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Joshua Barney and the Battle of Bladensburg, War of 1812

Since the tantalizing discovery of one of the sunken ships of the Chesapeake Flotilla in 1980, Marylanders have become much more aware of the significance of the pivotal events of the "Second War for Independence" -- the War of 1812. Significantly, the sinking of the Chesapeake Flotilla and the Battle of Bladensburg occurred in Prince George's County, and the county wants everyone to know the importance of these events to our Nation's history.

The reconstruction and launching of one of the ships of the War of 1812 is making that history come alive again. Joshua Barney's Barge is more than just a replica wooden boat; it has already become a remarkable window into history, a bridge to youth, and a tri-centennial celebration project that will continue to educate and enrich the lives of people of all ages around the Chesapeake Bay region.

The Chesapeake Flotilla

The declaration of war against Great Britain in 1812 found Commodore Barney on his farm in Anne Arundel County 1. Although he had been the youngest Captain in the United States Navy, and was a genuine naval hero of the Revolutionary War, he was now in his mid- 50s. A successful shipping merchant, he was never far from the sea, and had volunteered his services to President Madison as early as 1809, asking to be "employed in any manner which might be thought conducive to the good of my country."

Eight months after President Madison declared war against Great Britain, a fleet of Royal Navy warships entered the Chesapeake and began a campaign of unrestrained warfare against the communities of the Maryland and Virginia tidewater. The U.S. Navy, blockaded in the Elizabeth River, was largely unable to provide protection for the beleaguered farms and villages of the region. After observing the unsuccessful political, legal and military actions -- and experiencing the frustration of being land-locked -- the famed naval hero and privateer commander submitted his own war plan to his powerful friends in Maryland's legislature and the War Department of the U.S. government.

The Commodore's audacious plan was all the more imperative when Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn reappeared in Lynnhaven Bay (now Virginia Beach) in early March 1814 to carry out the instructions of Admiral Cochrane "to devastate and ravage the seaport towns." Within days, funding for the construction of a fleet of row galleys was provided, and military authority granted "to recruit men for the Chesapeake Flotilla ... to serve in the defense of the Chesapeake and its tidelands." The 55-year-old retired Commodore Joshua Barney was given a new commission as a "Captain in the Flotilla Service of the United States," signed by President James Madison on April 25, 1814. At about the same time, the sensational news was received from France that Napoleon had fallen. His defeat released thousands of Wellington's tough veterans for service elsewhere -- presumably on this side of the Atlantic.

A ship-builder as well as a fighter, Barney turned the scows and barges into gunboats, complete with cannons, and manned by 503 seamen. On May 24th he sailed with a fleet of 18 vessels which had been fitted out in Baltimore, all undermanned by approximately 20%, and began to scourge the fleet of the honorable Admiral Sir George Cockburn. His initial target was the main British naval base on Tangier Island. Admiral Cockburn was mortified to find his campaign of spoliation interrupted by the attacks of a "mosquito fleet of armed scows and barges" commanded by the redoubtable Commodore Joshua Barney.

Like all able commanders, Barney adjusted his tactics to his terrain and his strength, becoming a waterborne gadfly. Obviously he could not challenge Cockburn's heavyweights ship-for-ship. But he knew the Chesapeake: its deep water, its shoals, its numerous shallow creeks and estuaries into which he could fly for safety. So he buzzed, rather than assaulted, the enemy; waiting until a likely victim came too close to his watery sanctuaries, whereupon his flotilla, led by his appropriately named flagship, the sloop-of-war USS Scorpion, mounting eight carronades and one long gun, plus a furnace for heating shot, would sally forth to inflict damage on them. He never hoped to sink them, but he did make Sir George pay attention.

