On August 19, 1814, during the War of 1812, British troops under the command of Major General Robert Ross and Rear Admiral George Cockburn landed at Benedict, Maryland, on the shores of the Patuxent River. The British fleet, under the command of Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, had chased U.S. Commodore Joshua Barney's flotilla into the Patuxent River, but the true goal was the capture of the nation's capital, Washington, D.C. — only a few days march away. At the same time, Vice Admiral Cochrane ordered Captain James Gordon to sail other British warships up the Potomac River towards Washington which was defended only by Fort Warburton (later renamed Fort Washington) on the east bank of the river, twelve miles south of the nation's capital. News of this British onslaught caused panic in Washington and many of its residents fled.
Commodore Joshua Barney commanded an assortment of small, quick gunboats, galleys, and barges that for weeks prior had outmaneuvered the larger British ships in the shallow Chesapeake waters. However, after being forced up the Patuxent, Barney and his men abandoned and destroyed their flotilla, linked up with a contingent of marines, and marched to Washington. Unsure of where the British would attack, American volunteers and militiamen from Maryland, Virginia, and Washington also scrambled to the capital and its outskirts. When word reached them that the British were marching towards Bladensburg, the American forces moved there to take up defensive positions.
Although the Americans outnumbered the British at Bladensburg, they were poorly trained compared to the well-disciplined professional soldiers under the command of Major General Ross. On August 24, after thousands of American militiamen had retreated, only a small contingent of the flotilla—men and marines under Barney's command—managed a valiant but futile counterattack. The British troops then continued on to Washington.