Monday, February 11, 2013

Why Should Anyone Care About Joshua Barney?


We have a bunch of great posts coming up, but before we get to those, it's very important that we introduce a few key players from the War of 1812 so we all know who's who and confusion can be minimized. We're starting with Joshua Barney, because he deserves it. I know a few people who think he's overrated, since his most famous actions kind of involved him getting run over by the British right before they burned the White House. BUT. CONTEXT, people - context is very important. The reason he got run over by the British on their way to conquer Washington was because he was basically the only person who bothered to stay and fight them. So, without further ado, let's all find out why Joshua Barney deserves to be your biggest War of 1812 crush.



As described in the first post on this blog, the United States declared war on Great Britain in 1812, and after a few skirmishes in Canada…nothing happened. The British were still fighting with Napoleon and simply had no time to apply themselves to a war with their former colony. So, months passed and nothing happened. And then, in 1813, the British started taking this whole war thing seriously.

The British Admiralty initially appointed Admiral Sir John B. Warren to command efforts against the United States, but Warren was sort of a lazy whiner. The Atlantic coast of North America is a lot of territory to cover, and they didn't have enough ships, and Warren was evidently an uninspired commander. Here he is:
Sir John Borlase Warren, by Daniel Orme, 1799
The Brits replaced him with Rear Admiral George Cockburn (pronounced “Coburn,” since I'm sure you were wondering how you were ever going to discuss him in mixed company). Cockburn came to the Chesapeake Bay in March 1813, and began a devastating six-month rampage in the Chesapeake, from Norfolk (VA) to Havre de Grace (MD). I expect the British felt that was a bit more like it. Here's Cockburn, looking energetic and pleased with himself while Washington goes up in flames behind him:
Admiral Cockburn by John James Halls, ca. 1817, courtesy National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
The U.S. Navy Department just didn't have enough ships to engage the enemy in battles on the open seas. They couldn't even muster the force to defend the coast, perhaps because of a shortsighted naval policy originating in Jefferson’s administration, which focused on gunboats instead of larger vessels. During the spring of 1813, Secretary of the Navy William Jones relied on “a cheap, prompt and efficient temporary force” composed of a gunboat and four leased schooners. This small force proved ineffective against the British fleet, to the surprise of exactly no one.

Really, William Jones? A gunboat and four schooners? Five ships against the British Navy?

Luckily, many of the residents of Maryland’s coastal regions had been coping with British depredations in the Chesapeake since the Revolutionary War. They had a slightly better grasp on reality than William Jones.

Ugh, getting looted and burned by the British is the worst.
In response to the need for a sensible plan and more inspired leadership, Joshua Barney came out of retirement with a less dismal proposition for the Secretary of the Navy. Barney recommended the construction of a number of lightly armed, shallow draft barges or galleys that could be either sailed or rowed. These would be faster and more maneuverable in the silted-in rivers than the larger and more heavily laden British vessels. His plan relied on swift attacks and rapid escapes that utilized his smaller, lighter craft to full advantage.
Joshua Barney! 
He received approval to begin construction in August, 1813. He was promoted to Commodore, and on May 24, 1814, Barney commanded the Chesapeake Flotilla against a British force vastly superior in both numbers and weapons. I imagine him grumbling a lot about how if you want something done right, you just have to do it yourself.
The Scorpion, a sloop-rigged floating battery that could be sailed or rowed, was built in 1812. On February 18, 1814, the Scorpion reported for duty at Baltimore as part of the Chesapeake Flotilla. Commodore Barney made her his flagship. Barney left Baltimore with a fleet of 18 vessels and a convoy of merchant ships he planned to escort to the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, but before long, he was waylaid by the British (the Battle of Cedar Point). The British Navy forced Barney to withdraw into the Patuxent River with the merchant convoy.

Within a week, the British received reinforcements, and Barney retreated to the shallows of St. Leonard's Creek. There were further skirmishes between June 8-10, which became known collectively as the First Battle of St. Leonard's. The British simply could not roust the Flotilla. Frustrated, they started laying waste to the surrounding countryside. 

On June 26, after the arrival of troops commanded by U.S. Army Colonel Decius Wadsworth and U.S. Marine Captain Samuel Miller, Barney made a breakout attempt: he launched a pre-dawn attack from two directions—from the bluffs above the mouth of the creek as well as by water—and succeeded in slipping between the British vessels and the bluff, thereby moving the Flotilla further up the Patuxent River. 

Barney ordered  two gunboats to be scuttled in a cove of the creek. The two boats were slow, awkward, and difficult to sail; they could not hold both men and cargo, and kept neither dry. In short, they were liabilities that Barney could afford to sacrifice. He also left some of the merchantmen behind.

Barney had been ordered to march overland to defend Washington. On the morning of August 22, 1814, the British rounded Pig Point and saw the Flotilla stretching for three miles upriver. In rapid succession, 16 of the 17 vessels were set afire and sunk; only one was captured when the fire failed to take hold.

Here's an eyewitness account from Admiral George Cockburn:
As we opened the reach above Pig Point I plainly discovered Commodore Barney's broad Pendant in the headmost Vessel, a large Sloop, and the remainder of the Flotilla extending in a long line astern of her. Our boats now advanced towards them as rapidly as possible, but on nearing them we observed the Sloop bearing the Broad Pendant to be on fire, and she very soon afterwards blew up. I now saw clearly that they were all abandoned and on fire with trains to their magazines, and out of the seventeen vessels which composed this formidable and so much vaunted Flotilla sixteen were in quick succession blown to atoms, and the seventeenth, in which the fire had not taken, were captured ... I found here lying above the Flotilla under its protection thirteen merchant schooners, some of which not being worth bringing away I caused to be burnt...

Barney and his flotillamen, along with the supplemental troops from Wadsworth and Miller, joined the American forces in time for the Battle of Bladensburg. The battle was a complete rout. The American troops, except for Barney and his men, turned and fled, earning the battle the nickname "The Bladensburg Races." Barney was wounded and captured after hours of hand-to-hand combat with cutlasses and pikes. There were also guns. Barney took a musket ball in the upper right thigh, and complications from the wound eventually killed him, four years later.

Embrace of the Enemies, by L.H. Barker (copyright 2011)
When the British officers met him, they remarked that they knew it had to have been him and his men who held their ground, since they were the only ones who had given them any fight at all. The British pardoned and returned Barney to his men. Everyone likes a person who can make even losing look cool. Ladies and Gentlemen, Commodore Barney was the real deal. 

Posted 2/11/2013 by Lisa Kraus

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