Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

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1814 in the Chesapeake

By concentrating their raiding activities in the Chesapeake, the British command hoped to draw United States forces away from Lower Canada, providing that area some relief from the ravages of war.  As a countermeasure, Secretary of the Navy Jones commissioned Joshua Barney to create a flotilla of armed barges and small boats that could confront raiders in shallow water, where they were on more equal terms.  Building through the fall and winter of 1813-4, the Chesapeake Flotilla became active in the spring of 1814.  Vice Admiral Cockburn recognized the threat and dispatched a pair of ships to pursue them.  Barney ultimately withdrew in the shallow water at St. Leonard’s, Maryland, where he was blockaded.

In late July 1814, long awaited British army reinforcements arrived in the Chesapeake, along with instructions from Admiral Cochrane.  Cochrane had been indecisive about where to attack – Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New England – but Cockburn’s emphatic recommendation to focus on Washington finally swayed him. 

Because it was still a small city with a seasonal population, it did not seem an attractive candidate for an assault, but Cockburn appreciated the moral victory it afforded, as well as the disruption that could be caused by seizing government records. 

On 19 August, the British army under Major General Robert Ross went ashore at Benedict, Maryland, and the next day began the forty mile march towards the capital.  With the news of its approach, citizens and government officials alike began to evacuate the city. 

The troops defending Washington made their stand at Bladensburg, Maryland, which included Joshua Barney and his men operating a battery of cannon against the invaders.  The defense was unsuccessful and General Ross spent a day sacking the city before turning his men back to their ships.  They then sailed up the Chesapeake with the intention of doing similar damage to the city of Baltimore.

At Baltimore, Cochrane again sent Cockburn with his army to circle around the city, but this time he also moved his ships opposite the harbor defenses and commenced a bombardment.  The land forces met organized and determined resistance at the Battle of North Point and General Ross was killed.  After another day of maneuvering, the land forces failed to enter the city and the sea forces failed to breach the harbor defenses.  With over 300 killed or captured, the British forces withdrew.  This success, soon followed by success in the Great Lakes region, renewed American confidence.