‘War in the Chesapeake: The British Campaigns to Control the Bay, 1813-1814’
The British called them the "Bladensburg Races,” the shattering of seven thousand American militiamen by three thousand British regulars and marines that opened the door to the burning of Washington. James Madison, President of the United States, the Secretary of War and the Secretary of State were among the fleeing refugees that day in 1814. It was not America’s finest hour.
By Col. Robert Killebrew, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense age of sail bureau chief
The British called them the “Bladensburg Races,” the shattering of seven thousand American militiamen by three thousand British regulars and marines that opened the door to the burning of Washington. James Madison, President of the United States, the Secretary of War and the Secretary of State were among the fleeing refugees that day in 1814. It was not America’s finest hour.
The War of 1812 is probably the most under-studied war in American history. When it is remembered at all, it is remembered for the “Star-Spangled Banner” and the Battle of New Orleans. But there was far more. As Charles Neimeyer points out in his excellent history War in the Chesapeake, the American preoccupation with invading Canada, the general incompetence of the nation’s political leadership and overreliance on the militia, among other failures, opened up the Chesapeake Bay to British land and naval forces in the campaigns of 1813 and 1814. British superiority led to a series of near-fatal defeats that temporarily, at least, drove the U.S. government to decamp to a courthouse in Maryland while Washington burned.
The United States declared war in 1812 after a decade of disagreements over trade and humiliations at sea at the hands of Great Britain, which at the time was fighting for its life against Napoleon and most of Europe. While the American government went almost casually to war, political sentiment in the U.S., particularly in the northeast, was divided. From the very beginning, the United States government fixed its strategic attention on invading Canada, and its fledgling Regular Army, and much of the northeast militia, was sent north.
It proved to be a costly mistake. Though the British were stretched thin in their war against Napoleon, the Royal Navy, at over 500 ships, had in 1813 just enough strength to spare to blockade U.S. ports and to raid up the Chesapeake, the great inland waterway that touched important American cities — Philadelphia, Baltimore, Norfolk and of course Washington, D.C., the seat of government. Remarkably, and even after the British fleet raided deeply into the Bay in 1813, little thought — with one exception — was given to defending the Bay in the following year. When the British returned in 1814, Napoleon was defeated and the whole military and naval might of the empire was turned against the U.S. The result was a string of American humiliations in the Chesapeake, capped by the burning of the capitol.
The exception proved to be the defense of Baltimore, where Maryland Militia Major General Samuel Smith deployed a hodgepodge of militia, sailors, Marines and Regulars to defeat a British land and sea attack. The land attack, by seasoned British regiments fresh from the European wars, was driven off, and the subsequent British naval bombardment — conducted when the evidence says the British commander had already decided the Fort could not be taken — gave us our national anthem. But it was a rare American victory.
The British instinctively understood the great advantage the Bay provided as a highway into the interior of the U.S. The Americans, despite their own seafaring heritage and their intimate knowledge of the Bay and its many tributaries – among them the Potomac and the James — seemed to ignore their vulnerability and never mounted a coherent defense. As a result, and despite the Bay’s notoriously thin water, the Royal Navy was able to penetrate almost at will up its shallow inlets and creeks to take and burn hamlets and towns that vacationers visit today. Modern-day archeological expeditions occasionally still find the wrecks of American gunboats and armed barges that the Americans built to unsuccessfully challenge the British.
The war wasn’t all continuous disaster for the United States, of course. The United States Navy’s “super frigates” won distinction at sea, as did the swarms of fast-sailing privateers that harassed British shipping. American regulars under Winfield Scott distinguished themselves in Canada, though their tactical victories weren’t enough to offset losses. A regular officer — Major George Armistead, uncle of the Civil War general — defended Fort McHenry. And there were bright spots even in the Bay, particularly among naval officers and Marines who on critical occasions stiffened up the militia’s defenses. But as in Canada, it wasn’t enough except at Baltimore.
This is a fascinating book for any historian, and a treasure trove for any reader, like this reviewer, who lives on or near the Bay. The advance copy has maps of the major engagements, but an overall map of the Bay showing its five rivers, key cities and the British lines of campaigns would have been helpful. Even so, though, the book is a great read and a real boon to anyone who wants to do further study on this largely forgotten piece of American history. The author, who acknowledges he had a “tremendous lot of fun” writing this book, has produced a valuable addition to anyone’s library of military history.
Bob Killebrew is a retired U.S. Army colonel who consults and writes about issues of national defense. He is also an avid Chesapeake sailor and has sailed over much of the water mentioned in this book. Scars on his keel testify to the British expertise in shallow-water operations.
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