Scuba divers examining a shipwreck underwater.
Virtual Fieldtrip
Come learn about archaeology, Maryland's history and some sites at the Park.

The Chesapeake Flotilla

WarOF1812ShipsSailing-cover picture.jpgThe year was 1814, and the United States was embroiled in a war with its former colonial rulers, Great Britain.  The new nation was fighting the war on four fronts – in the Gulf of Mexico, in the northeastern part of the US, in the Chesapeake Bay and in the Atlantic.  We now call this the War of 1812.

America did not have the resources to devote to building a Navy that could match Britain's, which was considered to have one of the greatest Navies in the world.  In 1813, in an effort to develop naval defenses of Washington, D.C., Joshua Barney wrote a letter to James Madison, the fourth President of the United States.  As a veteran of the Revolutionary War, Barney felt he could offer a plan to defend the Chesapeake on a limited budget. Defending the Chesapeake was important because the British Navy would need access to the Chesapeake and either the Potomac or Patuxent Rivers to order to attack the capital at Washington, D.C.

Painting of Joshua Barney courtesy of the Maryland Historical SocietyMadison approved Barney’s plan to build a Flotilla – a collection of 20 small vessels that could quickly act against the larger British fleet.  At the start of the War of 1812, the US Navy had 7 frigates, 8 brigs, 3 sloops of war and 62 gunboats, total.  In contrast, the British had about 100 vessels just in American waters.  Overpowered and outnumbered, the American Navy had no real hope of defending the coastlines.

This fact was seen during several battles in June 1814 when the British succeeded in defeating the Flotilla’s best efforts in blockading the British fleet.  After two engagements – called the Battles of St. Leonard Creek, Barney had to leave two gunboats behind since they were too slow and difficult to operate to be useful.

Barney maneuvered the Chesapeake Flotilla further up the Patuxent River as the British moved closer to the nation’s capital.  Finally, on August 22, on orders from the Secretary of the Navy, Barney scuttled his entire fleet in the Patuxent River rather than have them captured by the British.  This included Barney’s own vessel, the Scorpion. 

Ultimately Barney’s plan failed.  The British sailed essentially unimpeded towards Washington, moving up the Patuxent and landing men at Benedict, Maryland.

From there the British fought some of the same men from the Flotilla at the Battle of Bladensburg.  The British then marched into Washington and burned much of the city, before continuing on to Baltimore and attacking Fort McHenry.

Examples of American vs. British ships involved during the Flotilla engagements.

Previous page -Reports & Conservation Next page - Survey