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Brigadier General Moses Porter looked down on his handiwork with satisfaction and sadness. From atop Lowdnes Hill, he saw the red-jacketed bodies of countless British soldiers on the slope below and in the streets of the small village of Bladensburg. The surviving invaders were retreating in good order toward the town of Benedict on the Patuxent River where they had landed just a few days ago. Only scattered elements of the British rearguard could still be seen, covering the retreat of General Robert Ross’s army.
Porter saw few American dead from the patchwork of soldiers, sailors, and militiamen that had defended the hill and town. He suspected more were inside the trenches and brick structures that he had used to create a miniature fortress to stop the British advance on Washington. He expected his brigade commanders would provide him with a preliminary casualty lists before sunset. Some of them were eager to pursue the British. But it was late in the afternoon on 24 August 1814, and Porter was content to send out patrols to keep watch over the enemy as they retreated to their flotilla and moved down river to the Chesapeake Bay.
Frankly, Porter was more surprised than pleased by his victory. Only two months ago President James Madison had given him commend of the newly created Tenth Military District encompassing both Baltimore and Washington. Secretary of War John Armstrong, like Porter a veteran of the Revolutionary War, had advocated his appointment. The new district was being carved out of the Fifth Military District headquartered in Norfolk that Porter had taken command of that spring.
Armstrong argued that experience was the most important qualification for command, and Porter had plenty. He had fought in numerous battles in the Revolutionary War, survived St. Clair’s disaster in 1791, and accompanied “Mad” Anthony Wayne to Fallen Timbers three years later. In the current war, Porter had seen action in New York and Upper Canada, and gained considerable experience building defenses in New Orleans, New England, and Norfolk. Porter’s frequent use of profanity, which had earned him the nickname “Old Blow Hard,” was also an asset the Secretary of War admired especially in this case given the squabbling over who should defend the city. He was the perfect man for the job.
Porter immediately reached out to the prominent political and military officials in the area on whom he would depend for manpower, largely militia, and materiel. He met with Maryland’s Federalist Governor Levin Winder in Annapolis and Senator Samuel Smith, the ersatz warlord of Baltimore. The governor, who had lost his son, Colonel William Winder, at the battle of Stoney Creek in Upper Canada a year ago, was eager to help. Smith was also willing to cooperate as long as Porter did not meddle with his defenses around Baltimore.
At the federal level, Porter consulted with Secretary of the Navy William Jones, and Commodore Joshua Barney, who commanded the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla of gunboats. Porter also showed deference to the commanding officer of the District of Columbia’s militia, Major General John P. Van Ness, convincing Armstrong to pay for the activation of one of the city’s two brigades.
As an engineer and artillery officer, Porter’s concept of operations was grounded in geography. To defend Washington and Baltimore with a small contingent of regular forces and thousands of local militiamen, he needed to station a sizeable reserve force between those two cities that he could deploy in response to a British attack. He assumed that Admiral Cockburn, whose ships and troops had raided towns up and down the Bay, would use the waterways to get as close as possible for the nation’s capital. That favored the Patuxent River. The Potomac River featured both the dangerous Kettle Bottom shoals and Fort Washington that could engage ships attempting to ascend the river.
Relying on Van Ness’s counsel, Porter seized on the village of Bladensburg with its 1,500 souls as the location for his strategic reserve. The small town sat astride the National Road with a bridge crossing the eastern branch of the Potomac River that was also fordable at that point. Downstream, two other bridges led to Washington that he would order burned if the British advanced toward them. Composed of brick dwellings next to a prominent rise, Lowdnes Hill, Bladensburg was well situated and suited to being fortified as a garrison. Van Ness’s troops dug trenches and artillery positions on the hill and around the village. They also cleared trees and brush from the facing slopes of nearby hills to deprive British troops of cover. Porter named the strong point Fort Winder in honor of the governor’s son.
He convinced Barney that some of the guns from his flotilla, now trapped up the Patuxent River, were more likely to see action at Fort Winder. Barney agreed and had his officers and seamen move the flotilla’s armaments to the fort.
Porter also knew that a good defense needed a modicum of offensive capability to harass the British forces. He designated three regiments to train in that capacity: Colonel George Magruder’s 1st District Regiment from Washington, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Sterett’s 5th Regiment of Baltimore Volunteers, and Colonel George Minor’s regiment from Northern Virginia. All three fell in at Fort Winder to ensure that they were properly equipped, provisioned, and drilled, while becoming familiar with the local terrain. They identified numerous points on the roads where advancing British troops could be harassed and ambushed. In the hot and humid August weather, the British carrying heavy packs would be wearied and annoyed at the constant sniping Porter had planned for them.
