It is a pity that Errol Flynn during the Golden Age of Hollywood never had the opportunity to do a biopic on Joshua Barney. Barney’s life was more adventuresome and filled with derring-do than the fictional characters that Flynn portrayed.
The scion of a Catholic Maryland family, Barney was born on July 6, 1759 in Baltimore, one of 14 children. At 10 he announced to his startled father that he was leaving school. His father found him a job in a counting shop, but Barney refused to spend his life chained to a desk. He left his father’s farm at 13 to seek his fortunes on the sea. He became an apprentice mate on the brig Sydney engaged in the Liverpool trade. The captain of the brig died suddenly on a voyage to Europe and the 14 year old Barney assumed command and successfully completed the voyage.
Barney, an ardent patriot, joined the newly formed Continental Navy at the beginning of the American Revolution. During the War he was involved in 35 naval engagements and the space of a blog post will only allow me to hit the most important portions of his extremely active wartime service.
A seasoned mariner at 16, Barney was appointed in February 1776 Master’s Mate aboard the ten gun converted sloop Hornet, second in command to the captain. He took part in the raid on New Providence in the Bahamas by an American fleet under Commodore Esek Hopkins on March 3, 1776. He then served on the sloop Wasp which was involved in several skirmishes against the British and captured a number of smaller ships, including the armed British brig The Tender. For his gallantry in this action Barney was promoted to Lieutenant.
In June of 1776 he was ordered to report aboard the sloop Sachem and to take charge of outfitting her. At 16, Barney was now a commissioned naval officer and second in command of the sloop. On her maiden voyage, the Sachem took the armed British merchant brig Two Friends en route to New York with a cargo of sugar and rum. In the fight Captain Isaiah Robinson of the Sachem was wounded and Barney took command, and made his way to Philadelphia with the prize. Barney and Robinson were rewarded with transfers to a larger naval warship, the 14 gun brig, Andrea Doria.
In November 1776, the Andrea Doria sailed to the Dutch controlled island of St. Eustatius, to buy arms and munitions. Upon entering port, Captain Robinson ordered that the American flag be dipped as a sign of respect to Fort Orange situated on the island. The commander of Fort Orange followed the custom of the day by ordering an 11 gun salute to the Andrea Doria. This was the first time any foreign country had acknowledged America to be a sovereign nation.
On the journey back to America, the Andrea Doria captured two British ships, the Race Horse and the Thomas. With the Andrea Doria’s crew stretched thin, Barney went aboard the Thomas and convinced, or so he thought, a number of the British tars to enlist in the Continental Navy. Before the Thomas could get back to American soil she was met by a British sloop, the 20 gun Perseus. The leader of the formerly British crew tried to start a mutiny when he saw that they were going to be recaptured by a British ship. Barney shot the man in the shoulder, and announced to the shocked sailors that he would shoot the next man who refused to man the sails. Despite his efforts, the British recaptured the Thomas. Joshua Barney was now a guest, not for the last time in his career, of his Britannic Majesty.
Barney headed home after giving his parole, a promise that he would not fight until his parole was exchanged for that of a British officer of the same rank captured by the Americans. Barney remained out of the war until October 20, 1777 when his parole was exchanged.
On November 20, 1777 the Andrea Doria and several other ships were burned by their crews to keep them from falling into British hands, during the defense of Fort Mifflin on the Delaware River, the Americans being heavily outgunned by a larger British force.
Barney was reassigned to the 28 gun frigate, Virginia. In December 1777, Barney led a detachment of men across the Schuylkill River at Valley Forge where he stopped to pay his respects to the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Forces, General George Washington.
On March 31, 1778, while attempting to run the British blockade of the Chesapeake Bay, the Virginia ran aground and was captured with all hands, including Barney, by the British.
Initially many of the crew of the Virginia were placed aboard a large British prison ship the St. Albans. Barney was the senior American naval officer among them. Eventually the prisoners were moved to New York where they were placed on prison hulks, floating rotted ships not worth repairing. Food was rancid and sparse, disease ubiquitous and often fatal. Sanitation was rudimentary and sick men often lay in their filth. After the French captured a British lieutenant, an exchange was made which resulted in Barney going free near the end of August 1778.
