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The Chesapeake Flotilla

Excerpt from the Maryland Historical Trust
September 24, 1997

Eight months after President James Madison declared war on Great Britain, initiating the War of 1812, British Navy frigates and men-of-war blockaded Chesapeake Bay and began raiding along the rivers of the Tidewater.

Captain Joshua Barney, having served with distinction during the Revolutionary War, came out of retirement with a dramatic proposition for William Jones, Secretary of the Navy. Barney recommended the construction of a number of lightly armed, shallow draft barges or galleys that could be both sailed or rowed. These would be faster and more maneuverable than the larger and more heavily laden British vessels. He received approval to begin construction in August, 1813 and on May 24, 1814, promoted to Commodore, Barney led the Chesapeake Flotilla against a British force vastly superior in both numbers and weapons.

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. A brief engagement with the British on June 1 became known as the Battle of Cedar Point and 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. Attempts to draw Barney out resulted in skirmishes over June 8-10, which became known collectively as the First Battle of St. Leonard's. In an attempt to breakout, Barney 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. Preparatory to the escape effort, he scuttled two gunboats in a cove of the creek. Boats 137 and 138 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 ill afford. He also left several merchantmen behind, scuttled to avoid capture.

A plan to sail the Flotilla to the port of Queen Anne, dismantle it, carry it overland to the South River, and return to the Bay was considered briefly. Ultimately, Barney received orders to retreat upriver above Pig Point, as far as Nottingham, and to scuttle the entire fleet of both military and merchant craft if the British were sighted, then march overland to the aid of threatened 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 exploded and sank; one was captured when the fire failed to take hold.

Barney and his flotillamen joined the American forces in time for the Battle of Bladensburg. However, as history reports, the battle was a 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. When the British officers met him they commented that they knew it had to have been 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.

The Flotilla Project

Some contemporary salvage attempts were made, and 22 of 32 cannon were recovered as well as anchors, rope, cable, shot, and small arms, but most of the vessels and their stores remained buried in the silts of the Patuxent River. In 1978, with a grant from the Maryland Historical Trust, the Calvert Marine Museum and Nautical Archaeological Associates, Inc. undertook a limited magnetometer survey of the area as part of the Patuxent River Submerged Cultural Resources Survey. Of the numerous targets documented, one was examined in 1979 and partially excavated in 1980. It was determined to be the USS Scorpion, and the portion excavated was 90% intact beneath a protective cover of five feet of silt. Because of the paucity of funds for conservation, fewer than 200 artifacts were recovered. These items were conserved in a temporary laboratory established in the Lore Oyster House in Solomons. [All military vessels and their contents remain the property of the U.S. Navy, while the merchant ships are the property of the State of Maryland. The Scorpion is a Navy ship, but the artifacts remain on loan to the Calvert Marine Museum.]

In March 1995, maritime historian and noted author Donald Shomette was awarded a Maryland Historical Trust grant to design a phased project to study, test, selectively excavate, conserve, and design a management plan for the remains of the Chesapeake Flotilla. Phase I remote sensing investigations were initiated in May 1996 by Shomette and the Trust's Maryland Maritime Archaeological Program with assistance from the Maritime Archaeological and Historical Society. Two targets were located in St. Leonard's Creek which appear to meet the appropriate geographic and physical criteria to be the scuttled gunboats Nos. 137 and 138. Other targets were located over the relevant stretch of the upper Patuxent via magnetometer and limited side scan sonar survey.

Another Maryland Historical Trust grant will permit further investigation of targets in the Fall of 1996 and the Spring of 1997. Future phases involve testing of all targets and limited excavation and conservation of remains from two sites. Artifacts and possibly structural elements will receive conservation treatment in the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory. This facility, currently under construction at the Maryland Historical Trust's Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, stands on property abutting St. Leonard's Creek, and includes the site of the gun batteries which aided Barney's escape upstream.

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