Commodore Barney at the Bladensburg Races

By Lieutenant Colonel Steven Eden, U.S. Army (Retired)

A Career Reborn

Barney's rejection of a captaincy in 1794 constituted a break in service, and therefore he lacked any standing for a commission in the seniority-conscious Navy. However, he had enough friends left in Washington to rate the first letter of marque issued during the war, dated 12 July 1812. That same day, Barney stood out past Fort McHenry below Baltimore in the privateer Rossie , a schooner with 12 guns and a hundred men. For the next three months the Rossie ranged the eastern seaboard, capturing 18 prizes, until winter weather closed down on the Chesapeake Bay.

When spring arrived in 1813, it brought a British fleet under Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn. From March onward the fleet terrorized the tidewater communities of Maryland and Virginia, descending at will to carry off provisions, cut out privateers and merchantmen, burn public buildings, and reduce local militias to a state of nervous exhaustion.

Outraged, Barney championed the construction of a naval flotilla that could challenge the enemy's uncontested control of the Chesapeake. This was, after all, the kind of war he had cut his teeth on during the Revolution: a guerrilla campaign in brown waters against a superior fleet. As he wrote in a letter to Secretary of the Navy William Jones:

I am therefore of opinion the only defence we have in our power, is 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 . . . Let as many of such Barges be built as can be mann'd, form them into a flying Squadron , have them continually watching & annoying the enemy in our waters, where we have the advantage of shoals & flats throughout the Chesepeake [sic] Bay . . . and the enemy dare not dispatch Small ships, brigs, or Schooners upon any expedition whilst such a force lay near them. 1

Jones supported the plan. The Navy Secretary also recognized Barney as just the man for the job. The only problem was Barney's lack of seniority as a naval officer. The law and ingrained naval prejudices made it impossible to commission Barney at a rank commensurate with command of the envisioned flotilla—not to mention that the aging sailor remained as prickly as ever over matters of rank and privilege. Fortunately, a solution was at hand. Barney was made an acting master commandant in the newly formed Flotilla Services of the United States, a separate service outside the Navy responsible only to the President, with the promise of promotion to captain. This satisfied Barney's sense of honor, and he happily plunged into purchasing or building suitable vessels and recruiting sailors to man them.

Work progressed through the winter, and eventually Barney launched a series of shakedown cruises in April 1814. He remained dissatisfied with everything, from the seaworthiness of his vessels to the quality of powder. But rumors of British activity on the Chesapeake spurred him to action. On Tangier Island, off the coast of Virginia, Cockburn had recently constructed a series of redoubts and ramparts that protected a deepwater anchorage where the Royal Navy, to counter Barney's own flotilla, was supposedly collecting barges that would extend the reach of the British into the region's shallow headwaters—even to Washington.

Action in the Chesapeake

Barney's flotilla slipped out of Baltimore on 24 May. He had 18 vessels with him—13 barges, two gunboats, a galley, a scout boat, and the cutter Scorpion —most of them undermanned. By the 31st, Barney had sailed to Drum Point at the mouth of the Patuxent River. From there, he planned to dash across the bay and descend on Tangier from the north. But fate intervened when a small British scouting party stumbled on the Americans on 1 June. Royal Navy Captain Robert Barrie in the schooner St. Lawrence was poking around the Chesapeake's western inlets, looking for Barney, when he rounded Cedar Point to investigate the Patuxent. Barrie immediately saw that he was decisively outgunned and swung away, signaling frantically for help. Meanwhile, Barney set off after the St. Lawrence .

Rough waters hampered the shallow-draft American vessels as they emerged into the bay, allowing Barrie to pull away. Nevertheless, Barney gamely kept up the chase until the 74-gun ship-of-the-line HMS Dragon appeared from the south. The Dragon had been lurking in the Potomac River when the sound of Barrie's signal guns reached her. Now overmatched in turn, Barney reversed course, making a run for the Patuxent. The British ran down one American schooner, but when they threatened to cull gunboat No. 137, carrying the bulk of his supplies, Barney turned to fight.