Porter also improved Fort Washington guarding the approach up the Potomac, and convinced Virginia Governor James Barbour to help fortify the waterfront in Alexandria. Although part of the federal district, Alexandria’s defense was inseparable from the surrounding counties in Virginia. To sweeten the deal, Porter again relied on Armstrong’s patronage to deliver the necessary materials and funding, and he convinced Secretary Jones to shift some of his officers, seamen, and guns to bolster the defense of the Potomac.
It was not until mid-August that everything and everyone was in place and ready to execute Porter’s strategy. And that proved to be perfect timing. On August 16 a British flotilla commanded by Admiral Alexander Cochrane moved up the Patuxent and three days later landed a force of some 4,500 soldiers and sailors at Benedict. The leaders of the expedition, Major General Robert Ross and Admiral Cockburn, gave them a day to recover from the long sea voyage before setting out after Barney’s fleet.
Ross arranged his forces into three brigades. Colonel William Thornton commanded a Light Brigade, including the Eighty-Fifth Light Brigade; the light companies of his other regiments, and the Colonial Marines—freed slaves who volunteered to serve the Crown—at the head of his column. The Second Brigade, under Colonel Arthur Brooke, included the Fourth and Forty-Fourth infantry regiments. The Third Brigade led by Lieutenant Colonel William Patterson consisted of a battalion of Fusiliers and a battalion of Royal Marines. Ross’s force also included small numbers of artillerymen, engineers, and teamsters, as well as 100 sailors.
On the morning of the August 20, the British marched out of Benedict on the road to Nottingham, with Cockburn commanding a flotilla of boats moving upriver on their right flank. Porter gave Sterret’s troops the honor of drawing first blood. A company of the Fifth Regiment fired three volleys at the column’s rear guard and then marched to their next position. The direction and the brevity of the attack surprised the British, whose flankers had not detected the enemy.
As the British stopped for rest at mid-morning, another company of the Fifth directed several volleys at the light infantry guarding their left flank before disappearing into the surrounding forest. They repeated this harassment late in the afternoon when Sterett’s men sent several musket volleys toward the advance guard, while a company of Minor’s Virginians began sniping at the British flotilla from the northern bank of the Patuxent. Sterett gave the British one more scare just after sunset, prompting Ross to muster his troops to fend off an attack that never came.
These iterative attacks continued over the next two days with a third company from Magruder’s District regiment taking part. When Cockburn and Ross reached Pig’s Point on the morning of August 22, Barney’s sailors scuttled their vessels in a series of deafening explosions. Simultaneously, Minor’s company opened up from the northern side of the river while Marguder’s militiamen fired several volleys before conducting an orderly withdrawal. The British, in keeping with Cockburn’s longstanding policy in the Bay, responded by burning and plundering every town and homestead they encountered.
This skirmishing put the British in a particularly foul mood by the time they reached the nearly deserted town of Upper Marlboro that afternoon. When the British light infantry vanguard quickly searched and secured the town before the main force entered, found several wounded American soldiers in the home of Dr. William Beanes, the town’s most prominent citizen. They dragged the wounded from his house and placed him under arrest. When Ross and Cockburn arrived, Beanes’ quickly offered to let the British officers use his home as their headquarters, in return for the safety of his town and the American wounded. His Scottish accent and Federalist political views persuaded them to graciously accept his hospitality. Nevertheless, several of the American prisoners died that evening, almost certainly from their wounds, but word spread to the American forces that some had been executed.
That evening, Ross and Cockburn received a message from the British fleet commander, Admiral Cochrane, advising them to return to Benedict. Having achieved their initial objective, he cautioned them against taking further risks by marching inland. He wanted them to return to the fleet for an attack on Baltimore. Cockburn had little trouble persuading Ross to press on to Washington. The general was infuriated by the sniping that had inflicted some three dozen casualties on his troops and, by delaying his advance, had contributed to more cases of heat exhaustion and fatigue. He wanted to defeat the Americans in battle, expecting they would be forced to stand and fight once his expedition neared Washington. That opportunity soon presented itself.
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William Weber is the author of Neither Victor Nor Vanquished: America in the War of 1812 (Potomac Press, 2013).