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.

Diminished Honor

Occasionally, one wonders, “What in the hell is the matter with people?”  I have to say that the American navy has a rich history of honor, sacrifice, and fortitude, but there are a few blemishes, as well —which is true within all our military branches.  Our military is representative of our society —its strengths and weaknesses.  There is no justification for dwelling on them, but they do present important lessons and we either learn from them or repeat them to our sorrow.

Two disgraces stand out.  The first involves Rear Admiral (then Captain) Leslie Edward Gehres, USN (1898-1975) whose primary contribution to the Navy was his toxic leadership while in command of the USS Franklin (CV-13) (1944-1945).  Gehres assumed command of USS Franklin at Ulithi, relieving Captain J. M. Shoemaker.  Under Shoemaker, USS Franklin had come under attack by Japanese kamikaze aircraft.  At the change of command ceremony, Gehres told the ship’s crew, “It was your fault because you didn’t shoot the kamikaze down.  You didn’t do your duty; you’re incompetent, lazy, and careless.  You don’t know your jobs and I’m going to do my best to shape up this crew.”  The vision of this takes us to the film Caine Mutiny, starring Humphrey Bogart—a psychopath placed in command of the fictional destroyer, USS Caine.  One can only imagine how Captain Shoemaker felt having to listen to Gehres’ tripe on his last moment of command.

Gehres was raised in Rochester, New York and Newark, New Jersey.  He enlisted in the New York Naval Militia in 1914.  His unit was activated for World War I service and Gehres was assigned to USS Salem, USS Massachusetts, and USS Indiana.  Subsequently, Gehres attended the Reserve Officer’s Course at the USN Academy.  He was commissioned an ensign on 24 May 1918.  Gehres received a regular commission in the Navy in September of that year while serving aboard USS North Dakota in the Atlantic.  He was assigned to flight training at Pensacola, Florida and received his designation as a Naval Aviator in August 1927.

In November 1941, Gehres commanded Fleet Patrol Wing 4.  He spent most of World War II in the Aleutian Islands.  His subordinates referred to him as “Custer” because of his illogical tactics and erratic behavior.  Despite a rather poor reputation among his subordinates, Gehres was advanced to the rank of Commodore —the first Naval Aviator to achieve this rank.

USS Franklin
USS Franklin

In November 1944, he took a reduction in rank designation in order to assume command of USS Franklin.  His remarks at the change of command ceremony must not have done very much for crew morale.  In 1945, Franklin was assigned to the coast of the Japanese homeland in support of the assault on Okinawa.  Ship’s aircrews initiated airstrikes against Kagoshima, Izumi, and southern Kyushu.  At dawn on 15 March, the ship had maneuvered to within 50 miles of the Japanese mainland and launched a fighter sweep against Honshu Island and Kobe Harbor.  It was a stressful time for the crew, who within a period of six hours, had been called to battle stations on six separate occasions.  Gehres finally allowed the crew to eat and sleep but maintained crewmen at gunnery stations.

A Japanese aircraft appeared suddenly from cloud cover and made a low-level run on the ship to drop two semi-armor piercing bombs.  Franklin received a “last minute” warning of the approaching aircraft from USS Hancock, but Gehres never ordered “general quarters.”  One-third of the crew were either killed or wounded.  It was the most severe damage of any surviving USN aircraft carrier in World War II.  As a result of officer and crew activities, ten officers and one enlisted man was awarded the Navy Cross —one of those being Gehres.

(Chaplain) Father Joseph T. O’Callaghan refused the Navy Cross for his participation in the aftermath of the Franklin bombing.  Some speculated that the priest turned down the award because his heroic actions in the aftermath of the bombing reflected unfavorably on Gehres leadership as Commanding Officer.  President Truman intervened, however, and Father O’Callaghan was awarded the Medal of Honor on 23 January 1946.  True to form, Captain Gehres charged crewman who had jumped into the water, to avoid death by fire, with desertion.  Gehres charges against crewmen were quietly dropped by senior naval commanders in the chain of command.  Captain Gehres, while advanced to Rear Admiral (Lower Half), was never again assigned to a position of command.  By 2011, Gehres was universally excoriated for significant deficiencies in leadership.  Admiral Gehres became a study of poor leadership —but one wonders why the Navy promoted him to flag rank.  His behavior in command of USS Franklin became the very definition of “toxic leadership.”  Indeed, it was.

Charles B McVay III
Captain Charles B. McVay III

A second failure in navy leadership involved the case of Captain Charles B. McVay III (1898-1968).  Captain McVay was a highly decorated navy officer in command of USS Indianapolis (CL/CA 35) when the ship was torpedoed and sunk in the Philippine Sea on 30 July 1945.  Of the 1,197 crew, only 317 survived the sinking.  Of all ship’s captains in the history of the US Navy, McVay was the only officer ever court-martialed for the loss of his ship in a combat action.

At the time, USS Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser (formerly the flagship of Admiral Raymond Spruance, 1943-1944), was on a top-secret mission and under the direct authority of the President of the United States.  Its mission was to deliver two atomic bombs to Tinian Island.  Because the mission was top secret, speed was of the essence and to prevent attention to her course, no escorts were authorized.  This was a catastrophe of epic proportions.  Captain McVay, wounded, ordered his crew to abandon ship.  Of the 897 (approximate) crewmen who went overboard, 317 survived massive shark attacks over a period of five days.

Why was Captain (later promoted to Rear Admiral) court-martialed?  The Navy accused him of hazarding his ship by not following a zig-zag course through the Philippine Sea.  He was found “not guilty” of a second charge of “failing to order abandon ship in a timely manner.”  The fact was, however, that the Navy failed the USS Indianapolis on several fronts.  First, the Navy refused to provide the cruiser with escort ships, to which it was entitled during war.  Second, the Navy delayed its rescue of the crew (owing to the secret mission assigned to the ship) and no report of an overdue ship was made, again owing to the nature of its secret mission.

A navy court of inquiry recommended that Captain McVay be court-martialed.  Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander, U. S. Pacific Fleet disagreed, but he was overruled by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King [1].  The Japanese commander of the submarine that sank Indianapolis was called to testify at McVay’s court-martial.  He stated that given the proximity of Indianapolis to his submarine, zigzagging wouldn’t have made any difference —Indianapolis was dead the minute the torpedoes were fired.  Ultimately, Admiral King ordered any punishments to be set aside.

Captain McVay suffered for the remainder of his life over the death of his crew, but not a single man lost was the result of McVay’s competence.  After the loss of his wife to cancer in 1967, Charlie McVay took his own life in 1968.  This too was a failure of Navy leadership.  McVay was a good man chastised for no good reason other than as a scapegoat for poor Navy leadership.

Sources:

  1. The Day the Carrier Died: How the Navy (Nearly) Lost an Aircraft Carrier in Battle. James Holmes, National Interest Newsletter, 28 April 2019
  2. Stanton, D. In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors. Reed City Productions, 2001
  3. Hulver, R. A. and Peter C. Luebke, Ed. A Grave Misfortune: The USS Indianapolis.  Naval History and Heritage Command, 2018.

Endnotes:

[1] According to author Richard F. Newcomb (Abandon Ship), Admiral King’s insistence that Captain McVay appear before a court-martial was because Captain McVay’s father, admiral McVay (II) once censored King, as a junior officer for regulatory infractions.  According to Newcomb, Admiral King never forgot a “grudge.”