H. M. (Henry Marie) Brackenridge.

History of the late war between the United States and Great Britain: online

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the score of having been ordered to this post, and besides, that
his men were so much harassed and fatigued by their march
(a considerable portion having only just arrived), that it would be
impracticable. During the night several false alarms were given,
by which the troops were prevented from taking the repose
they so much required, after fatigues to which the greater part
of them were unaccustomed. On the receipt of the intelli-
gence of general Winder's retreat, general Stansbury, on consul-
tation with his officers, determined to move towards the city.
Before day he crossed the bridge over tlie Eastern Branch of
the Potomac, and after securing his rear, halted for a few hours.
Early in the morning he again moved forward, with the view of
taking possession of some ground for defence, when orders
were received from general Winder to give battle to the
enemy at Bladensburg ; he therefore retraced his steps, and
between ten and eleven o'clock halted his troops in an orchard
field, to the left of the road from Washington to that place.
The enemy were then within three miles of him, and in full

The best arrangements the time would permit were made.
About five hundred yards from the bridge, the artillery from
Baltimore, consisting of six six-pounders, under the command
of captains Myers and Magruder, were posted behind a kind of
breastwork ; and major Pinkney's riflemen were placed in am-
bush to the right and left, so as to annoy the enemy when at-
tempting to cross the stream, and at the same time, in conjunc-
tion v/ilh captain Dough ty's company, to support the artillery.
The Fifth Baltimore regiment was drawn up about fifty yards
in the rear ; and afterwards, perhaps injudiciously, removed
much further. The other parts of the brigade were also so dis-
posed, as to support the artillery, and annoy the enemy in his
approach. Shortly after this disposition was made, lieutenant-
colonel Beall arrived with about five hundred men from Anna-
polis, and was posted higher up in a wood on the right of the road.
General Winder having, by tliis time, brought up his main
body, had formed it in the rear of Stansbury's brigade, and in
a line with Beall's detachment, and the heavy artillery under
commodore Barney posted to the right on an eminence near the
road. This line had scarcely been formed, when the engage-
ment commenced. The president, with the heads of the depart-


Battle of Bladeiisburg.

meiits, who had until now been present, withdrew ; as he con-
ceived it proper to leave the direction of the combat to the
military men.

About twelve o'clock of tlie 24lh, a column of the enemy made
its appearance on the hill which overhangs the stream, and
moved down towards the bridge, tiirowing rockets, and appa-
rently determined to force the passage. He now made an
attempt to throw a strong body of infantry across the stream,
but a few well directed sliot from the artillery compelled him
to shelter himself behind some houses. After a considerable
pause, a large cohimn of the British rapidly advanced in the face
of the battery, which, although managed by oilicers of acknow-
ledged skill and courage, was unable to repress them ; and they
continued to push forward, until tlicy formed a considerable
body on the Washington road. Tiiese troops had not ad-
vanced far, when the company under captain Doughty, having
discharged their pieces, lied, in spite of the ellorls of tlieir com-
mander and of major Tinkney to rally them. The major's
corps began its fire too soon, but did some execution, 'i'he
British now were every moment drawing nearer the artillery,
which could no longer be brought to bear upon them. In the
absence of troops to support them, it became unavoidably neces-
sary for the artillerists to retire, which they did, followed by
major Pinkney's rillemen, and leaving one gun behind them.
The whole fell back upon the Fifth regiment, the nearest rally-
ing point. A volunteer company of artillery now opened a
cross fire upon the enemy, who were advancing through the
orchard, but not with much effect. Colonel Sterrett was next
directed to advance; hut he was almost immediately halted in
consequence of the other two regiments of Stansbury's brigade
liaving been thrown into confusion by rockets and begun to
give way. In a few minutes they took to flight. Slcrretl's
regiment evinced a disposition to make a gallant resistance ;
but the enemy having by this time outflanked it, a retreat was
ordered. This unfortunately was efTecied in confusion and dis-
order, the unavoidable consequence of the retreat of militia.
Thus the tirst line was completely routed. The Jjaltiinore ar-
tillery had, before this, taken a position higher up on the hill.
On the right, colonel Beall, conmianding the Annapolis militia,
had thrown forward a small detachment under colonel Kramer,
which, after maintaining its ground some time with consider-
able injury to the enemy, retired upon the main body. On the
retreat of this detachment, the enemy advanced along the turn-
pike road, and coming in front of commodore Barney's artillery,
were exposed to the fire of an eighteen-pounder, by which their