On June first the flotilla encountered the British schooner, HMS St. Lawrence and her seven boats, between the mouths of the Potomac and Patuxent Rivers near Cedar Point. The flotilla pursued, firing away, until the beleaguered schooner came under the protection of the huge 74-gun line-of-battle ship HMS Dragon. When Dragon's big guns opened up, Barney's gunboats put about and ran for shallow water with the British ship lumbering in futile pursuit. This spirited engagement was known as the Battle of Cedar Point. Because of Barney, Cock burn's hopes of renewing in 1814 the pillage of the previous year were frustrated, and instead of repeating such atrocities as he had inflicted on the town of Havre de Grace, Maryland, he was reduced to pig-sticking and tobacco-pilfering operations.

Thus began a series of darting attacks, retreats and tardy reinforcements, evident on both sides, that ultimately locked the entire Chesapeake Flotilla within the confines of the Patuxent River. But this story is not without its moments of sheer terror, true leadership, frustrations and small victories that proved the men, and their Commodore, to be some of the great American heroes of the War of 1812. "The bravery of the 500 flotillamen and marines was proven time and again as they turned back wave after wave of the numerically superior foe seeking to destroy it ..." says the introduction to Flotilla Battle for the Patuxent.

On June 7th the flotilla retreated up the Patuxent River to St. Leonard's Creek (now considered a prime boating anchorage because of its beautiful setting) and moved two miles upstream. The mouth of the creek was blockaded by two British frigates, HMS Loire of 38 guns and HMS Narcissus of 32 guns, plus the sloop-of-war, HMS Jasseur of 18 guns. For three days the British Navy launched wave after wave of assaults against the U.S. forces, often employing Congreve rockets to destroy the flotilla, but the Commodore and his men stood fast. On each occasion the British boats came up until they caught sight of Barney's flotilla, and were promptly chased off by the Americans, who took care, however, not to meddle with the larger vessels.

Colonel Wadsworth, commanding a force of American artillery on shore, offered to cooperate from the shore while Barney assailed the two frigates with the flotilla. Assisted by a force of U.S. Marines, commanded by Captain Miller, the joint attack took place most successfully on June 26th. The Loire and Narcissus were driven off, although not much dam aged, and the flotilla rowed out in triumph into the Patuxent.

Sails and Oars!

As the story goes, Commodore Joshua Barney gave this command to his men when they rowed into battle -- "Sails and oars!" meaning full speed ahead! Think about it: rowing into battle. This command was not given to get the crew to the battle site, and then conduct military activities. No: this was the command to attack -- in a row galley, with oars that are 20 feet long, and weigh 38 pounds. A seemingly impossible task, certainly full of great risk and peril, accomplished by the hands and efforts of a small but fearsome kind of flotillamen and their special kind of Commodore.

The Campaign for Washington

President Madison received word on July 1st that a fleet of transports with a large military force was about to leave Bermuda, bound to some port of the United States, probably on the Potomac. But no effective were taken to put the national capital in a state of defense. Fort Washington, on the Maryland side of the Potomac a few miles below the city, could offer some resistance to the passage of ships, but there was almost an unobstructed route through Maryland from the Chesapeake and up the Patuxent River. Commodore Barney was called to Washing ton in July for consultation with the Secretary of the Navy, William Jones, "in regard to the protection of that capital," warning Barney that "it may be a feint, to mask a real design on Baltimore."

In mid-August, arrival of a large portion of the Royal Naval fleet commanded by Admiral Cock burn, and four thousand veteran soldiers of "Wellington's Invincibles" under Major General Robert Ross, made their appearance in the Chesapeake, escalating an already desperate situation.

The District of Columbia formed a part of the Fourth Military District, in which the effective troops, under Brigadier General William H. Winder, numbered about two thousand, scattered over widely separated points, some as far away as Nor folk. A company of the Marines was at the barracks in Washington, and a company of Artillery in Fort Washington. General Winder had warned the government that imminent peril threatened and had asked for troops with which to meet it, but it seemed impossible to convince the authorities that he was right, or that any circumstances could arise that would place the capital in peril. General Winder was personally convinced that Annapolis was the real British objective, but most other military and government officials believed that Baltimore must be where the British troops were heading.

