PRESENTING it as an interesting discovery, which it certainly was, a friend, a Washingtonian of fifty years standing, told me that in traveling through Ireland he chanced upon Ross the home town of General Rossand read upon a monument in his honor that he was the “Hero of the Battle of Bladensburg.” And it still thrilled him to think of finding little Bladensburg so memorialized in a distant land.
The English really thought much of the battle at Bladensburg because it meant the capture of America’s capital; and Parliament ordered a monument for General Ross in Westminster and added to his arms the phrase “Ross of Bladensburg” just like Kitchener of Khartoum.
General Ross was an officer of highly respectable abilities and was sent to America in command of a force, at the time when what may be called the Leipzig-Elba period permitted the withdrawal of troops from the Continent, just as, a little later, there was a still more important withdrawal for an attack on New Orleans.
The American Government, for some unimaginable reason, refused to believe that the English would attack the city .of Washington. Even after it was learned that Ross was on his way from Europe and was so near that he had put in with his fleet at the Bermudas, our Government felt sure that it was only Baltimore that was to be. attacked.
Inside of the capes of Chesapeake Bay Ross and his ships were joined by Admiral Cockburn, with three line-of-battle ships and several frigates and other boats. Cockburn had for some time been cruising up and down the Chesapeake and was charged with much of devastation and cruelty. The fleet carrying the army of Ross, added to that of Cockburn’s made about forty ships of war ranging from large to small.
Ross determined that the attack on Washington, which he was under orders to make, should be made by the unexpected route of the Patuxent. They landed on August nineteenth, the year being 1814, at Benedict, at the mouth of the Patuxent, which parallels the Potomac.
Ross took several days of cautious marching with Bladensburg as his important objective, but feeling that at any time he might find himself in conflict with the Americans, of whom from time to time, he caught glimpses, in companies or cavalry squadrons on the hilltops. For a great part of the distance along the Patuxent, his troops were convoyed by British gunboats, who slowly pursued a number of American gunboats that had incautiously gone into this estuary and which, before long, it was necessary to blow up and burn, on which the crews marched off and joined the land forces.
Bladensburg is, and was, a small old village, only a few miles from Washington and on the direct road between that city and Baltimore. The road led far enough inland to avoid any deep affluents of either the Potomac or the Patuxent. The British merely found a few little bridges and fords.
Bladensburg, so important in those days in its relation to Washington, looked very much the same then that it does now, except that in the course of something over a century, a great shabbiness has gathered; and it is no longer a port. It is a village of many old-time houses. One, on the north side of Sand Street, of brick in Flemish bond was used for British wounded and bears the date of 1749.
Older, is the Stevens house, on a hill to the east-ward, also of brick and it was Ross’s headquarters. There in the village center are little cabins with outside chimneys, with ends to the street, and one with a great buttonwood tree and an old bench under it, has its great-based field-stone chimney worn shiny by the backs of the old negroes, who lean against it on winter days to warm by the fire burning inside. Two little old inns, famous for Congressmen’s dinners in years gone by, are broken-down mementoes of long ago.
General Ross led his steady Peninsular veterans with trained caution, much wondering why he was not intercepted. He had four thousand men, but he knew that the Americans could be extraordinarily good fighters and that their fighting force could greatly outnumber his. He did not know that an amazing farce was being acted in front of him.
The American commander was one Winder, a lawyer, given a brigadier-general’s commission but apparently with no knowledge of war. He galloped aimlessly around, much disturbed by the still more aimless and wilder galloping of President Madison, Secretary of State Monroe, and several other members of ‘the Cabinet. All sorts of contradictory orders were given, one of which displaced Winder, but another order put him again in command.
Ross knew that at Bladensburg, if not sooner, he would have to try conclusions. His force appeared, winding along the cedar-bordered road, through a wild and wooded country, with higher hills rising beyond. He entered the little old village and found the Americans drawn up at several different spots along the highway into Washington and especially on the height rising opposite the glade which was afterwards to be the great dueling ground of Washingtonians.
The battle was hotly contested. Some of the Americans were entirely untrained and they were left to bear the brunt of the attack. The most capable defense was made by Commodore Barney, from the Navy Yard, on the height opposite the dueling ground, and he made such a defense as to lose heavily but at the same time to exact heavy loss from the British. Barney was badly wounded and was personally seen to by the two British commanders, who put him in charge of an English surgeon. One gathers the impression that neither Winder nor the high Government officials were in any danger of being hurt ; the theory of men in high command staying back and being safe was not popular at that time.
The battle was on August twenty-fourth. It was lengthily contested. Outnumbered though he was, Ross and his steady veterans drove the Americans completely from the field. The President and the Cabinet members, when they saw it was a defeat vanished into the limbo of approaching night, and as a ballad-maker of the day wrote:
“Then might all people well discern The gallant Little Man; His sword did thump behind his back So merrily he ran.”
