Commander Joshua Barney made life miserable for the British Navy on the Chesapeake during the War of 1812, harassing the invaders from shallow draft barges, then retreating to shoal waters where the larger ships couldn’t pursue him.
This past weekend, a local theater owner brought him to life again during the annual Riverfest celebration in Laurel. Deb Randall, owner of Venus Theatre in Laurel, came up with the idea after learning of Barney from officials with the preservationist organization Maryland Milestones.
Barney was a Baltimore native, but Randall says they chose to feature him at Riverfest because he lived for a time in nearby Savage. Barney’s barges, called the mosquito fleet, weren’t to take on the much larger British ships, just to annoy them with cannon fire to keep them occupied on the Patuxent and other Chesapeake waterways.
In Laurel, the soothing sounds of a river, narrower than it was in Barney’s day, created a perfect backdrop for the small audiences that stopped by throughout the day to hear about the commander’s exploits. They listened attentively as Randall, dressed in pirate gear, acted out and talked about Barney’s battles on the water and at the Battle of Bladensburg.
“He stood at the top of the hill in Bladensburg with other members of his flotilla,” Randall said. “The British were continuing to attack and eventually they outflanked him, but he continued to fire on them until his ammunition ran out.”
The battle was fought on Aug. 24, 1814. It’s sometimes called the Bladensburg Race because American troops, who were greatly outnumbered outgunned and had a questionable chain-of-command, fled during the attack.
Aaron Marcavitch, Maryland Milestones’ executive director had a booth set up next to Randall’s stage during the festival at Riverfront Park, on the banks of the Patuxent. He said Barney’s gutsy seadog reputation was much needed during the Bladensburg battle.
“He’s our big hero for the Battle of Bladensburg,” Marcavitch said. “He’s the guy who actually stands at Eastern Avenue and aims the cannon down the hill, firing and actually injuring a lot of British soldiers. Barney was able to stay up there for three hours, giving Dolly Madison and the citizens of Washington time to evacuate and get materials out of Washington.” Randall told the audience that the British marched from Bladensburg to Washington and burned the capital. But the delay caused by Barney gave the First Lady and others in the city time to get to safer locations.
Prior to the festival, Randall held several improvisational workshops with students to teach them about Barney and get them ready to perform. The students energetically acted out a war scene associated with the privateer.
Wearing a pirate’s hat and cape, middle school student Tyler Huaffmeier said his mother forced him to participate in the workshops. But now he’s glad he did because he was impressed to learn that Barney commanded ships as a teenager and contributed greatly to the American effort in the War of 1812. “It makes me realize there’re a lot of heroes out there unknown and deserve recognition and I think it’d be worthwhile for everyone to take the time to discover them,” he said.
Huaffmeir has not shared what he’s learned about Barney with his friends because he doesn’t think they would be interested. “I think they should…because he was pretty awesome,” Huaffmeir said. “He was even shot in the thigh when he was trying to hold off the British.”
Although he is best known for his role in 1812, Barney served in the American Revolution as well, capturing several British ships. He was captured three times, was exchanged in a prisoner swap once and managed to escape twice.
His former home in Savage is now a bed and breakfast inn.
This story is part of our series “Rockets’ Red Glare: The War, the Song and Their Legacies,” made possible by a grant from Star Spangled 200, a national bicentennial in Maryland.