As the British marched on Washington during the War of 1812, John Norvell and his brother-in-law Spencer Cone joined the fight to defend the nation’s Capital. At the time, Norvell, who with the outbreak of the War of 1812 had enlisted in 1813 in Captain Nicholson’s Company of the Maryland Militia, was away serving with his regiment.
Close to 4,500 British soldiers landed at Benedict, Maryland on August 19, 1814, and marched towards Washington, about 60 miles away. In the August heat, General Robert Ross didn’t push his men, who took five days to cover the roughly fifty miles to the town of Bladensburg. On August 23, 1814, Ross received a message from the overall leader of the British campaign, Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, advising him to turn back. But Rear Admiral George Cockburn thought they should continue. After much discussion, Ross agreed. The Americans, after all, didn’t appear inclined to defend their capital. The villages they passed through along the way were largely been abandoned. Even the bridges were still intact, and the only force they encountered has ran away. The road to Washington appeared wide open.
At noon on August 24, before the British entered Bladensburg, they saw clouds of dust and realized that the Americans were marching out to meet them. Bladensburg itself was empty of American soldiers. This was good news for Ross’ soldiers who would rather not have engaged in street fighting. On the heights across the east branch of the Potomac River, they saw the enemy waiting. For some reason the Americans hadn’t bothered to destroy the bridge.
Colonel William Thornton and the 85th Regiment led the charge across the river. Without waiting for the rest of the British force, Thornton ordered his regiment forward. The 85th quickly drove off the American riflemen, but then found itself facing the main body of Maryland militia, which include Norvell and his brother in law. When the Americans counterattacked, the 85th was pushed back towards the river and most of the regiment’s officers were killed or wounded.
By now the main body of the British force was across the bridge. General Ross ordered the use of Congreve rockets. The rockets were extremely inaccurate, but they made a terrifying noise as they whistled over the heads of the terrified American militia who had never heard or seen anything like them. The militiamen dropped their weapons and ran. Now there was nothing blocking the path to the capital; the British reached Washington that night.
The disastrous Battle of Bladensburg was called the “Bladensburg Races’ because most of the American troops simply emptied their guns and then retreated as quickly as possible. The Army basically ran away leaving the route into Washington undefended.