Anchoring off Cedar Point, Barney's boats exchanged fire with the British, forcing Barrie to pull back and allowing the Americans to slip into the Patuxent. The river resembles a link of sausages along its lower reach, with wide stretches of river intespersed with spits of land constricting its navigable waters to less than a half mile. Shoals and tidal surges further complicated navigation, demanding caution from the captains of larger ships. Thus, Barrie contented himself with blockading the Patuxent until he could gather sufficient shallow-draft, oar-driven boats to confront Barney's potent little fleet.

By 7 June, the frigate Loire , the brig Jaseur , and 15 barges had joined Barrie, who now felt strong enough to enter the Patuxent. The Americans sought refuge in St. Leonard's Creek, protected by shoals that prevented the larger British vessels from closing to artillery range. Twice Barrie tried to attack with his barges alone, but each time he was driven back by superior American firepower.

On the 10th, Barrie tried again. Two schooners, 21 barges, and a floating battery worked their way up St. Leonard's Creek, with 700 Royal Marines distributed among the boats. American gunnery checked the British advance, but Barney had bigger plans this round. As the British boats edged back toward the protection of their larger ships, Barney launched a counterattack, pushing the enemy into the Patuxent. The St. Lawrence , Jaseur , and Loire , which had been waiting impotently in navigable water, now sought to escape the American barges. In the narrow waters the larger ships had difficulty in either disengaging or bringing their guns to bear. The St. Lawrence grounded on shoals, and Barney's gunners pounded her until the Jaseur and Loire were able to render assistance. When Barrie landed his Marines, Barney wisely withdrew up St. Leonard's Creek before the British could cut off his retreat. He was satisfied, Barney reported the next day, that he "must have done them considerable damage." 2

Barrie broke off any further attempts to attack the Americans in their lair. Yet Barney remained trapped and could do little to influence events in the Chesapeake. In fact, the British launched a series of raids upriver on the Patuxent while keeping an eye on the Americans. After more than two weeks of inactivity, Barney determined to fight his way out on 26 June.

The Loire and a 32-gun frigate, the Narcissus , rode at anchor near the mouth of St. Leonard's Creek, accompanied by a number of smaller craft. Either of the ships boasted more large guns than Barney had in his entire flotilla, but the American captain had no intention of engaging in a prolonged firefight; instead Barney lightened and streamlined his barges, removing the masts to improve both speed and maneuverability. Suitably modified, Barney's flotilla fell on the Loire and Narcissus in turn. The Americans managed to hole the Loire several times and damage her rigging, while also putting a few rounds into the Narcissus , but Barney's primary goal was escape. "It would have been an act of madness," he wrote later, to try to take on the British fleet. 3 He disengaged as quickly as he could, his sweating men rowing upriver while the surprised British acted defensively, perhaps overly cautious in facing this troublesome little flotilla once more. Even so, two American barges were sunk with the loss of 11 men.

The rest of the fleet made its way to Benedict, three miles up the Patuxent and 25 miles from Washington. Unmolested by the British, the sailors refitted their boats while Barney reported to Secretary Jones for orders. He received only a vague directive to defend the approaches to the capital.

After moving the flotilla farther upriver to Nottingham and posting scouts near the mouth of the Patuxent, Barney settled down to await developments. Though he would have preferred to be out on the Chesapeake, Barney's flotilla served as both an advance guard and as a miniature fleet-in-being. He kept a considerable slice of the British fleet tied down at the mouth of the river, and if the British chose the Patuxent as the route to attack the capital—thereby avoiding the forts and batteries protecting the Potomac—they would first have to eliminate his flotilla to secure British communications. An attack on Barney's boats would provide ample warning to General William Winder, who commanded the American forces defending Washington.

On 16 August, American scouts sighted an enemy convoy transporting 5,000 British soldiers, veterans who had fought and bested Napoleon's forces during the Peninsular War. The troops landed at Benedict on the 19th. Barney retired as far north as he could, to Pig Point, where the Patuxent becomes little more than a stream. That marked the end of the line for the mosquito fleet; Barney ordered the remaining vessels destroyed, blowing them to bits in the face of the pursuing British. Loaded down with supplies and manhandling five salvaged cannon, the American sailors marched westward from the smoldering wreckage.