Battle of Dladeiisbiirg Defeat of the Americans.

progress was checked ; and in several subsequent attempts to
pass the battery, they were repulsed with great loss. In con-
sequence ol" this, tliey attempted to flank the commodore's
right, by passing through an open field ; but this was frustrated
by captain lAJiller of the marines, with three twelve-pounders,
and the men of tiie flotilla acting as infantry. After being thus
kept in check for half an hour, tlie enemy succeeded in out-
flanking the right of the battery ; and pressed upon the militia
of Annapolis, who fled, after giving an ineffectual fire. The
command of commodore Barney was now left to maintain the
contest alone : but the enemy no longer appeared in front ; he
continued to outflank, pusiiing forward a few scattering sharp-
shooters, by which the commodore was w^ounded and his horse
killed under him. His corps was by this time outflanked on
both sides; two of his principal officers were killed, and two
others wounded; and, in the confusion, the ammunition wagons
had been driven off. His men therefore retreated, leaving
their pieces in the hands of the enemy. The commodore him-
self, after retiring a short distance, fell, exhausted by loss of
blood, to the ground. Being taken prisoner by the enemy, he
was treated with that courtesy which his g>dlantry merited,
and received the immediate attendance of their surgeons.

The Georgetown and City militia, and the regulars, still re-
mained firm, having been stationed in the rear of the second
line, in positions the most convenient for annoying the enemy
and supporting the other corps. Tliese being in danger every
moment of being outflanked, orders were sent to them to
retreat towards the city. After retiring a few hundred paces
as directed, they were joined by a regiment of Virginia militia,
which had arrived the evening before, but had not been ready
until now to take the field. General Winder still entertained
hopes of being able to rally his troops, and of fighting the
enemy between this place and Washington. He had ordered
the Baltimore artillery to move on towards the city; and ex-
pected to find that Stansbury's command had fallen down the
road to that place. With the view of making another struggle to
save the capital, he rode forward for the purpose of selecting
a position; but he soon found that, instead of proceeding towards
Washington, they had scattered in every direction. It after-
wards appeared, that the greater part had fled towards Mont-
gomery Courthouse. The City and Georgetown militia were
thus compelled to retire, without having had the slightest op-
portunity of defending their homes and their firesides. On
his arrival at the city, general Winder was met by the secre-
tary at war and the secretary of state; and after a consulta-


Washineton abandoned to the Enemv.

tion, it was agreed, that, with the small remains of the army,
it was in vain to think of making a stand there. It was there-
fore proposed to rally the troops on the Heights of Georgetown.
The general soon found, however, that but few of the militia
could be collected. Some had strayed off in search of food or
refreshment, having suffered much during the day ; and those
who remained were exhausted by the privations and fatigueS/
which they had experienced. 'I he next day he proceeded,
with such as he could collect, to Montgomery.

Thus did we experience the mortification (for it was more
a matter of feeling than of actual injury) of having our capital
entered by a hostile army. It was a feat of desperate teme-
rity on the part of an enemy wiio was compelled to retire
as rapidly as he had approached; and had no effect upon the
contest, other than to exasperate the people of this country
of both political parties, and to dispose them to unite in carrying
on tlie war. 'J'o use the common language, it was the name
of the thing w^hich caused the wound; for there was nothing
wonderful in a lar<re body of veteran soldiers stealing a march
upon an unfortified town, and defeating an equal number of raw
militia. The greater part of our troops luid arrived on the
spot so short a time before the battle, that ihey were not per-
mitted to take any repose from their fatigue; the different
corps and their ofiicers were unknown to each other, and to
the commander; and the arrangements for meeting a powerful
regular force were made at the very moment of battle. That
we should have been defeated under such circumstances, is not
to be wondered at, and furnisiies no inference unfavourable to
militia, or to the ofiicers who commanded. The British troops
would probably have met with the same success, had they moved
at that moment against any of the larger cities which were no
better prepared than Watjhington. 'i'he" censure passed upon
general Winder, who had already been unfortunate, but always
meritorious, was undeserved ; as the task which he undertook
was exceedingly arduous. To make success the criterion of
merit in all cases, would be highly unjust ; it would be to imi-
tate the tyrants of Turkey, who make their generals pay for
misfortunes, by the forfeit of their lives.

