By T. F. Sayles
Photographs by David Owen Hawxhurst
“It was a derecho!” I had said to myself, out loud, as I sat in the fan-cooled cabin of Journey and read yet another account of the British attack on Washington in August of 1814. It hadn’t been just any old summer thunderstorm that put a literal damper on the redcoats’ pyromania on that August evening almost exactly 198 years earlier; it had been a derecho, something I’d never heard of until late June of this year, when one such fast-moving straight-line storm front came ripping through Maryland and Virginia at highway speed, packing 80- to 100-mph winds that knocked down trees, tore off roofs and left millions of people without power for days one end. Until now, I’d thought it had been a garden variety violent thunderstorm that had helped douse the fires that long ago August afternoon. But no. Christopher George’s description in Terror on the Chesapeake makes it pretty clear it was much more than that: “The tempest lifted the British 3-pound cannons and hurled them aside like toys. [It] also blew the drums out of camp like paper cups. Trees were uprooted and ships unmasted for miles around. The roof was torn off the patent office, which [the] superintendent of patents had persuaded the British to spare.”
Clearly, not a garden-variety thunderstorm. And for some reason that delighted me—that connection, that direct similarity between this summer and that of 1814. Indeed, it became sort of the underlying theme of this expedition. I’d come to Solomons on Journey, one of Chesapeake Boating Club’s Albin 28s, with the express purpose of following Great Britain’s military thrust up the Patuxent River, and then alongside it, two centuries ago. I wanted to see with my own eyes the river and land that had carried those three British brigades—some 4,000 battle-hardened vets of the Napoleonic wars in Europe—to Washington. And making the trek in late August, just as they had, made it feel all the more authentic, made it that much easier to see, or at least imagine, what might have been seen by those British soldiers and sailors, by the disorganized American defenders, by the frightened populace of fishers and tobacco farmers.
Yes, it’s the conceit of a true history nerd, but . . . there it is. I admit it. I own it. Weird as it may be, I was delighted to be feeling the same oppressive heat felt by those dreadfully overdressed British soldiers, breathing the same dense summer air, listening to the same deafening swells of cricket song. Dodging the same sudden and raucous summer storms.
And that carried over to the next day and phase one of my first follow-the-Brits expedition. As I motored up the Patuxent out of Solomons, I found myself faithfully following the river’s main channel, watching the chartplotter closely so as to stay in the very deepest part of the river, where the British frigates no doubt stayed—or at least tried to—in order not to run aground. And I wasn’t even aware I was doing this until I was well upriver from Solomons, somewhere in the vicinity of Broomes Island, site of one of the many British raids that spring and summer, at the height of the War of 1812.
But I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself. And by that I don’t mean I’m going to anesthetize you now with eight paragraphs on the arcane causes of the war. No, I mean that I had cruised down from Annapolis the previous afternoon, arriving in Solomons just before sunset and securing a slip at the comely Spring Cove Marina on Back Creek. That night, after an excellent dinner at the nearby Stoney’s Kingfisher restaurant, I hunkered down in Journey’s cockpit, surrounded by the books that had lived on my nightstand for the previous months and would be my tour guides for the next couple of days. Chief among those were: the aforementioned Terror on the Chesapeake by Christopher George, written in 2000, which nicely sums up the invasion over the course of three chapters; Donald Shomette’s definitive Flotilla: The Patuxent Naval Campaign in the War of 1812, first published in 1981 and updated in 2009; and Ralph Eshelman’s 2011 Travel Guide to the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake. (Left behind on the nightstand, for the sake of traveling light, were the much larger War 1812 in the Chesapeake: A Reference Guide to Historic Sites in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, a companion to the Eshelman book, which he coauthored with Scott Sheads and Donald Hickey; and The Rockets’ Red Glare: An Illustrated History of the War of 1812, another 2011 book by Hickey, with coauthor Connie Clark.)
