Despite American efforts, as the British turned their attention away from Europe to the war effort against the US, British sea power asserted itself. Using this new source of strength, on August 18, 1814, a force of about 4,000 redcoats landed in the Chesapeake Bay area en route to Washington. The American General William Winder knew the British were in route to Washington, which could be approached from Maryland via one of two bridges. Winder burned one bridge and stationed men at the other to blow it up if the British approached. The British, seeing the telltale blaze of a night fire, figured that the bridge they wanted to use was destroyed and decided to ford the river at Bladensburg. Winder quickly ordered his men there, where they were quickly routed at the Battle of Bladensburg.
With Bladensburg lost, Washington was quickly evacuated. Fleeing Americans destroyed the Navy Yard, hoping to deprive the British of any armaments they might find there. When the British, having rested in the midday heat, finally entered the city, they found a city abandoned. The British looted and burned government buildings, including both the White House and the Capitol. British Major General Robert Ross saw to it, however, that private residences were spared.
President Madison and his cabinet fled, to set up a government-in-exile.
Washington ablaze, British Admiral Thomas Cochrane now planned an invasion of Baltimore. Baltimore, however, was committed to not falling as easily as Washington had, and the citizens of Baltimore formed a Committee of Vigilance and Safety to prepare for the British attack. The city unified command of its forces under Major General Samuel Smith. Although General Winder had rank in the situation, the defeated General of Bladensburg decided to waive his right and let Smith control Baltimore. Unlike the defeatist Winder, Smith worked tirelessly to prepare Baltimore for a strong defense. For instance, Smith managed to divert 5 big artillery guns intended for shipment to Washington to the defense of Fort McHenry, which protected Baltimore's harbor. On September 11, 1814, the British ships arrived in Baltimore during Sunday church services.
As the British infantry from Washington advanced on Baltimore, British Major General Robert Ross was killed by small-arms fire. With Ross dead, his forces stalled. Cochrane, sitting outside of Baltimore's harbor, grew impatient at the delay. At around 7 PM, he began the naval bombardment of Fort McHenry.
Under constant bombardment, American gunners found that their smaller guns didn't have sufficient range to hit the British ships. The guns and powder were ordered well inside the safety of the fort, where the gunners and materiel weathered the British attack. Having heard no shots from Fort McHenry, the British assumed the American had run out of ammunition and sailed in closer. Fort McHenry's guns suddenly opened fire, decimating Cochrane's fleet and forcing the British to retreat to Jamaica. There, Cochrane prepared to attack New Orleans.
American military ineptitude in the War of 1812 reached its miraculous apogee at the Battle of Bladensburg. General Winder was morose and defeatist, issuing hopeless statements to his officers, such as, "When you retreat, make sure you use the Georgetown Road." During the battle, Winder accepted advice on troop movements wherever he got it, whether from officers or non-military men. To make the already bizarre seen more surreal, President James Madison even rode right up to the front to get a look. Stopping to water his horse at the river, Madison got dangerously close to the enemy, but quickly fled to a safer position. In all, the Battle earned the disdainful nickname "Bladensburg Races," a reference to the speed with which the Americans retreated. The heat was actually a greater foe to the British than the Americans; rather than pursue the fleeing American troops, the British stopped to rest and hide from the heat.
With the British on the way, there was some debate among US leaders over whether or not to blow up the Capitol. Some did not like the idea of letting the British destroy the centerpiece of American democracy. Others, more practically minded, simply didn't want the British to get access to important American government documents. Some even considered using the Capitol as a fortress, and making a last-ditch fight from its walls. Madison, however, argued that the Capitol simply should be abandoned, and that the British should be allowed to burn it, since that would help upset and unify national opinion against the British. Madison's intuition turned out to be correct. Newspapers throughout the country reported Washington's fall with rage, and these insulting events greatly increased the US resolve to fight the British.
During the evacuation of Washington, Dolly Madison's presence of mind saved many early treasures of the US. Notable among these was Washington's portrait. Because the frame was so solidly bolted to the wall that neither Dolly nor any of her assistants could unscrew it, they were forced to cut the canvas out of the frame. Dolly, knowing the White House would soon be destroyed, set out the best wine in the cellar on ice for any "thirsty soldiers" that might come by. After Dolly left, Madison, returning from Bladensburg, stopped to rest in the White House, where he chatted with fleeing American soldiers who had stopped to quench their thirst with some Presidential wine. Later that day, when the heat- exhausted British finally entered the White House, they too partook of Dolly's chilled wine before burning the White House to the ground.
It may seem to the modern reader that Baltimore was simply an afterthought in the British attack on Washington. This is not true. In 1814, Baltimore was the third largest city in the US, and also one of its wealthiest. The destruction of Baltimore would therefore not only represent a victory over American morale, but also inflict a grievous wound in the American economy.
The news of the American success at Baltimore, in conjunction with the news of the British burning and looting of the American capital, helped to turn an already war-weary Britain further against the war. Public opinion began to turn against the war, and newspapers criticized British commanders for the "uncivilized" burning of Washington.
In addition to its critical status as a military success, the defense of Baltimore provided the US with one of its most enduring cultural legacies. On September 6, 1814, five days before the British entered Baltimore's harbor, a US agent named John Skinner and an American lawyer named Francis Scott Key took a boat out to a British vessel, the Royal Oak. Sailing under a flag of truce, Skinner and Key hoped to negotiate with the British captain Malcolm for the release of the captured Dr. William Beanes. Malcolm explained that he was not authorized to allow such a release, and that Skinner and Key would have to talk to Cochrane himself. After dining with the American pair, Cochrane eventually agreed to free Beanes. However, he was not willing to release Skinner and Key just yet, because they might give away the position of the British fleet. Thus, Skinner and Key waited on a nearby ship as the British bombarded Baltimore. Key kept up a constant vigil through his telescope all night, but could not seek much of the battle at Fort McHenry. When morning finally broke, he rushed to see if Fort McHenry's enormous flag was still waving. If it hadn't been visible, it probably would have meant that the British had conquered the fort in the middle of the night. When McHenry saw the American flag still flying, he was so inspired that he quickly wrote the Star-Spangled Banner on the back of an envelope.