The loss of the British in the battle of Bladensburg was lit-
tle short of a thousand men killed, wounded or missing : that
of the Americans, between thirty and forty killed, from fifty to
sixty wounded, and about one hundred and twenty taken pri-
soners. By the issue of this battle, general Ross obtained
possession of the bridge over the Eastern Branch of the
Potomac. After halting his army for a short time for refresh-


British burn the Public Buildings at Washington Retreat to their Shipping.

ments, he moved on to Washington, where he arrived about
eight o'clock the same evening. Having stationed his main
body at the distance of a mile and a half, he entered the city
at the head of about seven hundred men, without meeting any

In the American metropolis, or rather its site, the British
found about nine hundred houses, scattered in groups over a
surface of three miles; and two splendid buildings, the Capitol,
as yet unfinished, and the President's House, among the finest
specimens of architecture in the new world. Orders, issued by
admiral Cockburn and general Ross, for the conflagration-of
these noble edifices, were immediately executed. The great
bridge across the Potomac was also wantonly burnt ; together
with an elegant hotel, and several other private dwellings. This
barbarous destruction is detailed in the oflicial letter of the Brit-
ish general, in a manner of perfect indiff'erence ! The blaze pro-
duced by the conflagration was seen even in Baltimore. All that
was combustible about the Capitol and the President's House,
including therein all the furniture and articles of taste or value
and the valuable libraries of the senate and house of representa-
tives, was reduced to ashes ; and the walls of these stately build-
ings, blackened with smoke and in melancholy ruin, remained,
for a time, the monuments of British barbarity. All the public
buildings, with the exception of the patent office, shared the
same fate. The public stores, vessels and buildings at the navy
yard had been destroyed by order of government, to prevent
them from falling into the enemy's hands. What remained was
destroyed by the enemy, who took particular pains to mutilate
the beautiful monument erected in honour of the naval heroes
who fell at Tripoli. The plundering of private houses was not
carried on to the extent that might have been expected, proba-
bly from the shortness of the time during which the British
rem.ained. On the evening of the following day, the 25th of
August, they retreated from Washington.

It being now conjectured that the enemy meant to proceed
immediately to Baltimore, the inhabitants of that place were
thrown into the greatest consternation, a feeling which the arri-
val of the city militia from the field of battle was not likely to
allay. Notwithstanding this disheartening panic, the citizens,
rejecting all thoughts of capitulation, prepared themselves under
generals Smith and Strieker to oppose the enemy ; and in all
probability, they would have made that desperate resistance
which renders inexperienced troops, when fighting for their
families and their homes, superior even to veterans. 'Phese mea-
sures proved to be unnecessary however. General Ross returned


Plunder of Alexandria Repulse of the British at Moors Fields.

over the same road by which he had advanced. He did not
reach Benedict until the evening of the 27th; and in such
strag-gling confusion was this movement effected, that his troops
wore the appearance of a vanquished rather than a victorious

