JOSHUA BARNEY was happiest, as he once put it, when faced with “the point of the bayonet or the cannon’s mouth.” But in 1813, as his nation entered its second year of war with Great Britain, the longtime sea captain commanded neither ship nor sailors. Instead, he strode his wife’s farm in Maryland in the unaccustomed role of gentleman farmer.
In the War of 1812’s darkest hour, President Madison turned to a once forgotten sailor to defend Washington
Barney was a handsome man, with a face weathered by the sea and sparkling eyes that, according to one observer, were “full, liquid, and…peculiarly expressive.” He had led a grand life and could boast of a large circle of influential friends on both sides of the Atlantic, having known Ben Franklin, Marie Antoinette, James Monroe, and Dolley Madison, among others. His adventures had begun when he was 12 and signed on as a hand on a Chesapeake Bay pilot boat; at 15, he became the skipper of a merchantman when its captain (Barney’s brother-in-law) died at sea. Early in the Revolutionary War, he was commissioned a lieutenant in the infant Continental Navy. Over the next eight years he by turns sailed on American frigates and brigs, captained privateers, and four times found himself a British prisoner of war. In the 1790s, during France’s series of wars with the British, he donned a French navy uniform as capitaine de vaisseau du premier, once more ready to fight the redcoats he had come to hate.
More recently, following the American declaration of war on June 18, 1812, the 53-year-old had secured Privateer Commission Number One from President James Madison. Funded by Baltimore merchants, he outfitted the 206-ton, 98-foot schooner Rossie. With a hundred-man crew, Barney sailed the waters off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, then the Caribbean, eluding Royal Navy warships to harass British commerce. In three months, the speedy Rossie took some 20 vessels and 217 prisoners while capturing or destroying 3,698 tons of goods worth an estimated $1.5 million.
On his return home, though Barney had hoped for a navy commission, the winter of 1813 brought him none, in part because other navy veterans claimed more years of service. But Barney’s military mind didn’t remain idle. On the Fourth of July in 1813, he dispatched to Washington a proposal for the defense of the Chesapeake Bay region, complete with pen-and-ink sketches in his own hand. Thanks to that plan, Barney would soon find himself back in uniform and ready to fight. Indeed, when the British marched on Washington in 1814, he was to lead a desperate stand in an attempt to save his nation’s capital—and earn the admiration of friend and foe alike.
BARNEY’S PLAN for defending the Chesapeake region was thorough. He described a newfangled flotilla 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.” Knowing that American coffers were at a low ebb, he cited the modest cost; as many as 50 such barges, Barney promised, “will not cost more than One half the price of One frigate.” His battle strategy seemed sound too: When deployed with a few swift schooners and a floating battery armed with cannons, the flotilla of vessels could harass the British force in the area, which already numbered 11 ships of the line, 33 frigates, and 38 sloops of war, along with support ships.
Barney asserted that, despite being vastly overmanned, the “flying squadron” could strike and then quickly flee and disappear into the bay’s shadowy shallows, where the bigger ships could not follow.
The secretary of the navy, William Jones, was intrigued by the bold plan. In short order, Acting Master Commandant Joshua Barney was supervising the construction of his new flotilla, and by spring 1814, the ships were taking shape, with a few modifications to Barney’s design. After an April shakedown cruise, the bulwarks were raised eight inches to prevent the barges from shipping water in rough seas. The 24-pound cannons specified for the five-ton vessels proved too heavy, so the galleys were refitted with 12-pounders.
The work was completed none too soon: The Royal Navy, back from winter quarters in Bermuda, was reported to be constructing fortifications on islands in the Chesapeake. “I am anxious to be at them,” Barney admitted before his little fleet sailed south from Baltimore on May 24.
