Battle of St. Leonard’s Creek, 26 June 1814

 

While the British forces under Captain Robert Barrie and his successor, Captain Thomas Brown, attacked port towns along the Patuxent to draw Barney’s flotilla out of St. Leonard’s Creek, the American commodore plotted his escape. By 22 June the Daily National Intelligencer reported that American land forces—militia, army, and marines—were marching to the mouth of the creek to support Barney. Colonel Decius Wadsworth, the army’s Commissary General of Ordnance, commanded these forces and established a battery on a high bluff point that commanded the Patuxent River on its right and St. Leonard’s Creek on its left. A combined attack from the battery and the flotilla commenced at daybreak on 26 June. (See map, left frame.) Although there would be recriminations after the battle about the conduct of some of the battery forces, in the end, Barney rowed his way out of the creek and up the Patuxent to Benedict, to the mortification of the British commander, Thomas Brown, whose vessel lay becalmed at Point Patience.1 (See map, right frame.)

During July 1814, while Barney’s flotilla sought refuge from the British further up the Patuxent River, Admiral Cockburn sent squadrons to harass the port towns along that river and the Potomac. Cast into a defensive posture, all Barney could do was report British movements to the Navy Department and speculate where the enemy might strike next. By the beginning of August 1814, Secretary of the Navy Jones and Barney held opposing views on future strategy in the Chesapeake. Jones thought the British had exhausted their plundering forays and would blockade Barney in the Patuxent and turn elsewhere. Barney countered that the headwaters of the Patuxent were still abundant in tobacco and slaves and the capital was a strong lure.

Ultimately, the British disembarkation at Benedict on 19 August decided the flotilla’s fate, as the flotilla was the immediate target of this invading force. Recognizing that his squadron was doomed, Barney on 21 August led most of his flotillamen to join with the land forces, leaving a few of his men to set their vessels on fire on the approach of the enemy. This they did the next day in the shoal waters of the Patuxent River just beyond Pig Point, Maryland. Barney and his men were the last to hold their positions at the 24 August Battle of Bladensburg, which saw the British forces overwhelm the American defenders before pushing on to invade the capital. After his capture and release by the British, Barney continued to lobby the Navy to resurrect the flotilla, but with peace ratified on 17 February 1815, Barney spent the spring not engaging the enemy but disestablishing his flotilla. Perhaps the barge fleet was doomed from its inception but it did become a thorn for the British and provided the city of Baltimore the time to prepare for a successful defense.

[Credits for images: Engraving of composite illustration of the burning of Washington from The History of England from the Earliest Periods by M. Paul Rapin de Thoyras. National Archives.]
1For Col. Wadsworth’s account and that of Captain Samuel Miller, commander of the Marine detachment, see the Daily National Intelligencer, 29 June and 7 July 1814, respectively.

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