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Joshua Barney Bio

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Updated January 14, 2007

Commodore Joshua Barney

This biography of Joshua Barney was collected by USS Barney DDG-6 Association founder, John Van Dusen.  Joshua Barney lived a fascinating life at a pivotal time in the history of our great country.  If you would like to read about his life in greater detail, we recommend Joshua Barney: Hero of the Revolution and 1812, by Louis Arthur Norton.  Published by Naval Institute Press, and available at


Joshua Barney was the only officer to win acclaim in both the American Revolution War and the War of 1812!  A man without formal education, or military background, Barney had the natural gifts of  seamanship, leadership and courage.  During the Revolutionary War, Barney became the youngest Commander of a Continental Navy frigate.  Barney took part in 35 Revolutionary War naval engagements.  He lost 5 of these engagements, suffered imprisonment three times, and escaped twice.  He was shipwrecked twice, and put down one mutiny.  The tale of Barney’s incredible victories at sea, frustrating defeats, and cleverness as a prisoner constitute a series of remarkable anecdotes


Joshua Barney was born near Baltimore, MD on July 6, 1759.  His parents, William and Francis Holland Barney, had each inherited prosperous farms.  Thus the family, solidly upper middle class,  had considerable land holdings.  Joshua was raised in the settlement of Bear Creek as one of 14 children.


At the age of 10 Joshua Barney wrote a note to his father in which he stated that, “I have learned everything the school master can teach me”.  He was ready to quit school and wanted to go to sea.  As wealthy land owners, a sailor was considerably lower on the social scale.  Joshua’s father got him a job in a counting house.  Barney tried to please his father by staying on the job for about a year, but during the Christmas break 1770, he announced that he had had enough.  He told his parents he was not returning to the counting house.


William Barney decided to let his son have his way.  He rationalized that the harsh life at sea would either make a man of him, or return him to his senses and drive him home.  Thus is 1771 he signed on as a hand aboard a schooner that sailed the Chesapeake.  Determined to make this opportunity a success, Joshua Barney learned how to steer a course, sound the bottom, run out the log, raise and reef the sails and generally mastered the rudiments of seamanship.


After 8 months, Joshua Barney, now 12 decided he was ready to cross the North Atlantic.  Barney’s older sister had married Captain Thomas Drysdale, master of a small brig.  Joshua convinced his family to apprentice him to his “hard-driving” brother-in-law.  When Barney returned to Maryland in the late spring of 1772 he discovered that his father had died in a farming accident.  Joshua Barney, now 13,  was now even more dependant upon his brother-in-law.


Just before Christmas on December 22, 1774,  the Sidney, under the command of Barney’s brother-in-law left Baltimore for Nice with a cargo of wheat.  A few weeks into the voyage,  Drysdale developed a fever from some unknown illness.  His condition steadily worsened, and  Drysdale died in his Captain’s bunk.  Joshua Barney, was now in command of the Sidney, at the age of 14.  Then things got worse.

They were crossing the North Atlantic in winter time with very rough seas, they were short the First Mate, the Captain was dead, and they were taking on water.  Barney pressed on.


Emergency repairs were made in Gibraltar  and the ship continued on to Nice.  Barney sold his cargo at a profit.  He had heard he could pick up another cargo in Spain, so he headed north.  Spain was at war with Algiers, and the king commandeered Barney’s vessel and made him transport Spanish troops to Algiers.  Upon completion Barney returned to Spain, where the king arranged a cargo for him to transport to American under very favorable terms.  On returning to Baltimore, the Sidney was boarded by British sailors off the Kingfisher, and the ship was  thoroughly searched before being allowed to enter port.  The United States were now at war with Britain!  However, Barney had returned the Sidney with a handsome profit for it’s owners.  They were suitably impressed.


On October 13, 1775, the Second Continental Congress passed legislation creating a US Navy. In 1776, at the time the Continental Congress declared America’s independence from Brittain, the Continental Navy listed 25 vessels mounting 422 guns.  The British Navy, on the other hand, had 112 vessels that carried 3,714 guns.


