Psychological and economic warfare, with the intention of deflecting American forces from the northern theater, rather than a desire to occupy territory, dominated British strategy in the Chesapeake Bay during the War of 1812.
The Madison administration’s decision not to harness a force strong enough to repel British raids of coastal settlements left the bay vulnerable to repeated attacks. The inability of Secretary of War John Armstrong to plan for the defense of Washington prompted the British to risk an inland march to torch the American seat of power.
A British invasion force landed at Benedict, Maryland, a port on the Patuxent River, on 19 August 1814, resulting in a chaotic scene. Secretary of the Navy William Jones directed the men in the Chesapeake Bay flotilla squadron under Commodore Joshua Barney’s command to join forces with a contingent of Marines to assist the regular army and militia forces. While the naval forces fought bravely at the Battle of Bladensburg on 24 August, the battle-tested British troops easily overran the American position, leaving the American capital vulnerable to attack, as most of the defenders scattered.
Commodore Thomas Tingey, commandant of the Washington Navy Yard since its founding in 1799, had anticipated that the enemy’s forces would target the shipping there. Fearful that valuable naval stores would fall into British hands, Secretary Jones ordered Tingey to torch the Yard. After setting fire to most of the public buildings in the capital, the British entered the Yard on the 25th and burned much of what remained there. After a scant twenty-four-hour occupation, the British left the humbled city. The Navy Yard alone had suffered half a million dollars in losses.
No significant benefit accrued to the enemy beyond humiliating the Americans, as three weeks later British forces failed in their assault on Baltimore.