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Regimental History - 19th Century

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

The Battle of Bladensburg

The hour of noon was approaching when a heavy cloud of dust was seen, apparently nor more than two or three miles distant. A few minutes later surmise was changed to certainty for, on turning a sudden angle in the road, the British came within sight of their enemy, drawn up in three lines on rising ground on the far side of the river Potomac. Their front and their left flank were covered by a branch of the river and their right rested on a thick wood and deep ravine. On the near bank lay the little town of Bladensburg, which was undefended. The British troops advanced and took shelter behind the houses from the enemy artillery while General Ross made a reconnaissance. The only way across the river was by a narrow bridge which led from the town to the centre of the American position. This bridge was commanded by six heavy guns posted a little way up the hill, strong bodies of American riflemen were stationed in a narrow strip of willow and larch trees at the river edge, on the slopes of the hill the first and second lines of infantry were posted behind the high strong palings which separated the open fields, the third line stood within the skirts of a wood which crowned the heights; the artillery was scattered along the second line in the intervals between the regiments, and the cavalry was in a solid mass near the left of the position. The Americans considerably outnumbered the English, but they had only a small proportion of disciplined troops.

Without allowing time for the column to close up or for the many stragglers to regain their places in the ranks, the Light Brigade was ordered to advance. Led by half the light company of the King’s Own and a company of the 85th Regiment, as it marched through the streets of Bladensburg it was under continual fire from the guns on the left of the road. Not until the bridge was crowded with English did the guns in the centre begin to play. Then they opened with tremendous effect and at the first discharge almost an entire company was swept away. The riflemen opened from the wooded ban with a running fire of musketry, and it was not without trampling on many of their dead and dying comrades that the Light Brigade established itself on the opposite bank of the stream. Colonel Thornton was wounded almost at once and Major Timothy Jones took over command of the Brigade.

Wheeling off to the right and left of the road as soon as they had crossed the bridge the light companies dashed into the thicket and quickly cleared if of the American skirmishers who, falling back with precipitation, threw the first line into disorder before it had fired a shot. Thereupon the whole line gave way and fled in the greatest confusion, leaving two guns upon the road in possession of the victors.

Throwing away their knapsacks and haversacks the men of the Light Brigade extended their ranks so as to show an equal front with the enemy and pushed on tot he attack of the second line. Here the Americans made a stand; they checked the ardour of their assailants by a heavy fire and then advanced to recover the ground which had been lost. Against this charge the extended order of the British would not permit them to offer an effectual resistance and they were borne back to the thicket upon the river’s brink, where they maintained themselves with determined obstinacy, repelling all attempts to drive them out.

As the King’s Own hurried up with the 2nd Brigade the Colours were uncased, muskets loaded, and bayonets fixed. Having crossed the bridge, the 44th Regiment moved to the right and quickly turned the flank of the raw militiamen opposed to them while the King’s Own came up on the left. Here the few trained soldiers in the American army were holding their ground against the repeated attacks of the Light Brigade, and it was not until the King’s Own advanced to the charge that they began to waver. The attack, which was preceded by a flight of rockets, a new weapon to the Americans, was immediately followed by a bayonet charge. According to General Ross’s official dispatch the Regiment pressed the enemy’s right ‘with such effect as to cause him to abandon his guns’. In an instant the whole American army disappeared, taking cover in the dense forest behind them, where it was useless to pursue. Eight guns were captured by the King’s Own and five stands of Colours. Two letters written by officers of the Regiment after the battle agree that the glory of the day lay with the King’s Own and the 85th, ‘who alone routed the whole Yankee army’, and the men were well pleased with themselves that night in spite of the eighty six casualties they had suffered.

‘I have to express my approbation of the spirited conduct of Colonel Brooke, and of his brigade’, ran the dispatch, ‘the 44th Regiment, which he led, distinguished itself under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Lullens; the gallantry of the 4th Foot, under the command of Major Faunce, being equally conspicuous.’ Major Faunce, who led the right wing of the King’s Own while the General himself charged at the head of the left, was promote Lieutenant Colonel on General Ross’s recommendation.

