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 Native-American allies of the British, 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.
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. These weapons were fairly inaccurate and created more psychological than physical damage. 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.