Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Saga of the Scorpion, Part I: The Patuxent's Lost Flotilla

Today's post is the first of two concerning the wreck of the U.S.S. Scorpion and the Chesapeake Flotilla in the Patuxent River near Upper Marlboro, Maryland. Thanks to Heather Brown of the Naval History & Heritage Command's Underwater Archaeology Branch for this article! 

On August 21, 1814, a flotilla of American gunboats under the command of Joshua Barney was scuttled in the Patuxent River near Upper Marlboro, Maryland, to prevent capture by the British. To anyone familiar with this area, the natural question is how a passel of cannon-laden Navy vessels managed to reach this shallow, winding, marsh-clogged section of river. A likely follow-up question is: Why were they there at all?
Detail of an 1840 nautical chart showing the stretch of Patuxent River between Pig Point and Queen Anne, where the flotilla was destroyed.
The story of Joshua Barney’s flotilla begins in the summer of 1813. The Royal Navy blockade of the Chesapeake was well underway, cutting off trade out of the rich farmlands of Virginia and Maryland, as well as preventing American forces from Norfolk, Washington, and Baltimore from effectively engaging the British.  In addition to intercepting merchant shipping, the British sent troops ashore to conduct brief raids, destroying strategic buildings, burning crops, and making off with goods.  The U.S Navy had few vessels in the region and those were no match for the world-renowned Royal Navy at the height of its power, honed to a well-oiled machine by its decades-long conflicts with France.

During the presidency of Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809), the country’s policy was to limit naval development, focusing on coastal defenses rather than sea-going vessels, in order to preserve American neutrality abroad. Therefore, the government invested heavily in gunboats, relatively small vessels, usually between 45 and 65 feet long, that could be rowed or sailed, with a shallow draft for use in coastal waters, and armed with from one to four guns.  Nearly two hundred of these ships were built prior to the outbreak of the war by different shipwrights in different cities, using a variety of plans. The result was a somewhat motley collection of vessels consisting of galleys, cutters, sloops and schooners.

February 1813, as the blockade commenced, found the bulk of U.S. Naval resources in the Chesapeake  bottled up by the British in the Elizabeth River at Norfolk. This left at large 3 gunboats (Nos. 70, 71, and 137), the schooner Asp and frigate Adams still being fitted out in Washington; the cutter Scorpion (former gunboat No. 59) on its way north from Norfolk; and 1 gunboat (No. 138) at Baltimore.  In April, Secretary of the Navy William Jones authorized the lease of four armed schooners (Patapsco, Comet, Revenge and Wasp) from among the privateers of Baltimore for the defense of that city.  These resources proved insufficient in preventing the growing depredations of the British.

Baltimore was the center of shipping in Maryland and the home base for a fleet of bold privateers that had had a profitable season preying upon British shipping the previous summer. Among these was Joshua Barney, who had served with distinction in the Continental Navy and served as a Commodore with French navy from 1796 to 1802.  A man of action, he could not sit placidly by while the British raided the Chesapeake coastline.  On July 4, 1813 he wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Navy outlining a plan to defend the Bay by building a squadron made up of “a Kind of Barge or Row-galley, so constructed, as to draw a small draft of water, to carry Oars, light sails, and One heavy long gun.”  He believed 20 such vessels would be enough and proposed that Jones “form them into a flying Squadron, have them continually watching & annoying the enemy in our water, where we have the advantage of shoals & flats” and man them with merchant sailors from Baltimore, many of whom were available as the blockade strangled the normal volume of shipping in the port.

With few other options to hand, Secretary Jones formally agreed to the plan on August 20th, and placed Barney in command of the whole endeavor, a force designated the Chesapeake Flotilla, answerable directly to Jones and separate from the regular navy.  His command would “consist of the Barges, now building by contract at Baltimore for this Department, such of the City Barges, as may be purchased, or taken into the service of the U. States and such other Barges, Gun Boats, or vessels as may, from time to time, be attached thereto, by order of this Department.”

The naval constructor at Washington, William Doughty, had indeed been hard at work developing plans for several classes of barges and begun construction both at Washington and Baltimore.  Initially, contracts were let for eight vessels for the flotilla, with such Baltimore shipbuilders as William Parsons (24 July 1813), Thomas Hall and Benjamin White (23 July 1813), and William Flannigan (24 July 1813).  In December another 10 of the smaller barges were to be built by Perry Spencer of St. Michaels, a town renowned for its shipbuilding, and that had in fact been attacked unsuccessfully by the British back in August in hopes of destroying its shipyards.
This excerpt from a contract between Navy Agent James Beatty and Baltimore shipbuilders Thomas Hall and William White lays down the price of $2000 for one “Row Galley.”
The barges were described by Jones in a letter to Commodore Thomas McDonough at Lake Champlain as follows:

“The first Class, 75 feet long and 15 wide, to carry a long 24 and a 42 pound Carronade, row 40 oars, and drawing but 22 inches water, with all on board.

