Dundalk’s Sea Dog: Joshua Barney, Part 9
Wednesday, 11 September 2013 11:10

1815-1818: From battling Congress to the Allegheny Cemetery

Below is this year’s installment in former Dundalkian Blaine Taylor’s series of historical articles about the War of 1812.

    Late in 1814, Commodore Joshua Barney, the hero of two wars against the British sea lion, was fighting another old enemy: the Congress of the United States.
    Ordered to raise sunken ships in Baltimore Harbor in the dead of winter, the old salt considered the duty an insult to the hardy, veteran sailors of his now-scuttled Chesapeake Flotilla that had defeated the Royal Navy the previous June at the Twin Battles of St. Leonard’s Creek in southern Maryland.
   He also wanted Congress to reimburse his men for clothing and other losses during the year’s campaigns on land and sea, but the stingy federal legislative branch refused.
    He lamented, “But have they not set a precedent which may be more fatal to the nation — if merit is not to be rewarded, who will strive for it?”
    Congress remained unmoved, so the miffed seaman resigned from the Navy, only to be summoned back to duty anew.
   On Apr. 29, 1815, President James Madison sent the ex-commodore to Europe to carry dispatches to the American commissioners then negotiating an end to the War of 1812.
    He thus found himself celebrating his 56th birthday in the English port of Plymouth, on what would be his last voyage abroad due to the wound he suffered at the Battle of Bladensburg on Aug. 24, 1814.
    Back in America on Oct. 13, Barney once more retired to his family estate at Elkridge. Biographer Louis Arthur Norton, in the 2000 work Joshua Barney: Hero of the Revolution and 1812, claimed that he suffered from “clinical depression and physical discomfort” from both his physical wound and psychological ones.
    Barney seemed to realize that the sands of time were running out for him, and he began considering anew his place in American history. Congress had granted him land in far-off Kentucky, so in the spring of 1816, he decided to visit. 
    At Frankfort, Ky., on Dec. 26, 1816, he and his family were feted with a grand banquet, and four days later at Louisville, he was toasted thus: “Commodore Barney, our gallant guest — two wars, the land and the ocean, bear witness that he is a patriot and a soldier!”
    In his response, he mentioned 17 battles during the American Revolution and nine more during the War of 1812, and was acclaimed by the Kentucky State Legislature as well.
    Captured six times by the hated British enemy, he had only been defeated once in 15 combats, at the Battle of Bladensburg, Aug. 24, 1814.

He returned home to Baltimore in the spring of 1817 and was appointed by President Monroe as Naval Port Officer of Baltimore, a political patronage job, but one for which he was certainly qualified. In Kentucky, the Barney family lands — 50,000 acres near present-day Fort Knox — were managed by his son William.
    Then his naval units were demobilized, so Barney resigned his commission as Captain of the Flotilla for the final time, lashing out once more at the hated Washington political establishment that he had bucked his entire political career.
    “Congress one and all ought to be hanged; they have destroyed the nation by delays and folly” — no more so, he thought, than on Aug. 24, 1814, when the capital had been captured by the British and its public buildings burned.
    By September 1818, the ailing Commodore had tired of his Port of Baltimore administrative duties, and that October sold his Elkridge estate, moving with his family, servants, and slaves to Kentucky for good.
    According to Norton, “As they headed west, Barney became ill on a river flatboat only a short distance from Pittsburgh. The practice of medicine was then more palliative than curative, so he was forced to fight for his life alone. Although he managed to hang on for about a week, 59-year-old Joshua Barney finally died, apparently from a thrombosis from  his leg wound. On Dec. 1, 1818, a British musket ball — and thus, symbolically, the hated British — caused Barney’s death. The lead slug was removed at his autopsy and presented to William Barney. The bullet [sic] is now housed at the Museum of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Washington, DC,” the very city that Barney and his sailors and Marines had fought so hard to defend on Aug. 24, 1814.
    Dundalk’s naval hero died surrounded by his family and servants at his deathbed. As Norton notes, “The City of Baltimore commissioned Rembrandt Peale to paint a posthumous portrait of Barney that now hangs in the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore,” as one of four Defenders, the other three being Gen. Sam Smith, overall Baltimore commander; Gen. John Stricker, fighter at the Battle of North Point, and  Maj. George Armistead, commanding officer of Fort McHenry.
    “But the great city on the Chesapeake is not the resting place for its most distinguished maritime hero,” Norton notes. “Barney’s grave is under a modest military monument in the Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, far from the sea he loved.”
   That is where I picked up the trail of Dundalk’s seagoing warrior, by writing to the cemetery. I received a letter from Ms. Jennie O’Donnell, of the Cemetery’s Administration Department: “After a thorough search, I find the following: Joshua Barney is buried in Section 8 ½ Lot 7/11 .… I’ve also enclosed a tour book describing the section.”
   The booklet is entitled Allegheny Cemetery Historical Tour: “Commodore Joshua Barney is in an isolated lot in the roadway between sections 7, 8 ½, and 11. The managers of the Cemetery had appropriated a beautiful spot in the most commanding position in the grounds, and dedicated it as a burial place for naval heroes, under the name of Mt. Barney.”
    Norton’s assessment of the man: “Some may describe Joshua Barney as having ‘more sail than ballast,’ to use a naval expression meaning ‘more dash than discretion.’ He was courageous, cunning, and creative, yet at times he was also vain, volatile, and vengeful, as well as opportunistic, arrogant, and petty; and sometimes he was an irresponsible ‘loose cannon.’
    “On the other hand, perhaps Barney’s sail and ballast were in good balance, particularly in the times in which he lived.
    “Many of Barney’s exploits were set into rhyme.” Here is a verse written by Capt. James Hopwood: ‘On the strength of one link in the cable, dependeth the might of the chain. Who knows when thou mayest be tested? So live that thou bearest the strain.’
•    Freelancer Blaine Taylor, a former Dundalkian, is the author of an upcoming illustrated book on the War of 1812 that will be published in the U.K. and distributed in the U.S. in 2014. He has also published many other articles internationally on the period in Military Heritage and Sea Classics magazines since 1989. Taylor has published articles and press releases in The Eagle since 1974, the same year that he began covering the Bicentennial of the American Revolution in 1976.