The squadron under captain Gordon, that division of the
enemy's fleet which ascended the Potomac, and consisting of
eight sail, passed Fort Warburton two days after the retreat of
the British from Washifigton. The fort^had been abandoned
and blown up by captain Dyson, the commandant, in a most
extraordinary manner; probably under tlie influence of the
dreadful panic which generally prevailed. His orders had
been to abandon it only in case of an attack by land forces ;
but on a mere rumour, and without waiting tlie enemy's ap-
proach, he thought proper to take this measure. On the 29th,
the squadron reached Alexandria ; and the inhabitants of that
place, being completely in the power of the enemy, offered
terms for the preservation of the town from conflagration and
pillage. The insatiable avarice of the latter imposed the
hardest conditions : all the merchandise then in the town, as
well as all which ha(i tjeen removed thence since the 19th, was
required to be n/tVf on board the shipping at the wharf, at the ex-
pense of thpf^nhabitants, and, together with the shipping, includ-
ing ihCy^Q vessels which had been sunk on the approach of the
enei^iy^ and the public and private naval and ordnance stores, to
be-delivered up to the enemy. These terms, somewhat mocHfied,
^Vere complied with ; and captain Gordon moved down the river
with a fleet of prize vessels and a rich booty. In the mean-
time, preparations had been hastily made, by the naval heroes
captains Porter and Perry, to throw difficulties in the way of
his descent. The first, at the battery of the While House,
was assisted by general llungerford's brigade of Virginia
militia, and captain Humphreys's rifle company; and at the
battery at Indian Head, captain Perry was supported by the
brigade of general Stewart, and the volunteer companies of
major Peter and captain Burch. From the 3d until the 6th
of September, the British vessels were greatly annoyed in
passing these batteries. Frequent attempts to destroy them
were also made by commodore Rodgers, by means of small
fire-vessels ; but, owing to a change of wind, they proved in-
efTectual. These respective forces were afterwards concen-
trated under commodore Rodgers, at Alexandria ; which place
he determined to defend, should the enemy, who was not yet
out of sight of the nearest battery, think prcijier to return.
Sir Peter Parker, who ascended the Chesapeake, was not


Secretary of War resigns General Winder tried and acquitted.

SO forlunate as the other officers. He landed at Jiiglit in the
neighbourhood of Moors Fields, with the view of surprising a
party of militia, encamped there under the comniand of colonel
Reid. In this he was disappointed, for the militia, having heard
the approach of the barges, were prepared to receive him. Sir
Peter, having landed, moved forward at the head of about two
hundred and fifty men, and, on approaching within seventy
yards of the Americans, was received with a heavy fire. He
endeavoured to press forward on the centre of the line ; but
being foiled in this, he threw himself on the flank, where also
he was repulsed. Colonel Reid, being informed that the am-
munition was nearly expended, ordered his men to retire a
small distance until they could procure a supply. In the mean-
time, liie British, having sufi'ered severe loss, thought proper
to retire ; carrying with them the wounded. Among the latter
was sir Peter Parker, who died shortly afterwards, greatly
lamented by his countrymen and much respected by us.

The capture of Washington, as we have staled, excited the most
painful sensations throughout the United Stales ; and the indig-
nation of the people, at first leveiiud.against the whole adminis-
tration, was soon concentrated on the secretary of war and
general Winder. Against the former, the- c^Y ^^'^^ ^^'^^T
where so loud, that the president, from motives 'Gf prudence,
intimated to him the propriety of suspending his i-iJi^ctions
for a time. This his pride would not permit him to do j, ^^^'^
he therefore resigned. It appears, from the official lettei'-./^f
general Ross, since published, that he had not conceived tP^
idea of attacliing Washington, until within sixteen miles of it;
and after he had received information of its defenceless state ;
and that the destruction of commodore Barney's flotilla had been
his real and sole object, It was, notwithstanding, an act of un-
paralleled rashness, and from which no commensurate advantage
was to be gained. So great was the improbability of such an
attempt, that the secretary at war, it is said, could not be per-
suaded, until the last moment, that it was seriously intended.
General Winder demanded an examination of his conduct, and
a court, of which general Scott was president, acquitted him

The character of Great Britain ought not soon to recover
from the reproach of her numerous violations of the laws of
civilized warfare on our coast. The conflagration of Washing-
ton and the plunder of Alexandria, not to mention the despi-
cable bucaniering practised on the defenceless inhabitants, are
without a parallel in modern times. Napoleon, whom the
British denominated the modern Attila, entered the capitals of