From that night’s review emerged what seemed like a reasonable battle plan for the days to come, however many it might take. As the majority of British ground troops had done that summer from Solomons, which is to say the mouth of the Patuxent, I’d follow the river as far as the town of Benedict on the western shore, about a third of the way from Solomons to Washington. From Benedict, I’d follow the Brit’s overland path in a rented car—not the exact route, of course, because even the most painstaking historical accounts don’t give you that. And even if they did, I’m pretty sure that the folks at the Enterprise car rental office in Lexington Park would take a dim view of me traversing forests and tobacco fields—as the Redcoats clearly did when the dirt roads of the day failed to serve. And eventually, according to the plan, I’d find myself in Bladensburg—where American forces finally made a stand along the upper Anacostia River, known then as the Eastern Branch of the Potomac.
I slept poorly and fitfully that first night in Journey’s V-berth, though I don’t know why. It’s not like me to sleep poorly, and it wasn’t the heat, as robust as that had been on this typical August day. The first thing I’d done after tying up and plugging in was open the portlights and put the two fans on high, so it was quite comfortable and well ventilated by bedtime—and even bordering on cool by morning. But it was not a restful night, for whatever reason, and I was out of sorts as I threw off the lines in the morning and headed out Back Creek for the nautical phase of the expedition. But, now that I had my full nerd on, I decided the sour mood was very much in keeping with the mission—because I’d read more than once that the soldiers of the British invasion force sailing up the Patuxent in 1814 weren’t feeling all that chipper themselves. All veterans of the ferocious Peninsula War in southern Europe, in which an uneasy British-Spanish-Portugese alliance had defeated France and forced Napoleon’s abdication in early 1814, they had spent almost three months crossing the Atlantic. They had been packed into small, crowded ships—fighting off an outbreak of typhus much of the way, according to Christopher George—and were generally very cranky by the time they reached the mouth of the Patuxent.
Perversely, this shared sense of crankiness was its own cure. Just realizing it made me feel better, and before I’d even passed under the soaring Thomas Johnson Bridge, just upstream and around the bend from Solomons, I found new enthusiasm for the mission. It helped that it was a gorgeous day—a bit too warm and steamy for my tastes, but nothing that a constant 12 knots of self-made breeze couldn’t mitigate. That was indeed the only breeze to be found, and by the time I was reached Broomes Island, seven miles or so upstream, the water had gone glassy smooth. With billowy, cotton-white clouds grandly parading by to the north and east, it was really quite the picture perfect day—for the moment, anyway.
As beautiful as those clouds were, I knew down to my mid-Atlantic roots they were the kind that could, and likely would, develop purple bellies by mid-afternoon—and make being out on the water less than pleasant, if not dangerous. So there should be no dilly-dallying, I decided. I’d head straight for Benedict, the day’s most historically important destination. And, depending on whether or not those purple bellies showed up, maybe I’d be able to squeeze in a side trip up St. Leonard Creek on the way back to Solomons in the afternoon.
Royal Navy Rear Admiral George Cockburn, despised plunderer of the Chesapeake and chief proponent of the assault on Washington, had chosen Benedict as the ideal place for the invaders to go ashore. “I consider the town . . . to offer us advantages for [landing] beyond any spot in the United States,” he wrote his boss, Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, commander of the North American campaign. So, after “stalking through a wood,” for some 17 miles up the Patuxent, in the words of Captain Harry Smith, an aide to General Robert Ross, commander of British ground forces, the fleet hove to at Benedict and put some 4,000 soldiers and marines ashore.
Lieutenant George Gleig, a Scotsman in the British Army’s 85th Regiment and a prolific diarist—frequently quoted in both Terror on the Chesapeake and Shomette’s Flotilla—described the town as a “small straggling place, the houses of which stand far apart from each other, and are surrounded by neat gardens and apparently productive orchards.”
Benedict remains a small place, likely even smaller, with no orchards to speak of and houses now very close together—perhaps 100 of them on a handful of streets on the narrow peninsula separating shallow (upriver) Mill Creek from the Patuxent River. It lies just below the west shore landing of the bridge that carries Route 231 across the river from Calvert County to St. Mary’s County. This low-slung bridge with a swing span in the middle (opening by scheduled request, 410-535-4634) is the only bridge across the river between Solomons and Upper Marlboro, about 20 miles upstream from Benedict. Easily clearing the bridge’s 16-foot vertical clearance in the low-profile Albin, I explored a bit further upstream, interested mostly in getting a closer look at the Chalk Point power plant, looming at the mouth of Swanson Creek about two miles above Benedict and visible on that clear day from a good ten miles downriver.