Last Stand at Bladensburg

At Wood Yard, Maryland, Barney met Secretary Jones, who had brought forward 80 Marines from the Washington Navy Yard. Handing the men over to Barney, Jones ordered him to link up with General Winder's army and join in the defense of the capital.

Winder had perhaps 7,000 men at his disposal, mostly militia from Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. The force varied wildly in quality, training, and enthusiasm, from Barney's roughly 600 veteran flotillamen and Marines to nervous militiamen in civilian attire. Winder couldn't decide whether the British would head directly for the city, take a roundabout route through Bladensburg, or perhaps even make a dash for Baltimore instead. Unable to delegate responsibility, with only a rudimentary staff, Winder made and unmade plans, shuffled units around, and wore himself as thin as his straggling army. Things were not improved by the presence of President James Madison and his Cabinet, "to whose 'officious but well-intentioned information and advice' the general was compelled to listen," wrote historian Benton J. Lossing. 4 Command, control, and logistics broke down as units marched, countermarched, skirmished, and spent night after night under arms responding to phantom alarms. All the while, the British, commanded by Major General Robert Ross, moved closer to Washington, slowed more by August heat than by skittish Americans.

Barney and his men, caught up in the intermittent retreat and unsure of their orders, eventually moved back across the Eastern Branch (present-day Anacostia River) to the Washington Navy Yard late on 23 August. General Winder found them there the next morning and posted them to defend a nearby bridge. By 1100, however, Winder learned that the British had veered northward, apparently headed farther upstream, where the river was fordable. He ordered the rest of the army to concentrate at Bladensburg, leaving a fuming Barney behind.

But not for long. Punctilious to a fault over matters of seniority and military honor, Barney felt no compunction about disregarding the chain of command when it suited him. When President Madison happened by in a carriage, Barney pointed out that "a midshipman with half a dozen men would be able to prevent the enemy from crossing the bridge," and opined that he would be more useful at Bladensburg. 5 Madison agreed and ordered Barney to move north.

After riding ahead to scout out the situation, Barney arrived on the battlefield at the same time that various American units appeared, marching in from all directions. One unit had come 16 miles from Annapolis that morning, double-timing the last four miles to narrowly avoid being cut off by the British advance guard. Many units had received their orders at the last moment, abandoning their breakfasts to force-march miles to beat the British to Bladensburg. All left a trail of stragglers. Winder desperately tried to sort out his forces as they arrived. In the end, the American army formed up into three lines: one close by the Eastern Branch covering the bridge, a second supporting the first some 400 yards back, and a third manning the best defensive ground nearly a mile from the branch in front of a wooded ravine.

Barney, whose men had hustled six miles that day, hauling their artillery by hand, was ordered to occupy the center of the third line. The commodore placed his cannon so that they could sweep the road to Washington, with the remainder of his Marines and flotillamen formed up to support the guns. Barney must have been satisfied with his position. The ravine to his front would disorder any enemy attack from that direction, while the terrain offered a clear field of fire. To his right, on higher ground, a regiment of Maryland militiamen from Annapolis protected his flank, and another regiment from the District secured his left. Altogether the third line boasted almost 2,000 men, well-placed to repel the enemy at the end of an uphill slog from the Eastern Branch.

Unfortunately, even as Barney's flotillamen were emplacing their guns and readying their ammunition, the American army was in the initial stages of an epic rout that would become known as the "Bladensburg Races."

Things started off well enough. The first British rush across the bridge was knocked back by artillery and small-arms fire from the front line, but the veteran enemy was not long deterred by a few battalions of militia. The British regrouped and crossed under intense fire. The weak American first line could not hold, and the second line was too far back to offer any meaningful support. They were close enough, however, to observe the first line break.

Winder ordered part of the second line to move forward, but the first line was already streaming back, and the counterattacking units paused in confusion. Meanwhile, British skirmishers banged away sharply and cannonballs and Congreve rockets began to fall among the defenders as enemy artillery opened up on the second line. Beyond the skirmishers, British infantry continued to cross the bridge and form up for an attack. The inexperienced Americans—hot, tired, starving, and thirsty, many under fire for the first time—grew increasingly restive. Despite their greenness, they could sense the uncertainty of their commanders, and they knew they were facing some of the finest soldiers in the world. As soon as the British resumed their advance, half of the troops were in full flight, many never having fired their weapons. In despair, Winder ordered the remainder of his men to quit the field.

