Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Battle of Bladensburg

The 5th Maryland Regiment standing resolute! These are Old Glory 28mm figures from that company's quite excellent War of 1812 range.

Recently, I was able to host a re-fight of the Battle of Bladensburg, 1814. (this was actually the fourth time I've hosted a re-fight of this battle). This battle saw a small British expeditionary force, commanded by Major-General Robert Ross, pitted against a rag-tag American army under Brigadier General William Winder. Ross' army had been operating in the Chesapeake aboard Royal Navy vessels for some time and the battle at Bladensburg was the end result of a landing-in-force that had as its objective Washington. For a good synopsis of the battle and campaign, look here.

Major-General Ross and aide directing the deployment of the British line. Once again 28mm Old Glory figures but this time from the Napoelonic range.

There are some interesting elements to this battle that make this battle never grow old in my eyes. An experienced British army must force a river crossing across a river that is bridged in only one place and presents few chances to ford. Although the British infantry clearly out-classed anything the Americans could put against it, Ross had a number of disadvantages. He was unfamiliar with the country and terrain, his army had no horses to drag about his few cannon, and he he had little or no scouting abilities because there were no cavalry present. He did have the dubious advantage, however, of having in his force a detachment of Royal Marines and sailors manning a battery of Congreve Rockets.

The Americans, on the other hand, also had a combination of advantages and disadvantages. First, their position was of some strength, attempting to deny the British a bridgehead across the Potomac. Unfortunately, the disadvantages were many. Winder was a less than stellar leader. He had spent the last weeks galloping about the countryside, ostensibly organizing his forces and reviewing the defences about Washington and Baltimore. In reality, he spent more time riding and passing his frenetic personal chaos on to his subordinates than in any actual preparation or organization. The proximity of the battlefield to Washington brought out the political illuminati, some of whom thought that they could contribute militarily (but more of that anon). Winder's army was composed primarily of militia units, untried in campaigning and battle, with a scattering of regular army detachments (which, in retrospect, were more abominable than their militia brethren). The one shining light in Winder's army was Commodore Barney's flotillamen. These veteran sailors had been forced to ground and burn their gun-boats a few days previously and were itching for some payback. These few hundred sailors and marines managed to drag three 18-pders and one 12-pder to the battlefield from the naval yard in Washington, all without the benefit of horsepower. Quite a feat in itself!

Plan of the campaign and battle of Bladensburg, from Benson J. Lossing's Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812.

After allowing the American commander to deploy his units on the west bank of the river, I then have the British commander deploy his army in march column on the road running along the east bank toward Baldensburg. At this point, players assume the game will begin as any other. This is when the wandering American politicians make their presence felt. The American CinC must now roll 1d6 for every unit in the army with the following results applied immediately before the game begins:

1 = move the unit 12" forward
2 = move the unit 12" backward
3, 4 = no effect
5 = move the unit 12" right
6 = move the unit 12" left

This causes some wonderfully hilarious reactions from players, ranging from amused consternation to outright indignation at the tinkering with their careful dispositions. I lifted this entertaining mechanic from The Canadian Wargames Group ruleset, Rocket's Red Glare (a quite excellent ruleset). The battle this time saw a very determined American defence of the riverline but once the British were able to establish their bridgehead, the superior quality of their troops began to tell. Nonetheless, the Americans continued to fight fiercely and were able to hold out longer than in any previous re-fight. The end result could be described as a marginal British victory.

Baltimore artillery trudging forward.

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