Commodore Barney moved his flotilla up the Patuxent as far as Nottingham, about 40 miles from Washington, where he reported to the Navy Department that the enemy had entered and were ascending the river. "The British are in the Patuxent," Commodore Barney wrote Navy Secretary Jones on Friday, the 19th. The Admiral, he was told, planned to destroy Barney's flotilla and "dine in Washington on Sunday." The orders of Secretary Jones were to run the flotilla as far up the river as possible, and upon the enemy landing, to destroy it and march to join General Winder.

On August 19th and 20th the British invasion forces landed at Benedict, Maryland and directed the march of their forces upon Washington on the 21st, following the Patuxent River both by water and by land. The advancing British troops numbered five thousand, including one thousand Royal Marines. Following his orders, the Commodore retreated upriver to about five miles north of Pig Point. There he landed with four hundred men, leaving about a hundred men to blow up the flotilla. On the morning of August 22nd the British were astounded to see an orderly line of American row galleys and merchant ships extending before them upriver, blown up in quick succession. More than sixteen ships of the Chesapeake Flotilla sank in the Patuxent within a few minutes.

General Winder's militia were scattered here and there, and when it became known that a large land and naval force had landed at Benedict, only a small body of men were at hand to checkmate the movement, and General Winder had slight confidence in them. The General found himself with five hundred regulars and two thousand undisciplined militia -- mostly farmers, many armed only with shot-guns. Learning on the 22nd that the British had camped the previous night at Nottingham, General Winder began to believe that they might indeed be heading for Washington rather than Baltimore or Annapolis. But he sent orders to his various military units to wait at various "half-way points," in order to ensure at least some defense at each possible objective. The General knew that a sizable British naval force was proceeding up the Potomac, and feared that they would be joined by the British troops to attack Fort Washington, an easy march directly west from Nottingham. Attacking across the bridge over the Eastern Branch of the Potomac at Bladensburg seemed a fairly remote possibility.

The General's scouts continued to report on the activities of the British, now in Upper Marlboro. One report said they were on the road to Annapolis; another that they were heading for Fort Washing-ton; another that they were again on the road to wards Bladensburg. At 10 AM the morning of August 24th, a scout came galloping in with news that the British had been marching for Bladensburg since dawn and were nearly halfway there!

The Battle of Bladensburg

Commodore Barney's little force of five hundred flotillamen proceeded by forced march to Bladensburg, accompanied by Captain Samuel Miller and 120 U.S. Marines, and five pieces of heavy artillery from his flotilla and from the Washington Navy Yard. Following were two ammunition wagons which he had hastily procured.

General Winder had drawn up his forces to cover the road for some distance west of town, on the west bank of the eastern branch of the Potomac, in a fine position to defend the bridge over which the British must pass. President Madison, Secretary of War General Armstrong, and Secretary of State James Monroe were also there, but they hindered far more than they helped by giving conflicting orders.

Arriving at 1 PM, at the same time the British had begun attacking General Winder's forward line, he arranged his artillery in battery at the center of the second line position on the west bank of the eastern branch of the Potomac. The Commodore himself directed the artillery (2 eighteens and 3 twelve-pounder ship's guns mounted on carriages), while Captain Miller of the Marines commanded the rest of the force -- 120 Marines and 370 flotillamen armed as infantry.

As at Bunker Hill, the two first attacks of the British were bloodily repulsed, chiefly by Barney's guns. By his own account, "At length the enemy made his appearance on the main road in force and in front of my battery, and on seeing us made a halt. I reserved our fire. In a few minutes the enemy again advanced, when I ordered an 18-pounder to be fired, which completely cleared the road. Shortly after, a second and a third attempt was made by the enemy to come forward, but all were destroyed. They then crossed over into an open field, and attempted to flank our right. He was met there by three 12-pounders, and Marines under Captain Miller, and my men acting as infantry, and again was totally cut up. By this time not a vestige of the American army remained, except a body of five or six hundred posted on a height on my right, from which I expected much support from their fine position."

