Flotilla: The Patuxent Naval Campaign in the War of 1812

Donald G. Shomette, Flotilla: The Patuxent Naval Campaign in the War of 1812, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. 520 pp., illustrations, maps, line drawings.

Review by Andrew Lambert
King’s College, London

Originally published in 1981 a revised and enlarged edition of this essential volume will be a major contribution to the bicentenary literature of the War of 1812. From his initial search for the archaeology of an abandoned gunboat flotilla in the shallows of the Patuxent River Donald Shomette has become the historian of Commodore Joshua Barney and his mosquito force.

By 1813 the war with Britain , essayed so lightly only a year earlier, had turned sour. Humiliating defeats on the Canadian border had been temporarily assuaged by stunning naval successes, but as Royal Navy forces on the coast steadily built up Americans came to recognise the reality of taking on the Leviathan of the deep. Although the British were fighting for their very existence against Napoleon they were determined to defend Canada , and the oceanic commerce that funded their war. They had no desire to wage war with America , and had no plans to re-conquer the old colonies. They wanted to secure peace with minimum effort. With the Army tied up in Spain they were unable to provide a significant military force, relying on the Royal Navy to translate sea control into effect on land, to shift from naval to maritime strategy.

With small, agile forces the British would practise intelligence-led warfare, relying on an uncontrolled American print media, and the willingness of many men to take the King’s gold. Already well informed of the bitter sectional divisions between Republican and Federalist politics the British carefully chose targets that would influence the administration. The rich tidewater region of Chesapeake Bay, close to the new national capitol, and the main privateer base at Baltimore , produced the export crops of the very men who had voted for war. By striking here the British hoped to take the pressure off the Canadian frontier. The destruction of public and private buildings in the Canadian towns of York and Dover provided an occasion for punitive measures.

In the summer of 1813, with the Royal Navy running riot along the Maryland tidewater, Barney, a Revolutionary war hero, and a successful privateer skipper, proposed building a flotilla of shallow draft gunboats, 50 or 75 feet long, to exploit local knowledge and challenge the British in areas where heavy sailing ships could not operate. The U.S. Flotilla Service was created to operate these craft, with Barney in command. In 1814 Barney and his men, less than a thousand all told, would be the only effective forces placed between the British and the civilians of the area. When the British landed local gentlemen tried to save their estates, but militia units generally ran away, as did many the slaves. Many former slaves joined the British as ‘Colonial Marines’, proving themselves good soldiers, and local experts. By contrast to the part-time soldiers Barney’s Flotilla attacked the enemy, and when cornered put up a hard fight. Much of the credit must go to Barney, a resourceful, brave and professional leader. The actions of the Flotilla, and of the flotillamen ashore at Bladensburg provided a heroic contrast to the endemic ineptitude of their military counterparts.

Making all allowance for the professed subject, the real hero of this book is Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn. A protégé of the immortal Nelson, and a veteran of twenty years of war at sea and on the littoral, Cockburn combined vast experience with an incisive intellect and a brilliant grasp of the higher direction of war. Without a single soldier his 1814 campaign ripped aside the tissue thin veil of American defence, exposing the Government, capital and army to humiliation. Lacking the resources to tackle the major ports, Baltimore , Norfolk and Annapolis , he relied on a tiny naval raiding force to keep the enemy guessing. The British offensive targeted American weakness, incessant raids kept the militia moving, provided a plentiful supply of fresh food, water, lumber to build a fortified base on Tangier Island , and hogsheads of tobacco to generate the prize money that kept sailors interested. When an army of less than 5,000 men finally arrived, Cockburn cajoled his superior officer and the commanding General into a stunning stroke that left Barney’s gunboats, Washington and the Navy Yard in ashes. His campaign should be taught at every Staff College . There is no better example of maritime strategy at work; flexible, quick, and always operating inside the enemy’s decision-making cycle. Cockburn planned the whole campaign to distract and demoralise the enemy, gather vital navigational intelligence and build up for a dramatic conclusion that would teach the enemy not to attack the British, even when they were at war with Napoleon. The legacy of those campaigns would be the immense stone fortifications that surrounded every significant American port. If vituperation be any measure of a man’s impact on his foes then George Cockburn must have been a titan. No insult was too scurrilous to be published. He took his revenge quietly, his official portrait, reproduced on page 126, shows him ashore, with spurs on his boots, the public buildings of Washington ablaze in the distance. In 1832 Cockburn was sent to command the American station, just as a border dispute threatened the fragile Anglo-American peace. Roger Morriss’s 1997 biography of this amphibious expert would have been a useful addition to the bibliography. At page 232 Cockburn’s Commander in Chief in 1814, Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, is conflated with his more famous nephew, Thomas, Lord Cochrane, the model for every fictional Royal Navy hero of the Nelson era from Marryatt to O’Brien. While he lacked Cockburn’s local expertise Sir Alexander was also an amphibious warfare expert, having overseen assault landing at Aboukir in 1801 and other major disembarkations.

Based on a wealth of primary evidence Flotilla is a delight to read, carefully crafted and nicely paced, mixing telling human interventions from key players with analysis of the unfolding drama. The illustrations, contemporary drawings, portraits and modern maps are ideally placed to illustrate and explain the flotilla craft, personalities and operations. This will be an essential text for students of the war, and of maritime strategy. Barney’s gunboats did well, but they had no answer to Cockburn’s squadron.

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