America's most important document was almost destroyed by the British. Luckily, the Marines got involved. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
On Aug. 24, 1814 — two years into the War of 1812 — British soldiers wandered through the White House, taking and destroying whatever they could. They helped themselves to President James Madison’s dinner. It sat on the dining room table where he’d left it in a rush to escape the invading army. They smashed the front windows and set the curtains ablaze. Then they turned their attention to the rest of Washington, intending to burn down every symbol of American freedom and independence they could find.
The events of that day mark the only time in history that foreign troops have occupied the United States capital. And for the Americans, it could have turned out a lot worse. The British would have reached their destination much sooner — perhaps soon enough to capture the Declaration of Independence before it was whisked away — had it not been for the stiff resistance of a small band of US Marines.
An 1816 painting depicting the 1814 burning of Washington by British troops. Photo courtesy of WIkimedia Commons.
Earlier in the day, that same force of 4,500 British troops marched 40 miles from Benedict, Maryland, to the capitol. As they were approaching the city’s center, a force of 1,400 US Army regulars and Maryland militiamen intercepted them alongside the Anacostia River, near the town of Bladensburg. The Americans — mostly untested and under-equipped — positioned themselves in three stacked lines facing the river’s only bridge. With no time to construct defensive positions, they simply stood in the open field and waited.
Meanwhile, upon hearing news of the advancing British army, Commodore Joshua Barney of the US Navy hastily mustered a group of 103 Marines from the Washington Navy Yard and marched them to Bladensburg to aid the defenders. Once there, he positioned his small outfit in the center of the third line. The Marines were still taking their positions when the British attacked.
Marine Col. Charles Waterhouse's depiction of US Marines manning the guns at Bladensburg. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The first British troops across the bridge were met with cannon and rifle fire. They briefly fell back before launching rockets at the Americans and charging forward again. This time, the British managed to cross the bridge and started returning fire. At that point, the first line of Americans turned and fled.
More British units quickly followed across the bridge. Soon, the second line of Americans — primarily Maryland militiamen — were outnumbered and outgunned. British forces overwhelmed the Marylanders, pouring rifle and rocket fire into the flanks of their formation. They, too, fled, leaving the third line of Americans alone.
The Marines, now anchoring the final line of defense, readied two 18-pounder long guns designed for use on board warships. When they fired, the salvo blew gaping holes in the enemy line. Yet the British continued to advance. Recognizing how dire the situation had become, Barney drew his sword and led the Marines in a desperate counterattack. With bayonets and cutlasses, they surged forward, shouting, “Board ’em! Board ’em!” The brazen assault temporarily sent the Redcoats reeling.
Reenactors depict the battle of Bladensburg in 2014. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The British infantry regrouped, then flanked the Americans from both sides while the Marines remained in the middle. The Marines stood their ground while militiamen to their left and right collapsed and the survivors started to flee. In their haste to escape, the retreating militiamen took the ammunition for the 18-pounders with them.
Though they were surrounded on three sides, alone, and without cannonballs, the Marines fought on for another three hours. Finally, with a musket ball lodged in his thigh, Barney ordered his men to spike the cannons and retreat.
British forces arrived in downtown Washington, DC, six hours after first engaging American forces near Bladensburg. After helping themselves to the president’s abandoned dinner, they torched the White House, the Capitol, the War Office, and the Library of Congress.
A bronze memorial titled "Undaunted Courage" marks the site where Marines made their heroic stand. The statue depicts Commodore Joshua Barney, Charles Ball, and an unnamed US Marine. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
While the Marines did not save Washington from being razed, their bold defense at Bladensburg was not in vain. Like the Spartans at Thermopylae, the Marines created a critical window of time just big enough for President Madison, government officials, and civilians to flee. Before leaving, Madison’s cabinet salvaged the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution from the Library of Congress, saving them from certain destruction.
In fact, the actions of the Marines that day were so decisive that they even impressed their British adversaries, who showed their respect by sparing the commandant of the Marine Corps’ house. It was the only building left unscathed as the entire neighboring Washington Navy Yard was burned to the ground.
Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.
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