By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tim Comerford,
Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division
When British Army Maj. Gen. Robert Ross marched through American defenses toward Washington, D.C., he certainly didn’t expect the battle’s last stand to come from Sailors and Marines.
But as his Army finally overpowered that small contingent of 400 flotilla men 200 years ago during the Battle of Bladensburg, it was no surprise to Ross he would find the valiant defenders under the command of a Sailor, Commodore Joshua Barney.
The British went on to burn government buildings of the nation’s capital later that afternoon, an embarrassing moment in the young nation’s history. Ross had little time to enjoy his victories Aug. 24, 1814. By the time Ross’ exploits were being celebrated in his homeland of Ireland a few weeks later, the American militia had redeemed themselves during the Battle of Baltimore where the British general was killed.
Timing is everything
The United States declared war on Great Britain in 1812 when its former mother country refused to quit unlawfully stopping, boarding and impressing American merchantmen into their service due to Great Britain’s ongoing battle with France. In the United States, most of the battles were north along the borders of Canada.
But that changed in April 1814. The defeat of France’s Napoleon Bonaparte allowed the British to concentrate on one battle front: America. The Americans made the choice to burn Washington D.C. easy for the British since most of the American militia had gone north. Before British troops set fire to the White House, the Capitol Building and occupied the Washington Navy Yard, they had met with little resistance from the American people.
“Early in the war, around February of 1813, British Rear Adm. George Cockburn and his squadron were assigned to the Chesapeake,” said Christine F. Hughes, historian for the Naval History and Heritage Command. “The thought was to wreak havoc through psychological warfare to hurt the public and get at the James Madison administration. They did this by going up and down the Chesapeake Bay where there were some very wealth plantations and raiding. They took away tobacco, cattle, flour – anything they could take away easily and then they would burn what was left. He found it was easy, there was very little resistance to the raids.”
They kept at it through spring and summer of 1813 and started again in spring of 1814.
“The administration, even after seeing this debacle take place, had very limited funds,” she said. “They had to weigh what to do. They were getting reports up and down the coast from governors in every state asking for help. But they didn’t have it. The Secretary of the Navy at the time, Wayne Jones, had to report back, ‘Sorry, we are stretched too thin.’ So the coastline was left undefended.”
Why was it so easy? Because of a government divided.
“The war was divided amongst geographic lines and a lot of people were against it starting and against it when the war was going on,” Hughes said. “There were still contingents of federalists that were opposed.”
Also faulty thinking where strategy was concerned.
“The American strategic view of the war was to attack the British through Canada,” she said. “So we put all of our military in the north.”
It was that thinking that ultimately led to the last ditch effort to save the nation’s capital, which was the Battle of Bladensburg.
Everyone thought the British would hit Baltimore, which at the time was the more affluent, strategically important and larger city. Washington’s population was just around 7,000 at the time, compared to nearly 50,000 for Baltimore.
But there was a very important dissenting opinion.
“Amongst Madison’s administration, the president was the one who stood out as thinking that the British would come to Washington,” the historian stated.
Apparently the British sided with Madison. The British felt the American people would lose morale if they realized their government could not even protect itself.
“We had militia but often they were poorly trained and only brought up for emergencies and there were not enough people to defend the long coastline,” Hughes said.
It didn’t help with Great Britain’s appointment of Vice Adm. Sir Alexander Cochrane as the new commander of the North American Station in March 1814.
“He has a decided dislike for the American people, being a veteran of the American Revolution where his brother was killed. His orders were rather vague; to wreak havoc but not to go too far inland. The British were not intent on conquering us, just to have a better say in negotiations at the peace table. When he arrived, his second in command, Cockburn was very much in favor of going all the way to Washington D.C. He had seen how easy it would be.”
Cochrane and British Army Maj. Gen. Robert Ross had to be convinced, so Cockburn took them out on one of his typical raiding expeditions on Aug. 4, showing how easy it was to take what they wanted from a plantation along the shores of Maryland.