Although the odds against the Americans seemed insurmountable the British found themselves militarily stretched at the time.  His Majesty had a large army to transport across a hazardous sea and distribute at strategic positions.  Ultimately he had to reinforce them with food and munitions.  At the same time Britain was struggling to overcome the American rebellion, it became involved in naval struggles with France, Spain and Holland.  All of which stretched their resources.  In support of America the French deployed a navy of about 100 ships against the British in the American Revolution, the Spanish 77, and the Dutch 42. 


Eager to enter the war, Barney accepted a position as Master Mate aboard the ten gun converted sloop Hornet.   Joshua Barney, at age 16, was second in command to the captain.  A brand new American flag was sent to be used aboard Hornet.  It was the first American standard that had ever been seen in Maryland.  The next morning  at sunrise, Barney had the privilege of unfurling and hoisting this new flag.  Barney was later transferred to the Wasp.  The Wasp was involved in several skirmishes against the British and captured a number of smaller ships.


In June 1776, Joshua Barney received a commission as a Lieutenant in the Navy.  He was then ordered to report aboard the sloop Sachem and to take charge of outfitting her for naval duty.  One month shy of 17, Barney was now a commissioned naval officer and second in command of the sloop.  A few days out of port, the Sachem met the armed British merchant brig Two Friends enroute to New York with a cargo of sugar and rum.


The two evenly matched ships fired on each other with cannon for more than two hours until their masts and tattered sails were barely visible through the drifting smoke.   Both ships survived, but the British ship was in the worse condition.  Captain Isaiah Robinson, Barney’s captain, had been wounded in the fighting.  Barney  took command of the Sachem and her prize and ordered the two ships lashed together to make their way back to Philadelphia.  Barney and Robinson were rewarded with transfers to a larger naval warship, the 14 gun brig, Andrea Doria. 


In November 1776, the Andrea Doria sailed to the Dutch controlled island of St. Eustatius, to buy arms and munitions for the revolutionary war.  The Andrea Doria was flying the Stars and Stripes.


Upon entering port, Captain Robinson ordered that the American flag be dipped as a sign of respect to Fort Orange situated on the island.  The commander of Fort Orange followed the custom of the day by ordering an 11 gun salute to the Andrea Doria.  This was the first time any foreign country had acknowledged America to be a sovereign nation.  The British were enraged!


On the way back from the West Indies, the Andrea Doria captured two British ships, the Race Horse and the Thomas.  With the Andrea Doria’s crew stretched thin, Barney went aboard the Thomas and convinced a number of the British sailors to “switch sides”.  Before the Thomas could get to American soil she was met on the high seas by a British ship the Perseus.  The leader of the formerly British crew tried to start a mutiny when he saw that they were going to be recaptured by a British ship.  Barney shot the man in the shoulder, and announced to the shocked sailors that he would shoot the next man who refused to man the sails.  Despite their efforts, the British recaptured the Thomas.  Joshua Barney was now a prisoner of the British.


According to the custom of the day, an officer could only be exchanged for a officer of the same rank.  Since the Americans were not holding any British Naval Lieutenants captive, Barney was held prisoner while the rest of his crew were exchanged and went free.  Finally the captain of the Perseus offered Barney parole.  Barney swore an oath not to wage war against the King while he was on parole.  Barney headed home.  From March through October 1777 Joshua Barney was land locked.  On October 20, 1777 a letter reached Barney informing him that an exchange had been made, and he was relieved of the obligations of his parole.


On November 20, 1777 the Andrea Doria and several other ships were burned by their crew to keep them from falling into British hands.  The ships were helping to defend Fort Mifflin, and were outgunned by a superior British force.  Barney was reassigned to the 28 gun frigate, Virginia.  In December 1777, Barney led a unit of men across the  Schuyllkill River at Valley Forge where he stopped to pay his respects to the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Forces, General George Washington.  It was Barney’s first meeting with the famed man.  Trudging on foot it took him nearly a month to complete the 55 mile journey from Philadelphia to Baltimore.


