British Attack Washington – Excerpt
22 AUGUST 1814, GENERAL WINDER’S HEADQUARTERS, WASHINGTON CITY
. . . . “The British spent last night at Nottingham, twenty-two miles to the southeast, and are probably marching as I speak.” James Monroe pointed to a large map, then to a chart she and Sukey drew up earlier:
– – British Order of Battle – –
First Brigade – 1100 men – Colonel Thornton
Second Brigade – 1460 men – Colonel Brooke
Third Brigade – 1460 men – Colonel Patterson
Fifty Sappers and Miners
“Colonel Thornton, First Brigade, is considered the best regimental commander in the British Army. Two hundred fifty sailors pull the artillery and transport wagons because they lack horses, which explains why they have no cavalry screen. Their Intelligence comes from American traitors.”
“Where’s Blue Lightning when you need him?” muttered a captain.
“Closer than you would imagine.” Monroe smiled. “Perhaps in this very room.”
Everyone looked about, then chuckled softly at the obvious joke. Sukey chuckled, and Dolley felt a twinge of fear. Did Monroe just wink at me, or was he winking at that captain? Does he know we were out there? Did he tell Jemmy?
Monroe continued. “Over four thousand Infantry, all veterans, the men who defeated Napoleon. Major-General Robert Ross commands them. He’s the Duke of Wellington’s favorite general, and is considered the best commander in the British army, a disciplinarian who leads from the front and is loved by his men. Accompanying Ross is Admiral Sir George Cockburn, of whom you already know.”
General Winder slumped in his chair, head in hands from either exhaustion or despair, she couldn’t tell. “Any good news?”
Monroe nodded. “They are out of shape from the ocean voyage, and not used to our heat. Yesterday’s eight-mile march produced hundreds of stragglers and several dozen deaths from heat exhaustion. They have no cavalry troop, but are stealing every horse in sight and building one, manning it with soldiers with riding experience. They have long supply lines and little transportation, so they must steal food and water from the countryside. Their officers will lead from the front, exposed to our marksmen.” . . . .
* * *
24 AUGUST 1814, 1130 HOURS, BLADENSBURG, MARYLAND
They stood in the shade of a large maple on a hill a mile west of the Bladensburg bridge, near the road leading to Georgetown.
Soldiers of the British advanced guard scurried about the streets of Bladensburg while others stood atop Lowndes Hill, sun glinting from their brass telescopes as they surveyed the American defenses; their horses marked them as commanders.
Thick dust wafting upward once again marked the road beyond the river that ran north to Bladensburg. The still air trembled with the rumbling cadence of distant British drummers drawing nearer.
Napoleon is an evil man with a genius for war Elizabeth Sioussat once said, the words echoing in Dolley’s mind as the men who defeated Napoleon appeared from the trees shrouding the road, a red serpent slithering toward the town of Bladensburg, thumping and flashing with the cold precision of one of Fulton’s fantastic machines. The British had to be every bit as exhausted and overheated as the Americans, perhaps more so since they each carried a heavy rucksack. But they knew they were visible to their enemy and stood straight and tall, as if immune to human suffering.
This was the first time she’d seen the British army march into battle, and the first emotion to sweep over her was pride, for until the age of eight she’d been British. This had been her army, her soldiers, who’d died by the thousands to defend the colonies during the French and Indian War. Their unwavering discipline in battle was legendary, thrashed into new recruits by the harshest of punishments. These men, however, were beyond requiring the threat of the lash. They were veterans, and knew the effect their self-discipline had on their regiment’s lethality, and on the enemy’s morale. Like the Rangers at Fort Lafayette, their greatest fear would be to fail their comrades and their regiment, and their greatest punishment would be expulsion for cowardice before the enemy.
The lead soldiers of the British column were in Bladensburg, and as the town filled with red-coated soldiers, she shivered. At least we have a river between us to slow them down, and—why is the bridge still up? How long are they going to wait? British soldiers are working their way toward the river, and will soon start shooting at the—where’s the demolition crew?
Hands trembling, she carefully scanned the area: several bodies sprawled beneath the bridge, motionless. In the water, barely visible, kegs of gunpowder drifted with the current, and beyond the kegs a rowboat piled with additional gunpowder kegs nudged into the far shore. The man rowing it stepped onto the bank waving a white flag as the boat drifted downstream. British soldiers briefly surrounded him, then lowered their weapons and escorted him into Bladensburg. It was the blond-headed sergeant with the neatly trimmed beard, from the Arsenal. The one she’d entrusted with the urgent summons to Colonel Hungerford. Traitor!