Madison did not even take the trouble of going to the White House to get his wife. The American Army was understood to have lost less than one hundred men. Disorganized though they were and practically officerless, they retreated to nearby Tenallytown and from there seriously menaced the English.
The English marched into defenseless Washing-ton by the way of Maryland Avenue. They lost for the day, including a considerable number killed and wounded by the accidental blowing up of a well filled with powder, near the Capitol, something approaching five hundred menone in eighta proportion which appalled Ross.
The British promptly began the burning ordered by the home authorities. Cockburn joyously led troops into the Hall of Representatives to the playing of the “British Grenadiers,” and there he ordered a fire started. Another fire was started in the Senate Chamber. They marched to the White House and found that Mrs. Madison had barely left, whereupon they ate a supper which they found pre-pared and set fire to that building also.
Dolly Madison had had a busy day, a day of messengers arriving .and departing and of most capable packing of state papers and valuables, including the imitation Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washing-ton, which she entrusted to careful hands. In spite of her distress and occupation she wrote at the time a letter of description of interminable length, giving every detail of alarm and happening with page after page, page after page, describing every incident, every message, every flutter of her heart, up to the moment she herself had to flee.
It seems impossibleas if she may have rewritten it afterwardsbut Southern women have a great letterwriting habit and ability, and a letter was written by Constance Cary Harrison, that seems fully as long as this of Dolly Madison, telling detail after detail of the heart-breaking evacuation of Richmond, while the Northern soldiers were actually entering.
General Ross frankly expressed his dislike of burning as a campaign method. He said that he had been ordered to burn the public buildings of Washington because of the wanton burning, the year before, by the American General McClure, of the public buildings of the seat of government of Lower Canadanow known as Toronto but then as Newark and of one, hundred and fifty homes, causing terrible suffering to the inhabitants, for it was in December of a Canadian winter. It was a war with much of disgrace on both sides, and even the name of Winfield Scott is connected with the burning of the public building and transports at York in Canada. From one of the Newark buildings a bunch of fresh scalps from the Chicago massacre, governmentally paid for by the British, had been brought to Washington by the American troops the year before.
Although private property was untouched in Washington except for the burning of the house from which a shot was fired just missing Ross but killing his horse, as he rode into the city, Washington was at its lowest ebb, with destroyed buildings and smoking ruins, and the Navy Yard blown up by the Americans themselves and the Government disgracefully scattered.
As evening came on a heavy storm broke over the city, extinguishing much of the burning and on the second night of the British occupation there was another storm of even greater severity than that of the night before.
Ross decided to retreat without delay. He knew that his army would be lost if the Americans should find a capable leader. So, throughout the night, he withdrew his men to and beyond Bladensburg, leaving sentinels marching beside watchfires to deceive the Americans.
With the departure of the British that summer night out Maryland Avenue the city of Washington mended its ruins and saw half a century of peace, prosperity and quiet living till the coming of the Civil War, during the four years of which the possibility of capture was constantly thought of. Lincoln knew how serious would be the effect on the public mind not only of this country but of England, of the Confederates holding Washington for even a single hour, so he frequently urged his generals to extraordinary caution.
Many thought that after the first Battle of Bull Run there was great danger. Absolute though the defeat and rout of the Federals were, with wreckage of the army and spectatorsfor many men and women had gone out to see it as a showthere was no chance for the Confederates, with what was after all only a small force, to make their way in a sudden dash, along the road packed and blockaded with the broken rout of the Northern army and with dead and wounded men and horses, and broken caissons, cannon and vehicles and terrific jamming across “the old Long Bridge” itself.
It would have meant crossing the Potomac to get to Washington into which city were every moment pouring reinforcements from the North, under the stirring summons of “The defence of the Capital” sent out before Bull Run was fought. Long Bridge, now vanished, was highly important during the Civil War. It was a mile long and crossed the Potomac from the southwest end of Maryland Avenue; it is curious that this avenue should have been of such importance to hostile armies at both of its ends.
The justified exultation of the Southern soldiers was all that was thought of after Bull Run or Manassas, as the South called it, but I remember a description of a frightened, huddled group of Southern women, listening to the cannon and rifle firing, waiting in agony for news of Manassas and after darkness had come, gathering around the first man from the field. Even victory from the first, had its terrors.
Had General Lee won the Battle of Gettysburg he would have seized Washington. The one serious danger of capture aimed directly at Washington was when an army under General Early advanced rapidly upon the city. Early was not in the front rank of generals but he came close to winning a prize of which the greatest general would have been proud. Choosing a time in July of 1864, when he knew that the garrison of the city was depleted to assist in some other important movements, he suddenly broke through from the direction of the Shenandoah, planning to use roads which would take him to his destination without any trouble of bridging or fording around Washington.
General Lew Wallace was hurried out with all available soldiers, to meet and hold General Early’s advance. Quite outnumbered, it was understood that he would be pushed aside, but he was told that what was expected of him was to delay Early until a large force should have gathered in Washington.
