Battles of St. Leonard Creek

Six row boats flying the American flag sail to meet the British in a naval battle.
The US Chesapeake Flotilla being chased by a vastly superior British squadron near the mouth of the Patuxent River at Cedar Point. © Richard Schlect

“The Enemy opened a Battery of Five Guns on the two Ships under my Command, from the high land, forming the Entrance of [St.] Leonards Creek…shortly after the Flotilla…rounded the point and opened a well directed fire on both Ships…”
– British Capt. Thomas Brown to Rear Adm. George Cockburn, June 27, 1814

During the summer of 1814, the British navy tried to flush out and destroy the U.S. Chesapeake Flotilla—a rag-tag assembly of armed boats and barges.

British warships blockaded the mouth of the Patuxent River after the Chesapeake Flotilla and Royal Navy skirmished off Cedar Point on June 1, 1814. The flotilla escaped up the Patuxent following the skirmish and sought safety in St. Leonard Creek, four miles upriver.

The British pursued, and the largest naval engagement in Maryland waters – as well as some of the fiercest fighting of the war-- occurred where St. Leonard Creek meets the Patuxent River.

 
Illustration of a man standing in a boat, bailing water onto flames.
William Barney bails water onto the burning gun barge. (c) Gerry Embleton
The flotilla prevailed in a series of skirmishes June 8–10, known as the First Battle of St. Leonard Creek.

During the June 8 battle, a British Congreve rocket struck a gun barge, killing a flotillaman and exploding gunpowder onboard. As the crew abandoned the burning boat, Sailing Master William Barney, Commodore Joshua Barney’s son and learder of one of the flotilla’s three divisions, quickly hailed his father for permission and, alone, bravely boarded the flaming vessel. The young Barney heroically bailed water into the boat and rocked it about onto the flames, extinguishing the fire and saving the vessel, much to “the very great delight and astonishment of the commodore.”

After three days, the hard-fighting Chesapeake Flotilla had almost bested a vastly superior English force. Joshua Barney was convinced that the Americans “must have done them considerable damage.” On June 11, the British pulled a stranded and damaged schooner off a sand bar and began repairs.

The First Battle of St. Leonard Creek had changed nothing—the flotilla was still bottled up in the creek. But it had bought the anxious Americans a little more time to prepare their tidewater defenses. The British forces, still waiting for reinforcements, decided to leave Barney alone for the moment.

A few weeks later, they clashed again in the Second Battle of St. Leonard Creek. This time, Barney had land support, including a gun battery at present-day Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum. Cannons and infantry on the St. Leonard Creek bluffs supported the Chesapeake Flotilla in a predawn attack on June 26. The plan ended in confusion, but Barney’s barges rowed down the creek with cannons blazing. When the British blockade withdrew to repair dames, Barney’s flotilla escaped up the Patuxent.
 
Illustration of two ships exploding.
Americans rigged trains of gunpowder to ignite their abandoned flotilla barges, causing a series of deafening explosions. © Gerry Embleton
The British pursued. The Chesapeake Flotilla found itself trapped in the shallows of the Patuxent River. With orders to keep his boats out of enemy hands, Barney reluctantly ordered his men to destroy the flotilla when the British approached. They laid trains of gunpowder to explosives aboard each barge. As the British rounded Pig Point south of here on August 22, 1814, the Americans touched off the first fuse. The Flotilla then headed overland toward Washington to assist with the defense of the nation’s capital.

“Seventeen Vessels...composed this formidable and So much Vaunted Flotilla, Sixteen were in quick Succession blown to atoms and the Seventeenth...was captured.”
British Vice Admiral Cochrane, August 22, 1814

excerpts from "In Full Glory Reflected: Discovering the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake" by Ralph E. Eshelman and Burton K. Kummerow


Continue reading about the Battle of Bladensburg.
 

People

  • Charles Ball

    Charles Ball

    Charles Ball joined the US Navy Flotilla during the war and participated in Battles of St. Leonard Creek and Bladensburg.

  • A black and white illustration of a man in a naval uniform.

    Joshua Barney

    Joshua Barney lead the U.S. Chesapeake Flotilla during the War of 1812.

  • Alexander Cochrane

    Alexander Cochrane

    Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane was Commander-in-Chief of the North American Station in 1814, overseeing the raids of the Chesapeake.

  • George Cockburn

    George Cockburn

    Rear Admiral George Cockburn organized the raids along the Chesapeake under Alexander Cochrane’s orders.

Last updated: January 13, 2022

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