Barney was now 19 years old. Due to a shortage of vessels to man in the Continental Navy, he was granted leave to go home and recuperate. Instead, he agreed to skipper a merchant schooner as the Navy had no current need for his services. Sailing from Baltimore, the schooner was captured by the British after a sharp fight. Released on shore, Barney and his crew made their way back to Baltimore. As luck would have it, he encountered his old commander Isaiah Robinson on a quay in Baltimore. Robinson was fitting out a privateer, a civilian ship licensed by Congress to wage war on the British merchant fleet, and invited Barney to be his second in command, an offer that Barney quickly accepted.
In February 1779 they set sail on the 12 gun brig Pomona. In August they defeated in battle a better armed British privateer and sold her in Philadelphia. The money from his share of the sale of this prize made a small fortune for Barney.
In March Barney was commissioned a Lieutenant aboard the Continental Navy sloop Saratoga. On March 16, 1780 he married Ann Bedford. On October 11, 1780 he commanded a boarding party which captured the British privateer Charming Molly. While sailing the Charming Molly back to Philadelphia, Barney and the 8 man prize crew were captured by the British ship of the line Intrepid and the frigate Raleigh. Placed on board the ship of the line Yarmouth, Barney and other captured Americans were transported to England. The Yarmouth’s commander delighted in telling Barney and his colleagues that in England they would be tried as pirates and hung. Barney and the other Americans were kept in vile conditions throughout the voyage.
Barney and his fellow Americans were tried for treason, convicted and sentenced to Old Mill Prison. The prison was surrounded by double stone walls 25 feet apart. Not intending to spend the rest of the War locked up, Barney hired a tailor to make him a uniform resembling that of a British Naval Officer. On May 18, 1781, five months after arriving at Old Mill Prison, Barney made his escape. Over his British naval uniform Barney wore a gray greatcoat.
A tall inmate boosted Barney over the first wall. A sympathetic prison guard, who Barney had befriended, looked the other way as he opened the outer gate and let Barney slip through. Barney dropped the greatcoat and walked away. A day elapsed before the escape was discovered. Barney walked to Plymouth where he was able to meet up with Brits who sympathized with the Americans. After many harrowing adventures which read as if they came from a work of fiction, Barney escaped to France and from there he sailed to America. In March 1782 Barney arrived in Philadelphia, greeted by his wife and a new son. While recuperating in Philadelphia, Barney contemplated that there were 22 Captains and 39 Lieutenants waiting to be assigned to ships. As a result, Barney accepted a commission as a Captain in the state navy of Pennsylvania.
Taking command of the Hyder-Ally, Barney escorted a convoy of seven merchant ships to the mouth of the Delaware Bay. A British man of war, the General Monk, a captured Continental vessel previously named the General Washington, spotted the American ships and attacked. The British ship had twelve – nine pounder cannon , versus the Hyder-Ally which had nine – six pounders, which meant the General Monk had an advantage of firing broadsides with 125% more shot than the American ship.
Barney waited until the two ships were very close, then ran out his guns and fired a broadside into the General Monk. The two ships fired broadsides against each other for hours. Finally, the ships were drifting closer together. Barney ordered his gunners to load all the cannons, but instructed them wait for his order to fire. He then told the marines on board the ship to get ready to board. Barney advised his helmsman, “Follow my next orders by the rule of the contrary.”. Barney waited until his ship was about one-quarter of a boat length in front of the General Monk. The General Monk was on Barney’s starboard (right) side. Barney suddenly yelled, at the top of his lungs, “Hard a-port (turn to the left) your helm!” This command, as Barney anticipated, was easily heard on the General Monk. The captain of the General Monk ordered his helmsman, “Hard to port!”. He planned to pull in behind Barney and fire upon Barney’s undefended stern (rear) with his bow cannon. Barney’s helmsman turned the Hyder-Ally hard to starboard, and the two ships collided, their booms and rigging becoming entangled, locking them together. The two ships continued firing broadsides at each other, while they were locked together at very close range. Forward momentum drove the ships together and Barney’s marines, boarded the General Monk. After 26 minutes of brutal hand to hand fighting, the General Monk surrendered.
Barney found that a holes had been shot through his hat and through his jacket. The musket ball through his cap produced a slight scalp wound. The General Monk had suffered losses of twenty dead, thirty-three wounded out of a crew of 136. The Hyder-Ally had four dead and eleven wounded. Barney, by his victory, removed a serious threat to American shipping. The General Monk had captured or assisted in capturing 60 American vessels.
On April 13, 1782, five days after the battle, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a resolution praising Captain Barney and his crew, and a sword was given to Barney by Governor John Dickinson.
