A generation after America won her independence from Great Britain, the young country declared war once again on Great Britain, though enough veterans from both sides were still alive to remind the younger politicians of the toll the first war had taken.
In 1812, neither the U.S. nor the British were prepared to fight again. Had trans-Atlantic communications been faster, it was a war that might not have even happened.
The British fought a defensive war in the early years of the War of 1812 because they were also fighting against Napoleon Bonaparte and the French army and navy. By 1814, Napoleon had been defeated and the British turned their attention more fully to ending the war with the United States with a victory. Up to this point, most of the fighting had been around the Canadian and U.S. border to the north. In the Mid-Atlantic, the British had started a blockade in 1813.
When the British did come ashore, they met with little resistance so they were confident they could bring the United States to its knees.
Landing in Prince George’s County
On June 15, 1814, Capt. John Richard Lumley led his frigate, Narcissus, and 12 other boats up the Patuxent River to land 180 British marines at Benedict, a small port town in Prince George’s County. “Here the men disembarked, and drove into the woods, without a struggle, a number of militia, who left behind a part of their muskets and camp equipage, as well as a 6-pounder field piece. After spiking the latter, and destroying a store containing tobacco, the British again took to their boats, except five or six men, who had probably strayed too far into the woods,” William Marine wrote in The British Invasion of Maryland 1812-1815.
This lack of resistance was typical of what the British faced against untrained and untested militia. The farmers and merchants who generally composed militias tended to melt away when facing disciplined and battle-tested veterans of the Napoleonic Wars.
From Benedict, the British sailed further up the Patuxent River and landed at the port town of Lower Marlborough. They captured a merchant ship loaded with tobacco and burned warehouses holding 2,800 hogsheads of tobacco at both Lower Marlborough and Magruder, which was just across the river.
On August 20, the British landed again at Benedict, but this time, 4,500 British marines went ashore and began a march toward Washington.
Though the British knew where they were going, area residents were still unsure as to whether the army’s destination was Annapolis, Baltimore or Washington, according to Ed Day, Museum Director Riversdale House Museum. Acknowledging that the British weren’t taking the most-efficient route to Washington, he said, “It was part of the ‘fog of war.’ They didn’t want to let the Americans know definitely where they were going so they could prepare a defense.”
Along the way, the British passed through Upper Marlborough. It was mostly deserted. Residents had fled when they heard about the approaching British troops. However, Dr. William Beanes was still there. He would play a role in the creation of the National Anthem, but at this time, he only wanted peace.
“Dr. Beanes actually offered the British lodging and food when they came through,” said Aaron Marcavitch, Executive Director of the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area.
The British took him up on his hospitality and spent the night before moving on the next day.
Joshua Barney and his Flotilla
Joshua Barney was a Maryland native who first went to sea when he was 16 years old. During the Revolutionary War he quickly rose through the ranks to become a commodore.
As the British blockade along the Atlantic seaboard became more effective at shutting down trade, the Secretary of the Navy offered Commodore Barney a flotilla of gunboats to protect the Chesapeake Bay. Though the command was independent of the navy, Barney would receive his orders from Washington. Barney accepted and his 26 boats and 900 men were ready for operations in April 1814.
However, when his flotilla chased down some British ships on June 1, the British got reinforcements from larger ships that forced the flotilla to retreat up the Patuxent. They remained there during the summer, engaging the British when they could and occasionally going ashore to set up gun batteries to pound the British ships.
When Barney heard that the British had landed at Benedict in August, he took 400 of his men to intercept them before they reached Washington. He left the remainder of his flotilla near Pig Point under the command of Lt. Frazier with orders to scuttle the ships should the enemy approach in force.
Battle of Bladensburg
As the British approached Bladensburg, the local militia scrambled to prepare a defense without adequate equipment. “Francis Scott Key was out there on the field of battle directing troops,” Marcavitch said.
Two lines of defense were formed about a half mile apart.
The British entered Bladensburg and were greeted by gunfire from the first line. The British fell back and took cover behind the buildings in the town. Safe from gunfire, the British began launching Congreve rockets, which would become famous in the coming days for their “red glare.”
The rockets bursting overhead caused confusion on the front line. The leaders were uncertain about their support from the second line and ordered retreat along what is now Bunker Hill Road.
“President Madison was on the field at Bladensburg,” Day said. “It is the only time that happened with a president at a battle.” The reason quickly became obvious. Madison and his cabinet were with the second line of defense, which is roughly where 40th Avenue is now. They came out to watch the battle’s progress, but the second line of defense quickly folded as the men saw the first line militiamen retreating. The President and his cabinet barely got away. As the retreat turned into a rout, cannons were left behind.
Amid this confusion, Barney arrived with his men and set up cannons atop a hill where Eastern Avenue is now. The navy men began firing on the British who were near Dueling Creek.
“They inflicted some serious damage on the British, but eventually they were outflanked and Barney was wounded,” Marcavitch said.
Because of Barney’s assistance, the Americans had delayed the British for about five hours. That delay turned out to be long enough for Dolly Madison to save some of the national treasures in the President’s Mansion.
“When the British captured him, they actually told Barney, ‘Thanks for giving us some fight.’ They treated his wounds and pardoned him immediately,” Marcavitch said.
Burning of Washington
The British left Bladensburg at 4 p.m. and by that evening the U.S. Capitol, the President’s Mansion and other buildings were in flames. The destruction continued into the next day.
“It took a lot of nerve to do what they did and later, they denied that they went to Washington to burn it,” Day said.
It was only a hurricane-force storm that stopped the destruction and convinced to British to leave the city and head back to their ships. The storm and hot, humid temperatures that the soldiers had experienced prior to that had made them miserable in their wool uniforms. Add to that the fact that they were tired from the marching and fighting that they had been doing. Men were so worn out that they died on the four-day march back. Many of the sick and wounded were left at the Stoddard House in Bladensburg where they received care.
“As they marched through Bladensburg to Upper Marlboro, some of the stragglers began causing problems so Beanes and a few others arrested the troublesome soldiers. When the British commanders learned about this, they sent soldiers back to arrest Beanes,” Marcavitch said.
It fell upon Key to travel to Baltimore to negotiate for Beanes’ release. And it was there aboard a British ship that Key watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry, which became the inspiration for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The War in Hindsight
Though the Marylanders did not stop the British from burning Washington, their service and the war does have meaning.
“Without Prince George’s County, you have no National Anthem,” Marcavitch said.
Day said, “It made Americans wake up to the fact that they needed a stronger standing army.”
He added that he believes a fitting commemoration of the war would be to have modern-day American and British marines shaking hands at the location where Barney’s men delayed the British march on Washington.
“Since then, they’ve had our backs and we’ve had their backs,” he said. “The War of 1812 was just a family squabble.”