The War Nerd’s Twelve Days of 1812, Day Three: Bladensburg -- Too Much Geography, Too Many Cooks
(Previously: Day Two: War, Because We Wanted to)
Most people agree that Bladensburg, the disastrous 1814 battle that led to the burning of Washington D.C, was the worst showing by American forces in this war or any other. But there's confusion about who gets the blame. Well, if you ask me, the real villain was the miserable geography of Chesapeake Bay.
Chesapeake Bay looks like a cross-section from my eighth-grade “Health” (Sex Education) class. There’s something weirdly genital about it, only way more complicated than any plain human anatomy. More like something a fast-breeding alien queen might have. And it doesn’t help that the invasion maps always show these thick red arrows, with little Union Jacks on them, heading up the Bay, like something trust-fund chicks tell their therapists, not proper military cartography.
All that excess geography, all those inlets, creeks, bays, harbors and coves, makes Chesapeake an invader’s dream and a defender’s nightmare, especially when the invader has complete sea control. Which raises an interesting, if kinda off-topic, point: Why didn’t the Union, with exactly that kind of sea control, take better advantage of the messed-up, broken shoreline of Chesapeake Bay in the Civil War? They tried, time and again, but they never did anything as simple and devastating as the British march from Patuxent River to Washington D.C.
The Americans knew the British were coming. U.S. intelligence, in a sloppy informal way, was pretty good, and the U.S. command knew that a big British force had sailed from Bermuda at midsummer, 1814, heading for someplace in the Chesapeake area. This was all part of a big two-pronged offensive meant to stomp out American resistance now that the Empire had access to all the troops freed up when Napoleon gave up after the Battle of Leipzig.
The northern prong was supposed to be the real thing, with the Chesapeake Bay expedition a diversion. But the last shall be first, and the little diversion down south ended up doing much more damage.
Looking back, it’s not hard to figure out why: the British force marching down toward the Hudson couldn’t make full use of the sea power that gave the Empire its biggest advantage. Instead they fought a weird Lego naval war on Lake Champlain, both sides grabbing any hull they could find and bolting cannon onto it. The US could compete in a small-scale amphibious war like that, especially when the British commander in the North, Prevost, was your classic Captain Queeg who worried more about protocol and shiny buttons than war-fighting. Thanks to a geography that favored defense, plus Prevost’s total incompetence, the Northern prong of the big Brit pincer stalled out completely.
But the little diversion in Chesapeake Bay turned into a big overachiever, because down there, geography was all on the attacker’s side. From the start, the British used the multiple-orifice geography of the Bay to daze and confuse the American command. Not that it took much to do that; the U.S. commanders down south were a joke, and when you consider that they were defending the same ground as the Army of Northern Virginia did fifty years later, you get a new respect for those Rebs, and a whole new contempt for their ancestors, the American brass of 1814.
The British had good commanders for both naval and land operations, Ross handling the infantry and Cockburn the ships—both of them Scottish names, you’ll notice, which was bad news for their opponents. You could usually beat an English commander with a fancy Norman name like Prevost, but the Scots had to come up the hard way, and they were the real fangs of the Empire all through the 19th century.
Cockburn’s superior, Admiral Cochrane (another Scottish name, see?) did his job, which was assembling a fleet that could crush any little ad hoc navy the Americans could put on the Bay. Then he did the smart thing and left tactics to the younger, more aggressive Cockburn. Cockburn sent feelers, if you’ll pardon the expression, up the western and eastern inlets of the Bay—up the Potomac to the West and up the Bay in the East, toward Baltimore. The main force, the real thrust, was up the middle, up the Patuxent River, due south of Washington D.C.
These diversions fed right into the half-bright guesses of the American Secretary of War, John Armstrong. Armstrong is a classic example of a political general, a senator—one of the pro-war Jeffersonians—who gets promoted way over his head. And a real creep, too; his whole contribution to the Revolutionary War was circulating anonymous mutinous letters “to the officers,” then moving to an aide’s job and resigning “for reasons of health.” He had a reputation for being lazy and sly, but not stupid—but once he intervened in the plans for defending the Chesapeake, he soon put those stereotypes to rest by proving he wasn’t just lazy and creepy--he was plenty stupid, too.
