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Joshua Barney’s Defense Proposal, 4 July 1813


War came to the Chesapeake Bay slowly, but when it did, it came with a vengeance. When the U.S. declared war in June 1812, the Admiralty, preoccupied with the war in Europe, decided to combine five stations (Newfoundland, Halifax, Bermuda, Leeward Islands and Jamaica) into the North American Station and place Admiral Sir John B. Warren in command. Hampered by a lack of ships, an extensive coast to blockade, and his own lethargy, Warren accomplished little early in the war. Responding to his pleas for more resources, the Admiralty sent Rear Admiral George Cockburn to rejuvenate the station. His arrival in the Chesapeake Bay in March 1813 sparked a six-month rampage by the Royal Navy, from Norfolk to Havre de Grace, that went unchallenged, except for an engagement at Craney Island, Virginia, in June.

The Navy Department lacked sufficient ships to engage the enemy in blue-water battles and to defend the coast, because of a shortsighted naval policy, originating in Jefferson’s administration, which relied on gunboats instead of larger vessels. During the spring of 1813, Secretary of the Navy William Jones relied on “a cheap prompt and efficient temporary force”1 composed of a gunboat and four leased schooners. This small force proved ineffective against the British fleet.


Joshua Barney2 had experienced the same type of coastal depredations by the British during the American Revolution as the Chesapeake Bay residents were experiencing in 1813. In that earlier conflict, Barney, as a Continental Navy officer, challenged the enemy’s privateers who were preying on merchant ships along the Delaware/Pennsylvania coast. Barney recognized, however, that in this latest war with the British, the American government lacked the resources to defend its coastline.


This citizen-sailor proposed a plan in July 1813 to employ twenty barges or row-galleys as a “flying Squadron” against the next anticipated round of British incursions in 1814. This mosquito fleet would be swift for quick maneuvers and escapes, cheap to establish compared to outfitting larger vessels, and menacing. Secretary Jones eagerly embraced Barney’s plan and appointed him to superintend the outfitting of the flotilla.

[Credits for images: John B. Warren, George Cockburn, William Jones. Naval Historical Center.]

1William Jones to James Madison, 17 Apr. 1813, DLC, James Madison Papers, Ser. I, Vol. 51, No. 97.

2For background on Barney’s earlier career and his successful cruise on the privateer Rossie, see William S. Dudley, The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History. Vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1985), 248–60.

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