- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 26, 2009

By Donald G. Shomette
Johns Hopkins University Press, $38, 357 pages, illus.

As the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 approaches, Donald Shomette’s book, updated from a similar work published by him in 1981, is a most appropriate addition to the literature. The War of 1812 is not well known to most Americans. A few may mention Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans, recall the burning of Washington or the great frigate battles such as between Constitution and Guerriere and even the Battle of Lake Erie where Commodore Perry won a stunning victory. What is not so well known is the American invasion of Canada and the British invasion of the Chesapeake leading to the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore and that burning of Washington.

Even before war was declared on Great Britain, American War Hawks cried out for the taking of Canada. With Britain preoccupied with war against Napoleon it was thought that Canada would be easy pickings. That it was not is another story, but without ground troops to thwart the Americans and because of their priorities on the Continent, the British devised a plan to hit the Americans in their soft underbelly: the Chesapeake Bay.

Throughout 1813, Royal Navy warships cruised the bay at will, wreaking havoc on towns and plantations on both coasts. Often operating from a base they established on Tangier Island, they ranged from Hampton Roads to Head of Elk. Washington, Annapolis and Baltimore lay open to the invaders. Shore defenses and militia were scarce and the capable frigates of the U.S. Navy were either sailing elsewhere on the high seas, bottled up by British blockade or, in any case, so few that they were not well-suited to do battle with the large number of Royal Navy ships present. In addition, Marylanders, Southern Marylanders especially, were split as to whether or not the war was a good idea in the first place and a majority supported or withheld their support, or even worked with the enemy. As a result, bay commerce virtually ceased and British Marines and sailors fired towns, plantations and looted tobacco stores and freed slaves at will. The Chesapeake economy was in shambles.

Meanwhile, Joshua Barney, a veteran of both Navy service in the Revolution and privateering early in the War of 1812, devised a plan. After suitable bureaucratic delay, the secretary of the Navy authorized Barney to build a small fleet of oar-propelled barges, armed fore and aft with cannons and small arms and with draft suitable for the shallow waters of the Bay. Appointed commodore of the newly designated Chesapeake Flotilla, Barney oversaw the building of his fleet, recruited men and acquired guns and stores, none of the effort easy. He was finally able to sail from Baltimore in 1814.

His fleet was a smaller than he really wanted, but, he set sail anyway. Nature confounded his movements with high winds and heavy seas, and by the time he got to the mouth of the Potomac, he discovered the British were already there, in force. Returning north he entered the Patuxent and found haven in St. Leonard’s Creek. There, in a notable effort he battled the Royal Navy to a draw forcing them to bypass St. Leonard’s. Unfortunately, once Barney was bottled up there was no hindrance to the British moving up the Patuxent as far as Lower Marlboro, continuing with their looting and destruction along the way. Finally, when the British withdrew to offload and replenish, they left only a couple of ships to keep Barney penned in. Very soon thereafter, with the help of a detachment of U.S. Marines, he executed a brilliant plan, allowing his small fleet of barges and all hands to escape and move north on the Patuxent.

Though chagrined at allowing Barney to escape their trap, the British continued to range the whole Bay and its tributaries at will, which they did with vengeance and terror. With the arrival of troops who had fought with Wellington, their efforts spread to include the lower Potomac. Only Barney’s Chesapeake Flotilla ensconced at Lower Marlboro kept them from further operations in that direction.

The federal government was at a loss as to what to do. Most federal troops were in the north, the militias were totally ineffective and Barney was bottled up in the northern reaches of the Patuxent. Washington, Annapolis and Baltimore all lay open to attack and invasion. In the end, the U.S. government dithered and military leadership vacillated. After a feint up the Potomac, the British forces ascended the Patuxent. Facing overwhelming numbers, Barney withdrew even further north. When the British landed at Nottingham, a place no longer on the maps but upstream from Lower Marlboro, Barney was essentially bypassed and to avoid capture of his barges, he blew them up. That didn’t end his war, however. He moved overland with his men and his guns to Upper Marlboro and then to Bladensburg where his small force proved to be one of the more effective fighting units. Nevertheless, the Battle of Bladensburg was a stunning defeat for the poorly led United States forces, opening the way for an easy march to Washington.

Once Washington burned, the British moved back to their ships, descended the Patuxent and moved north to Baltimore. There, Fort McHenry held through the night and a national anthem was born.

Buried in Flotilla is a story of grit, determination and outright heroism on the part of Commodore Barney and his men. There’s also the story of the perfidy of the Federalists in Southern Maryland who not only opposed the war but went over to the enemy when they got the chance. That was not the last time American citizens aided and abetted an enemy, but it’s a sad chapter nevertheless. The Royal Navy hardly comes across as heroic. With overwhelming force they laid waste to countryside that had done them no harm, their excuse being that Americans had treated Canadians thusly and therefore they deserved retaliation.

Unfortunately, Flotilla tends to be a difficult read largely because of detail. Such treatment would probably delight a historian or naval archeologist (which he is), but for the nonhistorian it detracts from what could be an easily flowing story. He also, on occasion, drops in confusing information such as, The famous Battle of Kedges Straits, which is never further explained. Use of the title HBMS instead of the more usual HMS is distracting. On the other hand, for residents of the National Capital Region in general and Maryland in particular, there might be great enjoyment in reading about the land and its people the way they used to be, to note how rivers that once supported great vessels have either changed their courses or are now silted up, how towns that were once thriving ports have all but disappeared from the maps and how Prince George’s, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties, let alone the District of Columbia, were once the venues of terror and war.

Finally, this is the story of how one man almost made a difference. Joshua Barney was and is one of our pre-eminent naval heroes, ranking right along with Jones, Barry, Decatur and Farragut. Three U.S. Navy ships have been named for him; fittingly, all were hard-charging combat capable destroyers, just like Joshua Barney.

Retired Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn is president of the Naval Historical Foundation and lives in Alexandria.

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