The navy of Pennsylvania changed the name of the General Monk back to the General Washington, and ordered Joshua Barney to supervise its repair and refitting. Barney’s next sailing orders were given to him in a sealed packet. He was commanded not to open his orders until he was clear of The Capes. If captured, he was to “sink” the dispatches. Barney’s orders involved him sailing to Havana, and contacting Robert Smith, an agent for the United States. Smith was to speak to merchants in Havana who engaged in trade with the United States and inform them that in return for a 2% “freight tax” the General Washington would transport funds to Philadelphia for them. Barney would receive ½ of 1% as a commission for physically transporting the funds, and another portion for the expenses of the voyage.
The French government would provide a frigate at Le Cap Francais, on the island of Hispaniola, to act as an escort. The written orders concluded with the statement, “you are on no account to risk your ship or delay your voyage by chasing vessels, making prizes, or engaging, unless as a last necessity.” Despite his orders, Barney, on his way to Havana, captured a brigantine with a cargo of rum.
He placed a prize crew on board and ordered them to follow the General Washington to Le Cape Francais. Barney anchored in the harbor. He presented his letters to the American agent and began repairs on his ship. The prize ship made port shortly thereafter and was sold. The revenue was distributed, and the crew had a pleasant liberty in the tropical port. Barney left port along with the promised French escort, the Eveillee, a 64 gun ship. The two ships made the passage in just four days. Barney’s business in Cuba went smoothly. The American ship took aboard $600,000.00 in negotiable tender from various private businesses in the area. For his services, Barney received what was then a tidy fortune. In addition he organized the American ships in Havana harbor who had been waiting for an opportunity to sail home with some degree of safety. On his way into port, Barney captured three more prize ships. The sloops Sally, Boreas and the schooner Happy Return, which were sold to the benefit of Barney and his crew.
During the summer of 1782, with war was winding down, Pennsylvania decided to sell the General Washington at auction for 7,550 pounds, but retained the Hyder-Ally. On October 7, 1782 Barney received orders from the marine office instructing him to carry diplomatic papers to Europe on board the Hyder-Ally. Robert Morris instructed Barney that “since his safe and speedy arrival was of great importance he was to take care not to chase any vessel, and avoid as much as possible everything which could delay or endanger him.” On reaching Europe Barney met the American commissioners in France, including Benjamin Franklin, who were engaged in treaty negotiations with the British. Franklin introduced Barney to the French court one evening. Much taken by the handsome Barney, who, in modern slang, always was a “chick magnet”, Queen Marie Antoinette presented her cheek for him to kiss rather than her hand, her ladies in waiting enthusiastically following her lead. All Barney said about that evening was that he enjoyed talking to French officers who were present and who had served in America.
After the War, and with the Continental Navy virtually eliminated, Barney went back to sailing merchant vessels. In 1794 Barney was angered by being placed fourth on the seniority list of the revived United States Navy. He refused to accept a commission, and instead served in the Navy of France from 1795-1800 rising to the rank of Commodore.
At the start of the War of 1812, Barney, because of his previous service to France, was not offered a commission as a Captain in the United States Navy, but accepted command of the privateer schooner Rossie, taking 18 British vessels that year. Hailed as a national hero, in 1813 he submitted a plan to the government for the defense of Chesapeake Bay by a flotilla of gunboats. In 1814 Barney was commissioned a Captain by President Madison, built the flotilla of gunboats he proposed, and waged a naval guerrilla naval war against the British fleet in Chesapeake Bay under Admiral Cochrane from May 1814-July 1814, maddening the British Admiral with his continual pinprick attacks.
After the British landed an army to attack Washington, Barney and 500 of his sailors and marines joined the American army seeking to stop the invaders. At the battle of Bladensburg on August 24, 1814, Barney and his men put up a spirited defense, with cutlasses and bayonets against the advancing British, and throughout it all Barney rallying his men with cries of “Board ’em! Board ’em!” Ultimately the Americans retreated, and Barney, seriously wounded, was captured one last time in his career by the British. After being paroled by his captors, he spent the rest of the War recuperating at his farm in Maryland. The heroic stand of Barney and his men had given enough time for Washington to be evacuated, and after the war the grateful citizens of Washington presented a sword to the old sailor for the land fight which ended his naval career.
On December 1, 1818, Barney died of the wounds he had received at Bladensburg. After the life he had led, it was only fitting that a war wound would take him out of this world.