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Regimental History - 19th Century

The King's Own and the War in the United States of America, 1814-15

Washington

In 1814 England alone of all the nations of Europe was unable to disband her troops, for the war in America necessitated the transference of many Peninsular veterans to that continent, and the troubles in Ireland made it essential to maintain the militia in that country.

The King’s Own was encamped near Bordeaux when orders were received to embark for America.  The officers disposed of their horses, and on May 28th the Regiment set out on its two-day march, arriving on the evening of the 29th at Pauillac, near the mouth of the river Garonne.  The expedition commanded by Major General Ross, consisted of only three Regiments, the 4th, 44th and 85th, with a proportion of artillery, sappers and miners.  The system by which general officers held regimental rank had at last been abolished, and General Ross had been obliged to relinquish his regimental commission when he was promoted to the rank of major-general.

The regiments first embarked in three dirty little transports which were accompanied by the Royal Oak, man of war, three frigates, two bomb-vessels, and five ships armées en flute.  The wind was foul and blew so strong that the masters would not venture to hoist a sail, consequently the force was compelled to endure two nights and a day of misery in the small crowded vessels, and it was not until the afternoon of the 31st that they were finally settled in the ships of war.  The King’s Own, increased by drafts to eight hundred bayonets, was accommodated in two frigates.  For two more days the gale continued, but on June 2nd the wind changed and the fleet weighed anchor.  With few interruptions this fair wind continued for eighteen days, and on the morning of the 20th the troops were gratified to see before them the islands of the Azores rising like a bank of blue clouds out of the water.  Here, at the island of St. Michael, the fleet lay off for a week, weighing anchor again on June 27th.  As they approached Bermuda, squalls thunderstorms, and whirlwinds were frequent, but in the calm intervals many idle hours were whiled away in attempts to catch or strike dolphins with harpoons.  Balls were given by the officers of the different ships, that of the Admiral being particularly successful.  The entertainment opened with a farce performed by the officers of the Royal Oak, after which the stage was removed and the Admiral and the Honourable Mrs Mullens opened the ball with a country dance.  The band was excellent, and as many couples joined in as space would permit, the greater number of the officers dancing with each other for lack of other partners.

On the evening of Jul 24th the fleet ran into Bermuda, the depot for repairs and stores for British ships in American waters.  The shores of Bermuda and extremely beautiful, low lying and covered with cedars.  The sun blazed down on the white cliffs and on the houses of white chalk stone; the glare was terrific, and the heat intense.  Enormous tanks, the property of the government, had been erected on the summit of the bare rock near the barracks to catch rain water, and from them the fleet was supplied, since there was no water in the island.  Everything on shore was so expensive that most of the officers found it necessary to feed and sleep on board, a practice not usual when the fleet was in port, but the ships were so hot under the sun that to stay in them was wellnigh unendurable.  A solution was found when a tent was carried on shore, pitched in shady and agreeable nook within a moderate distance of the vessel, and food carried thither.

At last the destination of the expedition transpired.  General Ross’s instructions were to effect a diversion on the coast of the United States of America, but it was not intended that operations should take place at any great distance from the coast.  The troops were transferred from ships of war to transports before setting sail for Chesapeake Bay, where such a diversion was considered most practicable, the objectives being Washington, the capital city of the United States, and the destruction of as much war material as possible.

Before leaving Bermuda the three regiments were joined by the 21st Fusiliers. Stores of provisions, fresh water, ammunition, and clothing were provided and magazines for the future supply of the expedition established. Captain Wood was appointed deputy-assistant-adjutant-general and acted in that capacity throughout the campaign. On August 3rd all things were complete, the ships once more got under way and stood towards America. The voyage through the dangerous and little known North-east Passage was performed in reasonable time, land being sighted eleven days later.

As the fleet sailed into Chesapeake Bay it was joined by another squadron bearing several hundred marines, a hundred negroes, and a division of marine artillery. The combined fleet sailed on and established an advanced base at Tangier Island, two days’ sail from the entrance to the bay and opposite the mouth of the Potomac river. The town of Washington stands on the Potomac at a point where a bend in the river approaches to within about twenty miles of the Chesapeake, and between the two flows a smaller river, the Patuxent.

The first object of the expedition was the destruction of an American flotilla at the head of the Patuxent. A squadron of frigates was sent up the Potomac to keep the enemy in doubt as to the route to be taken by the army, and about one o’clock in the afternoon of August 17th the rest of the fleet moved on towards the Patuxent. The following day the ships passed between fields of Indian corn and meadows of luxuriant pasture, the neat wooden houses of the settlers, painted white and surrounded with orchards and gardens, presenting a striking contrast to the boundless forests which formed a background to the scene.

