The Intrepid Commodore

Joshua Barney c. 1800I initially introduced my readers to Commodore Joshua Barney while recounting the Battle of Bladensburg, which occurred in 1814.  His command of the Marines at Bladensburg (where the President of the United States placed himself under Barney’s command) piqued my interest in this heroic figure from America’s past.  As it turns out, Commodore Barney was not simply a highly skilled naval officer, he was gutsy, determined, and resourceful, as well.

A son of Baltimore, Maryland [1], Joshua Barney (1759-1818) initially went to sea at the age of 12 in 1771.  Four years later, he served as second-in-command to his brother-in-law aboard a merchant ship involved in European trade.  When the brother-in-law died, Barney assumed command of the ship and navigated the ship to Nicard Occitan (Nice).  There is much about his early years that we do not know, but he did marry twice and had children with both his wives.

Beginning in 1776, Barney served as a commissioned officer in the Continental Navy, the master of the Hornet, and at the time, the youngest commander of a Continental warship.  In this capacity, he participated in the raid on New Providence, in the Bahamas, under the command of Commodore Esek Hopkins.  The Navy promoted him to lieutenant in recognition of his gallantry in the action between Wasp and the British brig [2], HMS Betsey.  Later, while serving aboard Andrew Doria, he played a prominent role in the defense of the Delaware River.  The British took Barney as a prisoner (and exchanged him) on several occasions during the Revolutionary War.  In 1779, the British held him at the Old Mill Prison at Plymouth, England until he escaped in 1781.  Barney wrote a memoir about his adventures, published in 1832 by his relatives, long after his death.

In April 1782, the Navy placed Barney in command of the Pennsylvania ship Hyder Ally.  During the Battle of Delaware Bay, Barney captured the better-armed HMS General Monk.  Monk was renamed General Washington and Barney was rewarded by giving him command of that ship.  With orders to deliver dispatches to Benjamin Franklin in France.  Barney’s return voyage to the United States carried news of peace with Great Britain and the end of the Revolutionary War.

After the war, Barney joined the French navy.  The French appointed him to serve as a squadron commander with the rank of captain.  From June through October 1796, Barney commanded the frigate [3] Harmonie, which was serving on station in the Caribbean and Chesapeake Bay.  As the Napoleonic Wars did not begin until 1803, it does not appear that Captain Barney served under the French flag at that time.

The United States had no interest in becoming involved in the Napoleonic Wars, but the loss of commercial ships to British raiders, the illegal impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy, and the insult to national pride eventually brought the United States back to war with Great Britain in 1812.  Even so, the United States was ill-prepared for another war, either on land or at sea.  Were it not for the fact that the British were fully engaged with France in Europe, it might have gone very badly for the fledgling United States in the early days of this conflict.  The Royal Navy was, at that time, the strongest navy in the world.  In comparison, the United States Navy was but a flea on the backside of a rogue elephant.

Without a navy of any substance, the United States began to construct, commission, and capture ships to serve as warships.  One of the more successful privateers was Joshua Barney of Baltimore, Maryland, who in 1812 was 53 years of age and living near Elk Ridge, Maryland.  Because he had served under a foreign flag as a naval commander, the US Navy denied Barney command of a United States Navy ship; instead, the Navy offered him command of the privateer schooner Rossie.  As a privateer, Barney excelled.  On a single voyage, Barney captured four ships [4], eight brigs, three schooners [5], and three sloops [6], a total value of around 1.5 million pounds.  By December of 1812, the Royal Navy was rampaging the Chesapeake Bay, blockading ports and taking what they wanted from shoreline villages and towns.  Their first defeat came at the mouth of the Elizabeth River when the Royal Navy failed to seize Norfolk, Virginia —but as an act of revenge, the British sacked the town of Hampton.  The American army’s commitment to operations in Canada left the Chesapeake Bay undefended, allowing the British navy to invade the American shore with impunity.

Despite its few resources and very little money, the United States government resolved to do something.  This is when Captain Barney stepped forward with a plan to defend the Chesapeake.  In those days, it was easy for a citizen to approach the President of the United States.  Barney drew up his plan and delivered it personally to President Madison.  It was as detailed a plan as anyone had ever seen, including sketches of gunboats that were like river-barges [7], equipped with oars and light sails, and armed with one large gun.  As Barney envisioned it, these small vessels would be manned by local men, would draw attention to themselves but they would also be proficient in keeping an eye on the British navy.  With a shallow draft, the barges would be able to withdraw close to shore where the British could not follow.  One of Barney’s selling points was that the barges were relatively inexpensive to build and, once the war was over, the vessels could go on the block for commercial use.

President Madison was suitably impressed.  He appointed Barney as Commander of the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla.  Construction of the barges began in earnest and bounties were offered to entice men who would otherwise have served as privateers, or enlisted men in the land forces.  News of the flotilla quickly spread, and this prompted the British to construct barges of their own on tangier Island.  Within a short time, Barney had seven (7) 75’ barges, six (6) 50’ barges, two gunboats [8], one row galley [9], a lookout boat, and his flagship USS Scorpion [10].