Sergeant Major Moore’s voice echoed in her mind: British Infantry would have fixed bayonets and charged, covering those two hundred yards in a minute’s time, ignoring their own losses until you were bayoneted. Major Pinkney’s men have no bayonets, but the plan is for them to fall back just fifty yards to . . . um . . . where is Colonel Sterret’s Fifth Baltimore Regiment, anyway? Should be able to see them from here.
She located General Stansbury’s three regiments, arrayed north to south along an open ridge that connected the Georgetown road to the Washington road. The Fifth Baltimore was the southernmost regiment, but it was now positioned a quarter-mile behind Pinkney’s Rifles. She lowered her telescope, overcome by nausea and concern. Stansbury’s muskets can’t range either the bridge or the river. And they’re sitting on a bald ridge in full view of the British artillery instead of concealed in the orchard. I watched those men march into their correct positions along the river. I chatted with them there. What moron moved them? Does William know he’s out there alone? How can just three companies of slow-firing riflemen stop—
“There, there, dearest.” Jemmy put his arm around her waist. “No need to get excited.”
She started to explain what she’d seen and it’s dreadful significance, but the words caught in her throat and all she managed to croak out was, “We’re all gonna die.”
“Here they come,” Sukey said, pointing as she observed through her own telescope.
British soldiers scurried about, their officers in the street waving swords and shouting orders. Fifty British followed their officers down the village street and onto the bridge. The American line erupted in white smoke, three companies of riflemen and six six-pounder cannon, and seconds later the sound of cannon and musket fire reached her position. A dozen British soldiers fell and the rest scurried back into the town. The American cannon fire continued, smashing holes in buildings, felling trees, and shattering a chimney.
From the base of Lowndes Hill leaped a dozen brilliant red sparks, each followed by a smoky gray trail that seemed to burn its way through the air as it flew directly toward her and Jemmy. A moment later the horrendous shrieks of a dozen of Fulton’s horrid steam whistles pierced the air, growing louder as the sparks, now black oblongs, grew nearer.
“Congreves rockets,” Sukey yelled over the clamor.
The French ambassador had smirked describing the British rockets, labeling them noisy children’s toys of no concern to professional soldiers. The rockets shrieked over the heads of General Stansbury’s men, and she followed one, glimpsing a cylinder trailing a long stick before it exploded with a brilliant red flash and thunderous boom! in the empty field well to his rear. Spectacular, but harmless.
On the far side of the bridge a tall man astride a black horse, saber drawn, was rallying the soldiers. A bugle sounded; the horse reared and galloped toward the American lines, right across the bridge, followed by hundreds of British. Again the American line erupted in white smoke. Dozens of British fell. Those behind leaped over the bodies of the dead and dying, apparently without fear, and as they fell yet others behind them continued to surge forward, moving ever closer to the end of the bridge. No British soldier fired his musket, but instead ran over the carpet of his dead comrades until he either fell or formed up with the survivors at the American end of the bridge. The saber-wielding man on the black horse remained unscathed and cheered them on.
Her telescope revealed the leader to be Colonel Thornton, considered the best regimental commander in the British Army. Some two hundred soldiers were across when Thornton led them toward Major Pinckney’s two companies of riflemen. Pinckney waved his saber and his men maintained a ferocious rate of fire, toppling dozens of British without slowing their advance at all. When the British line was fifty feet away they stopped, unleashed a volley, and charged. Pinckney was down, and Pinckney’s men, without bayonets for the close fight, broke formation and bolted. The British overran their position and disappeared into the trees while Pinkney’s men fled in disarray toward Stansbury’s Brigade. British soldiers charged the battery of six-pounder cannons. Only one cannon managed to fire before Redcoats swarmed over the revetments, and then they routed the remaining company of militia riflemen and occupied the stone barn that stood beside the road leading to Georgetown.
American drums began pounding. The men of General Stansbury’s Brigade cheered and brandished their muskets as Winder and Stansbury rode to their front, sabers drawn. The drums then pounded out the signal to charge, and Winder and Stansbury led the fourteen hundred men forward, first at a walk, then a jog, the soldiers screaming fiercely as they surged forward.