Barney’s flagship was the five-gun cutter Scorpion, which led a force of 13 barges, 2 gunboats, 1 galley, and a lookout boat. The enemy, under the command of Rear Admiral George Cockburn, was said to be lying off Watts Island, in the southern part of the bay near Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Cockburn had made himself notorious the previous summer, when his forces laid waste to shipping and coastal towns in the region. Already this season the admiral had rattled the nerves of locals by enabling the escape of many slaves. Fears of a slave insurrection hung in the air as the freedmen were issued British uniforms and weapons upon enlisting in the newly formed black Colonial Corps of Marines.
Finally, on June 1, Barney got his long-sought opportunity. Near Point Lookout, north of Watts Island on the bay’s western shore, Barney’s men spotted a pair of becalmed British ships, a brig and a 14-gun schooner, HMS St. Lawrence. Barney ordered all sails and oars deployed, and he closed rapidly on the two British vessels—only to have HMS Dragon sail into view. A towering 74-gun double-decker, the Dragon dwarfed the trees on a nearby island. Barney could tell in an instant that his force was overmatched here in open waters. If his tiny armada wished to fight another day, it must retire.
Barney came about and, with the enemy in pursuit, quickly retreated into the mouth of the Patuxent River, which fed into the bay north of Point Lookout. The flotilla’s escape proved a near thing. A sudden squall came up (“bad for my boats,” Barney reported), and some of his barges came about to exchange fire with the leading British vessels and protect one of the slower gunboats, which carried much of the flotilla’s supplies. The skirmish was brief and, to Barney’s satisfaction, his flying squadron proved true to its name, escaping at speed after harassing the enemy.
Once moored in the river’s shallow waters out of range of enemy guns, Barney contemplated a British weapon that had fallen into his hands. It was a rocket, consisting of a sheet-iron tube about a foot long and four inches in diameter. Welded to one end of the tube was an incendiary warhead that had failed to explode when the rocket hit one of his ships. The other end of the tube had been packed with propellant—perhaps
10 pounds of powder—and the iron cylinder was attached by iron bands to a 15-foot shaft of softwood.
Barney was concerned that this weapon represented a serious new threat: “They can be thrown further than we can our shot,” he reported to Jones, “and [I] conclude from this Essay, this will be their mode of Warfare.”
While Barney’s flotilla took refuge in a narrow Patuxent waterway known as St. Leonard’s Creek, the British fleet seemed to grow larger by the day. Two warships blocked his exit from the creek, and it was clear the British were determined to dislodge Barney and his barges. Both sides knew this cat-and-mouse game favored the Royal Navy. Barney could do little as British vessels sailed quite unmolested past the mouth of St. Leonard’s, carrying off tobacco, livestock, slaves, household furniture, and other captured goods. From British deserters he learned that reinforcements, with troops in the thousands, were expected from the British base at Bermuda.
At daybreak on June 26, Barney made his move. Under the cover of cannon fire provided by two 18-pound long guns brought overland by the American infantry and set atop a hill overlooking the river, Barney’s men stroked around a bend in the creek. With the British ships in view, the Americans commenced firing, and balls from Barney’s guns thudded into the British bulwarks. Others from the infantry’s long guns fell from the sky into the waters around the British ships. Caught unawares, the enemy scrambled and began to fire back. By 6 o’clock, the Royal Navy’s superior firepower persuaded Barney that he was outgunned again. But before he could return to the protected waters of St. Leonard’s Creek, Barney saw that the British, almost as one, “began to move and made sail down the river,” as he later wrote to his brother Louis. A stunned Barney realized that it was the British who were in retreat, making his ships “Masters of the field.” One of the frigates had four pumps at work—certainly the American guns had inflicted damage—and the enemy ships soon disappeared from sight.
ALTHOUGH BARNEY’S small triumph would be his last naval victory, it was only a prelude to his most memorable day in uniform. Weeks later, on the morning of August 24, 1814, he met with Secretary of War John Armstrong Jr. and President Madison near a bridge over the Eastern Branch River (the eastern branch of the Potomac River, now called the Anacostia). This was one of the main approaches to Washington from the east. The city itself was so close that the Capitol was visible in the distance.
