British in the Bay: The Washington Campaign
An Overview of the British Attack on Washington and Baltimore
In August 1814, the British launched a series of raids in the Chesapeake Bay area. According to Governor General George Prevost, the plan was to avenge the destructive American attacks on York and Port Dover by, inflicting that measure of retaliation which shall deter the enemy from the repetition of similar outrages.
More importantly, British leaders wanted to create a diversion in the East. They hoped the Chesapeake Bay campaign would send American troops scurrying back to defend the Eastern Seaboard and thereby weaken U.S. forces elsewhere.
Emboldened by earlier successes, British Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane developed a plan for a quick dash on Washington. US Secretary of War John Armstrong, meanwhile, refused to believe the British would attack the strategically insignificant capital. Armstrong instead concentrated his efforts on the defense of nearby Baltimore.
The American cabinets response to the landing of British troops in Chesapeake Bay was one of utter confusion. The poorly trained militia forces, hastily mustered under Baltimore lawyer William Winder, were easily routed by the seasoned British troops. Washington was quickly sacked and its public buildings burned. When the British tried to take Baltimore, they found it closely defended and retreated after a short siege.
It was a humiliating time for the Americans: their Capitol had been burned to the ground, their cherished citizen soldiers beaten by disciplined British regulars, and their government officials driven out of Washington and scattered throughout the surrounding countryside. They could salvage some pride, however, from the repulsion of the British at Baltimore.
For the British, the results of the campaign were also mixed: they had avenged the destructive American raids on Canada, but had failed to take the strategically important centre of Baltimore. This failure, along with the later defeat at Plattsburg, played a role in the British decision to reduce their territorial demands at the Ghent negotiating table.