Thursday, December 9, 2010

People: The Unfortunate Commodore

Today's post is about a U.S. Navy man who learned the ropes on his father’s ship during the Revolutionary War, was highly praised for his meritorious service upon one of the first six frigates built after that war and went on to accomplish two of the most controversial moves in naval history. James Barron is so obscure at this point that he is only afforded a couple of paragraphs at the Naval History website and – perhaps even worse in our Internet age – when you search for a picture of him pretty much all you get are paintings and drawings of his arch rival Stephen Decatur.

Barron was born in Virginia on September 15, 1768 to merchant sea captain Samuel Barron. The elder Barron was a staunch revolutionary who loathed the British and their crippling taxes that kept wealth just out of his reach. Because of his seafaring knowledge, Samuel was appointed Commodore by the Virginia State Navy at the start of the Revolutionary War and by 1780 young James had joined his father’s crew as a Midshipman. When the State Navies dissolved after the Revolution, James continued to sail with his father and became an accomplished sailor, commanding one of his father’s ships on a crossing to the West Indies. By 1798, when the U.S. Navy was firmly established, James Barron was commission into it as Lieutenant.

Given a berth aboard United States, Lieutenant Barron distinguished himself. His captain was so impressed that within a year he was recommending Barron for promotion to Captain. The naval board agreed and gave Barron command of the sloop of war Warren which saw service in the last few months of the largely naval Quasi-War with France. The end of those disagreements did not slow Barron down as Warren quickly entered the melee in the Mediterranean now known as the First Barbary War. Under the watchful eye of Commodore Edward Preble, Barron and his ship preformed admirably, taking two Tripolitan galleys. When things were settled with Tripoli, Preble recommended Barron for promotion to Commodore.

Barron was by now an established Virginian on the rise. He was married to a local girl (whose name is also unfortunately lacking in the records available to me) and by 1803 they had five daughters and a small plantation. James Barron’s future looked exceedingly bright, and it only got brighter when he was handed his Commodore’s commission and command of the frigate USS Chesapeake.

In June of 1807, Barron had Chesapeake preparing for a trans-Atlantic voyage. She had put in her stores and guns and was fully crewed. This was the height of the Napoleonic Wars and French ships from the West Indies frequently dropped anchor in the friendly harbors of the U.S. British ships dogged them, sometimes even going so far as to try to blockade French ships in U.S. waters. Along with this intrusion, the British were known to board and search U.S. ships to “search for deserters” from the Royal Navy. In fact what the British were doing amounted to seagoing impressments. Any individual captain would have no way of knowing all the names of British deserters around the world so anyone picked out and clapped in irons was simply being chosen at random based on a hunch. This kind of indignity was common for merchant vessels but the British were getting high handed by 1807, and they began to threaten Navy ships.

On June 22nd, Commodore Barron and Chesapeake were at anchor off Maryland. The deck was littered with rations, munitions, cordage, spars and sails and the sailors were busy packing everything away in the hold. Some time in the late morning Chesapeake was hailed by the Royal Navy frigate Leopard. Captain Humphreys, RN, informed Barron that he needed to board his ship and search for British deserters. Barron, at first imagining Humphreys was joking, simply said no. Humphreys pressed the issue, and threatened action if he was not allowed to send a boarding party across. Barron, realizing that the moment was upon him, flatly refused before ordering his ship be made ready for battle.

The problem with the order was the impossibility of it. Like some ill-armed merchant, Chesapeake had only one gun on deck ready for loading. With her main deck scattered with all manner of junk, she was in no shape to clear for battle and, when Leopard fired as per Humphreys’ threat, Chesapeake managed only a meager shot with that one cannon. Barron and 17 other men were wounded and three men were killed with Leopard’s broadside. Barron struck to Humphreys immediately. Humphreys boarded as promised and took five men back to Leopard, only one of whom proved to be a British national.

The U.S. outrage over what would quickly become known as the Chesapeake-Leopard affair was palpable. The very active American press called for an explanation from the government; why was so much money being spent to build up a navy that couldn’t even protect its own sailors? Though the public called for another war with Britain, President Jefferson chose diplomacy. He managed to have four of the five sailors repatriated (the British sailor was hanged for desertion) but not before instructing the naval board to take care of their problems. They did this via court martial which found Barron negligent and suspended him from service for five years. It is important to note that Stephen Decatur, the hero of Tripoli and the epitome of American seafaring manhood at the time, sat on the board that convicted Barron.

James Barron retired to his home to wait out his five years. He returned to the service, this time captaining small frigates and sloops of war. His name is rarely mentioned in the seafaring annals of the War of 1812, which made heroes of men like John Rodgers, James Dacres, David Porter, Daniel Tod Patterson and of course Stephen Decatur all over again. Barron stayed in the background, a middle aged man who had lost the respect of his peers and was no longer able to keep up with the young lions.