Barney’s role in the war had changed. Although his harrying of the Royal Navy had won him Admiral Cockburn’s grudging respect (the British commander termed Barney’s force the “formidable and So much Vaunted Flotilla”), his squadron, utterly overmatched, had been scuttled on Jones’s orders. No one in Washington wanted to have his useful ships fall into British hands.
Barney’s seamen and Marines had come ashore and now guarded the Eastern Branch bridge with carriage guns offloaded from the barges. British forces had landed too. Just the day before, Secretary of State James Monroe, reconnoitering from the back of a horse, had hurriedly scribbled a dispatch to Mr. Madison: “The enemy are in full march for Washington.” The invaders’ intended route had since become clear: As Barney, Madison, and Armstrong conferred, they were executing a quick march on the town of Bladensburg, where there was another river crossing into Washington.
The old warrior Barney, with the point of enemy attack just seven miles distant, sensed his ire rising. He felt fixed to the spot, watching over a bridge that apparently wouldn’t see much action. Eager to get into the thick of things, he ignored the chain of command and pled his case directly to the president. It made no sense for him to be so far away, “with five hundred of the precious few fighting men,” he advised the president.
Madison was listening.
The commodore argued that he and his men were being asked to guard a bridge, a task that “any damned corporal can better do with five.” His experienced artillerymen, he insisted, would be of far greater use at Bladensburg.
Barney’s impassioned argument prevailed. Madison quickly approved a new plan. A few sailors were detailed to remain at the Eastern Branch bridge with two guns, and Barney rode off at speed on his bay horse, bound for Bladensburg.
THE BATTLE AT BLADENSBURG began well for the United States forces. A motley group of militiamen, along with a few regular soldiers, had been arranged on sloping ground on the western bank of the Eastern Branch, overlooking Bladensburg on the opposite side. The Americans had watched the British force of some 5,000 men march into the town. When the enemy charged across Bladensburg’s bridge at 1 p.m., American fire had proved quick and well directed, forcing them to withdraw and seek shelter in the town.
Barney and his men anchored the third line of defense. As reports of the first fighting were heard, they worked in haste to set their cannons, two 18-pounders and three 12-pounders. Barney had chosen a knoll perhaps a quarter mile from the bridge, a rise from which he could sight his guns along the length of the Washington Road, which led from Bladensburg to the city. Before him were arranged other gun batteries and several thousand militiamen; flanking him were another gun emplacement and more militiamen. Though not at the vanguard, his position was at an important vortex: If the British broke through the forward defenses, they would have to pass through him to attack Washington.
A few minutes after the first British wave had been repulsed, a second attacked at double-quick time. Though American guns dropped almost an entire company to the deck of the narrow bridge, this time the British did not retreat. As one British subaltern reported, “It was not without trampling upon many of their dead and dying comrades, that the light brigade established itself on the opposite side of the stream.”
Amid the din of rifle reports and the boom of cannons, a less familiar sound, the banshee wail of rockets, could be heard. Just as Barney had predicted, the iron-tube contraption his men encountered on the Chesapeake had become a key weapon in the British arsenal.
At first, the rockets whooshed over the American defenders, but as more infantrymen surged over the bridge, the rocketeers began to find their range. The British soon rushed the first line of American defenders, bayonets bared; without bayonets themselves, riflemen from Baltimore turned and ran. With the rockets now exploding immediately overhead and showering sparks on the ranks of rookie soldiers—just a few days earlier most of the militiamen had been in their fields or shops—two regiments in the second line of defense broke ranks in panic.
Barney and his sailors and Marines had barely unlimbered their guns when the first retreating Americans streamed toward them. Though he assumed the militiamen would halt and re-form near his position, he was soon disappointed. The American front lines, once a strategic array of almost 7,000 men, evacuated in barely an hour, an unruly mob dispersing in utter disorder.
Unlike the army flooding past, Barney and his men stood firm in the face of the oncoming British and their infernal rockets. They had faced both on St. Leonard’s Creek. With guns silent, they waited until “the enemy made his appearance on the main road, in force,” he later reported to Secretary Jones.