The two brigades which had been engaged remained upon the field to recover their order, for they were worn down with fatigue, while the 3rd pushed on at a rapid rate towards Washington. The battle had ended at four o’clock; the next few hours were spent in recalling the stragglers and moving the wounded into Bladensburg, and it was not until after sunset that the two brigades were ready to move on. Long before they reached the town the blazing of houses, ships and stores, the report of exploding magazines and the crash of falling roofs, informed them of what was going on in Washington. Shots fired on a party bearing a flag of truce, one of which killed the General’s horse under him, had so infuriated the men of the 3rd Brigade that they had set to work to destroy everything even remotely connected with the Government. Not a private house had been touched except that from which the shots were fired, but there were sufficient barracks, stores, arsenals, government buildings, and ships for the whole sky to be illuminated and a dark red light was thrown upon the road sufficient to permit each man to view distinctly his comrade’s face.

At daybreak the next morning the Light Brigade marched into the city and the 3rd Brigade fell back to a height about a mile and a half in rear. The task undertaken by the British had been completed and General Ross was about to order a retirement to the ships when a hurricane burst over the town. For two hours it raged. The wind was so strong that roofs of houses were torn off, the rain resembled the rushing of a mighty cataract, the darkness was as great as if the sun had long set, and the noise of the wind and the thunder with the crash of falling buildings produced a terrifying effect. The British force was completely dispersed as if it had received a total defeat, some of the men flying for shelter behind walls and buildings and others falling flat upon the ground to prevent themselves from being carried away by the tempest.

When at last the wind subsided the American camp appeared to be in as great a state of confusion as the English, and General Ross determined to make good his retreat before order was restored. On the night of August 25th the fires in the British camp were trimmed and fuel enough left to keep them burning for some hours; the horses were taken to draw the guns and no officer was allowed to ride. At half past nine the 3rd Brigade moved off, followed by the guns, the 2nd Brigade, and the Light Brigade, with about fifty artillery drivers who, mounted on commandeered horses, were the only cavalry the force possessed, bringing up the rear.

Thus, in reverse order, the force retraced its steps. It hurried over the field of battle of the previous day; the dead were still unburied and lay about in every direction completely naked, for they had been stripped even of their shirts. In Bladensburg they halted for an hour. Here, for such of the wounded as could ride or be transported in carriages, thirty of forty horses, twelve carts and wagons, one coachee, and several gigs were provided, but Lieutenant Staveley and Ensign Buchanan, whose wounds were of so severe a nature that they were in hospital, could not be moved, and some of the offices seized the opportunity of going to see them. Commodore Barney, an American who had surrendered to the King’s Own and had received good treatment at the hands of his captors, was also wounded, and he made himself personally responsible for those who were left behind.

The light infantry employed their time trying to recover the knapsacks they had thrown off before the battle, but the halt was all too short and an hour later, preceded by a drove of sixty or seventy cattle, the expedition moved off. All were oppressed with intolerable drowsiness and at any check the road was instantly covered with men fast asleep. For thirty-six miles the force pushed on with but two short halts. Then since there were no signs of pursuit, the men were allowed a day’s rest. On the evening of the 29th they reached St. Benedict and the next morning at daybreak the regiments marched one by one to the beach and embarked.

Baltimore

Near the head of Chesapeake Bay lies Baltimore, and General Ross decided to make a raid on this town before moving elsewhere. On September 11th the fleet came in sight of the projecting headland where it was designed to disembark the troops. Every man carried three days’ provisions and eighty rounds of ammunition. Only one blanket with a spare shirt and pair of shoes were allowed to be taken instead of the usually supply of clothing, whilst brushes and other articles of that description were divided between comrades, one carrying what would suffice for both. Thus the additional load of twenty cartridges was more than counterbalanced by the clothing and necessaries left behind.

The boats were ordered to be ready at dawn on the 12th, and every man slept in his clothes in order that he might be prepared to start at a moment’s warning. a full moon shone brightly in a sky where no cloud be discerned. All was quiet and nothing could be heard above the ceaseless murmur of the river rushing past the ships, and the voices of the sentries as they relieved one another on the decks.

At three o’clock in the morning every ship in the fleet began to lower her boats and the soldiers were roused from their slumbers. The same precautions were taken in landing here as had been observed at St. Benedict and seven o’clock all were ashore. The Light Brigade, now commanded by Major Jones, led the advance and made the same dispositions as before. Then came the artillery, six field pieces and two howitzers, all drawn by horses, next the 2nd Brigade, then a battalion of sailors and finally the 3rd Brigade. On their march towards Baltimore through wooded and difficult country, the British force was much harassed by concealed American riflemen. Ross, riding in advance to reconnoitre, was mortally wounded and the command developed upon Colonel Arthur Brooke of the 44th Regiment. Such ships as could navigate in the shallow waters of the river Patapsco sailed up parallel with the troops to co-operate with them.

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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