Though some of the shallow-draft boats in the British invasion fleet went that far upriver, I wasn’t nearly so brave. Seeing that the last marker, red “32’, was just two upstream, I decided this was far enough for history-tracing purposes. Far better—and more authentic even, I rationalized—to follow the land route from here. So I swung back south and ducked under the bridge again.
I briefly consider tying up at the docks of the Rivers Edge marina/restaurant on the quiet Benedict waterfront, where it appeared there was a good deal of beer available, judging by the Coors and Budweiser billboards facing the river. A bottle of Bud would have really hit the spot at that point. . . but then I noticed the darkish clouds gathering in the western sky, muttering ominously to one another, no doubt plotting to rain on me. Time to head back, I decided, and I pointed Journey downriver and skedaddled. It turned out to be an excellent decision, because a furious storm rolled through an hour and a half later, not more than five minutes after I’d gotten settled in my slip at Spring Cove.
On the upside, the storm left behind a beautiful evening, just warm enough for a half-hour float in the marina pool, a little thrown-together dinner in the cockpit, and—with a history book in my lap—the long-awaited beer. Okay, two beers. You’ve gotta love delayed gratification.
The following morning, with a rental car at my disposal, I crossed the Thomas Johnson Bridge into St. Mary’s County and headed north on Route 235. The plan was to pick up the British overland route outside Benedict and follow it all the way to Bladensburg, Md., just outside Washington. That is where numerically superior but disorganized American forces finally came together to challenge the invaders—unsuccessfully, as you might guess from the battle’s derogatory nickname: the Bladensburg Races.
Following the British invasion route is an exercise in approximation, as I mentioned earlier; even if the exact route had been recorded in its entirety back then (it hadn’t, though the history books show that British officers were fond of sketching out important bits of it), modern-day roads go their own way. The best guide for this, I had discovered before the trip, was the Google-based map on the website for the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail (www.starspangledtrail.net/visit-the-trail)—a printout of which I’d brought along with me.
Starting in Benedict, I headed west, as the invaders had, along what is now Prince Frederick Road (Route 231). Being fresh off the ship and less than fit for a long march, they covered only about four miles that first day, stopping to camp where modern-day Route 381, Brandywine Road, heads north. There they turned north and paralleled the Patuxent (for the sake of naval support)all the way to Upper Marlboro. Nowadays this means following 381 north for about seven miles and then turning on Croom Road where Brandywine Road bends off to the west. After about 12 miles on Croom Road, when you’re roughly even with the top of Jug Bay (the river is never more than three miles east of this route), Croom Station Road takes you north into Upper Marlboro.
From there, faithfully following the red line on my Star-Spangled Trail map, I went west on Old Marlboro Pike, Pennsylvania Avenue (Route 4), and Old Marlboro Pike again, and then northish on Silver Hill Road (458), which becomes Walker Mill Road, which becomes Addison Road, which . . . . well, here is where things went wrong. If you know this area at all, you know that by now I was not in Kansas anymore, not out on the rolling roads of rural Prince George’s County, where the old tobacco barns still dot the landscape. No, now I was in dizzying downtown P. G. County. If I’d been on my toes, I’d have simply turned right on Eastern Avenue, then picked up the Anacostia Freeway, then turned west on Annapolis Road (450), which merges with U.S. Route 1 at the bridge over the Anacostia River. . . . Which is exactly where the British troops crossed, though not before losing dozens of men to artillery fire on what was then a very narrow wooden bridge, because this is where the American forces, a hodgepodge of regular army troops and militia units, finally confronted them.
But I didn’t go that way. I chose to get lost instead. Somehow I ended up on Benning Road, sitting in construction traffic at the intersection of . . . oh, Bladensburg Road! That sounds promising. I turned right there and soon found myself passing Fort Lincoln Cemetery. That sounds familiar, I said to myself, pulling into an IHOP parking lot to get my bearings. And sure enough, it was somewhere right around here that the famous Commodore Joshua Barney and his flotillamen—they of the plucky Chesapeake Flotilla, which had tangled with the British Fleet just two months earlier at the two battles of St. Leonard Creek—had set up their cannons on the road and, seasoned artillerymen that they were, at least momentarily halted the British advance. That was the only meaningful resistance the Brits saw, not counting the initial salvos at the bridge—which they quickly bulled across, leaving behind the usual pile of red-coated bodies.
