From a young age Joshua Barney (1759–1818) loved adventure on the high seas. A native of Baltimore County, he first went to sea at 13 and by age 16 he was commanding a ship caught up in a Spanish campaign against Algiers. Gaining a reputation for his bravery and skill in wartime, Barney was captured three times during the American Revolution, and escaped each time. Toward the end of the American Revolution, he carried secret messages to and from France during peace negotiations.
Following his distinguished naval and privateering career in the Revolution, Barney turned to business, excelling as a merchant trader in Baltimore. The War of 1812 brought him back to the water, first as commander of a highly successful privateer vessel, Rossie, based in Baltimore, and then as famed commodore of the US Chesapeake Flotilla.
Barney conceived of and then proposed the brave idea for the flotilla to Secretary of the Navy William Jones in 1813. Jones approved Barney’s plan to create a squadron of inexpensive gun barges that could quickly attack and retreat from the British, irritating and distracting them. The “flying squadron” would be expertly rowed and sailed by veteran mariners. In May 1814, the 18-vessel squadron that came to be known as Barney’s “mosquito fleet” set sail down the Chesapeake from Baltimore to engage the British navy.
The flotilla took part in battles at Cedar Point and in St. Leonard Creek before becoming trapped in the upper Patuxent River. On August 22, 1814, Barney ordered the vessels scuttled to keep the flotilla barges out of enemy hands. He then led his flotillamen overland to join the defense of Washington, D.C. His command of 400 US Marines and sailors made a heroic stand at Bladensburg where Barney was wounded. The British commanders paroled Barney because of his bravery.
In 1818 while en route to Kentucky, Barney succumbed to his wartime injury. He is remembered as one of the greatest naval heroes of early America.