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.