Letter of Admiral Cochrane to the American Secretary of State Reply,

the principal nations of Enroj)e, but was never disgraced by
such wanton and unjustifiable destruction. These acts, grossly
barbarous as they were, assumed still a deeper infamy from
the manner in whicii they were justified. A letter from ad-
miral Cocfirane to our secretary of state, dated tlie day previous
to debarkation, though not delivered until after the burning
of the Capitol, stated, that having been called upon by the
governor-general of the Canadas, to aid him in carrying into
effect measures of retaliation against the inhabitants of the
United States, for the wanton ravages committed by the Ameri-
can forces in Upper ('anada, it became imperiously his duty,
in conformity with the governor-general's applicaU()n, to issue,
to the naval force under his command, an order to destroy and
lay waste such towns and districts upon the coast as might be
found assailai)!e! 'J'lie American secretary of state, in reply,
stated that in no instance had the United States authorised a
deviation from the known usages of war. That in the lew cases
in which there had been a charge of such acts, the government
liad formally disavowed them, and had subjected the per-
petrators to punishment. That amongst tliose few, the charge
of burning the parliament house at York in Upper ('anada was
now for the first time brought forward ; ihat one of the most re-
spectable civil functionaries at that place had addressed a letter
of thanks to general Dearborne, for the good conduct of our
troops ; and moreover, that when sir Cleorge i*revost, six months
afterwards, professedly proceeded to measures of retaliation,
the affair of burning the brick house was not mentioned. But
what in the meantime were the afl'airsof the river Raisin, the
devastations on the shores of Lake Champlain, the confiagra-
tions and piunderings on the sea coast — were these in retalia-
tion for burning the parliament house? IJut we were told, that
there was, besules, the burninir of a few sheds and huts at
Long Point and St David's. These acts were followed up by
instant retaliation ; and those who commiUed them, although
able to plead the uniform practice of the enemy in excuse, were
dismissed the service. Were the confiagrations in the Chesa-
peake, during the summer, in retaliation for these acts ? or were
they in prospective retaliation for the burning of Newark, which
happened at the close of the same year ? What was the avowed
object of the British governor in burning four or five villages,
putting a garrison to the sword, and laying waste the Niagara
frontier ? It was to retaliate the burning of Newark, an act
the American government had promptly disavowed. And why
did the governor of Canada, after this, declare to the world,
that he was doubly satisfied, first with the disavowal of our



government, and next with this ample measure of retaliation ?
How then could the conllagration of the noble buildings at
Washington be in retaliation for the burning a brick house
hired for the temporary occupation of the provincial legislature,
or for tlie burning of Newark, of a few outposts, and of the
cabins or huts of hostile savages ! Such pretexts are too flimsy
and absurd to impose upon the most ignorant. A lamentable
barbarity marked tlie conduct of the British in the war tlirough-
out ; wiiile the United States sincerely desired to avoid what-
ever might stand in the way of the most friendly relations, on
the restoration of peace. At the very opening of the war, tlie
British oflicers permitted tiie savage Indians to fight by their
sides, and neglected to prevent tiiem from perpetrating cruelties
whose bare recital causes tlie hair to stand on end. When the
British admirals first visited our sea coast — at a time when no
complaints liad been made against us, they plundered and burnt
the villages on the shores of Chesapeake Bay ; they robbed the
defenceless planters of tiieir stock, of their negroes, of their
furniture, and at Hampton transcended even the abominations
ofthe river Raisin. On the borders of Canada, the same course
of burning or plundering was pursued ; and when, under the
influence of feelings produced by these outrages, an American
officer burnt a village without authority, gladly was this seized
as the pretext for the first avowed retaliation — and the whole
frontier was laid waste. What was the conduct of the Britis?i
to American prisoners, and to those wlio were dragged from
their ships to be enslaved ; and v.-hat was the treatment of British
subjects prisoners with us ? What pretext of retaliation could
cover the violation of neutral ports, for the purpose of captur-
ing our vessels ? What pretext warranted the barbarous orders
of their officers, to refuse quarter to men opposed to them in
honourable battle ? 'i'he letter of admiral Cochrane scarcely
deserved the notice ofthe secretary of state ; but tlie refutation
was certainly most ample. It is impossible to suppose thatsucli
conduct was not as severely reprobated by the great mass of the
English people, as it was by us. I'he minority in the British
parliament pronounced it to be disgraceful to their country.

It has been the opinion of some, tliat our government was
reprehensible for not resorting, at an early period, to retalia-

Online LibraryH. M. (Henry Marie) BrackenridgeHistory of the late war between the United States and Great Britain: → online text (page 28 of 32)