The general’s hunch proved to be correct. As they approached Bladensburg in the afternoon, Thornton reported a large American force that he estimated to include several thousand troops, mostly militia, entrenched on Lowdnes Hill off to the right of the road that followed the northern bank of the eastern branch of the Potomac into Bladensburg. Ross ordered his troops to deploy with the Light Brigade anchored on the road, the Second Brigade in the center directly facing the hill, and the Third Brigade covering the right flank. He then called a conference of his brigade commanders and Cockburn.
Cockburn and Thornton argued for an immediate frontal attack on the hill arguing that the British veterans would have an easy time putting the American militia to flight. “They have no battle experience,” the admiral argued. “They’ve given us enough trouble over the last few days,” Brooke countered by noting, “We also do not know what forces, if any, are on the other side of that hill." Patterson suggested sending the few scouts they had mounted on horses taken from farms to ride around the hill to answer that question. Ross agreed, adding that he wanted to attack quickly and take Bladensburg by nightfall.
When his scouts returned without seeing any additional American forces, Ross ordered Thornton to advance down the road as quickly as possible and into Bladensburg to secure the bridge over the river. His brigade commanders agreed this might panic the troops on the high ground because it would cut off their escape route to Washington. The Second and Third Brigades would proceed at a more measured pace to the trenches on the hill, some of which contained cannons. Ross ordered his artillerymen equipped with inaccurate Congreve rockets to fire on the hill and into the town to confuse and frighten the Americans. “To victory, gentlemen,” he added.
The American commanders watched the British formation transformed from marching columns to battle lines. “As I expected,” Porter observed. “They are going to attack in strength, counting on their elan and experience to overwhelm our defenses.” He had assembled some 6,000 troops. Over 3,000 Maryland militia under General Stansbury occupied the Hill’s fortifications supported by some 500 federal troops and sailors under Barney. Another 1,500 District militia commanded by Van Ness held the town. Porter had positioned Minor’s Virginia regiment on the National Road out of Bladensburg to Washington, and stationed 300 amalgamated cavalrymen in reserve on the back side of the hill.
“Do you expect them to hold?” Secretary Armstrong asked. “Yes, we’ll do even better than we did at Bunker Hill,” Porter replied. “They are going to pay a very high price. I know you think regulars will always trump militia, Mr. Secretary, but I plan to prove you wrong.” “Godspeed,” Armstrong replied as he mounted his horse and joined his escort that headed for the bridge and Washington.
“Gentlemen,” Porter said to his assembled commanders, “Colonel Laval’s cavalry will emerge from the woods on left flank once the British have closed half the distance to the top of the Hill. Remember, that is the signal to return fire.”
He paused a moment, glanced at each of them. “My favorite ancient Greek, Archimedes of Syracuse said, ‘Give me a fulcrum and I shall move the world.’ This hill is our fulcrum, our army is our lever, and today, we will move the world. God bless us, and damn them to hell.”
The battle began as Porter had imagined with the British troops slowly moving in line toward him. He and his entire command were surprised by the Congreve rockets that screamed at them before exploding in the air and on the ground. However, their entrenchments gave the militia physical protection and emotional security, and the British artillerymen lacked enough rounds to sustain their fire for very long.
Porter was more alarmed by the rapid advance of the British units on his right toward the town that threatened to cut him off from the roads to Washington. Fortunately, the enemy troops soon expended their energy. Weakened by the day’s march and the hot humid weather, they faltered when they came under fire from the DC militia inside the brick buildings and makeshift barricades in the street. Van Ness’s insistence on mobilizing his forces before the British arrived had given them the time to train and prepare their defenses. Although it took repeated volleys that consumed most of their ammunition, the effect on the Light Brigade was devastating. They staggered and then retreated in good order, albeit without their regimental commander, Thornton, who fell at the high water mark of their advance among a cluster of his infantry, brought down by cannon and musket fire.
Moments later, Colonel Laval’s composite federal-state cavalry unit charged from the woods on the American left flank. Lieutenant Colonel Brooke halted the Third Brigade and ordered his men to form squares to ward off the attack. As they did so, the American artillery fired on the compact formations just after the American cavalry broke off their charge.
Ross watched his flanks crumble just as the Second Brigade came within musket range of the American center. Barney’s naval guns ripped huge holes in the scarlet lines ascending the hill. Colonel Patterson and most of his aides died in the first few minutes, as did large numbers of British infantry. Yet, the well-trained veterans of the Napoleonic Wars marched steadily forward until their ranks thinned to the point where Commodore Barney ordered, “Board’em!” Maryland militia joined his sailors and marines in charging down the hill. The Second Brigade held for a few minutes and then broke.
Suddenly, defeat for the British turned into disaster. Ross and Cockburn rushed forward on horseback to rally Patterson’s brigade. The admiral fell first when a canon ball sliced through a brace of soldiers that he was alternatively berating and exhorting to hold their ground. While a cheer immediately erupted from the American ranks, an eerie silence fell among the British soldiers who gazed upon the dead naval officer pinned underneath his dead horse. Ross then took two rounds, one in his arm and another in his thigh, and fell from his charger. A platoon quickly created a litter with their muskets and jackets to carry him to the rear.
Brooke assumed command of the British forces and converted a near rout into an orderly retreat to Upper Marlboro where 500 British sailors and marines had remained with the British flotilla after Barney’s gunboats were scuttled. Ross once again found himself at Beanes’s house, now as a patient rather than an as unwanted guest. Beanes advised him that until the bullets could be extracted and damaged blood vessels cauterized, any further movement would probably result in his death. His stretcher-bearers volunteered to stay with their commanding officer as Brooke sent a report to Cochrane and continued the orderly march to Benedict.
At Bladensburg, Porter was determined to hold his position and not pursue the retreating British. He ordered all units to report their casualties, repair their positions, eat supper, and deploy sentries and pickets. He then wrote a short note to the President:
I have the high honor and privilege to report that the officers and men under my command have soundly defeated a British attack undoubtedly designed to capture the City of Washington.
I intend to hold this place until such time as the enemy has boarded his ships and withdrawn from the Patuxent River.
Brigadier General Moses Porter,
Commanding Officer, Tenth Military District
In the days that followed, Cochrane withdrew his fleet and invasion forces from the Chesapeake and set sail for Jamaica. He sent identical reports by three packet ships to London informing the government of the defeat at Bladensburg; the fate of Cockburn and Ross; his order recalling the Potomac flotilla from its attack on Alexandria; and most importantly, his decision not to attack Baltimore with his depleted forces. The admiral also recommended reconsidering the planned attack on New Orleans that would require a new Army commander and substantial reinforcements.
His report was quickly followed by Governor Prevost’s news of the British defeat on Lake Champlain and the unsuccessful attack on Plattsburg, New York in mid-September. These reversals in North America coincided with increased troubles on the continent, prompting the Duke of Wellington to advise the government to make peace with the Americans. Lord Castlereagh ordered the British delegation at Ghent to drop London’s harsh terms to retain occupied portions of the United States as well as New Orleans, establish an Indian buffer state along the Ohio River, secure navigation rights on the Mississippi, and maintain and enforce the Orders in Council restricting US trade with Europe. The Treaty of Ghent that ended the war and restored the status quo ante bellum, was expeditiously signed on November 1, 1814, and ratified on Christmas Eve by the US Congress, thus ending the War of 1812.
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William Weber is the author of Neither Victor Nor Vanquished: America in the War of 1812 (Potomac Press, 2013).