The Chesapeake Flotilla comprises Guard members who interpret the hardworking sailors who manned and maintained the Water Batteries at Fort McHenry. Though we muster as “Chesapeake Flotilla”, we also represent other sailor units at Fort McHenry during the summer of 1814, including the United States Sea Fencibles and the First Marine Artillery of the Union.
For two years the United States had been fighting with Great Britain during War of 1812. The British fleet was marauding the Chesapeake Bay when Joshua Barney, a naval hero of the Revolutionary War, assembled a motley collection of barges and gunboats known generally as the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla to stall the British attacks. Joshua Barney, also a successful 1812 privateer captain, submitted a plan for the defense of the Chesapeake Bay to Secretary of the Navy William Jones on July 4, 1813. He estimated that a force consisting of gunboats and barges that could be sailed or rowed, manned by sailors and those in the shipbuilding industries, could engage British landing parties in the shallow waters of the Bay. He set sail in April 1814 with these eighteen ships: seven 75-foot (23 m) barges, six 50-foot (15 m) barges, two gunboats, one row-galley, one lookout boat and his flagship, the 49-foot (15 m) sloop-rigged, self-propelled floating battery USS Scorpion, mounting two long guns and two carronades.
Flotilla Action Before Fort McHenry
On June 1, 1814, Barney's flotilla, led by Scorpion, were coming down Chesapeake Bay when it encountered the 12-gun schooner HMS St. Lawrence (the former Baltimore privateer Atlas), and boats from the 74-gun Third Rates HMS Dragon and HMS Albion near St. Jerome Creek. The flotilla pursued St Lawrence and the boats until they could reach the protection of 'of the two 74s. The American flotilla then retreated into the Patuxent River where the British quickly blockaded it. The British outnumbered Barney by 7:1, forcing the flotilla on 7 June to retreat into St. Leonard's Creek. Two British frigates, the 38-gun HMS Loire and the 32-gun HMS Narcissus, plus the 18-gun sloop-of-war HMS Jasseur blockaded the mouth of the creek. The creek was too shallow for the British warships to enter, and the flotilla outgunned and hence was able to fend off the boats from the British ships.
Battles continued through June 10. The British, frustrated by their inability to flush Barney out of his safe retreat, instituted a "campaign of terror," laying waste to "town and farm alike" and plundering and burning Calverton, Huntingtown, Prince Frederick, Benedict and Lower Marlboro.
On June 26, after the arrival of troops commanded by U.S. Army Colonel Decius Wadsworth, and U.S. Marine Captain Samuel Miller, Barney attempted a breakout. A simultaneous attack from land and sea on the blockading frigates at the mouth of St. Leonard's creek allowed the flotilla to move out of the creek and up-river to Benedict, Maryland, though Barney had to scuttle gunboats 137 and 138 in the creek. The British entered the then-abandoned creek and burned the town of St. Leonard, Maryland.
The British, under the command of Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, moved up the Patuxent, preparing for a landing at Benedict, Maryland. For several days the British Fleet bombarded the Flotilla with cannon and Congreve rockets in an attempt to destroy it. On August 19, 1814, the Flotilla left St. Leonard’s Creek and sailed north up the Patuxent River. A plan had been discussed to transport the entire Flotilla overland from the port of Queen Anne to the South River and return it to the Bay. However, concerned that the Flotilla would fall into British hands, Secretary of the Navy Jones ordered Barney to take his squadron as far up the Patuxent as possible, to Queen Anne, and scuttle the vessels should the British appear. On August 22, 1814, the British approached the Flotilla, and Barney ordered its destruction. He then force-marched the men from the flotilla and such cannons as were movable, to Washington D.C. where they were to join the Battle of Bladensburg.
On August 22, 1814, the British attempted to capture Barney's squadron at Queen Anne. In his report of the affair, the tactical commander, Admiral Sir George Cockburn wrote:
"as we opened the reach above Pig Point, I plainly discovered Commodore Barney's broad pendant in the headmost vessel, a large sloop and the remainder of the flotilla extending in a long line astern of her. Our boats now advanced towards them as rapidly as possible, but on nearing them, we observed the sloop bearing the broad pendant to be on fire, and she very soon afterwards blew up. I now saw clearly that they were all abandoned and on fire with trains to their magazines, and out of the seventeen vessels which composed this formidable and so much vaunted flotilla sixteen were in quick succession blown to atoms, and the seventeenth, in which the fire had not taken, were captured. The commodore's sloop was a large armed vessel , the others were gun boats all having a long gun in the bow and a carronade in the stern, but the calibre of the guns and the number of the crew of each differed in proportion to the size of the boat, varying from 32 pdrs. and 60 men, to 18 pdrs. and 40 men. I found here laying above the flotilla under its protection, thirteen merchant schooners, some of which not being worth bringing away I caused to be burnt, such as were in good condition, I directed to be moved to Pig Point. Whilst employed taking these vessels a few shots were fired at us by some of the men of the flotilla from the bushes on the shore near us, but Lieutenant Scott whom I had landed for that purpose, soon got hold of them and made them prisoners. Some horsemen likewise shewed themselves on the neighbouring heights, but a rocket or two depended them without resistance. Now spreading his men across the country the enemy retreated to a distance and left us in quiet possession of the town, the neighbourhood and our prizes."
On August 24, 1814 Barney and the Flotilla participated in the Battle of Bladensburg. The Flotilla stood their ground and the British suffered heavy casualties at the hands of Barney’s cannoneers. Barney received a serious wound to his thigh from a musket ball and, since they were about to be overwhelmed by British regulars, ordered the Flotilla to retreat. The Flotilla, along with the United States Marines from the Marine Corps Barracks at 8th and I Streets in Washington, D.C., commanded by Lt. Miller, were the last two American units to leave the battlefield.
Battle of Baltimore
Approximately 500 of the Flotilla men then marched to Baltimore, joining others there, and were assigned to the U.S. Naval Command Second Regiment. They manned the following posts in the defense of Baltimore:
The Flotilla manned these positions throughout the Battle of Baltimore, pitting sailor against sailor in fighting the British Fleet. The Flotilla inflicted numerous casualties on the attacking British ships, especially during the attempted night assault on Battery Babcock by a Royal Marine landing party. In the report, written by Lt. Col. David Harris, Charles Messenger is listed as being killed in action at the Water Battery and three other flotilla men wounded. In addition, William Beeson, a member of the First Marine Artillery of the Union was killed during the battle.
After the Battle of Baltimore, the Flotilla did not participate in any further engagements. On February 15, 1815, Congress repealed the short lived Flotilla Act and the Flotilla was disbanded.