Battle of Bladensburg

Aerial view of the Battle of Bladensburg.
The Battle of Bladensburg, August 24, 1814, ended in defeat for the United States and cleared the way for British troops to invade Washington, DC. © Richard Schlecht

“The enemy are in full march to Washington. Have the materials to destroy the bridges.”
– Secretary of State James Monroe to President James Madison, August 23, 1814

As British ships and land troops moved northward from the landing at Benedict, Maryland, they kept the Americans guessing. Would the target be Baltimore or Washington?

By the time it was clear that the invasion force was heading to Washington, the Americans had little time to prepare. They hastily established three lines of defense near the port town of Bladensburg, where the British would cross the Eastern Branch of the Potomac River, known today as the Anacostia.

The opposing troops clashed just west of Bladensburg on August 24, 1814, in three hours of intense fighting. Though superior in number, most of the American defensive forces were poorly trained, ill-equipped, and positioned so the lines could not support one another. They were no match for the seasoned British army.

The British stormed the bridge and, after one failed attempt, crossed the river and pushed the Americans back. The first defensive line folded into the second, and soon confusion and panic swept through the American ranks.

Only the third defensive line made a heroic stand. There, Commodore Joshua Barney, along with about 400 flotillamen, 114 US Marines and militiamen, held off the British advance until the defenders were outflanked and their commander, Barney, was wounded.

President James Madison and several cabinet members were on the field of battle that day. Seeing the start of an American rout, they beat a hasty retreat to Washington, sending word ahead to First Lady Dolley Madison and others to save what possessions they could and flee.

That night the British victors occupied the nation’s capital and destroyed most of the public buildings. The defeat at Bladensburg and the enemy occupation of the capital made August 24 the darkest day of the war for the United States.
 

People

  • Charles Ball

    Charles Ball

    Charles Ball joined the US Navy Flotilla during the war and participated in Battles of St. Leonard Creek and Bladensburg.

  • A black and white illustration of a man in a naval uniform.

    Joshua Barney

    Joshua Barney lead the U.S. Chesapeake Flotilla during the War of 1812.

  • Known as the “Mistress of Riversdale,” Rosalie Stier Calvert witnessed the Battle of Bladensburg.

    Rosalie Stier Calvert

    Known as the “Mistress of Riversdale,” Rosalie Stier Calvert witnessed the Battle of Bladensburg.

  • Citizen Soldiers

    Citizen Soldiers

    During the War of 1812, local citizen soldiers—called militia—were primarily in charge of defending the Chesapeake Bay region.

  • George Cockburn

    George Cockburn

    Rear Admiral George Cockburn organized the raids along the Chesapeake under Alexander Cochrane’s orders.

  • Robert Ross

    Robert Ross

    In 1814, Major General Robert Ross lead the Royal Army in the Chesapeake region.

  • William Winder

    William Winder

    In his role to protect the nation's captial, Brigadier General Winder was a model of misdirected energy and indecision.

Last updated: January 13, 2022

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