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Winder expected the British to advance by the former; and
upon it Barney with the four hundred seamen remaining to him joined
the army, at a place called Oldfields, seven miles from the capital.
This route was militarily the more important, because from it branches
were thrown off to the Potomac, up which the frigate squadron under
Captain Gordon was proceeding, and had already passed the
Kettle-bottoms, the most difficult bit of navigation in its path. The
side roads would enable the invaders to reach and co-operate with this
naval division; unless indeed Winder could make head against them.
This he was not able to do; but he remained almost to the last moment
in perplexing uncertainty whether they would strike for the capital,
or for its principal defence on the Potomac, Fort Washington, ten
miles lower down.[373]

[Illustration: SKETCH _of the_ MARCH OF THE BRITISH ARMY Under
Gen. Ross _From the 19th. to the 29th. August 1814_]

For the obvious reasons named, because the doubts of their opponent
facilitated their own movements by harassing his mind, as well as for
the strategic advantage of a central line permitting movement in two
directions at choice, the British advanced, as anticipated, by the
left-hand road, and at nightfall of August 23 were encamped about
three miles from the Americans. Here Winder covered a junction; for at
Oldfields the road by which the British were advancing forked. One
division led to Washington direct, crossing the Eastern Branch of the
Potomac where it is broadest and deepest, near its mouth; the other
passed it at Bladensburg. Winder feared to await the enemy, because of
the disorder to which his inexperienced troops would be exposed by a
night attack, causing possibly the loss of his artillery; the one arm
in which he felt himself superior. He retired therefore during the
night by the direct road, burning its bridge. This left open the way
to Bladensburg, which the British next day followed, arriving at the
village towards noon of the 24th. Contrary to Winder's instruction,
the officer stationed there had withdrawn his troops across the
stream, abandoning the place, and forming his line on the crest of
some hills on the west bank. The impression which this position made
upon the enemy was described by General Ross, as follows: "They were
strongly posted on very commanding heights, formed in two lines, the
advance occupying a fortified house, which with artillery covered the
bridge over the Eastern Branch, across which the British troops had to
pass. A broad and straight road, leading from the bridge to
Washington, ran through the enemy's position, which was carefully
defended by artillerymen and riflemen."[374] Allowing for the tendency
to magnify difficulties overcome, the British would have had before
them a difficult task, if opposed by men accustomed to mutual support
and mutual reliance, with the thousand-fold increase of strength which
comes with such habit and with the moral confidence it gives.

The American line had been formed before Winder came on the ground. It
extended across the Washington road as described by Ross. A battery on
the hill-top commanded the bridge, and was supported by a line of
infantry on either side, with a second line in the rear. Fearing,
however, that the enemy might cross the stream higher up, where it was
fordable in many places, a regiment from the second line was
reluctantly ordered forward to extend the left; and Winder, when he
arrived, while approving this disposition, carried thither also some
of the artillery which he had brought with him.[375] The anxiety of
the Americans was therefore for their left. The British commander was
eager to be done with his job, and to get back to his ships from a
position militarily insecure. He had long been fighting Napoleon's
troops in the Spanish peninsula, and was not yet fully imbued with
Drummond's conviction that with American militia liberties might be
taken beyond the limit of ordinary military precaution. No time was
spent looking for a ford, but the troops dashed straight for the
bridge. The fire of the American artillery was excellent, and mowed
down the head of the column; but the seasoned men persisted and forced
their way across. At this moment Barney was coming up with his seamen,
and at Winder's request brought his guns into line across the
Washington road, facing the bridge. Soon after this, a few rockets
passing close over the heads of the battalions supporting the
batteries on the left started them running, much as a mule train may
be stampeded by a night alarm. It was impossible to rally them. A part
held for a short time; but when Winder attempted to retire them a
little way, from a fire which had begun to annoy them, they also broke
and fled.[376]

