Militia from Baltimore had arrived the night before the battle and camped at Bladensburg. They did not sleep easy, however, as there was
some confusion as to where they were supposed to be.
General Winder, with his main body of soldiers near the Navy Yard in Washington City, had ordered the soldiers in Bladensburg to retreat to Washington and join the rest of his force. The commanders in Bladensburg felt this was either a confused order, a late and obsolete order, or an absurd order. Initially they obeyed it and all the soldiers in Bladensburg had to pack up and move their camp. They did not go far before they stopped and settled. Then they moved again - back to the west side of the Bladensburg Bridge. At the same time, General Winder was having his own problems getting things arranged - people were either not listening or doing a poor job.
The next morning, the Baltimore Militia near Bladensburg formed battle lines, and Gen. Winder's army marched to Bladensburg and joined them. The combination of all these men formed an army that outnumbered the British invaders by about 8000 to 3000. The Americans also had many artillery pieces (cannons are called "guns" by the men that use them), and had a makeshift cavalry force that, if used properly, could simply frighten the enemy into cowering or retreating. But as Gen. Winder found; simply giving an order to militia and volunteers does not mean it will be done as specified or at all.
The vice president, James Monroe, had been on the field that morning and, having been an officer in the Revolutionary War, felt he could help the situation by modifying the way the Baltimore militias had been deployed. He set them in a common pattern of the time where they formed 3 separate lines, each behind the other, out in front of the orchard.
Those men that had come from Washington remained up at the top of the hill almost a mile away from the orchard and Baltimore militia. Today, many feel this was a big mistake. The cavalry had come down and was ordered to wait in a gourge to the side of the orchard. Field gun batteries were placed in the two roadways leading to the bridge. Usually, a "battery" consists of three artillery pieces. A force of riflemen - rifles having better aim than muskets - waited near the bridge.
A cloud of dust appeared on one of the two roads into Bladensburg from the east, and many tho't it to be the approaching enemy, but it was on the wrong road. The enemy was coming from the southeast road. This dust was the road directly east. It was the Annapolis Militia coming to join the American forces! They came in quickly and the last of them saw the dust of the approaching Briitish soldiers on the other road.
Nobody had told Commodore Barney and his sailors and marines to go to Bladensburg to help. Gen. Winder did not feel Com. Barney, a naval officer, was under his command. Seeing Winder's army leave, Barney got his men together and left also, arriving in Bladensburg about the same time as the Annapolis Militia.
About 600 Virginia Militia men from Falls Church had arrived at the Capitol Building in Washington the night before (where they camped), and on the morning of the battle were only then receiving the muskets they were to use. The clerk issuing the equipment failed to also provide flints to fire the muskets, so that had to be done. Meanwhile precious time was passing and all others had already left Washington for Bladensburg. The clerk refused to hurry.
The Battle started about 1 in the afternoon. The British soldiers charged across the bridge from the town of Bladensburg toward Washington. They were met with gunfire from many directions and many soldiers were killed. The assault stopped but resumed and again it was stopped, but men were fording thru the water on foot since the river was not very deep at that point. The Americans were frightened by the many directions from which the enemy was coming. The British were very well organized, unlike the inexperienced Americans.
The US artillerists were frightened by the retreat of the American footsoldiers protecting them, so they packed up what they could and retreated also. Nobody had ordered the cavalry, waiting in a gourge, to attack, so they began to retreat. The British advanced quickly, and the American retreat turned into a run! The American militia left field guns, muskets, and many other pieces of battle equipment there in their haste to flee.
The Virginia Militia, still in Washington City, had just finished getting all the flints they needed. They assembled for marching. They could hear the battle had already started.