History resurfaces in Barney's barges Flotilla: A 40-foot replica of one of Marylander Joshua Barney's unusual War of 1812 vessels will help mark Prince George's County's 300th birthday.

September 04, 1996|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

America used to go to war in rowboats.

This last happened in the War of 1812. The boats were called barges or galleys -- 75 or 50 feet long and rowed by men sitting two abreast. They shot cannonballs from the bow in frontal assaults and parting shots from the stern when escaping British man-of-wars.

They often lost.

But in hit-and-run warfare in the summer of 1814, Joshua Barney of Maryland and his men put up a valiant fight before sinking all 18 of their boats in the Patuxent River to avoid the fleet's capture.

Barney's mostly forgotten and still submerged Chesapeake Flotilla will be remembered this week as part of the 300th birthday of Prince George's County. A 40-foot replica of a Barney barge, eight months in the making, will be launched during public ceremonies at noon tomorrow at the Historic Bladensburg Waterfront on the Anacostia River.

The builders call it the flotilla's ghost ship, which is named "No. 19." The original 18 boats were mostly numbered.

"Everyone knows the British burned the White House, but few people know the Chesapeake Flotilla and Captain Barney's barges," said shipwright Jamie Berman of Baltimore's Living Classrooms Foundation.

The Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, in partnership with the foundation, built the boat for $100,000 and donations of equipment.

No. 19's 800-pound bow cannon, made to original plans by an Indiana cannon maker, is accurate only to 100 yards with an approximate range of 400 yards. But the foundation's boat makers figure its 9-ounce gunpowder charge will turn heads.

"We tried it out on the parking lot three times, and it was pretty exciting," said Jesse Lebovics, a shipwright. "Nasty stinky cloud. Red flame. Good and loud. I was impressed."

Berman, of Upper Marlboro, led a team that began building the boat in a temporary Quonset hut during the heavy January snows. Shipwright John Kellett was a technical adviser.

They created a 9-ton vessel that looks part-Roman galley and part-lifeboat featuring unusually thick 1 1/4 -inch pine planking, oak ribs and running boards. Students from Bladensburg schools made the 16-foot ash oars.

The white-and-maroon No. 19 is built to four-fifths scale -- 40 feet long rather than 50 feet, 10 feet wide instead of 12 feet, and 16 oars instead of 20. In the stern, the long gun has been supplanted by a donated 65-horsepower diesel engine to supplement the oars and two sails.

The Bladensburg waterfront was its birthplace and will be its home port as a teaching vessel. The boat is designed to help revive what was one of America's busiest ports in the mid-1700s. Silt from farms converted the river from a natural 40-foot-deep haven to a 8-foot-deep creek in the 1800s.

Richard Dolesh, chief of natural and historic resources, said the commission is spending $3 million in the three-year first phase of the waterfront's restoration. Tom Gollaher, dredge foreman who worked regularly on the Barney barge, continues clearing the Anacostia of the dreaded silt.

The unusual boat opens a historical window on Maryland heroics overshadowed by the Star-Spangled Banner episode at Baltimore's Fort McHenry.

Commodore Barney (1759-1818), a leading U.S. naval officer in the Revolutionary War, was a commander in the French Navy for five years and a privateer early in the War of 1812. On one voyage on the schooner Rossie, he captured four ships along with eight brigs, three schooners and three sloops valued at $1.5 million.

"He was a highly decorated Revolutionary War hero," said Berman. "He had retired near here. The British began raiding farms in Maryland. He couldn't stand it."

So Barney's flotilla, financed by Congress after the Maryland legislature refused, was born in 1813. Thirteen of Barney's boats were barges, made in Fells Point, Washington and St. Michaels. The rest were a sloop, the Scorpion; the row galley Vigilant; a hired schooner, Islet; and two others, possibly scows to move troops.

Donald G. Shomette, a researcher who has studied and written about Barney's Patuxent wrecks, prepared the Chesapeake *T Flotilla documents for the commission in January. The story:

In April 1813, the British set up a base at Tangier Island and began months of raids on Maryland soil.

Barney lobbied Congress, helped win support for the barges, oversaw the fleet's construction and took to the waters again. He was called acting master commandant.

After a skirmish or two between Barney and British, his flotilla in June 1814 entered St. Leonard's Creek on the Patuxent River. The British followed him into the creek in larger ships and some barges of their own.

Barney divided his 18 boats and their 500 men into the Red, White and Blue Divisions. The first battle was June 8-10. The barges fired cannonballs weighing from 12 to 42 pounds. The British fired rockets from a distance.

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