The War of 1812

The art of war is the same throughout; and may be illustrated as readily, though less conspicuously, by a flotilla as by an armada.
Alfred Thayer Mahan

Maritime issues of neutral shipping rights and the impressment of American seamen divided Britain and the United States during the first decade of the nineteenth century and eventually led to war in June 1812.

The Chesapeake Bayís trade and commerce and its proximity to the United States capital attracted the interest of British war planners. By March 1813, the British Admiralty had sufficient resources to send a squadron of ships, under Rear Admiral George Cockburn, to blockade the mouth of the bay and to raid the coastal ports and towns. From April to September 1813, the Royal Navy had free reign throughout the bay from Havre de Grace in the north to Norfolk in the south.

Except for the successful defense of Craney Island in Hampton Roads, the Americans experienced hit and run raiding by British seamen and marines who formed amphibious landing parties to steal and destroy tobacco, grain, and livestock along the shoreline of the bay. Respite came only in September when the bulk of the squadron sailed to Bermuda to refit and replenish. Admiral Cockburn left behind a small force to maintain the blockade of the mouth of the bay.

On July 4, 1813, Joshua Barney, an American Revolutionary War naval hero, proposed a plan to the Navy Department to build, purchase, outfit, man, and command a flying squadron of twenty barges to defend the Chesapeake Bay from further British incursions. While this flotillaís engagements at Cedar Point and St. Leonardís Creek during June 1814 did not stop the invading forces, their battles did divert British resources and bought some extra time for Washington and Baltimore to bolster their defenses. Faced with imminent capture, the flotillamen scuttled their vessels at Pig Point, Maryland, in August 1814, but valiantly joined the militia at Bladensburg in an unsuccessful last ditch effort to save Washington from capture.††

The essays and documents that follow will unfold the story of how Joshua Barney formed a motley band of men and boats to challenge a vastly superior force of the Royal Navy. (Roll over the following battle image to view barge sketch.)

[Credits for images: Burning of Havre de Grace, Maryland. Maryland Historical Society; Joshua Barney, engraving by Cephas G. Childs & Thomas Gimbrede, after a painting by Joseph Wood. Frontispiece in Mary Barney. A Biographical Memoir of the Late Commodore Joshua Barney (Boston: Gray and Bowen, 1832); Battle of St. Leonardís Creek, 10 June 1814, by Tom Freeman. Owned by Christine F. Hughes; Barney's Barge Sketch. National Archives, RG45, Area File 11 (M625, Roll No. 405)]

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