During that time, Commodore Joshua Barney, an American Revolution veteran and privateer, had used his flotilla of ships, mostly small barges and gunboats nicknamed the “Mosquito Fleet,” to keep the British busy. While not a great threat to the British ships, they kept the British on their toes. After a few clashes and a narrow escape, the British eventually penned the commodore in.
“When it became evident that he could do no more with his fleet, the Secretary of the Navy recalled him to Washington and he was told to destroy the fleet,” Hughes said.
In the meantime, militias were scurrying to find out what the British were doing next. “When the Americans finally decide the British are going to attack Washington from the north, they decide to try and meet them at Bladensburg,” Hughes said.
With all of the militia stationed in the district off to Bladensburg, Barney and his Sailors and Marines were ordered to burn the last bridge into the city. But waiting was not Barney’s strong suit.
“Barney was a man of action,” she said. “If there was a fight, he wanted to be there. He said, ‘you don’t need myself and 400 flotillamen and Marines to burn a bridge.’ He convinced the cabinet and the president to let him go.”
And so Barney and his men, with what artillery they could find and despite their exhaustion, trotted about six miles to join the fight, arriving last.
It was a battle even the British didn’t expect to win, as penned by British Lt. George R. Gleig of the 8th Regiment. The British had taken severe losses trying to storm the defenses of the Americans, who had suffered far fewer casualties. But as the British continued to push through, they were surprised to see the American defense crumble.
“….had they (American militia) conducted themselves with coolness and resolution, it is not conceivable how the day could have been won,” Gleig wrote of the battle. “But the fact is, that with the exception of a party of sailors from the gunboats under the command of Commodore Barney, no troops could behave worse than they did. The skirmishers were driven in as soon as attacked, the first line gave way without offering the slightest resistance, and the left of the main body was broken within half an hour after it was seriously engaged. Of the sailors however, it would be injustice not to speak in the terms of which their conduct merits.”
And Barney himself didn’t expect to see wave after wave of American militia running from the fight to what was later snidely referred to as the Bladensburg Races. “The enemy who had been kept in check by our fire for nearly half an hour now began to out flank us on the right, our guns were turned that way, he pushed up the Hill, about 2 or 300 towards the Corps of Americans station’d as above described, who, to my great mortification made no resistance,” Barney wrote in a letter explaining his actions to the Secretary of the Navy.
Yet Barney and his men stood their ground. With the ammunition wagons gone amid the general panic of retreat, there was nothing left but close-combat with the enemy. Many of Barney’s men were killed or wounded, with Barney taking a shot to his thigh after his horse was shot out beneath him. He continued fighting until he was so weak from loss of blood he could no longer stand. Overpowered, Barney ordered his men to retreat and for his officers to leave him.
A few minutes later, Barney faced his British foes, Gen. Ross and Adm. Cockburn. Barney’s surrender was polite, according to “Memoirs of Commodore Barney” by his daughter-in-law Mary Barney (Boston, 1832).
“I am very glad to see you, Commodore,” said Gen. Ross. To which Barney replied: “I am sorry, I cannot return to you the compliment, General.”
Ross then turned to the Admiral and remarked: “I told you it was the flotilla men.” To which Adm. Cockburn agreed: “Yes, you were right, though I could not believe you – they have given us the only real fighting we have had.”
The two British commanders, out of respect for Barney’s efforts, “paroled” him by refusing to take him prisoner. After being treated by a British surgeon, the commanders made arrangements to take Barney to Bladensburg as requested. Barney would remark later British Capt. John Wainwright’s care of him was like that of a brother.
Since the bullet could not be removed, Barney never quite recovered from the wound he received at Bladensburg. Four years later, while traveling with his family to retire on property he purchased in Kentucky, Barney contracted an infection and died in Pittsburgh. A tragic end to someone who was the best of what the U.S. Navy and America represents.