Prelude to the Battle of Bladensburg
During the War of 1812, while a large force of British naval vessels kept a large portion of the American Navy bottled up in the Elizabeth River, British Navy Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn led a small fleet in the Chesapeake Bay, harassing local ports and shipping. To combat this force, Joshua Barney, an American naval hero of the Revolutionary War, devised a Chesapeake Flotilla of small boats and barges manned and armed to engage Admiral Cockburn's ships. His plan was approved by the Navy Department and funded by the Congress, and Joshua Barney was bestowed the rank of Commodore. The flotilla was assembled in Baltimore and engaged Admiral Cockburn's force in various actions, the last of which was on June 26, 1814, at St. Leonard's Creek near the mouth of the Patuxent River. Ships of the flotilla successfully beat back two larger and more heavily armed British ships, but then retreated up the Patuxent River to rejoin the rest of the flotilla.
In mid-August, Admiral Cockburn's force was joined by Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane's fleet with Major General Robert Ross' army embarked. Together, the three leaders developed a plan to sail the combined fleet up the Patuxent River, where the soldiers and marines would disembark, and invade the city of Washington.
On August 21, 1814, the larger ships in Admiral Cochrane's fleet could get up the Patuxent only as far as Benedict, Maryland (near the present Patuxent River Bridge (Maryland Route 231)) so General Ross' army disembarked there. They proceeded northward with Admiral Cockburn's smaller ships pacing them on the river. The army spent their first night in the town of Nottingham, with the naval forces anchored offshore. On the following day, General Ross' army passed by Page's Chapel (now St. Thomas Episcopal Church), through the town of Croom (on what is now Croom Road (Maryland Route 382)) and spent their second night in Upper Marlboro.
Admiral Cockburn was anticipating an encounter north of Pig's Point with Commodore Barney's flotilla, so he landed his compliment of Royal Marines at the town of Leon, to engage the militia there. The vessels then proceeded up the river to attack the American flotilla (near where present day Pennsylvania Ave. (Maryland Route 4) crosses the Patuxent River), but found that the Americans had set fire to their ships to prevent their capture and to block the river. (A much discussed tactic for dealing with the British Navy on the Patuxent was to set fire to ships or barges and set them adrift in the path of the invading fleet.) Commodore Barney had been ordered by the Navy Department to scuttle his flotilla, and he and his flotillamen to join the sparse existing forces in the defense of Washington. The British salvaged (some would say pillaged) what they could, including some merchant schooners and a large quantity of tobacco.
On the 23rd, Admiral Cockburn's force sailed back to Charlestown (now Mount Calvert), where the Royal Marines disembarked and entered Upper Marlboro, where they remained to occupy the town after General Ross' army set off for Bladensburg and Washington.
On the 24th, Commodore Barney's 500 flotillamen and about 1,000 citizen soldiers successfully repelled four attacks by General Ross' force of 5,000 soldiers and marines at the Battle of Bladensburg. Commodore Barney lead his flotillamen in a counter-attack, expecting support from the remaining American forces, but poor logistics made support impossible. The citizen soldiers retreated, and Commodore Barney was forced to surrender. General Ross was so impressed by the bravery of Commodore Barney and his flotillamen that he immediately paroled them (after disarming them, of course).
The British forces proceeded to Washington, facing little resistance. Upon entering the city, they found the Washington Navy Yard had already been set aflame by the Americans, so that the military stores there could not be used by the invaders. The British, unopposed, set fire to the Capitol, the White House, and the offices of the War and Treasury Departments.
The British troops returned to Upper Marlboro on the 26th, and on the following day, Admiral Cockburn's force sailed downriver to Nottingham, with General Ross' force proceeding south through Croom, eventually to re-embark on Admiral Cochrane's vessels in Benedict.
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Copyright 1997 Tom Cavanaugh