By 1820 Barron, who continued to be a controversial figure in the navy with some politicians grumbling about why he was still in the service, took a seat on the Naval Board. With him was his now long time rival and former subordinate Commodore Stephen Decatur. Despite the fact that they served together and that Barron was in line to become senior officer on the board, Decatur heaped insults on Barron. He continued to nit-pick at the Chesapeake-Leopard affair until Barron could no longer ignore it and save face. Barron challenged Decatur in February and Decatur agreed to meet his opponent on the dueling field the following month.

The choosing of seconds was critical to the outcome of any duel but in this case it was particularly interesting. Barron chose Captain Jesse Elliott, who never made any bones about his hatred of Decatur, once calling him a “fop” in the “homosexual” sense (Decatur, though married, had no children and was a bit of a fashion plate which led to rumors about men at sea and so on). Decatur, on the other hand, asked William Bainbridge, by then a Commodore, to second him. Bainbridge readily agreed. What Decatur didn’t know – or chose to ignore – was that Bainbridge hated him too and almost as much as Barron and Elliott. Decatur’s superior attitude and almost charmed success made him very few friends in the competitive naval hierarchy.

As the date for the duel approached, Barron began to get cold feet. Decatur was a crack shot known to be able to hit a man aboard an enemy ship from his own quarterdeck with a pistol (pretty awesome marksmanship if you consider the pistols then in use, the unpredictable movements of any given human being and the heaving of both ships at sea). Barron doubtless imagined what would become of him and he approached Bainbridge with an offer of apology. Bainbridge promised to convey the offer to Decatur but never did.

On March 22nd, early in the morning, Barron and Decatur faced off in Bladensburg, Maryland. Decatur shot first, wounding Barron severely in the hip. Barron would walk with a limp for the rest of his life. What happened next is open for debate. Did Barron’s rage at Decatur’s constant insults and/or his refusal to accept an apology get the better of him? Or did nerves? Or his painful injury? Whatever the case, Barron shot Decatur – seemingly quite deliberately – in the lower abdomen. Decatur collapsed, bleeding profusely, and was hurried off the field to his home at Lafayette Square where he lingered in agony while his punctured bowl pumped sepsis into his body. Stephen Decatur died on March 24th after howling repeatedly that he “… did not know that any man could suffer such pain!”

Decatur, a national hero, was now a martyr thanks to James Barron. Over 10,000 people attended his funeral, including President James Monroe, and Barron was vilified all over again in the press. Though he continued to serve in the Navy, Barron never returned to sea. He finally retired voluntarily in 1839, perhaps sick and tired of hearing how horrible he had been. He died quietly twelve years later at his home in Virginia.

James Barron was a seaman of great promise, whose career went unfortunately astray and never seemed to right itself. It is interesting to note that Barron’s descendants now live all over the U.S., contributing to the country he loved. Decatur, on the other hand – though his name is everywhere – left no progeny at all. His only close living relative at the time of Barron’s death was his wife. Mrs. Decatur died penniless in 1860, still grumbling about James Barron who killed her beloved hero.

Header: James Barron, engraving via Naval History and Heritage Command


Scare Sarah said...

What a dramatic story! Warmly written.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Sarah and thankee. I see Barron's flaws for what they were but I don't think he was quite as bad and all that. Some people's positions in society make their mistakes appear more miserable than the average Jack's.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! That is a great story. It would make for a good screenplay, no doubt. But unfortunately, it's characters are probably too obscure for most people to care enough about to ever get made. As with so much of history. We just want to see movies about the big heroes, right?

Oh well, I will also say Decatur sounds like he was a jerk and got what he deserved.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! You're right on all counts, I think. James Barron is no Teddy Rosevelt so cares about him? But either the Chesapeake-Leopard affair or the Barron-Decatur duel would make a gripping film. Too bad Hollywood prefers to spoon-feed the public sparkly vampires and rehashed '80's cartoons. Blah.

Pauline said...

Wow, rereading that it's just a comedy of errors. Forgive me.

Tom Hines said...

Ahoy, Pauline. I have always been entrigued with Commadore Barron and his story (including his time as a Midshipman aboard the Liberty). I see a true irony in the fact that Barron was vilified for the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, an act that would follow him the rest of his life, yet it was that event that many at the time called the spark that set in motion the War of 1812. I dare say that Oliver Hazard Perry, Issac Hull and Stephen Decatur made out quite well during that war but never found it in them to ever address Barron even as an equal (eventhough he was Senior to all at one point in time). It shows the great level of competition that those men felt was their only means of accomplishment.
I think the argument could be made that without the likes of Samual Barron, we may have become a completely different nation (imagine if the War of 1812 had not taken place).

Pauline said...

Good to meet you Tom; thank you indeed for your insightful comment. In fact, I could not agree more. The War of 1812 was absolutely part of the U.S.'s continued struggle to free itself from Britain. It is unfortunately forgotten in this day and age, particularly the fact that it began over "free trade and sailors' rights".

Hope to hear more from you in the future!