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The Chesapeake Campaign represents the only time in American history when the nation's capital was invaded by a foreign power. The campaign was made up of two military initiatives led by British Rear Admiral George Cockburn during the summer of 1814: first, the assault on Washington including the Battle of Bladensburg, the burning of the White House, the Capitol, the Navy Yard, and other public buildings in Washington, DC, and diversionary feints along the region’s waterways; and second, the Battle for Baltimore. With most of the regular U.S. Army on the Canadian border, the defense of the Chesapeake and the nation's capital fell largely to poorly trained and inexperienced militia.

British Rear Admiral Cockburn conceived a plan that would involve the capture of the capital (in retribution for the burning of York [now Toronto] by the Americans the previous year), and a subsequent attack on Baltimore. Cockburn outlined the British plan to capture Washington in 1814: Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane would command the naval forces and Major General Robert Ross would command the land forces. Cockburn convinced Cochrane and Ross to first advance on Washington in order to catch the government and military off guard. They believed that if Baltimore were the first target, the government in Washington would have ample time to establish a defense.

The Americans, however, believed that the British were headed first for Baltimore, a major port for privateers, and underestimated the threat to Washington. Thus, the American Secretary of War felt it unnecessary to defend the capital.

American Commodore Joshua Barney and the U.S. Chesapeake Flotilla sailed south from Baltimore to engage the British at their naval base on Tangier Island, but encountered superior British naval forces near the mouth of the Potomac River. After a brief engagement, referred to as the Battle of Cedar Point, Barney withdrew into the protection of St. Leonard Creek on the Patuxent River. During June 8, 9, and 10, 1814, British naval forces attacked Barney's flotilla without success. These engagements have become known as the First Battle of St. Leonard Creek. To draw Barney from his well-protected lair, the British conducted raids up and down the Patuxent River. They hit hard at civilians by impounding provisions, livestock, and tobacco; and burning property, including warehouses, plantations, and public buildings. Finally on June 26, 1814, in a coordinated land and naval attack, the Americans engaged the blockading British force. In this Second Battle of St. Leonard Creek, Barney was able to flee the creek and sail up the Patuxent. These engagements on the Patuxent allowed the British to disguise their real objective. In July, the British launched a three-pronged attack. The main thrust of the British fleet ascended the Patuxent River and landed forces at Benedict to march over land to Washington. The U.S. Chesapeake Flotilla would be used as the pretext for this movement up the Patuxent.

A smaller British fleet entered the Potomac River, in part to make the Americans think that was the direction of the invasion but also to take Fort Warburton (now Fort Washington Park) and provide a water retreat route from Washington if needed by the British land forces. A second feint ascended the Chesapeake to raid the upper Bay north of Baltimore and to further confuse and divert American forces.

At the town of Benedict on the Patuxent River, the British reached the head of navigation for the larger vessels, and by August 20,more than 4,100 troops and marines disembarked to begin their march to Washington. Meanwhile, smaller British warships moved upriver to again engage Barney's flotilla. Under order of the Secretary of the U.S. Navy, Barney destroyed his flotilla near Pig Point when pressured by the British approach. Barney's men were sent to the Washington Navy Yard and participated later in the Battle of Bladensburg.

With the route to Washington largely undefended, the British advanced, covering the 30 miles in three days. They chose a route through the town of Bladensburg, as it offered the nearest fordable point across the Eastern Branch of the Potomac (now known as the Anacostia River), and would be crossable if the Americans had burned any bridges.

The Americans set up three defensive lines on the west side of the eastern branch of the Potomac at Bladensburg. The poorly deployed troops, with the exception of the Marines and sailors, were routed and fled in a disorderly manner; the British proceeded into Washington. On August 24-25, the British marched down Pennsylvania Avenue and burned many of the public buildings, including the Capitol and the White House. The printing presses at The National Intelligencer building also were destroyed by the British.

Having observed the disastrous Battle of Bladensburg, President Madison and his Cabinet took the British threat seriously and fled the capital. At the White House, Dolley Madison arranged for the removal of important documents and national treasures such as the portrait of George Washington.  Important documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were rushed by cart from the State Department in Washington to safety in Virginia.

As the government fled the city, and exhausted American combatants straggled to Baltimore, the British land forces turned south and rejoined the fleet at Benedict. The fleet sailed down the Patuxent and then northward up the Chesapeake Bay to begin an attack on Baltimore.

During the British return through Upper Marlboro, a few stragglers and one deserter began plundering nearby farms. Dr. William Beanes and other American civilians seized six or seven of the stragglers and confined them to a local jail. When one escaped and informed his superiors of the arrest, a contingent of British marines returned to Upper Marlboro and arrested Beanes and the others, and held them in exchange for the release of the British prisoners. The Americans were subsequently released except Beanes, who was considered the instigator of the incident. In violation of the existing rules of war, he was placed in confinement aboard HMS Tonnant.

Francis Scott Key, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, was urged to seek Beanes' release, as his detainment was a violation of the existing rules of war. Key and John Stuart Skinner,  the U.S. Agent for Exchange of Prisoners, set sail on a truce ship to meet the British fleet, and boarded HMS Tonnant under a flag of truce. They showed the British officials the letters from wounded British soldiers left behind after the Battle of Bladensburg, giving testimony to the kindness and treatment given them by U.S. hands. This so moved British General Ross, who had ordered the arrest of Beanes, that he suggested to Cochrane that Beanes be released after the planned attack on Baltimore.

 

Stabler, Scott. "Bravery at Bladensburg: The Marine Corps in 1814," Marine Corps Gazette, November 2012, pp. 25-31.

 

Related Topics:
The Chesapeake Bay Region
Maryland During the Early Years of the War

Battle of Baltimore
Significance of the Chesapeake Campaign


From the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail Feasibility Study and Environmental Impact Statement,
National Park Service, US Department of the Interior, Northeast Region, March 2004.

 

 
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