A volley of Congreves rockets smoked their way from Bladensburg and shrieked toward the ranks of charging soldiers, tearing through the advancing lines to explode among the men. The soldiers of the brigade slowed, then halted, milling in panic and confusion as officers waved their sabers and bellowed orders. The soldiers no sooner reformed to continue the charge then another volley of rockets screamed into their ranks, one of them bursting dozens of feet overhead, the concussion un-muffled by the earth and terrifying in its volume. Several dozen men fled, and the rest broke ranks and scurried about, dazed and uncertain.
A British officer on a white Arabian charged across the bridge—General Ross!—leading a thick column of perhaps five hundred soldiers to reinforce Thornton.
An entire American company broke and ran toward Georgetown. Saber-waving officers rode after them, trying to herd men with their mounts as if they were sheep. Stansbury’s brigade was a churning mass, without structure or order. When the rockets struck again it was as if they started an uphill avalanche of humanity, as first dozens, and then hundreds began moving toward Georgetown with ever increasing speed until the entire brigade was in flight. Hundreds of British dead and dying lay about the bridge, but Stansbury’s Brigade left behind merely a dozen.
British continued to pour across the bridge. Ross and Thornton ignored the thousands of terrified soldiers fleeing west to Georgetown and led their soldiers southwest, advancing up the road to Washington. All that stood between them and the capital was the tiny second defensive line at Dueling Creek Bridge. The third line centered on Commodore Barney’s sailors and marines, Beall’s seven hundred exhausted soldiers to his right, and the five hundred of General Magruder’s brigade to his left.
General Beal’s brigade raised their muskets and fired a volley at the advancing British, still a mile away, and then the entire brigade fled toward Washington.
Dolley lowered her telescope, and as she and Jemmy regarded one another she wondered if her face was as pale and drawn as his.
“Dolley, I didn’t prepare the mansion for British occupation. Take Sukey and ride back as fast as you can. Go to my office and make sure the important papers get out of Washington City.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to see if I can organize this mess to buy you some time.”
“I won’t leave you here alone! We can organize and fight them together!”
“Dolley, please!” He spoke with quiet urgency. “My office safe holds our war plans and troop disposition. And codebooks. And the Declaration of Independence. And the Constitution.”
Fear washed over her. “We’ll take them northwest through Georgetown and out of the city. Where shall we meet?”
“That wretched woman would sell us out. I’ll join Anne at Arlington House.”
He nodded. “I’ll send you the first detachment of Dragoons I find.”
They kissed, then Dolley held him at arm’s length and looked deep into his blue eyes. “Jemmy, as God is my witness, if you let them kill or capture you I swear I’ll charge into their ranks, alone, and kill as many of those God-forsaken lobster-backed sons of Britain as I can before they gun me down.”
Jemmy’s eyes widened a bit in surprise and then he smiled. “That’s my Dolley.” He kissed her again, mounted up and galloped south along the ridge, toward Commodore Barney, Smith at his side. The Dragoons struggled to keep up.
“Think he believed you?” Sukey asked, watching Jemmy ride away.
“I know he did. What puzzles me is why.”
Panicked soldiers continued to pour past them by the hundreds, faces gaunt with fear and shame, covered in sweat and dust, many without rifles. Dolley strapped on her weapon belt, concerned that cowardly men might try to steal their mounts. Sukey stowed her poncho, hefted a blunderbuss, and glared sauerkraut at anyone who looked their way.
The road to Georgetown crested the ridge, passed a tavern, then sloped downward. Behind the tavern, under a shade tree and just out of site of Bladensburg, General Armstrong was talking to local leaders and newspapermen.
“Gentlemen, I am not scared, and neither should you be! Be assured, Washington City is safe and protected. As I’ve always said, the British goal is the destruction of Baltimore, not Washington.”
Dolley couldn’t believe what she was hearing and stopped.
“What about the men fleeing past us?” Shouted a man from the National Intelligencer. “The column of British marching to the southwest? What should we do?”
Armstrong harrumphed. “Do as you will. I can assure you that the British are nowhere near Washington.”
Fleeing soldiers now swarmed around both sides of the tavern. A weaponless man, eyes wide in terror, jostled Armstrong as he ran past. The deafening clatter of horse-drawn artillery and cannon drowned out the next question. Turning away in disgust, Dolley clearly heard Armstrong’s shrill voice over the din. “I triple-guarantee you, there are no British soldiers anywhere near Washington, and there never will be.”
* * *