The British initially consolidated the American naval prisoners onto a large prison ship the St. Albans.  It was now May 1778.  The St. Albans had a crew of about 300, while the prisoner population was about 500.  Barney was the senior American naval officer among them.


Eventually the prisoners were moved to New York where they were placed on prison hulks.  These were floating rotted ships that were not worth repairing.  The food was rancid and sparse, disease was rampant and often fatal. Sanitation was almost non-existent for the nearly 1000 men confined to the ship.  By May 1778, Barney was the only American naval officer aboard the prison ship.  Eventually the French captured a British lieutenant, and an exchange was made which resulted in Barney going free near the end of August 1778.   Barney was now 19 years old.  Due to a shortage of vessels to operate he was granted leave to go home and recuperate.


America had 1,697 vessels sailing under letters of marque during the Revolutionary War.  The key to survival for a privateer was avoiding battles at sea.  One relied on the swiftness of the ship, and cunning to gain the advantage over the enemy.  A false flag was frequently employed to ensnare a potential victim.  In addition some of the privateers guns were liable to be “quakers”, false wooden pieces designed to look like guns, and fool and intimidate a potential target.


It was the fall of 1780, and Barney was serving aboard the brig Saratoga.  Before Barney could make it back to Philadelphia two British men o’ war closed in and captured them.  Barney was again a prisoner of the British.


On November 15, 1780 Barney and a number of other naval prisoners were sent to Britain aboard the Yarmouth.  The men were tried and sentenced to Old Mill Prison.  The prison consisted of several strong, gray stone buildings surrounded by double stone walls 25 feet apart.  There they joined some 300 American prisoners already in custody.  Barney hired a tailor to make him a uniform resembling that of a British Naval Officer.  On May 18, 1781, five months after arriving at Old Mill Prison, Barney made his escape.  Over his British naval uniform Barney wore a non-descript gray greatcoat.


A tall inmate boosted Barney over the first wall.  A sympathetic prison guard, who Barney had befriended looked the other way as he opened the outer gate and let Barney slip through.  Barney dropped the greatcoat and walked away.  It was a full day before the escape was discovered.


Barney made his way from England to France.  In France he met Benjamin Franklin and John Paul Jones, among other’s.  Franklin was so enthralled with Barney’s stories of his exploits that he repeatedly asked Barney to tell them to assembled guests over dinner.  From France Barney made his way to Holland then back to America.  By the time Barney arrived back in the United States, the Revolutionary War was over.


It was March 1782 that Barney arrived home in Philadelphia.  Barney was greeted by a wife he hadn’t seen in a year, and a son he had never met before.  The Continental Navy had been decimated by the Revolutionary War.  While recuperating in Philadelphia, Barney observed that there were 22 Captains and 39 Lieutenants waiting to be assigned to ships.  Barney concluded that his chances of being assigned to a ship were slim at best. However, Daniel Smith, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Commissioners for the Defense of the Delaware had heard of Barney and recommended granting him a commission as a captain in the navy of Pennsylvania and assigning him command of an armed vessel.  A Pennsylvania commission, while not a Federal Navy rank, would allow Barney to continue to fight against the British.  It was not unusual for an officer to accept a command in a state’s navy while waiting for an assignment in the regular navy.  Thus Barney became a Captain in the Pennsylvania state Navy.


The owners of the Hyder-Ally ordered Barney to escort a convoy of seven merchant ships to the mouth of the Delaware Bay.  Once there he was to remain near The Capes and protect other ships from the British which were attacking almost without resistance.  A British man of war spotted the American ships and attacked.  The British ship, the General Monk, had twelve – nine pounder cannon , versus the Hyder-Ally which had nine – six pounders.  For every broadside fired, the General Monk was able to propel 125% more shot than the American ship.