When they had proceeded only a few miles up the river to Admiral signalled for the troops to prepare to land. Each man was provided with three days’ provisions, three pounds of pork and two and half pounds of biscuit; cartouche boxes were filled with fresh ammunition; arms and accoutrements were handed out. That night the larger ships began to take the ground, and such troops as were accommodated in them were transferred to smaller ones which, under convoy of the gun brigs and sloops of war, ran as far up the river as prudence would permit.

At dawn on the morning of the 19th the force disembarked, and by three o’clock that afternoon the whole army was on shore and had taken up a strong position about two miles above the village of St. Benedict. Each boat-load of soldier drew up as they stepped on shore, forming line without regard to companies or battalions, and parties were instantly dispatched to reconnoitre.

The afternoon was spent in landing hospital and commissariat stores and in distributing the troops into brigades. The 1st or Light Brigade consisted of the 85th Regiment, the light companies of the 4th, 21st, and 44th, the negroes and a company of marines, and was commanded by Colonel Thornton of the 85th. The 2nd Brigade was composed of the 4th and 44th Regiments under the command of Colonel Arthur Brooke of the 44th. The remainder of the marines and the 21st Regiment made up the 3rd Brigade under Colonel Patterson of the 21st. There were no horses in the army except those belonging to the General and his staff and to the mounted officers, and for this reason only one six-pounder and two three-pounder guns were landed, drawn by seamen sent ashore for this purpose.

The force advanced northwards, keeping in touch with the squadron in the river. In the evening in bivouac picquets were posted, not only in advance but also in rear of the army; next morning the troops were as usual under arms an hour before daylight. On the march an advance guard, consisting of three companies of infantry, was preceded at a distance of a hundred yards by a section of twenty men with two files in front sent forward to prevent surprise and to give warning of the approach of the enemy. Parallel with the head of the three companies marched flank patrols, parties of forty or fifty men which, extended in files on each side of the road, swept the woods and fields to a distance of nearly half a mile. In rear of the advance guard and a hundred yards or so from it, came the Light Brigade which, as well as the Advance, sent out flankers, then came the 2nd Brigade followed by the artillery, and last of all the 3rd Brigade, with a rear guard of the same strength and at the same distance from the rear of the column as the advance guard was from its front.

Although the first day the troops only marched six miles, a greater number of men dropped out of the ranks and fell behind from fatigue than most officers could remember in any march in the Peninsula. They had been long cooped up in the ships; each carried on his back a knapsack containing shirts, shoes and stockings, a blanket, his provisions in a haversack, and a water bottle. The weather was sultry. A terrific thunderstorm accompanied by heavy rain did not add to the soldiers’ comfort, but it cleared the atmosphere, and the following day the troops moved on in better spirits. As they advanced into the interior they passed, for the most part, through dense forests which had only been cleared for the construction of the actual road, a road which, although in some places rather heavy from being cut through sandy soil, was on the whole hard and dusty with a sound bottom. The occasional towns and villages, surrounded by cultivated areas, were mostly deserted; there was nothing to prevent the men from helping themselves to anything they fancied, and some of the previous year’s tobacco, found in wayside barns, was a great comfort.

The American commodore, realising that escape was impossible, destroyed his flotilla and withdrew his crews towards Washington. On the 22nd the British arrived at Upper Marlborough, where the American ships had formerly lain. From this point two roads led to Washington, one almost due west to a bridge over the Potomac and thence immediately into the city, the other to the right crossing the bridge at Bladensburg about five miles up the river. The force took that leading directly to Washington, and from the time that it left Upper Marlborough it came into contact with the enemy.

On the 23rd the English reached Oldfields, where a road branches off to the right to join the northern road at Bladensburg. Here the American general, Winder, had taken up a position on heights commanding both roads. Five companies were detached to dislodge him, while the rest followed the road to the left. This movement was betrayed to General Winder by the clouds of dust raised; he realised that his flank was threatened and, as he had only three thousand men instead of twelve thousand with whom he had hoped to face the English, he decided to retire on Washington. His retreat was effected under cover of night, and morning found the Americans behind the Potomac, having destroyed the bridge at Washington. Ross had to alter his plans and he ordered his troops to march across country to join the Bladensburg road, for the bridge at that place was still intact.

At daybreak the force moved off and marched for about five miles along a by-road so completely overshadowed by the closely interwoven branches of trees that not a single sunbeam could make its way within the arch. When the column emerged from this forest the sun beat down upon it in full force and the dust was so thick as almost to choke the men, but rumours of the proximity of the enemy kept up their spirits.

Go to the Battle of Bladensburg
Go to the
Battle of Godley Wood

Text from 'The King's Own The Story of a Royal Regiment' Volume Two, by Colonel L I Cowper, published in 1939.

We recommend The King's Own The Story of a Royal Regiment Volume 2 1814-1914 by Colonel Lionel I Cowper - the best history of the King's Own.  On a CD-rom, viewable through a computer.  Price including UK postage £12.75

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