“Second class, 50 feet long and 12 feet wide, to carry a long 18 and 32 pd. Carronade, and row 26 oars; they have been tried, and are the most perfect of their kind.”

Copies of Doughty’s plans survive, though the liberties taken by the shipbuilders to amend the vessels and subsequent repairs can only be truly documented archaeologically, such as has been done by Eric Emery for Allen, a Lake Champlain vessel also built on Doughty’s plans.
William Doughty’s plan for a first-class barge or row galley demonstrates the very shallow draft of these vessels.  
Barney’s flotilla was augmented by two Jeffersonian-era gunboats (Nos. 137 and 138), a small row galley, the schooner Asp, and Scorpion, which served as the flagship.  The two gunboats were not not as light and maneuverable as the barges and caused Barney much difficulty under his command.  He described them as “too heavy to Row, and too clumsy to sail, and are only fit to lay moor’d, to protect a pass, or Assist a Fort.”
These small vessels, from an engraving of McDonough’s Victory on Lake Champlain, may resemble Barney’s barges, as they were built from the same plans, designed by William Doughty.  
We know comparatively little about Scorpion.  It began life as Gunboat No. 59, built ca. 1806 by George Hope of Hampton, Virginia.   In 1812, it was rebuilt at the Washington Navy Yard, and rechristened Scorpion.  Based on its description as a cutter or a sloop, it was likely a single-masted, fore-and-aft rigged vessel.  One witness reports it had six gunports per side, though an 1814 inventory indicates it was carrying only 5 guns.  Given how vociferously Barney complained about the failings of his flotilla vessels, his silence on the subject of Scorpion suggests it performed to his satisfaction.

A preliminary cruise took place in mid-April of 1814, disproving Jones’s statement that the barges were perfect, at least those of the second class, which took on much water and, in three cases, sustained damage to their rudder heads. Barney attempted to lighten their load by swapping out the 18 pounders for 12 pounders, and reducing the amount of provisions they carried, but they still were susceptible to high seas.  He further reduced their load by relocating all shot but 15 rounds per vessel to the larger barges. This still did not stop the problem and he finally had 8-inch high washboards installed, for, he reported, “the men are very unwilling to remain on them in their present state.” There were still problems with space, as there was not adequate room aboard for the sick or wounded, the two gunboats were crammed full and prone to leakage, and the smaller barges had to remain as light as possible. In early June, Barney was able to strike a deal with William O’Neale and Robert Taylor of Georgetown for use of their schooner Islet as a supply ship.

By the end of May, with the most serious problems ironed out and concerned by reports of British activity at Tangier Island, Barney headed toward the Potomac with thirteen barges, the two gunboats, a row galley, a lookout boat, and Scorpion.  On the June 1st they encountered Royal Navy schooner St. Lawrence and its various boats.  The flotilla gave chase, but Captain Barrie of St. Lawrence summoned aid from the nearby 74-gun HMS Dragon, putting Barney on the defensive.  A sudden squall from the southwest cut off Barney’s approach to the Potomac, and he ordered a retreat to the Patuxent, with the British in pursuit.  Shots were exchanged off Cedar Point, but Dragon was unable to stem the tide, and Barrie did not want to risk St. Lawrence and its small boats against the full force of the flotilla.

Thus the flotilla found itself hemmed in the Patuxent, where it would remain until its ultimate destruction in August.  As the summer progressed, the British gradually brought in ships with shallower draft, and were able to pursue them further up the river.  Finally, as the British landed troops on shore, it became clear that Barney’s men would be needed on land to help defend Washington, and he was ordered to destroy the flotilla rather than leave it behind for the enemy to capture.  Thus, somewhere above Pig Point, near Upper Marlboro, a skeleton crew set fire to the ships, which, according to British testimony, were subsequently “in quick Succession blown to atoms.”  Islet too was scuttled by its captain, and several merchant vessels harboring with the flotilla were captured and burned by the British.

The remains of all of these vessels settled into the riverbed.  The guns were salvaged later in the year, along with other important equipment and ballast.  In the years following the war, as population increased and agriculture intensified, the upper reaches of the Patuxent River began to silt in.  The area where once these lengthy vessels traveled is now limited to small fishing boats and canoes.  At least one wreck associated with the flotilla has been located, buried under approximately three feet of sediment and beautifully preserved in its oxygen-free environment.  No doubt there are others that await discovery.  A detailed study of these wrecks could answer many lingering questions about how these ships were designed, how they handled, and what life aboard was like for the intrepid Maryland sailors who manned them.
The Patuxent River north of Pig Point is now very narrow and shallow, accessible mainly to small motor boats and canoes