When I think of war in the days of sailing ships, I envision battles on the ocean. For the War of 1812, I must include the large estuary of Chesapeake Bay and even deep rivers. But a battle on a creek? Especially a creek that family sailboats and cruisers might anchor in for an overnight rendezvous? (More especially, one where my husband and I met with other boaters for a friendly weekend.) But in June of 1814, it did happen.
The British controlled Chesapeake Bay, allowing little trade with other countries. In an attempt to open the bay, former privateer, Commodore Joshua Barney took his fleet of eighteen small gun boats, barges, and sloops down the bay. He was able to harass the British ships, then escape into smaller tributaries. Barney’s Chesapeake Flotilla clashed with the British from June sixth to the twenty-sixth, ending that day where the Patuxent River meets the mouth of St. Leonard Creek. (Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, the unnamed green section in the center of the map above. is located at the site and commemorates the battle.)
During the ensuing battle Barney, with 360 sailors and 120 marines held off an overwhelming force that bettered him ten to one. One source says that President Madison, himself, took control of the land forces when Barney was severely injured. After four hours, beaten, they retreated. Had they won, they might have prevented the burning of Washington.
Note: Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum cooperated with a middle school in a UTube video of a presentation of Commodore Barney’s tale of the battle.
My Thursday series on the War of 1812 continues.
They called it President Madison’s War. It was a war to free the impossible conditions on the Atlantic Ocean—Britain seizing ships and conscripting sailors, while both Britain and France declared our shipments illegal. The country was deep in depression with the President forbidding trade across the ocean. Although also illegal, commerce continued to the north, across the Great Lakes with Canada.
But the lack of commerce and the resulting American financial depression wasn’t the only reason many in the United States favored war. Some wanted to overcome the advantage the British had with the Indians who often joined English forces against the United States. Others were looking to grab land, to add farmable acres, specifically Canada and Florida. Thomas Jefferson is said to have remarked that capturing Canada was, “a mere matter of marching.” There were areas of Canada largely populated by Americans. Meanwhile, England believed that Canada was adequately protected. The United States did battle with Canadian and British forces, with victories going each way.
One notable American victory was at Put-In-Bay when American Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry turned possible defeat into victory and captured an entire British fleet. His report became famous. “We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.”
Eventually, however, the American attack was defeated. The Americans in Canada didn’t rally around their former countrymen. They only wanted to be left alone. They probably numbered among those who were united by the Canadian victories into the country that, in 2012 celebrated their two hundredth anniversary of victory against their southern neighbors.
During much of 1812, most British ships were too involved fighting France to worry about our east coast. The only fortifications on both sides were along our Northern boarder with Canada. Life went on as usual on most of the Atlantic coast. Various civilian militia formed along the waterfront and in towns and villages. However, no United States military forces were placed on Chesapeake Bay.