Bladensburg, 1:00 pm, Wednesday, August 24
British Colonel Thornton attacked the two Washington Artillery guns in the road, which were still laying heavy fire. Just short of the battery, the colonel’s horse was hit by a cannonball and sank to the ground, but Thornton alighted on the road and continued forward, saber aloft. The gun crews hastily abandoned their position. To American Major Pinkney’s right, a company of militiamen fired one volley and promptly fled at the sight of the British bayonets. Pinkey’s rifle battalion faced the brunt of the British attack. They kept up their fire, but getting anxious, they hurried their shots as the British line pressed closer.
The American front line disintegrated. Pinkney had given his men no order to retreat, but he later said, they would have been “taken prisoner or cut to pieces” if they had stayed longer. Pinkey moved back with the last of his men. But as he did, a musket ball splintered the former attorney general’s arm. Several men moved him to a safer position, preventing the British from capturing the man who had drafted the declaration of war against their country.
Winder quickly took action, ordering the 5th Maryland forward in the hope of restoring his front line before more British troops crossed. But a new barrage of Congreve rockets restored the British momentum. To Winder’s dismay, the rockets sparked a panic. He galloped toward the men, screaming for them to halt. For the militiamen, already jittery from the rocket and the fire from the orchard, the sign of approaching bayonets proved too much. The men again broke, ignoring pleas to halt.
The collapse of the first two American lines was disastrous, but its consequences grew graver still because the men retreated in the wrong direction. The British forces sweeping through the orchard pushed the Maryland militia northwest, toward the Georgetown Road, and away from the third and final American line, anchored on the Washington Turnpike. The roads veered apart like the two arms of a Y. Winder had failed to set a rallying point. Most of the retreating troops were unaware that a third line even existed, much less that they should head in its direction. Pursued by the British, the Maryland militia raced up the Georgetown road several miles to a point where it split into three directions. “Each individual, on the retreat, took the road that suited his inclination,” said Lieutenant John Law.
Excerpted from “Through the Perilous Fight,” by Steve Vogel, published in 2013 by Random House.