By 2 o’clock, the British were marching toward Barney’s position. But at the sight of Barney’s guns, they halted. Barney dismounted and sighted the guns himself before climbing back into the saddle. His men still held their fire.
With the order given to resume the march, the British rocketeers again fired at the Americans. In return, Barney ordered his artillerists to open fire. A full play of round and grapeshot had the desired effect, clearing the road of enemy soldiers. The British ranks shortly re-formed, but two more advances toward the American gun emplacement were met with more grape and canister. The road to Washington was soon strewn with dead and wounded redcoats.
The British determined to take another line of attack, leaving the road to launch a flanking action. Led by Marines, the Americans checked and, for a time, even drove back the British assault, delaying their progress for nearly half an hour. But Barney could see the odds were against him: “By this time not a vestige of the American army remained, except a body of five or six hundred, posed on a height on my right, from whom I expected much support.”
The British tried yet another tactic, relying upon sharpshooters in advance of the main body of troops while dispatching 200 or 300 men toward the remaining Americans on the hill. Barney’s horse was shot from beneath him. As he watched, to his “great mortification” the American troops to his starboard side “made no resistance, giving a fire or two, and retired.”
He was outflanked. The desertion of their position by his own countrymen left one of the sailors muttering contemptuously that the militiamen “ran like sheep chased by dogs.”
Barney and his men fought on, despite having “the whole army of the enemy to contend with.” More than a dozen of their own lay dead and wounded, but Barney’s crewmen kept firing.
Several of his best officers were already among the casualties when Barney himself took a musket ball to the thigh. For a time, he managed to remain upright and in command, but with the flow of blood from his wound unstanched, he weakened. The fight began to seem truly hopeless. The supply of ammunition was almost exhausted.
Barney told his men they must give up the fight and ordered the guns spiked. But since he was too weak to ride or even stand, they refused to leave him. When he ordered them to quit the field, his men laid him on the ground a short distance from the battery and made good their retreat. One officer remained at his side, but Barney, with his guns silenced and his men retired from the battlefield, resigned himself to becoming, once again, a British prisoner of war.
AS THE BRITISH swarmed over the American position, the commodore lay prostrate and bleeding in the bushes to one side of the thoroughfare. When he was discovered, Admiral Cockburn was quickly summoned, along with the commander of the British land forces, Major General Robert Ross. Though in pain and weakened by loss of blood, Barney offered the first salvo.
“Well, Admiral,” he said to Cockburn, “you have got hold of me at last.”
“Do not let us speak on that subject, Commodore,” the admiral replied. “I regret to see you in this state. I hope you are not seriously hurt.” Ross, too, addressed their prisoner respectfully. “I am really very glad to see you, Commodore,” he said.
“I am sorry I cannot return you the compliment, General,” was Barney’s retort.
At that, Ross turned to Cockburn. “I told you it was the flotilla man.” Cockburn smiled. “Yes! You were right, though I could not believe you. They have given us the only fighting we have had.”
WITH THAT, Joshua Barney’s fighting days ended. The British, of course, went on from Bladensburg to enter Washington and burn the White House and other buildings. The wounded Barney, paroled by the British, convalesced at his home in Elkridge, Maryland.
When the war ended a few months later with the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent in February 1815, Barney was honorably discharged. The city of Washington recognized his service with a presentation sword, citing his gallantry and conduct at Bladensburg. On a day notable for the Americans’ lack of courage, he had stood bravely in defense of the nation’s capital.
Another memento of the battle appears to have caused his death. The doctors at Bladensburg had been unable to remove the bullet that penetrated his thigh; it caused permanent damage, leaving the retired warrior with a persistent limp and periodic pain.
On December 1, 1818, four years after his last battle, Barney died, most probably from a thrombosis, a delayed consequence of the bullet wound. Following the autopsy, the lead slug was presented to his son, a reminder that his father was a man who was happiest when at war.
Writer and historian Hugh Howard is the author of Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War (Bloomsbury).
Originally published in the Summer 2012 issue of MHQ.