The British fleet under the command of Rear Admiral George Cockburn had received little in the way of opposition during 1813 and was able to conduct raids from tidewater Virginia to the northern end of the bay. When the bulk of his small fleet retired at the end of the year to winter in Bermuda, Commandant Joshua Barney and Secretary of the Navy William Jones were given a small window of opportunity in which to construct a defense.
“I am therefore of opinion the only defense 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” wrote Barney in July of 1813. It was a “mosquito fleet” of eighteen such vessels that hindered the British advance on Baltimore and Washington the following summer.
The British fleet vastly overpowered Barney’s squadron; but Barney could retreat to shallow rivers where Cockburn’s frigates could not follow. Furthermore his ships were magnificently manned by thoroughbred seamen who were all volunteers. After a brief engagement off Cedar Point, the flotilla retreated up the Patuxent to St. Leonard’s creek. Cockburn could not allow Barney’s fleet to harass his operation, so he sent a detachment comprised of a 74 gun frigate, a brig-sloop, and a number of his own gunships to blockade the entrance of the Creek. On June 9th, 1814 some fifteen British barges, including one armed with the Congreve rockets mentioned in the U. S. national anthem, attempted to force Barney out of his hiding spot and into the range of the 74-gun frigate. The ploy didn’t work, as the first few British barges to come within range of Barney’s guns quickly retreated back to the mouth of the creek. The next day, the British flotilla returned in force but were met with a heavy barrage. In the pursuit, Barney managed to ground the 18-gun schooner St. Lawrence.
With his initial attempts to destroy the flotilla frustrated, Admiral Cockburn settled on blockading the creek and raiding the surrounding countryside to deprive Barney of much-needed local support. The flotilla had to move quickly or disband to avoid capture. A quickly built battery commanded by Colonel Wadsworth allowed Barney’s men to force their way out of the creek on June 27th. Though he admitted “our shot was terrible” and Wadsworth commented that he had difficulty setting the battery up in time, the combined barrage commanded by the two men was enough to allow the flotilla to escape up the Patuxent with only a few gunboats lost.
Ultimately though, Barney’s flotilla was forced to disband. Towards the end of August, the British army received reinforcements and presented a greater threat to the flotilla men from the shore. In addition, Barney was under pressure from the Secretary of the Navy, who knew that reinforcing the flotilla would draw strength away from defending Baltimore and Washington. And so Barney opted to blow up his flotilla. For nearly three months, he and his men had prevented Cockburn from making the sweeping advances he had enjoyed in 1813, forcing him to expend time and effort that allowed Baltimore to mount a successful defense. Once disbanded, many of the flotilla men joined American forces defending Washington D.C. on land, and were among the last to lose their position at the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24th. Barney survived the war to become a decorated naval hero.
To find out more information, please visit these links:
Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum: (http://www.jefpat.org/1812war.html) Houses most of the artifacts of the flotilla. Stages yearly reenactments of the battle.
Video footage of an underwater archeology of one of the flotilla’s ships. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyuTenWAuIc.
For a more in-depth look at the Battle of St. Leonard’s Creek go to http://mason.gmu.edu/~chughes3/projecthome.html.
Barney, Joshua. “Barge for Use in the Defense of Chesapeake Bay.” In The War of 1812: A Documentary History: Vol. II ed. William S. Dudley. Washington D.C.; Navel Historical Center, 1992, 375.
Barney, Joshua. “Captain Joshua Barney, Flotilla Service, to Louis Barney.” In The War of 1812: A Documentary History: Vol. III ed. Michael Crawford. Washington D.C.: Navel Historical Center, 2002, 123.
Barney, Joshua. “Joshua Barney’s Defense Proposal.” In The War of 1812: A Documentary History: Vol. III ed. William S. Dudley. Washington D.C.: Navel Historical Center, 1992, 373-6.
Barney, Joshua. “Joshua Barney’s Sketch.” In The War of 1812: A Documentary History: Vol. III ed. Michael Crawford. Washington D.C.: Navel Historical Center, 2002. 87.
“Copy of a Letter From Col. Wadsworth to the Secretary of War” Daily National Intellegencer, June 29th, 1814.
Hughes, Christine F. “The only defense is a kind of barge: Joshua Barney’s Chesapeake Bay Flotilla”. last modified May 5th, 2003 http://mason.gmu.edu/~chughes3/projecthome.html
Pack, James. The Man Who Burned the White House: Admiral Sir George Cockburn 1772-1853. Hampshire: Kenneth Mason, 1987, 143.
Shomette, Donald G. Flotilla: The Patuxent Naval Campaign in the War of 1812. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.