Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Books for Adults - Nonfiction
In February 1813, the British Royal Navy blockaded the Chesapeake Bay and launched punitive raids along the coasts of Maryland and Virginia. They renewed these attacks the following summer, which culminated with the burning of Washington, DC and the bombardment of Fort McHenry. Our lack of naval vessels to thwart these incursions ultimately led to the establishment of the US Flotilla Service, under the leadership of Joshua Barney, “a veteran seaman of renown and a naval hero of the Revolution.” (ix) He also commanded the Rossie, a privateer schooner out of Baltimore that captured eighteen vessels with cargoes that totaled nearly $1.5 million, and Chasseur, which captured “more than 30 vessels valued at millions of dollars” and several times engaged English warships. (5) Shomette’s book examines this fleet of armed vessels and her commander from initial idea through construction and deployment to its demise within the context of the war and its impact on these coastal regions, as well as the men involved on both sides of the conflict.
The achievements of the Baltimore-built privateers made Maryland an ideal target for the enemy to unleash their venomous hatred. The British success was, in part, due to the inability for the various leaders, both militarily and publicly, to coordinate their attacks to thwart the enemy. Most regular army units fought along the Canadian border, which left much of the defense of the Patuxent-Potomac region to militias, which lacked sufficient manpower and whose members often didn’t fully support the war.
Secretary of the Navy Williams Jones understood the danger the enemy posed, but he had neither an answer nor the means to counter their attacks. Joshua Barney provided him with an idea that had first been presented to the Maryland legislature. Although he initially rejected the idea because of the obstacles it presented, he eventually supported the project. While Barney saw events as black and white, rather than shades of gray, he possessed “a crisp mind, resourcefulness, an unerring capability to rise to any occasion despite the odds, and a willingness to fight with every ounce of strength available to him.” (23) These attributes, coupled with the respect of his men, made him a great leader, the perfect person to command this flotilla of armed vessels with shallow drafts.
Barney expected the project to take three weeks to complete, but it actually took nine months. Along the way, he encountered numerous problems that threatened to derail the flotilla. These included a dearth of manpower, a lack of available arms and equipment, design flaws, an unwelcoming populace that didn’t support the war, and the inability of commanders on land and sea to present a unified front against the enemy. Eventually, though, 500 men and eighteen boats comprised the flotilla. Between June and August 1814, from the Battle of Cedar Point to the Battle of Bladensburg, they harried British endeavors, hampered them from making further incursions, and fought a number of engagements against an enemy with more men and better arms.
As Fred W. Hopkins, Jr. writes in his foreword to this book, Flotilla isn’t “simply a day-to-day history . . . but a comprehensive bird’s-eye view of the complex nature and incredible impact of the naval war of 1812 . . . [on] the Patuxent River.” (xiii) Maps, diagrams, Barney’s sketches and other illustrations provide excellent enhancements that enrich the reading experience. In addition to the notes, bibliography, and index, the author also includes the following appendices.
A. Muster of the U.S. Chesapeake Flotilla from Its Inception to Its Dissolution
B. Cost and Type of Materials and Workmanship for Building and Equipping the Row Galley Black Snake
C. Fleet Maneuver Exercises for the U.S. Chesapeake Flotilla
D. African Americans from the Patuxent Valley Enlisted in the Royal Colonial Marine Corps
Originally published in 1981, this edition has been revised and expanded to incorporate new data in the years since. It also includes information related to the Patuxent River Submerged Cultural Resources Survey and expeditions to locate the remains of the flotilla. In his preface, Shomette states his aim is “to provide a substantially enhanced and . . . sharper perspective on the Patuxent naval campaign and the experiment in riverine gunboat warfare . . . .” (xv) He also succeeds in presenting this campaign from both perspectives, American and British. Flotilla is a highly readable account for layman and scholar alike, and it presents a much-needed examination of an aspect of this often overlooked war that is essential to any collection concerning the War of 1812 and naval history.
NPR’s All Things Considered Interview
Learn more about Joshua Barney, the Barney Family, and the Flotilla Project
Review Copyrighted ©2013 Cindy Vallar
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