Early was coming down the National Road by way of Fredericknot the Virginia Frederickburg but the Maryland Frederick, the town of Barbara Frietchie. There it was that Wallace met him and where the resultant battle of the Monocacy was fought.
It is pleasantly worth while to drive to Frederick for it is over a charming road out of Washington. You soon come to where there are long views over fertile hills and dales with the Blue Ridge lining the horizon for miles with their fascinating and irregular outline. There are large old barns, many of squared logs, chinked with stone and clay. Much fruit is gloriously in blossom. It is the sunniest of shadeless roads but you feel cool from the out-look upon the blue mountains.
You come to old Richville, with a court-house square and old houses, with an old inn, pointed toward the road. Newmarket is reached, a quaint old town which is just a single street with fields immediately behind ; a quaint brick village with each house set directly on the brick sidewalk, and with the odd old village chopped off as suddenly as it began. You have begun to notice that you are in a Pennsylvania Dutch country. Here are many immense red wooden barns with twelve white windows painted on their sides, and ten white windows on both ends ! These farmers drifted over generations ago from Pennsylvania into Maryland and still speak German. The people are slow and judicial and when I asked one of them whether or not there would be an afternoon storm, he pondered lengthily and then said: “Well, perhaps a heavy rain, perhaps a light rain, perhaps a shower, perhaps no rain at all.”
A series of remarkable curves leading down in this old National Road is a triumph of road engineering of one hundred and ten years ago. This is the Old Jug Bridge, stretching across the Monocacy at a height of sixty feet above the water and made on a slope continuing from the steep curves. This road was a favorite enterprise of John Quincy Adams, and continues, with no difficult gradients across Maryland, West Virginia and Ohio.
Frederick is now quickly reached: practically a long one-street town, with little brick houses, shoulder to shoulder, and each one with a few steps up from the sidewalk. It represents the heart of the Maryland Pennsylvania Dutch district of fine farming and quiet living. The houses are small; red brick houses with green shutters, gray brick houses with green shutters, yellow-gabled houses with green shutters; all neat and almost all old, and with glimpses of garden dooryards behind.
The Barbara Frietchie house has gone but there is no difficulty in fancying it still there. And Whit-tier’s lines admirably describe the place and the neighborhood:
“Up from the meadows rich with corny Clear in the cool September morn,
The clustered spires of Frederick stand, Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.”
Round about them orchards sweep. Apple and peach trees fruited deep. It is all there, in fact and in poetry. Especially interesting are Whittier’s words “the clustered spires of Frederick,” for in this extraordinarily long town, the three churches are clustered close together and the Maryland hills are like walls about that fertile plain. He was picturing the advance of Stonewall Jackson toward Pennsylvania the preceding year.
For two days the armies of Generals Early and Wallace maneuvered and skirmished, and on July ninth came the actual battle on a great meadow between Frederick and the rivera grassy meadow so dotted now with monuments as to point out the heavy losses on both sides. The actual fighting of that day was for eight hours. And then Wallace had to withdrawbut with his work well done. So savagely had he checked Early that the Confederate leader could not move till noon of the next day; nor, hurry as he might, he could not reach the outskirts of Washington until the eleventh of July. By that time so many thousands of reinforcing soldiers had arrived, and so many thousands of department clerks were armed and put into the trenches, getting thus sixty thousand men, that there was small chance of his success.
In a short story, known as “Una and King David,” there is a description of this raiding army met by the little Southern girl and the old negro; the soldiers with bare and bleeding feet, with faces flushed, with eyes bloodshot, with clothing white with dust, with empty haversacksyet moving with keen exhilaration as the futility of it had not permeated the ranks.
Fort Stevens, where Jubal Early actually made his hopeless attack on Washington, was one of the circle of forts constructed for the defence of the city. It is still in existence, and is readily reached by driving some miles out Seventh Street and its ex-tension, Georgia Avenue. Just off the road, in Brightwood, are the still existent deep trenches of Fort Stevens. At Fort Stevens, in his anxiety for the capital of his country, President Lincoln hurried out to the scene of fighting and stood there actually under fire, watching the attempted advance of the Confederates and watching the arrival of Federal troops and of armed clerks from the Treasury. There are now many little negro cabins built about Fort Stevens; and a bronze tablet marked with the date July twelfth, 1864, declares that here President Lincoln stood under fire.
On the other side of Georgia Avenue is a small National Cemetery, believed to be the smallest of all the National Cemeteries, established for the burial place of the forty-four Ohio and New York men who were killed in this defence of the Capital.
General Grant, who was not free with praise, especially for officers who were not West Pointers, declared unreservedly that Wallace’s brave and capable stand at the Monocacy saved Washington from capture, and one can never forget the tall figure of President Lincoln standing actually under fire at Fort Stevens in his anxiety for the capital of his country.