With eighteen vessels (but scant supplies), Barney led his flotilla from Baltimore to attack Tangier Island and destroy the British efforts there.  With the discovery of British reconnaissance troops near St. Jerome’s Creek, Barney decided to attack these men.  The surprise was that a British warship was in hiding not far distant, causing Barney to make a rapid withdrawal into the Patuxent River.  British captain Barrie, in command of HMS Dragon, blockaded the mouth of the Patuxent River and waited for reinforcements from HMS Jaseur and HMS Loire.  Barney continued his withdrawal to the shores of St. Leonard’s Creek.  Initially, with the realization that the British out-gunned him four to one, Barney saw little chance of besting the British, but his position offered an excellent defense.  We remember this three-day battle as the Battle of the Barges.  The conflict ended in a draw, but Barney did not lose a single man to British fire, while the Royal Navy suffered numerous casualties.

In August of 1814 48-British ships arrived in the Chesapeake with a contingent of 5,400 soldiers under the command of Major General Robert Ross.  These troops landed at the little down of Benedict and began their march northwards.  Admiral Sir George Cockburn, serving as overall commander-in-chief, sailed up the Patuxent River … altogether setting into motion the Battle of Bladensburg —the defense of the City of Washington.  Given the timidity of the undisciplined American militia, all that really stood between General Ross’ army and Washington was Commodore Barney and around 500 sailors and Marines.  Of course, we know that it was a futile defense and Barney was (once more) captured by the British.  Although seriously wounded, Barney was well-treated by the British, who congratulated him on his gallantry under fire.  Before his capture, Barney ordered his flotilla burned to keep them from falling into the hands of the British; the remnants of this force remain at the bottom of the Patuxent River today.  With the peace came Barney’s release from captivity and he returned to his home in Anne Arundel County.

The wound he received in 1814 eventually killed Commodore Barney, who at his death was only 59 years old.

Sources:

  1. S. Naval History and Heritage Command, Joshua Barney, online resource.
  2. Barney, M. A Biographical Memoir of the Late Commodore Joshua Barney From Autographical Notes and Journals in Possession of His Family and Other Authentic Sources.  Gray and Bowen, publishers, 1832.
  3. Shomette, D. Shipwrecks on the Chesapeake.  Centerville, MD: Tidewater Publishers (1982)
  4. Ellis, J. J. His Excellency, George Washington.  New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 2004

Endnotes:

[1] When Baltimore was still an American city.

[2] A brig is a two-mast square rigged ship.

[3] A frigate in the age of sail was a warship built for speed and maneuverability and could be a vessel of several sizes.  Their principle batteries could be placed on a single deck, or on two decks with smaller guns.  They were generally two small to stand in the line of battle.  They were full rigged with square sails on three masts and mostly used as escort ships and patrolling.  They usually carried 28 guns.

[4] In context, ship meaning ships of the line or full-rigged vessels with three or more full-rigged masts.  Ships of the line were generally categorized as first, second, or third-rate vessels (more than 64-guns).  Fourth-rate ships came into being in the mid-18th century (50-60 guns).

[5] A schooner is a fore and aft-rigged vessel with two or more masts, of which the foremast is shorter than the main.

[6] Sloops were fore-and-aft rigged vessels with a single mast.  They were later powered warships between corvettes and frigates in overall size.

[7] Essentially, shoal-draft flat bottom boats normally constructed as river or canal transport of bulk goods.

[8] Gunboats were of various sizes and armaments with a single mast.

[9] An armed craft that used oars rather than sails but was often fitted with sails in addition to its oars.

[10] Scorpion was a self-propelled floating artillery battery, sloop rigged with oars.  As part of the Chesapeake Bay flotilla, Scorpion was commanded by Major William B. Barney, Commodore Barney’s son.

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Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

2 thoughts on “The Intrepid Commodore”

  1. Sir, I am on the Danube on a river cruise with my wife. Wifi has been spotty if not slow… but I finally got this post to pop up on my cell. We are between Passau and Vienna.

    This is an incredible story. After starting out at 12 then taking command at such a young age to his heroics in his prime, I am astonished at this colorful military man who survived engagement after engagement.

    I would be curious to learn of his personal character and habits just out of curiosity. More so, I am led to believe he was Navy but his ability to improvise certainly is becoming a Marine.

    1. There is much about this man that we don’t know. I recently ordered a book from the 1920s that might shed additional light on his life. As I wrote in the telling of the Battle of Bladensburg, Joshua apparently earned the confidence of the President of the United States to such an extent that he approved Joshua’s plan for the barge navy, and then beyond this, as the Battle of Bladensburg began falling apart (to wit: the American militia ran away from the enemy), President Madison placed himself under Joshua’s command, on the field of battle, and worked alongside Captain Miller and his Marine artillerymen until it was likely that Madison would be captured. At this time, Madison was urged to withdraw from the field, and he did. Joshua (and I assume his Marines) were captured and taken as British prisoners of war. It was out of respect for Commodore Barney and his Marines that the British decided not to burn the Marine Barracks in Washington DC.

      Enjoy your river voyage … Thanks for taking a moment to stop by.

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