Most naval history fans have heard of Oliver Hazard Perry, Thomas Macdonough and James Lawrence (“Don’t give up the ship!”) and the big battles waged against the British on the Great Lakes in the War of 1812. But who has heard of Capt. Joshua Barney, who led the Chesapeake Flotilla during the War of 1812? A seasoned Navy veteran of the American Revolution, Captain Barney was responsible for identifying the weaknesses in the Royal Navy’s armada that was terrorizing Maryland and Virginia at the time.
In Flotilla: The Patuxent Naval Campaign in the War of 1812, author and marine archaeologist Donald G. Shomette describes the Chesapeake Bay as a collection of estuaries and vast array of navigable waters that allowed the British to stretch deep into the U.S. homeland – en route to Washington, D.C. (and the eventual burning of the nation’s capital). In a lecture at the Navy Memorial this week, Shomette recounted how the Brits’ deep-draft ships hindered their mobility in the shallow Chesapeake and they had to rely on barges to reach the more shallow creeks and ponds and to ferry their troops ashore and to reach the shallow rivers and creeks.
To combat this threat, Captain Barney successfully convinced the secretary of the Navy at the time to build a heavily-armed, shallow-draft fleet of row galleys (or barges) that could nimbly out-maneuver the British in these shallow waters. It was a desperate move, as the Royal Navy’s assets far outnumbered the Americans’. (Estimates were that the mighty Royal Navy had more than 1,000 ships of war and the Americans had approximately 16 at the onset of the War of 1812.)
The flotilla that Captain Barney built was comprised of 26 ships and approximately 500 sailors. They valiantly tried to defend the massive coastline and harbors leading farther inland. He was successful in eliciting a singular victory at St. Leonard’s Creek and he made a heroic effort at Bladensburg in August 1814. But, without ancillary support and a choreography between land and sea forces, Captain Barney’s flotilla was doomed.
The Chesapeake campaign was a diversionary one, as the stakes were much higher in the Great Lakes. But, it served a purpose, hindering the British forces’ advance to Washington. And author Shomette highlights the lesson that Captain Barney’s service and sacrifice illuminated: defending a coastline with a brown-water maritime force is not sufficient. A blue-water force is necessary to defend against commensurate enemy forces determined to invade our shores.
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