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The Chesapeake Flotilla and Joshua Barney

Commodore Joshua Barney
Commodore Joshua Barney was an officer in the Continental Navy who impressed those he served with and is most famous for having scuttled his fleet rather than having the British capture them. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
On July 4, 1813, Joshua Barney, an American Revolutionary War naval hero, proposed a plan to the Secretary of the Navy, William Jones, to build, purchase, outfit, man, and command a flying squadron of 20 barges to defend the Chesapeake Bay from British incursions.

While this flotilla’s engagements at Cedar Point and St. Leonard’s Creek during June 1814 did not stop the invading forces, their battles did divert British resources and bought extra time for Washington and Baltimore to bolster their defenses. Faced with imminent capture, the flotilla men scuttled their vessels at Pig Point, Maryland in August 1814, but valiantly joined the militia at Bladensburg in a last ditch effort to save Washington from capture.

Barney’s detailed plan, entitled “The Defense of Chesapeake Bay” was complete with sketches of the vessels he suggested be built. He proposed a flotilla of inexpensive, easy to construct, shallow-draft row-galleys, which could patrol the entire Bay and take the offensive against the British. The enemy was using row barges to mount their own attacks; the frigates and ships-of-the-line being too large to get close to land. Secretary Jones accepted the plan and appointed Barney “Acting Master Commandant” answerable to Washington, not to the Navy.

In his report of the scuttling of the flotilla on August 22, 1814, the tactical commander, Admiral Sir George Cockburn wrote:

"as we opened the reach above Pig Point, I plainly discovered Commodore Barney's broad pendant in the headmost vessel, a large sloop and the remainder of the flotilla extending in a long line stern of her. Our boats now advanced towards them as rapidly as possible, but on nearing them, we observed the sloop bearing the broad pendant to be on fire, and she very soon afterwards blew up. I now saw clearly that they were all abandoned and on fire with trains to their magazines, and out of the seventeen vessels which composed this formidable and so much vaunted flotilla sixteen were in quick succession blown to atoms, and the seventeenth, in which the fire had not taken, was captured.”