As the British attempted their flanking movement, the Commodore ordered Captain Miller and the flotillamen-infantry to charge, while he poured a destructive fire upon their flank. The charge was executed with great celerity and determination; the veterans of the 86th and 4th -- the "King's Own Regiment" -- giving way before it, pursued by their assailants, the sailors crying out to "board `em." They were driven back to a wooded ravine 3, leaving several of their wounded officers in the hands of the Americans. Colonel William Thornton, who bravely led the attacking British column, was severely wounded, and General Ross had his horse shot under him.

It would have been well for the honor of America if all who were present on that day had behaved with the same decision and effect as Commodore Barney and his command. Their heroic resistance saved the combat at Bladensburg from being an unqualified disgrace to American arms. "It was a magnificent stand; the slightest follow-up of Barney's counterattack might have produced an American victory. As it was, the road to Washington now lay open." But while they were sustaining the credit of their country, the other troops had disappeared, and in the confusion of their retreat, the wagons containing the ammunition for the cannon and small arms had been carried off. The British light troops acting en tirailleur had, in consequence of the total absence of any support, gained positions on his flanks near enough to produce effect with their fire, and to wound and kill several of his best officers. Captain Miller had been wounded in charging the enemy; and Commodore Barney himself, after having had his horse killed under him, received a musket ball in the thigh. 4

The force of the enemy was constantly increasing, for the lack of ammunition for Barney's artillery ended the only effective resistance to the British advance. When it became evident that a reinforcing column of Virginia militia could not arrive in time to aid the gallant flotillamen, who were obstinately maintaining their position against fearful odds, and that further resistance would be useless, General Winder ordered a general retreat. The retreat order was never passed to Barney's command, but with no ammunition, flanked on the right and deserted on the left, the Commodore knew that the end had come. He ordered the guns spiked and the men to retreat. The officers and men who were able to march effected the retreat in excellent order; but the Commodore's wound rendered him unable to move, and he was made prisoner.

General Ross, who had lost nearly three hundred men before getting across the river, gave great attention and care to the wounded Commodore; he so admired the bravery of the "blue-jackets" that he paroled all the flotillamen, including the Commodore, on the spot. 5 The General ordered that he be taken at once into the city and his wounds treated.

The City of Washington presented Commodore Barney a sword, "as a testimonial of his distinguished gallantry and good conduct in the Battle of Bladensburg." The blade is inscribed, "In testimony of the intrepidity and valor of Commodore Joshua Barney, and the handful of men under his immediate command in the defense of the City of Washington on the twenty-fourth of August, 1814."


1 Commodore Joshua Barney's farm is owned by BFHA Member Bob Skaggs, P.O. Box 315, Savage, MD 20763, President of the Joshua Barney foundation. See Newsletter #59 (September 1993).

2 This paragraph is in the preface to a new newsletter, named "Sails and Oars! -- A Newsletter About the Chesapeake Flotilla Project for the Partner Interpretive Sites." A bit of the historical information, and all the information relating to the discovery of the sunken "Barney Barges," is from that newsletter. To obtain copies, to subscribe, or to volunteer your services, write to Maryland Historical Trust, Exhibit Services Program (ESP), Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum, 10515 Mackall Rd., St. Leonard, MD 20685.

3 The "wooded ravine" was known as "the dueling ground" because of many infamous duels.

4 Commodore Barney was severely wounded by a musket ball "near a living fountain of water on the estate of the late Mr. Rives," which is still known as Barney's Spring. The bullet, which finally caused the death of the Commodore on December 1, 1818, was never extracted during his lifetime. After his death it was mounted in a brass disk inscribed, "this British Bullet terminated the life of Commodore Joshua Barney in defending Washington." It is preserved in the archives of the Navy Department in Washington, D.C. See Joshua Barney's grave.

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