Like a lot of hicks who dabble in war, Armstrong thought war was all cold tactical rules. Starting from that totally wrong postulate, he did his little deduction thing and came up with this gem: The British won’t attack Washington D.C. because the really significant objective in Chesapeake is Baltimore. Therefore, even if the redcoats seem to be marching on Washington, they won’t be. Therefore, this little military Socrates concluded, we don’t have to defend Washington at all.
See? That’s how half-bright people think. As in, way too much for their own or anybody else’s good. Armstrong’s first postulate, that war is always about cold tactics, not symbols, was dead wrong and always has been. The British commanders, real professionals, understood that perfectly well, which is why they realized it was well worth their time to burn the shit out of Washington D.C.
The Americans basically had to choose which of the three British naval forces to concentrate against: West/Potomac, middle/Patuxent, or East/Baltimore. Armstrong shifted most of his forces to the east, to Baltimore, the biggest city, and left the Patuxent wide open.
On August 19 Ross landed at Benedict, MD, about halfway up the Patuxent, feinted to the north as if he was heading for Baltimore or Annapolis, then marched northwest toward D.C. with about 4500 men. It was an interesting force; the core was four battalions who’d been in the real war in Europe and were ready for some bayonet time, but there was also a high-tech crew with Congreve rockets—the ones that produced the “rockets’ red glare” in the anthem. Those rockets were basically horizontally-aimed fireworks, not good for much except noise and flash-bang. But against raw troops like the US militia, noise and flash can make you think the Day of Jubilee is here and you best retire somewhere quiet to ask God's mercy.
There was also a group of 200 Royal Marines, ex-slaves to whom the British had promised freedom. This is one of those details from U.S. history we don’t tend to focus on all that much because it makes the enemy look superior to us—which they were, in this way. The British had already turned against slavery, and they took in a lot of black Americans who fled to Canada after the war and treated them better than the Yankees were prepared to.
The Americans managed to sweep up about 7000 men to stop Ross, but most were militia—those famous “citizen-soldiers” we’re so proud of, except for one little thing: citizen-soldiers really suck in their first few fights. If there’s one thing American history shows, it’s that: don’t bet the rent on the citizen-soldiers until they’ve had a few months’ combat experience.
Second lesson of American military history: always bet against any American force defending Washington, D.C., no matter what year it is. From Bladensburg to Bull Run to every Union commander before Sheridan, we suck at defending D.C.. Maybe it’s indefensible, and not just, like, morally. I don’t know--but when a hack like Jubal Early could march right up to the gates of the city in 1864, when the Union had all but won, it’s just bad luck to be the team defending that goal line.
In charge of the defenders, we had a lawyer named William Winder, whose only claim to fame after two years of war was having got himself taken prisoner in 1813. Bad luck for Winder--and you know, there’s a lot to be said for using luck to pick your commanders. There’s a story that Napoleon, trying to arrange things in the Hundred Days, realized he didn’t have time to check out the guys being recommended for promotion, so he just asked his aides one question about each candidate: “Is he lucky?” Winder was obviously not a lucky guy, and he was about to prove he was more than unlucky, he was flinchy. And he appointed a fellow flincher, Tobias Stansbury, to command the defense of Bladensburg.
A flinchy commander can be recognized by one classic move: He occupies a strong position, then freaks out and abandons it. Winder found a good position for his troops on a hill north of the little town of Bladensburg, on a ford of the Eastern Branch—which is one of the two million creeks and inlets around D.C. He dug in his force on the slope, exactly the right thing to do under the circumstances.
Another very, very big lesson from American military history: your best move by far, especially when commanding raw troops, is to dig in at a strong defensible position, preferably on a height, and friggin’ stay there. Let them come to you and mow ’em down when they get close. This is something most halfway decent soldiers can do without too much training. So when you’re commanding a militia force, you damn well put them in place on a strategic hill and nail their feet to the ground. Only very, very good troops can do a good withdrawal, so don’t you move them troops. Think Bunker Hill, Fredericksburg, and the Battle of New Orleans; we do best doing what Lee recommended, staying defensive at the tactical level with an overall offensive strategy.
