August 24, 1814
The Battle of Bladensburg, a major British victory, cleared the way for British troops to march into, and burn, Washington, D.C. as described by a British soldier:
“…the want of cavalry (by the British) …was very sensibly felt. To remedy this evil…orders had been issued to catch and bring in all the horses that were found in the fields or stables of any houses along the road….there were now fifty or sixty in the camp. Upon these some of the artillery-drivers were mounted….found of great service during the remainder of the march…..
…our march (toward Washington) was for some time both cool and agreeable…but no sooner had we begun to emerge from the woods and to enter the open country than an overpowering change was perceived. The sun…now beat upon us in full force; and the dust rising in thick masses flew directly into our faces…inconvenience to the eyes and respiration…I do not recollect a period of my military life during which I suffered more severely from heat and fatigue…it is not surprising that before many hours….numbers of men began to fall behind from absolute inability to keep up.
..Our proximity to Washington…distant not more than ten or twelve miles, all tended to assure us that we should at least see an American army before dark….(reconnoitering cavalry) precautions were unnecessary for, whatever might be the strength of the Americans in cavalry, their General did not think fit to employ it in harassing our march….
…we had now proceeded about ten miles, during the last four of which the sun’s rays had beat continually upon us, and we had inhaled almost as great a quantity of dust as of air. Numbers of men had fallen to the rear, and many more could with difficulty keep up…a halt was determined…the troops were ordered to refresh themselves….we had not resumed our march above an hour, when the banks by the way side were again covered with stragglers; some of the finest and stoutest men in the army being literally unable to go on….
…on turning a sudden angle in the road…the British and American armies became visible to one another. The position occupied by the latter was one of great strength and commanding attitude. They were drawn up in three lines upon the brow of a hill, having their front and left flank covered by a branch of the Potomac and their right resting upon a thick wood and a deep ravine….Such was the nature of the ground which they occupied, and the formidable posture in which they waited our approach; amounting, by their own account, to nine thousand men, a number exactly doubling that of the (British) force which was to attack them….
… (the British army) arrived in the streets of Bladensburg, and within range of the American artillery. Immediately on our reaching this point, several of their guns opened upon us (and)…we were commanded to halt…the order to halt was countermanded, and the word given to attack; and we immediately pushed on at double quick time…a continued fire was kept up…but it was not until the bridge was covered with our people that the two gun battery upon the road itself began to play. – Then, indeed, it also opened and with tremendous effect…almost an entire (British) company was swept down… the succeeding discharges were much less fatal. The riflemen likewise began to gall us from the wooded bank with a running fire of musketry; and it was not without trampling upon many of their dead and dying comrades that the (British) light brigade established itself on the opposite side of the stream. …once there everything else appeared easy… they quickly cleared it of the American skirmishers; who, falling back with precipitation upon the first line, threw it into disorder before it had fired a shot….our troops had scarcely shown themselves when the whole of that (American) line gave way, and fled in the greatest confusion, leaving the two guns upon the road….
….Instead of pausing till the rest of the army came up, the (British) soldiers lightened themselves by throwing away their knapsacks and haversacks; ….pushed on to the attack of the second line. The Americans, however, saw their weakness, and stood firm…they checked the ardour of the assailants by a heavy fire and advanced to recover the ground which was lost….the extended order of the British troops would not permit them to offer an effectual resistance …in this state the action continued till the second brigade …formed upon the right bank of the river…upon the left flank of the Americans, and completely turned it. In that quarter, therefore, the battle was won….But on their right the enemy still kept their ground with much resolution (until)….the advance of the British forces…they began to waver. Then, indeed seeing their left in full flight and the (British) 44th getting in their rear, they lost all order and dispersed…the rout was now general throughout the (American) line. The reserve, which ought to have supported the main body (of Americans) fled as soon as those in its front began to give way; and the cavalry, instead of charging the British troops, now scattered…turned their horses’ heads and galloped off. ….
The battle, by which the fate of the American capital was decided, began about one o’clock in the afternoon, and lasted till four. The loss on the part of the English was severe. Since, out of two-thirds of the army, which were engaged, upwards of five hundred men were killed and wounded; and what rendered it doubly severe was, that among these were numbered several officers of rank and distinction…
On the side of the Americans the slaughter was not so great….had they conducted themselves with coolness and resolution, it is not conceivable how the battle could have been won (by the British). But the fact is, that, with the exception of a party of sailors from the gun-boats under the command of Commodore Barney, no troops could behave worse than they did…..Of the (Barney flotilla sailors), however, it would be injustice not to speak in the terms which their conduct merits. They were employed as gunners, and not only did they serve their guns with a quickness and precision which astonished their assailants, but they stood till some of them were actually bayoneted, with fuses in their hands; …nor was it till their leader was wounded and taken, and they saw themselves deserted on all sides by the soldiers, that they quitted the field..
With respect to the British army, again, no line of distinction can be drawn. All did their duty and none more gallantly than the rest. Our troops being worn down from fatigue…the pursuit could not be continued to any distance. The defeat (of the Americans) , however, was absolute….and as the distance from Bladensburg to (Washington) …does not exceed four miles, there appeared to be no further obstacle in the way to prevent its immediate capture.”