Amateur archaeologist and historian Vince Sala of Dundalk wants to know about Joshua Barney. Specifically, he wants to know what happened to the gray memorial marker about Joshua Barney’s birthplace that once stood atop the now empty pole outside Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts on Wise Avenue. This subject, while perfectly valid, seemed to me a trifle narrow, so I thought I would exercise my journalistic discretion and add a little spice to his query. After all, an answer regarding Joshua Barney’s sign doesn’t mean much if we know nothing about Joshua Barney, right? So here goes:

Barney was born on July 6, 1759, on a farm near Patapsco High School (his birthplace is actually a lot closer to General John Stricker Middle School but perhaps someone thought the sign would be more visible on Wise Avenue). While still a boy, he left the farm to seek his fortune at sea. In 1775, when he was 16, he was made master’s mate on the American ship Hornet, a Baltimore merchant sloop converted into a warship and one of the first such vessels commissioned by the Continental Congress.

Eventually assigned to the Hornet’s sister ship the Wasp, Barney saw action at New Providence on Nassau in the Bahamas during America’s first amphibious operation. The squadron, under the command of Commodore Esek Hopkins, netted British guns and gunpowder vital to the war effort back home.

During an engagement between the Wasp and a British brig, Barney’s gallantry earned him promotion to lieutenant. Over the next several years, he led boarding parties, commanded prize crews, sailed as a privateer and rose to command warships. By 1782, he had been captured and exchanged or escaped five times.

After the war, Barney began service with the French navy, from which he received a captain’s commission in 1794. He resigned and returned to America in 1800.

When war again broke out with Britain in 1812, Barney returned to a life of privateering, plundering British merchant ships for his country and his own personal enrichment (this was a perfectly legal and, in Baltimore anyway, very respectable line of work).

After initial stunning successes against the mighty British navy, the United States found itself outnumbered and threatened by enemy ships. Barney left off privateering for service as an officer in the U.S. Navy. He was commissioned captain in 1814 and made commodore of the upper Chesapeake flotilla, a ragtag collection of gunboats, armed barges and small vessels charged with impeding British progress through the bay.

This feat proved impossible, and the British marched on Washington, D.C. Barney burned the flotilla lest it fall into enemy hands and started overland with a force of sailors and marines to assist in the defense of the capital.

The British took Washington anyway, but Barney and his men held the British back long enough for the militia, who ran like rabbits, to withdraw. In fact, while the British ridiculed the American performance at the Battle of Bladensburg, the enemy command singled out Barney and his seaman as fighters who held on with courage, discipline and tenacity.

Barney received a serious wound to his thigh during the battle and eventually was forced to surrender. The British command treated him with respect as a worthy adversary, freed him and entrusted him with the well-being of the wounded as the British forces advanced.

After the war, Barney retired to his farm in Elkridge. He died in Pittsburgh in 1818 while traveling west with his family.

And so ended a hero’s life but not his story. I learned from the Internet that those gray historical markers are put up by the Maryland Historical Trust, headquartered in Crownsville. I called down there and learned from Nancy Kurtz, monuments survey administrator for the Trust, that the people of the Patapsco Neck never forgot that this hero of two American wars was born among them. In the early 1970s, the Trust received a petition for a marker commemorating Barney’s birthplace. The Trust erected the sign in 1973.

But the story then gets darker. The sign disappeared in the last couple of years. Fearing vandals or thieves, I asked Ms. Kurtz if she knew anything about it. She said her records indicated only that the sign was missing but promised to check up on the matter.

Her efforts led to a surprisingly happy ending. She contacted the State Highway Administration, the agency that maintains and repairs the signs. She learned that, while no one was quite sure how it got there, the sign is now in an SHA shop and has been restored. It will be replaced soon. And, as usual with historical markers, soon I’ll probably endanger my

Her efforts led to a surprisingly happy ending. She contacted the State Highway Administration, the agency that maintains and repairs the signs. She learned that, while no one was quite sure how it got there, the sign is now in an SHA shop and has been restored. It will be replaced soon. And, as usual with historical markers, soon I’ll probably endanger myself and fellow drivers on Wise Avenue every time I suddenly slow down to read it.

(first published 2004)

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