The Battle of Bladensburg was fought under a blazing sun on August 24, 1814. It was a river port town on the East Branch of Potomac River and lies in a valley between two commanding heights to the north and south. I had the good fortune to visit Bladensburg twice, in 2004 and again in 2012. It is still a quiet Maryland town that’s seen better days just outside the District of Columbia. But in 1814 it was a bustling commercial town with warehouses alongside the river trading tobacco, like many other river towns in the Tidewater region.
By the end of of August 1814, many of the waterborne defenses to Washington and Baltimore were gone. Joshua Barney’s fleet of row gunboats were in ashes. The naval and land forces commanded by Rear Admiral Cockburn and Major General Robert Ross determined to capture Washington and inflict a humiliating defeat on President James Madison’s government.
Writers across two centuries have spilled many words about the battle that became known as the Bladensburg Races–to denote the speed American militia displayed in departing the battlefield. My first exposure to this humiliating American defeat came when, as a boy, I read Robert Leckie’s Wars of America, volume 1. In that book, the journalist historian noted that the American militia were overcome with fear when British rocket troops fired their unreliable missiles at the American defenders and simply fled. Leckie noted that not even the Zulus at Insandlwana showed more than contempt for these primitive projectiles.
Down through the ages we’ve bought into the notion that the Americans, despite their superior numbers and defensive dispositions, were driven off by a bunch of over-sized skyrockets. Wrong. Though the Americans held highly defensible ground, their poor dispositions and their lack of training combined with superb British qualities of fire and movement to doomed the American defense and the nation’s capital. Rocket fire was just a marachino cherry on the sundae.
First, let’s take a look at the numbers involved in the battle. The Americans numbered some 7, 000 troops, while the British totaled about 4,400. In addition, the Americans had 18 guns on the battlefield from 6- to 18 pounds, the British had only three light guns that arrived late, plus the 60 or so inaccurate rocket launchers. In game terms the differences become more stark. The Americans have 72 stands of infantry and 10 sections of artillery. The British have considerably fewer troops and guns: 54 bases and one section of artillery, plus three sections of rockets.
However, when we break down the armies in terms of quality a vast difference appears between the British and Americans:
Rating/Quality British bases American Bases
Elite 18 0
Veteran 35 9
Trained 3 15
Raw 0 48
With the exception of Barney’s naval guns, all the American artillery is raw. Raw troops, infantry or artillery, are likely to shoot poorly, move more slowly and panic under stress. Elite and veteran units are more likely to move faster, accept casualties and shoot better. Add to this, the high quality of the British commanders, the poor quality of the American commanders and the British are much better disposed to move quickly under fire and take advantage of poor American troops.
Though the Americans outnumbered and outgunned the Brits, it’s instructive to examine the battlefield and the American positions.
The American defense is divided between three non-supporting positions. Facing the bridge over the East Branch are Pinkney’s three stands of raw militia riflemen and three sections of 6-lb artillery behind a poorly constructed earthwork. Directly behind them, out of supporting musket range is Stansbury’s Maryland militia 23 stand of mostly raw troops and two stands of raw artillery.
The British had to cross a narrow bridge over the East Branch of the river and go through or around the Americans. However, there were 37 stands of high quality troops to oppose them. Historically, the light brigade attacked and was driven into the town by heavy fire. However, when Brooks’ brigade came up in support, they recrossed the bridge and formed skirmish order while Brooks’ brigade moved quickly around the American left flank to the Georgetown Road. Outflanked and outnumbered, and probably peppered by the annoying rockets, the raw American troops bolted, running away down the Georgetown Road.
It’s unlikely the British even saw the American third line forming on the hillside south of Stansbury’s position. Eventually Winder would assemble his best troops, Barney’s flotillamen and Miller’s Marines along with semi-trained regulars and raw militia on the high ground blocking the Washington Road. The Americans 37 stands, mostly raw troops and five sections of artillery held back the Light Brigade for a time, but were flanked out of their positions by Brooks swinging around their left from the Georgetown Road.
American defenses crumbled, despite stubborn resistance by Barney’s troops, and the Americans retreated down the Washington Road. The road to the capital was wide open.
The British won the Battle of Bladensburg, but the rockets played a very minor role. The Americans lost because their troops were of generally poor quality, and their disposition was such that their opponents were were able to fight the Americans in small packets that gave the British qualitative and quantitative superiority against each of the three American lines.