In less than an hour, nearly two-thirds of the American army had evaporated. Only the third line remained, anchored on Barney's guns. The British surged uphill, clambered across the ravine separating them from the third line, and struggled to reform under the muzzles of Barney's guns. Once, twice, three times, the British wilted under a hail of musket balls and grapeshot. After the final failed attempt to overrun the battery stalled 50 yards in front of the Marine line, Barney counterattacked with his flotillamen, driving the British back into the ravine with cries of "Board 'em, board 'em!" 6

In spite of their ferocity, the gallant flotillamen and Marines could not hold out forever. The regiment on their left offered support for a time, but someone ordered them to withdraw and they melted into the general rout. On Barney's right, despite a commanding position on high ground, the Annapolis militiamen let off a couple of ragged volleys, then, duty discharged, the regiment disintegrated. At some point, the teamsters with Barney's ammunition wagons drove off with his resupply. Alone on the battlefield, the seamen grimly continued to fire.

General Ross wisely allowed his artillery and skirmishers to engage the defenders, while his wings enveloped Barney on both flanks. Dozens of Marines and flotillamen were killed or wounded, including Barney himself, a bullet buried deep in his thigh. Just before his escape route was completely closed off, Commodore Barney ordered a retreat. A few American gunners and Marines held the line while the rest ran a gauntlet of fire to make their way back to the capital. The British closed in on the battery, and after a final flurry of bayonets and clubbed muskets, the Battle of Bladensburg was over.

Admiral Cockburn and General Ross soon came upon Barney where he had fallen. The two exchanged kind words with the commodore, inquiring after his wound. "I am really very glad to see you, Commodore," General Ross said at last.

"I am sorry I can not return the compliment, General," said Barney.

Ross smiled and turned to Cockburn. "I told you it was the Flotilla men."

"Yes," Cockburn said, "you were right, though I could not believe you—they have given us the only fighting we have had." 7 The admiral immediately paroled Barney and ensured the wounded commodore was given proper medical attention. Then he and Ross returned to their men and the march on Washington. Before the day was out, their army would be putting the torch to large parts of the capital.

A Redeemed Reputation, But a Faded Memory

Bladensburg was the last action of Barney's career. The War of 1812 ended as he convalesced, and Barney retired to his farm at Elkridge, Maryland, with a ceremonial sword from the people of Washington and the thanks of several state legislatures for his service. Restless as ever, he turned his attention to the frontier, purchasing land in Kentucky. In 1818 he headed west, but the bullet from Bladensburg killed him before he reached his new home; he died in Pittsburgh of complications from the troublesome wound.

During the ensuing decades, Barney's star faded, unlike other heroes of his era such as John Paul Jones, Stephen Decatur, and Oliver Hazard Perry—a curious circumstance that remains something of a mystery. He had tied up a considerable part of the British fleet, dealt it a series of blows, and practically alone delayed the army that beat Napoleon's troops for several hours before the nation's capital. Yet he did so in a losing campaign that marked the nadir of American fortunes during the War of 1812. Perhaps that may explain his record receding from our collective memory, for his brightest moment came during a young country's darkest hour.



1. James Madison Papers, Ser. 1, Vol. 52, No. 73; available at http://mason.gmu.edu/~chughes3/defense1document.html .

2. John Brannan, Official Letters of the Military and Naval Officers of the United States During the War with Great Britain (Washington: Way & Gideon, 1823), p. 340.

3. Louis A. Norton, Joshua Barney (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000), p. 177.

4. Benson J. Lossing, The Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1868), p. 923.

5. Mary Barney, Biographical Memoir of the Late Commodore Joshua Barney (Boston: Gray and Bowen, 1832), p. 264.

6. Anthony Pitch, The Burning of Washington (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998), p. 82.

7. Mary Barney, Biographical Memoir , p. 267.

 

 
 

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