Most of the literature suggests that Barney’s position across the road was back west a bit, at the D.C.-Maryland boundary, where the cemetery is now. But I couldn’t help but wonder if it mightn’t have been right here, out in front of the IHOP. Or maybe a block or so east, at 38th Street, where the road really begins its slope down toward the river, where the commanding view begins, where the artillerymen would have had the clearest shot.
That’s what I’m going with, anyway. I’m going to say, with all the relish a history nerd can conjure, that I followed the invasion route start to finish, from the mouth of the Patuxent to Barney’s last stand. Right down from the IHOP.
To Attack or Not to Attack
“It is quite impossible for any country to be in a more unfit state of war than this is now,” wrote Rear Admiral George Cockburn in July of 1814 to his immediate superior, Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, the newly appointed commander in chief of the British forces in North America. Cockburn, whose Royal Navy squadron had been blockading the Bay, menacing its shipping and raiding its towns since the spring of the previous year, was now pushing for an invasion of Washington.
Now with some 4,000 ground troops in the theater, fresh from their defeat of Napoleon, Cockburn insisted that it would require only a little “firm and steady conduct” on the part of the British military to have the American upstarts “completely at our mercy.” Cochrane was not so certain, nor was Major General Robert Ross, commander of the British ground forces. Nevertheless, they followed Cockburn’s advice and put the troops ashore at Benedict and marched them north, letting the Americans guess whether they were merely chasing Commodore Joshua Barney’s Chesapeake Flotilla, which had tangled with the Royal Navy in June at St. Leonard Creek, or were in fact ultimately planning to attack Washington. Or perhaps Baltimore. Or Annapolis. It wasn’t until his three brigades were camped outside Nottingham, 13 miles upriver from Benedict, that Ross decided at last to head for Washington.
The Star-Spangled Trail
Though it’s still very much a work in progress, signs are springing up along the roadways that follow the National Park Service’s new Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail, as is “interpretive signage” at sites along the way, Signs will continue to be added through 2013, according to the Park Service. For an overview of the 560-mile network of water and land trails, we suggest you start with the interactive map at www.starspangledtrail.net/visit-the-trail. There you’ll see that the water trails stretch from Tangier Island to Havre de Grace on the Bay itself, as well as up the Potomac, Patuxent and Patapsco rivers. The chief land trails are those of the two primary British invasions during the war—up the Patuxent and across Prince George’s County to Washington, and along Patapsco River Neck, tracing the British land assault on Baltimore less then a month later.
Barney’s Second-to-Last Stand
About five miles above Solomons on the east side of the Patuxent River is the long and winding St. Leonard Creek, cutting nearly all the way across lower Calvert County and the peninsula that separates the Patuxent from the Bay. This is where Commodore Joshua Barney holed up with his plucky Chesapeake Flotilla after first clashing with Royal Navy in the Battle of the Cedar Point on June 1, 1814—which might have gone better for Barney and the flotillamen if a sudden squall hadn’t interrupted the proceedings. The flotilla acquitted itself fairly well later in the same month in the two-part Battle of St. Leonard Creek. Neither of those clashes could be considered decisive, but the second one, on June 26, left one of the British warships badly damaged and allowed the Barney and company to escape further upriver, where the big ships couldn’t go.
Perched on high ground overlooking the Patuxent River and Jug Bay and part of rich archaeological site, the two-century-old Mount Calvert House a few miles southeast of Upper Marlboro was an obvious site as headquarters for the Prince George’s County Historical Society. And that’s exactly what it became in 2009. It remains so, but it has been closed to the public since last August, when it suffered significant damage in the Mineral, Va., earthquake that shook most of the mid-Atlantic. Both chimneys toppled from the house, and it also sustained some foundation damage.
