the area encircling the Great Lakes met with disaster.

British naval forces had occupied the Chesapeake Bay since the spring of 1813, terrorizing area residents with lightning raids. Secretary of War John Armstrong, however, insisted that while the British might threaten Baltimore, there was no strategic reason for them to attack Washington, and little was done to prepare a defense for the nation's capital.

In April 1814 Napoleon abdicated, bowing to the inevitable as combined Austrian, British, Portuguese, Prussian, Russian, Spanish and Swedish forces approached Paris. Napoleon's temporary defeat and removal from the European scene freed up a force of regular British troops to conduct operations against the United States.

"[There were no] visible steps towards works of defense, either permanent or temporary, either on the land, or the waterside, (I never having heard of a spade or an axe being struck in any such operation) or towards forming a rendezvous or camp of regular troops in the neighborhood ... the Secretary [Armstrong] generally treating with indifference, at least, if not with levity, the idea of an attack by the enemy."

District of Columbia Militia commander Major General John Peter Van Ness

"By God, they would not come here with such a fleet without meaning to strike somewhere, but they certainly will not come here; what the devil will they do here? ... No, no! Baltimore is the place, sir; that is of so much more consequence."

Secretary of War John Armstrong to the D.C. Militia's commander, Maj. Gen. John Peter Van Ness

Timeline of Events:

May 9: News of Napoleon's abdication reached Washington.

May 10-19: U.S. forces under Lt. Col. John B. Campbell captured and burned Port Dover and Port Talbot, Upper Canada (Ontario)—an outrage that contributed to the British decision to burn the public buildings of Washington, D.C.

May 20: Madison tried to prod Secretary of War John Armstrong to action, writing him from his Virginia home, Montpelier: "I am just possessed of the intelligence last from Great Britain ... they admonish us to prepare for the worst the enemy may be able to effect against us ... Among these [targets], the seat of Government cannot fail to be a favourite one."

June 26: Secretary of State James Monroe received a letter from Albert Gallatin, one of the U.S. Commissioners scheduled to negotiate a peace agreement with Great Britain, warning of British plans "to land at least 15 to 20,000 men on the Atlantic coast," cut off New England and either destroy the Union or elect a Federalist as the next president.

June 29: Trying to encourage a revival of commerce, Madison issued a proclamation ordering U.S. public and private armed vessels to disregard the blockade and to let ships from neutral countries pass through U.S. waters to U.S. ports.

July 1: President Madison, alarmed by the prospect of a British offensive in the Chesapeake Bay region, held an emergency cabinet meeting at the President's House. Secretary of War Armstrong insisted that Baltimore was the enemy's true objective. Armstrong was correct in a purely military sense—Baltimore was a seaport and unofficial naval base and Washington was not—but he completely misjudged the British desire to humiliate Americans by devastating their national capital.

July 2: British raided St. Leonard, Maryland, destroying naval supplies and residences. Raids like this spread terror along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay—many residents moved their enslaved people, household valuables, and livestock inland away from the coast.

July 5: Colonel James Burr wrote to Monroe's military aide Charles Nourse, "How long are we to be the laughing stock of the world? The enemy can with a small force destroy Washington in its present situation."

July 18: Washington Mayor James Haigh Blake and the city council petitioned Madison, protesting the lack of action in building defenses for the city.

July 19: Facing no resistance, 1,500 British marines captured Leonardtown, Maryland, taking provisions and destroying military stores. This raid deepened feelings of helplessness and dread among people living along the southern reaches of the Chesapeake Bay.

July 28: An irate crowd gathered outside the President's House and warned they would keep Madison and his family from fleeing Washington if they attempted to do so.

August 1: As July turned into August it became clear that a coherent defensive strategy for the District of Columbia was lacking—there were no outposts, no watchmen and messengers to keep up-to-date on British troop movements, no attempts to block the roads and bridges approaching Washington, or to choose positions where defensive fortifications could be built

August 15: British Maj. Gen. Robert Ross, Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane and Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn met on board a ship at the mouth of the Potomac. All three men knew that they could not afford significant losses, as their forces had already been set aside for a winter assault on New Orleans.