The American left was thus routed, but Barney's battery and its
supporting infantry still held their ground. "During this period,"
reported the Commodore,--that is, while his guns were being brought
into battery, and the remainder of his seamen and marines posted to
support them,--"the engagement continued, the enemy advancing, and our
own army retreating before them, apparently in much disorder. At
length the enemy made his appearance on the main road, in force, in
front of my battery, and on seeing us made a halt. I reserved our
fire. In a few minutes the enemy again advanced, when I ordered an
18-pounder to be fired, which completely cleared the road; shortly
after, a second and a third attempt was made by the enemy to come
forward, but all were destroyed. They then crossed into an open field
and attempted to flank our right; he was met there by three
12-pounders, the marines under Captain Miller, and my men, acting as
infantry, and again was totally cut up. By this time not a vestige of
the American army remained, except a body of five or six hundred,
posted on a height on my right, from whom I expected much support from
their fine situation."[377]

In this expectation Barney was disappointed. The enemy desisted from
direct attack and worked gradually round towards his right flank and
rear. As they thus moved, the guns of course were turned towards them;
but a charge being made up the hill by a force not exceeding half that
of its defenders, they also "to my great mortification made no
resistance, giving a fire or two, and retired. Our ammunition was
expended, and unfortunately the drivers of my ammunition wagons had
gone off in the general panic." Barney himself, being wounded and
unable to escape from loss of blood, was left a prisoner. Two of his
officers were killed, and two wounded. The survivors stuck to him till
he ordered them off the ground. Ross and Cockburn were brought to him,
and greeted him with a marked respect and politeness; and he reported
that, during the stay of the British in Bladensburg, he was treated by
all "like a brother," to use his own words.[378]

The character of this affair is sufficiently shown by the above
outline narrative, re-enforced by the account of the losses sustained.
Of the victors sixty-four were killed, one hundred and eighty-five
wounded. The defeated, by the estimate of their superintending
surgeon, had ten or twelve killed and forty wounded.[379] Such a
disparity of injury is usual when the defendants are behind
fortifications; but in this case of an open field, and a river to be
crossed by the assailants, the evident significance is that the party
attacked did not wait to contest the ground, once the enemy had gained
the bridge. After that, not only was the rout complete, but, save for
Barney's tenacity, there was almost no attempt at resistance. Ten
pieces of cannon remained in the hands of the British. "The rapid
flight of the enemy," reported General Ross, "and his knowledge of the
country, precluded the possibility of many prisoners being
taken."[380]

That night the British entered Washington. The Capitol, White House,
and several public buildings were burned by them; the navy yard and
vessels by the American authorities. Ross, accustomed to European
warfare, did not feel Drummond's easiness concerning his position,
which technically was most insecure as regarded his communications. On
the evening of June 25 he withdrew rapidly, and on that of the 26th
regained touch with the fleet in the Patuxent, after a separation of
only four days. Cockburn remarked in his official report that there
was no molestation of their retreat; "not a single musket having been
fired."[381] It was the completion of the Administration's disgrace,
unrelieved by any feature of credit save the gallant stand of Barney's
four hundred.

The burning of Washington was the impressive culmination of the
devastation to which the coast districts were everywhere exposed by
the weakness of the country, while the battle of Bladensburg crowned
the humiliation entailed upon the nation by the demagogic prejudices
in favor of untrained patriotism, as supplying all defects for
ordinary service in the field. In the defenders of Bladensburg was
realized Jefferson's ideal of a citizen soldiery,[382] unskilled, but
strong in their love of home, flying to arms to oppose an invader; and
they had every inspiring incentive to tenacity, for they, and they
only, stood between the enemy and the centre and heart of national
life. The position they occupied, though unfortified, had many natural
advantages; while the enemy had to cross a river which, while in part
fordable, was nevertheless an obstacle to rapid action, especially
when confronted by the superior artillery the Americans had. The
result has been told; but only when contrasted with the contemporary
fight at Lundy's Lane is Bladensburg rightly appreciated. Occurring
precisely a month apart, and with men of the same race, they
illustrate exactly the difference in military value between crude
material and finished product.

Coincident with the capture of Washington, a little British
squadron--two frigates and five smaller vessels--ascended the Potomac.
Fort Washington, a dozen miles below the capital, was abandoned August
27 by the officer in charge, removing the only obstacle due to the
foresight of the Government.



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