Joshua Barney, who was born in Baltimore in July of 1759, is one of those American heroes that more of his countrymen really should know about. I suspect that on the large scale the fact that he was at sea during the American Revolution goes against him. The U.S. loves her Revolution but, aside from the occasional nod to John Paul Jones, saves her admiration for her fighting men on land. On the small scale, Barney's most notable act of guts and glory occurred during the War of 1812, and most Americans think that is the name for that time when that short French Emperor took a bunch of troops into Russia in the winter and they all died. Then that Russian guy wrote a song about it. With cannons. We are woefully lacking in our knowledge of our own history which is probably why we repeat it so frequently. But I digress.
Barney, as is so common with life-long sailors, started his carrier early. One of fourteen children from a farming family, Barney decided to ditch school at age ten. His father set him up with a desk job in town but Joshua was no Bob Cratchet. At thirteen he went to sea on his brother-in-law's merchant brig as an apprentice to the master. En route from Liverpool in 1775, Barney's brother-in-law died and young Joshua took command of the ship, seeing her safely back to Baltimore.
With the ratification of the Declaration of Independence, war with Britain was well and truly on. Barney took a post as Master's mate aboard the Continental congress sloop Hornet. She joined Commodore Esek Hopkins in Philadelphia and from there cruised to the Bahamas where the squadron captured that old freebooter's haunt, New Providence. The British called Hopkins and his boys pirates, and it was open season on Continental sailors from then on.
Barney was transferred to CCS Wasp upon returning home. She saw action in Delaware bay against HMS Tender and Joshua's valor in battle earned him a promotion to Lieutenant. Wasp captured two more British ships but was herself taken at the Chesapeake in March of 1778. Barney and his fellows were taken prisoner and exchanged within the year. This would happen to Barney three more times - including an uncomfortable-at-best stay on a British prison hulk - within the next two years.
In 1780, Joshua managed to put aside enough time to marry Anne Bedford in Baltimore but he was right back at it before the year was out. As Lieutenant aboard Saratoga, he was again taken prisoner by the British in the same year. This time the Brits hauled he and his mates back to England, tried them for treason and put them away in the damp, wreaking Mill prison in Plymouth. Evidently even double stone walls could not hold Joshua Barney. He had a friend make him a British officer's uniform and, with the help of others including a sympathetic guard, he went over both walls in May of 1781. Barney walked to Plymouth, was literally smuggled across the channel to France and made his way to Philadelphia where he arrived in early 1782.
Barney was made Captain and, upon taking HMS General Monk of eighteen guns, was give her as his command. He was sent on a diplomatic mission to France with dispatches for Benjamin Franklin in November of 1782. He seems to have developed a warm spot for the French Navy, or maybe he just shared their intense dislike for the British. After a few years in business back in Baltimore, Barney joined the seafaring force of the French Republic. He was commissioned Commodore in 1795. After serving in the Caribbean for several years, he was discharged and returned to Baltimore in 1802.
When the War of 1812 broke out, Barney returned to the sea but this time as a privateer. He held somewhat of a grudge against the U.S. Navy, feeling he was slighted after the Revolution when not asked to command one of the first ships sent against the Barbary pirates. His privateering was enormously successful but, when he heard that the British were planning on attacking Washington D.C., his patriotism (Barney was a staunch and active Federalist) brought him back to the Navy.
Barney was made a Commodore and he personally supervised the building of barges and the outfitting of gunboats for the protection of the city and her waterways. His flotilla met the British at the mouth of the Chesapeake in April 1814. He and his men stood firm for months, but the British scorched earth campaign finally overwhelmed the flotilla. Seemingly undaunted, Barney led his marines and sailors onto land where they stood against the British - on direct orders from President Madison - at Blandensburg in August of 1814.
The battle was a gory, hand-to-hand mess and both the British and U.S. forces suffered significant losses. Barney was wounded several times, most notably he took a ball to the thigh, and he and his men were the last to stand against the enemy. They were finally forced to retreat, however. The British burned Washington and moved on to the Gulf where Andrew Jackson would win the war at the Battle of New Orleans.
Barney was recognized for his gallantry and presented a sword by the city of Washington after the war. He took up farming in 1815 and then bought land in Kentucky, where he planned to resettle and see out the rest of his life in 1818. It was not to be. The wound in his thigh, which never really healed as the ball was so deep it could not be removed, had other plans. Joshua Barney died in Pittsburgh on December 1, 1818.
Naval officer, diplomat, politician, privateer, farmer, merchant and pirate, Joshua Barney packed a lot of living into 59 years. The U.S. Navy currently has a commissioned warship named USS Barney, which is the least our country can do by way of remembering such a hero.