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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 14

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The American Privateers

Donald Barr Chidsey

published by
Dodd, Mead & Company
New York

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 16
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p94  15[image ALT: a blank space][image ALT: a blank space]A Quiet, Unassuming Fiend

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Joshua Barney was burly. He was a slow-moving, soft-spoken man, yet a fiend in a fight. Also, he was wise. He was wise, that is, not in matters of money — he had no head for figures — but in the ways of the sea.

If any man could make a good thing of privateering, the merchants of Baltimore believed, it would be Joshua Barney. The merchants of Baltimore were absolutely right.

It was July 12, 1812, exactly twenty-four days after the infant nation, United States, had declared war against Great Britain when Joshua Barney dropped down Chesapeake Bay in Rossie, to make history. He would have left even earlier if the sheriff hadn't insisted that he pay a $1000 debt before departing on this dangerous voyage.

Rossie was a trim small vessel, carrying a tremendous spread of sail, and fast, her bottom recently coppered. She had ten short 12‑pound cannons and three long guns, far‑reachers, with a crew of 120, four or five times as many as you would expect to find on such a craft — if you did not happen to know her business.

There had been great privateers in the past; there were  p95 to be a few great ones in the future, the near future; but there was never another Joshua Barney.

He was fifty-three years old, born in Baltimore, and had followed the sea since the age of twelve. Nor had he inherited his high position. As the saying went he had "come up through a hawse hole," not through the owners' office.

In the Revolution he had gone with Esek Hopkins to New Providence (now Nassau), in the Bahamas, on a success­ful patriot raid in which his behavior won for him a commission in the brand‑new United States Navy. He became a lieutenant. Twice captured, he was twice exchanged, though in each case he suffered a spell — the total was five months — in a British prison ship in New York harbor. Such an experience could be hideous, and was, except for the short while when Admiral Byron (the poet's grandfather) happened to be in charge.

After Barney's second exchange there was no place for him in the tiny U. S. Navy, so he took up with an old service friend, Captain Israel Robinson, and they got control of a Baltimore schooner loaded with tobacco consigned to St. Eustatia in the West Indies.

They didn't go far. While still in Chesapeake Bay they were taken by a British privateer, which put them ashore at Cinapuxent and sailed off with the schooner — and the tobacco.

Unchagrined, they tried again, this time with a brig called Pomona, which carried 12 cannons and 35 men, and carried also a cargo of tobacco for Bordeaux, France. As had been the case in the schooner, they were equipped as well with a privateer's commission, and they  p96 planned, after completing the deal at Bordeaux, to learn what they could pick up on the high seas.

On the way across Pomona had a brush with a somewhat heavier British privateer named Rosebud. But she did deliver her tobacco, for which a good price was paid, and she did take on more guns and more men, so that she was able to distinguish herself in the field of legalized piracy for some months thereafter, snapping up prize after prize. Eventually she was caught by a warship; and once again Lieutenant Barney was clapped into jail.

This time there would be no exchange. Nor would he remain in America, in New York harbor, as before. A new admiral, a man markedly less humanitarian than Byron, was in charge. He had too many prisoners, more than he could hope to exchange, for the bedraggled Continentals had few or none; so he sent a batch of the officers to England.

There were seventy‑one of them, and they were thrust into a hold down near the keel of Yarmouth, a singularly malodorous warship. They were well below the water line, in a space 12 by 20 feet, so low that they could not stand upright. There was no light, there was no heat — it was midwinter and a notably rough passage of fifty-three days — and no arrangements had been made for cleaning out the place. Neither were they allowed a surgeon, though eleven of them died. The survivors, Joshua Barney being one, were walking scarecrows for weeks afterward. Slaves were never treated so badly, even in the horrors of the Middle Passage. For slaves, being worth money, were made to exercise.

 p97  Nevertheless, after reaching England Lieutenant Barney immediately began to make plans for escape.

He and his fellow officers had been thrown into the strong Old Mill Prison near Plymouth, England. From this, after several unsuccessful attempts, at least one of which landed him in solitary confinement for a month, Joshua Barney did in fact break out — alone, and in broad daylight.

It was an elaborate, carefully concocted plot. He had help, of course. In the yard, while skylarking, he had pretended to sprain his ankle, so that for some days he had hobbled about on crutches, which made him look harmless. He wore a long cloak, down to his heels, concealing the stolen British officer's uniform beneath it. He bribed a guard to turn aside. Then choosing his time well, and aided by a tall friend, he scrambled over a twenty-foot wall. He walked through an outer gate, which stood open, and past a sentry, who saw the uniform and suspected nothing. Twenty minutes later he was in the home of friends, sympathizers with the American cause. Nor had he been missed, yet, at the prison: he had made arrangements for this as well.

That night they smuggled him to the home of an elderly Plymouth clergyman, and three days later, with three other persons, none of whom knew anything about handling boats, and all three of whom were seasick, he started for France in a small fishing smack.

A day and a half out they were hailed by a suspicious British privateer. The skipper did not believe Barney's story of a secret mission to France (he was still wearing  p98 the officer's uniform) and took the group back to Plymouth, meaning to report them to the admiral. Again Barney escaped, hand-over-handing it down a line suspended from the privateer's stern. By this time the alarm was out, and he was almost captured several times but finally got to France, by way of London, and later still back to America.

There, as though he had not seen enough action in this revolution, he covered himself with glory as skipper of the Hyder Ally. Then he rejoined the regular Navy as a captain, in command of his own prize, General Monk, the name of which was changed back to General Washington.

Here, then, was the man who sailed down Chesapeake Bay so early in the War of 1812: Joshua Barney, quiet, unassuming, and determined. He had been in his twenties when he broke out of the Old Mill Prison; he was in his fifties now, but was every bit as bold — and as lucky.

He came back in ninety days, in itself something of a record. The Rossie had taken four ships, eight brigs, three schooners, and three sloops, with a total value of about $1,500,000.

This haul did not compare with the one Yankee was to ring up, but it was easily the biggest on record at that time, and it was made in the course of one short voyage, whereas Yankee was to take six.

These prizes had not fallen like plums into Captain Barney's lap. He'd had to fight, sometimes. The privateer Jeannie had given him a hot few hours on August 9, as had the British government packet Princess Amelia on a certain bright moonlit night, the night of September 15‑ p99 16. But he was intact, as was Rossie, which bulged with spoil.

Once again Joshua Barney was a hero. His debts would be forgotten. He was offered all sorts of privateer commands. He could name his own terms. But — he said no.

He was, be it repeated, wise.

A million and a half dollars looks large on paper. It is a handy sum to toss around, in conversation. But seven of the prizes had been burned, and others had failed to reach port. Nobody was willing to give anything for the 217 prisoners, though in the Navy these would have brought rewards. There were all sorts of taxes to be paid, and fees, all sorts of forms to be filled out as well. Why, the lawyers' bills alone were piled nigh as high as the loot! The government, too, had to be paid customs charges on all those goods. It was enormously complicated, it was exasperating, it was expensive, and Joshua Barney, solvent now, had had enough of it.

He went back to the regular Navy.

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Page updated: 20 May 13