Friday, November 2, 2012

Bladensburg Battlefield

In this post, we’ll find out about the archaeology of an episode that historian Daniel Walker Howe called "the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms” and "the most humiliating episode in American history": The Battle of Bladensburg. I know, I’ve really set it up to sound glorious, right? Actually, there really were Americans who comported themselves with an appropriate degree of military ardour that day (Commodore Joshua Barney, looking at you), but they were outranked by ineffective and pusillanimous officials who made a complete hash of things. 

On the morning of August 24th, 1814, General William H. Winder hastily positioned his American militia units in the fields above Bladensburg, Maryland. Until 1813, Winder had been a lawyer in Baltimore. Then he had a midlife crisis or something and became an Army officer. If you read about the Battle of Bladensburg in greater detail, you might get the sense that Winder was, perhaps, promoted beyond his capacity. Wikipedia tactfully suggests that he “failed to show effective command” in the Battle of Bladensburg, which is really putting it lightly. 

The British forces were led by Major General Robert Ross, a British Army officer who started his military career in 1789 and served with the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsular War. You’re probably thinking that this is a significantly more impressive resume than that of poor General Winder. Yeah. You’re totally right.

Robert Ross!
British troops entered the town of Bladensburg around noon. Colonel William Thornton's 85th Regiment of Foot began an assault across the small bridge spanning the Eastern Branch – now known as the Anacostia River. The first units suffered some pretty gory casualties, but the British Empire wasn’t built by people who wilted just because of a little musket fire. The British managed to push across the bridge and establish strategic positions in the thickets along the riverbanks.

A sketch map of the battle
Commodore Joshua Barney (more on him in later posts) had scuttled his Chesapeake Flotilla  - including his flagship the USS Scorpion - in the Patuxent River two days earlier. He arrived at the battlefield with about 400 sailors and a contingent of 120 marines under Captain Samuel Miller. 

They rolled two large 18-pounder cannon into the middle of the Bladensburg Turnpike, along with three 12-pounders on the right flank right on the border of Maryland and DC. The sailors were armed only with cutlasses and boarding pikes, while the marines carried muskets. Just to be clear: these guys had been fighting the British in the Chesapeake Bay and along the Patuxent River for months, blew up their ships and barges, and then they marched to the Navy Yard in DC, grabbed some cannons, and dragged them all the way to Bladensburg where they kept right on fighting the British. So…major props to Barney and the flotilla guys.
The British paused briefly as this apparently unimpressive band of reinforcements assumed their defensive position, but soon resumed their attack. In turn, Barney's men fired their 18-pounders "with the most destructive effect, sweeping the road and staggering the column." The British mounted several assaults directly into the line of cannon until they were forced to seek cover along Dueling Creek. Despite being pummeled by cannon fire, the British maintained heavy musket fire into the artillery positions, eventually shooting Barney's horse out from under him.  

 The British followed the deep channel of Dueling Creek around to Barney's right, and from this position drove off the militia units defending the hilltop. By this time, General Winder had ordered a retreat, leaving the "flotilla men" to fend off the British – which, you guys, they totally did. Barney suffered a serious wound from a musket ball to his upper right thigh.

Outflanked and out of ammunition, Barney ordered his sailors and marines to spike their guns and retreat.  Some sailors remained at their stations, and it was reported that they were bayoneted at their guns with fuses smoldering in their hands.  Washington fell to the victorious British that night.

Other battlefields, especially those from the Civil War, have been lovingly preserved, studied, and interpreted for the public. Bladensburg Battlefield, however, has been largely forgotten. The area where this battle was fought now contains suburban residences, a cemetery, parkland, and commercial developments. If you were to drive down Bladensburg Road today, trying to replicate the path the British took on their way to Washington, you would probably conclude that nothing of the original landscape survives. But archaeologists have discovered that in several places around the town, little pockets of this intact battlefield still survive. 
Looking for the Battle of Bladensburg at Fort Lincoln Cemetery
Using metal detectors, archaeologists have found several artifacts from the time of the battle, and are working with the National Park Service to create a plan for the management and interpretation of the Battlefield.
Musket balls from the Battle of Bladensburg

The last time someone saw this piece of lead shot, it was flying toward someone's vital organs in 1814.
You can find out all about the archaeology at Bladensburg Battlefield, and other archaeological projects in Bladensburg, at SHA's interactive website. You can even watch this video about the battle! Have fun, and check back soon for more 1812 archaeology!

No comments:

Post a Comment