Cockburn, who had been conducting lighting raids in the Chesapeake Bay area since April 1813, persuaded Cochrane and Ross to attack Washington first instead of Baltimore, so the U.S. government and military would be surprised and would not have time to launch a defense. Cockburn planned to move up the Patuxent to sow doubt in American minds as to whether Baltimore or Washington was the British target—a ploy that would succeed.

August 17: British fleet with over 4,000 troops under command of Robert Ross anchored at the mouth of the Patuxent River, 35 miles southeast of Washington.

August 19: A British force of 4,370 men under Maj Gen. Robert Ross came ashore from their transports in the Chesapeake Bay at the Patuxent's chief port at Benedict, Maryland, 25 miles from the mouth of the Patuxent and about 50 miles southeast of Washington. Their target was Washington, but Ross also wanted to get rid of Joshua Barney's small flotilla of ships, currently bottled up in the Patuxent by British warships.

August 20: General William Winder had about 9,000 U.S. militiamen under his command—but unsure of where the British would strike, he dispersed them—some 3,500 were in the vicinity of Baltimore, with about 5,500 near Washington.

August 22: U.S. Commodore Joshua Barney deliberately destroyed his flotilla near the town of Pig Point, Maryland, preventing its seizure by a British force under Rear Admiral George Cockburn. Barney took some of his 400 men, as well as 5 artillery pieces, overland to Winder’s headquarters at the Eastern Branch Bridge crossing the Anacostia River to help with the defense of Washington.

Madison visited U.S. forces at their camp at Old Fields, Maryland, seven miles east of Washington.

Ross's British forces occupied Upper Marlboro, Maryland and were joined by Cockburn. Ross was uneasy about marching his troops across unknown open country but Cockburn told Ross, "I know their force. The militia, however great their numbers, will not—cannot—stand against your disciplined troops."

At 9:00 a.m. Secretary of State James Monroe sent a note to Madison: "The enemy are in full march for Washington ... You had better remove the records."

August 23: In the morning, Madison conferred with Armstrong and inspected U.S. troops at Old Fields. He left at 2:00 p.m. and returned to Washington.

Dolley Madison wrote to her sister Anna Cutts: "My husband ... desires I should be ready at a moment's warning to enter my carriage and leave the city; that the enemy seemed stronger than had been reported, and that it might happen that they would reach the city, with intention to destroy it ... I am accordingly ready; I have pressed as many cabinet papers into trunks as to fill one carriage; our private property must be sacrificed, as it is impossible to procure wagons for its transportation. I am determined not to go myself until I see Mr Madison safe, and he can accompany me, as I hear of much hostility towards him, ... disaffection stalks around us ... "

August 24: At the White House in the early morning Madison received a note from Winder urgently requesting a meeting. Madison and the entire cabinet went to Winder's headquarters for a 7:00 a.m. war council. At 10:00 a messenger brought breaking news that British were marching on Bladensburg; the council ended and Winder left for Bladensburg immediately. Madison ordered Armstrong to also head to Bladensburg to assist Winder, and ordered Barney and his force of flotilla men and marines to go to Bladensburg. Madison decided to go to Bladensburg himself to assess the situation. He left Washington accompanied by Attorney General Richard Rush and a free African American servant, James Smith, and arrived in Bladensburg about 12:00 noon.

The Battle of Bladensburg was a rout. U.S. forces numbering 5,000 militiamen and 500 regular U.S. troops were defeated by the 4,500 British force commanded by Robert Ross. A Royal Marine unit used Congreve rockets—32-pounders tipped by explosive warheads with a range of up to 3,000 yards—to create havoc among the U.S. troops. As soon as defeat became apparent Madison told his servant James Smith to head to the White House and tell the first lady to take flight, as a British march on the capital was now likely. Smith arrived at the President's House at 3:00 p.m. and delivered the message.

An exhausted Madison, accompanied by Brigadier General John Mason and Attorney General Rush, returned to the President's House about 4:00 p.m. to find that the first lady had left. Despondent and shaken by the ease of the British victory at Bladensburg, Madison declined offers of food and had only a glass of wine before beginning a flight to avoid capture.

The way was now clear for the British to enter the nation's capital.

A 1900 print from a series commissioned by the United States Army to illustrate the history of military uniforms. Illustration by Henry A. Ogden.

Library of Congress

An 1816 map of the Battle of Bladensburg accompanied later published accounts describing the action.

Library of Congress

You Might Also Like