Built in 1789 by tobacco planter John Brown, the house and its occupants were eyewitnesses to the dramatic events of August 1814. They could see and feel the explosions that destroyed Commodore Joshua Barney’s fleet of fighting barges, intentionally “blown to atoms” (to use the British naval commander’s words) so that they would not fall into enemy hands. The occupants also saw hundreds of British marines and seamen come ashore at the plantation landing, on their way to join the Washington-bound invasion force. While the mansion is closed until further notice, it is only part of the larger Mount Calvert Historical & Archaeological Park, which boasts some 8,000 years of archaeological artifacts, representing American Indian, “Euro-American” and African-American culture (the plantation was a slave-holding operation until the Civil War).
Right: Mount Calvert House a year after the earthquake, it’s damaged chimneys mostly rebuilt.
There’s very little to the place now, and it’s difficult to even glimpse the river here (the no parking and no turn-around signs at the end of Nottingham Road are less than welcoming), but it was a comparatively bustling settlement in 1814, even though its true heyday as a tobacco trading port (since 1706) had passed. Situated on the west shore of the Patuxent about 13 miles above Benedict, this is where Commodore Joshua Barney’s Chesapeake Flotilla holed up after the battles of St. Leonard Creek—until the British troops closed in and Barney was forced to torch his boats. Much of the town was destroyed by a fire in 1901. On the site now is a restored one-room schoolhouse, built in 1911 at a whopping cost of $744.50. It served as Nottingham’s one and only school until just after World War II. The school is open by appointment only. 301-464-5291.
The British invasion force landed at Benedict on the afternoon August 19, 1814, meeting no resistance there—indeed, finding the town largely deserted. Those few inhabitants who remained were more than a little cranky, according to widely quoted diarist Lieutenant George Glieg of the British Army’s 85th regiment (who published a memoir years later, recounting his experience in the little American war). They were “surly beasts,” he wrote, “sneering at our troops, refusing to even return a greeting, and spitting in a way that showed their detestation.” He was a bit more fond of the geography than of the people: “The banks of the river covered with fields of Indian corn and meadows of the most luxuriant pasture, the neat wooden houses, white and surrounded with orchards and gardens, with backgrounds of boundless forest.”
Not sure what to expect in the way of armed resistance, the 4,000-plus troops set up a well-defended camp on the heights above down. “On the brow of the hill, and above the centre line, were placed the cannon, ready loaded, and having lighted fusees beside them,” Glieg wrote, “whilst the infantry bivouacked immediately under the ridge . . . in order to prevent their disposition to be seen by the enemy, should they come down to attack.” They didn’t attack; indeed the invaders met virtually no resistance until reaching Bladensburg three days later.
Fort Lincoln and the Barney Memorial
The monument to Commodore Joshua Barney is difficult to find, in the wrong place and somewhat inaccurate in its wording, but aside from that . . . perhaps you’ll still find it worth a visit. To do so, go into the main entrance to Fort Lincoln Cemetery (3401 Bladensburg Road), and follow the road off to the right (west) toward the large building atop the hill. That’s the cemetery’s mausoleum, and directly behind it is a parking lot and the Barney monument. It reads: This is the site of the Battle of Bladensburg. It was here that Commodore Barney and his Marines were defeated in the War of 1812. The British moved on to burn the Capitol and White House. Thing is, this isn’t really the “site of the battle,” though some small part of it may have happened here. And it certainly isn’t where Barney set up his artillery battery. That, all of the accounts seem to agree, was directly on what is now Bladensburg Road, at roughly 38th Street, nearly half a mile north of this spot. On the upside, it’s a lovely cemetery, built on the site of a Civil War era fort.
Now Versus Then
Standing on Bladensburg Road today, whether you’re looking east toward the river, from the vantage point of the American forces, or west, from the British viewpoint (pictured below), it’s very difficult to imagine the much more bucolic scene it was in 1814. Back then, from the heights in either direction you could likely see a sprinkling of houses, some facing the river from the east bank, just north of what was then called the Washington Road, and some facing the road itself, also on the north side. It was past these latter that the British charged before crossing the narrow wooden bridge, some time shortly after noon on August 24. The first charge was cut to pieces by a salvo of American artillery, but the seasoned Brits gutted it out pushed their way across on a second effort. After that they quickly rolled back the defenders, meeting firm resistance only when they approached Commodore Barney’s battery, stationed on the road at what is now 38th Avenue. But with the American forces crumbling elsewhere, Barney could only hold this third line of defense for so long, and he himself fell wounded before ordering his troops to withdraw.