Winder and Stansbury could have bled the small British force approaching them bad if he’d held the hill. But before the British force even arrived, it turned into a bug-out race. First Winder, on the flank, bugged out, informing Stansbury that he was retreating across the river. Then Stansbury started to over-think things—a bad move for most soldiers—and imagined himself being surrounded. So he zoomed too. Worst of all—a court-martial offense, a hanging offense, it should’ve been—nobody burned the one bridge over the Eastern Branch. Yup, they left an intact bridge right in front of their defensive position. It doesn’t get much worse than that, as those beer-commercial guys say when they wake up hungover on Monday morning. Basically that was the battle, right there—game over before it started.
But just to make damn sure we were doomed, another cook arrived to make sure the military broth was spoiled: James Monroe, Secretary of State and future President, one of those short guys who always have to be giving orders, showed up and started messing with Stansbury’s dispositions as if these confused militia troops weren’t already confused enough, sending them here and there like he was playing chess.
You do not play chess with militia. That’s what the French tried with their conscript armies in 1870, sending Parisian office workers marching all over the landscape, and it worked out as well for them as it did for Monroe. Don’t make raw troops tap-dance; again, with militia you occupy the heights and goddamn well stay there. Well, it was too late for that, since the U.S. forces were now west of the river and on flat ground, but they could at least have stuck where they were, if Monroe hadn’t tried to show how smart he was by shifting them around.
Like a lot of battles, this one was a matter of deployment; the few minutes of actual noise and smoke were one of those foregone conclusions, like a Raiders game. The Americans had a couple of decent artillery units, which delayed the inevitable, but a few of those Congreve rockets whooshing overhead was enough to send the civilians in uniform thinking of going home. Yeah, if Francis Scott Key had been at the Battle of Bladensburg instead of the Siege of Baltimore, the anthem would’ve had some different lyrics: “Oh say can you see, the rockets’ red glare?/Oh God, I sure can, and I’m right outta there.” The few units of regular artillery who’d stood their ground were deserted and exposed, and the whole American line gave way.
Another thing about raw troops: don’t make them retreat, because it’ll turn into a rout. Of course it helps if you’ve issued a few instructions to your unit commanders about how to withdraw if necessary. Winder and Stansbury hadn't thought that far ahead. But even with good orders, most new soldiers can't withdraw in good order. They'll throw down their weapons and run when the line gives way--and after a few volleys from the rockets, our guys ran. Yup, just like their grandkids ran from Bull Run, our brave boys ran from Bladensburg so fast that a few years later, a poem called “The Bladensburg Races” commemorated their yellow-bellied sprint towards our nation’s capital.
That poem is one of the few cheery bits about this battle. It focuses on President Madison, who’d graced the battlefield with his presidential presence. That meant that two presidents were on the field that day, since Madison, the man who’d done as much as anyone to make sure we lost, was also among the sprinters heading for home. The poem does a great job of commemorating both these skedaddlers:
So like an arrow swift he flew, Shot from an archer’s bow; So did [Madison] fly—so after him As swift did fly MONROE. Six gentlemen upon the road Beheld our GENERAL ride— MONROE behind—the chapeau gone; The broadsword by his side.
When you remember what ridiculous hats these gentlemen wore circa 1814, and how naked they felt without one, that’s a great detail: “the chapeau gone, the broadsword by his side”; especially since the sword was (a) the mark of a gentleman and an officer, and (b) the most totally useless weapon in the world.
Well, even the worst debacle has its “lessons learned” element. The usual lesson learned is: nothing, not a damn thing. But Madison did learn a lesson from Bladensburg. Not the one he should’ve learned, i.e., “Stay out of it and leave troop dispositions alone,” but one that let him save a little face: he decided that citizen-soldiers weren’t the bees’ knees after all, which in 1814 was as sacrilegious as saying now that not every nutcase should be allowed to own three assault rifles.
We were supposed to be proud farmer-soldiers, like some damn Roman from the days when Carthage kicked them all over the field, but after Bladensburg, it was kinda hard to avoid the conclusion that maybe, just maybe, it might be nice to have a few soldiers who actually knew what they were doing.