Barney waited patiently until the two ships were very close, then uncovered his cannon ports and quickly fired on the General Monk.  The two ships fired upon each other, broadside to broadside for hours.  Finally the ships were drifting closer together.  Barney ordered his gunners to load all the cannons, but wait for his orders to fire.  He then told the marines to get ready to board.  Barney turned to his helmsman and said, “follow my next orders by the rule of the contrary”.  Patiently Barney waited until his ship was about one-quarter of a boat length in front of the General Monk.  The General Monk was on Barney’s starboard side.  Barney suddenly yelled, at the top of his lungs, “hard a-port your helm!”  This command was easily heard on the General Monk.  The captain of the General Monk called to his helmsman, “hard to port!”.  He planned to pull in behind Barney and fire upon Barney’s undefended stern with his bow cannon.  Barney’s helmsman turned the Hyder-Ally hard to starboard, and the two ships collided, their booms and rigging becoming entangled, locking them together.  The two ships continued firing broadsides at each other, while they were locked together at very close range.  Forward momentum drove the ships together and Barney’s marines boarded the General Monk.  There was savage hand-to-hand fighting.  After 26 minutes of fighting, General Monk surrendered.  One of the British ships sails was lowered, and it was found to contain 365 shot holes.

Barney later discovered that a hole had been shot in his hat, and his jacket while he commanded the battle.  The musket ball produced a slight scalp wound.  Barney’s ship, the Hyder-Ally had fired 13 broadsides during 26 minutes of battle. The murderous fire had left the deck of the General Monk a shambles.  A British midshipman, one of the few remaining sailors of any rank left standing, struck the British colors.


It was not until they started tending to the wounded that Barney learned he had recaptured the 250 ton General Washington which had been captured by the British and renamed.  The General Monk had suffered losses of twenty  dead, thirty-three wounded out of a crew of 136.  The Hyder-Ally had four dead and eleven wounded.  This was one of the most brilliant naval victories of the Revolutionary War.  The General Monk had been a serious threat to American shipping.  In the two years the General Monk had been in British hands, it had captured or assisted in capturing 60 American vessels.


In his 1845 book entitled, The History of the Navy of the United States of America, James Fenimore Cooper wrote that the defeat of the General Monk by the Hyder-Ally,


 “has been justly deemed one of the most brilliant that ever occurred under the American flag.  It was fought in the presence of a vastly superior force that was not engaged; and the ship taken was, in every essential respect, superior to her conqueror.  The disproportion in metal between a six pounder and a nine pounder is half; and the Monk, besides being heavier and a larger ship, had the most men. .

            The steadiness with which Captain Barney protected his convoy, the gallantry and conduct with which he engaged, and [the] perseverance with which he covered the retreat of his prize, are all deserving of high praise.  Throughout the whole affair, this officer exhibited the qualities of a great naval captain; failing in no essential of that distinguished character.”


On April 13, 1782, five days after the report of the battle the Pennsylvania legislature passed a resolution praising Captain Barney and his crew.  In addition a special presentation sword was given to Barney by Governor John Dickinson.  Unfortunately the impressive piece, Barney’s proudest possession, was stolen years later when Barney was in Paris.  The replica Barney ordered to replace it is still on display at the Museum of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Washington DC.


With uncommon haste the navy of Pennsylvania changed the name of the General Monk back to the General Washington, and ordered Joshua Barney to supervise its repair and refitting.  Pennsylvania intended to use the ship for the defense of the Delaware.  Barney’s first orders from the Marine Office and the Pennsylvania Commissioners were given to him in a sealed packet.  He was instructed not to open his orders until he was clear of The Capes.  If captured he was to “sink” the dispatches.  Barney’s instructions were to sail to Havana and contact Robert Smith and agent for the United States.  Smith, in turn, was to speak to merchants in Havana who engaged in trade with the United States and inform them that in return for a 2% “freight tax” the General Washington would transport funds to Philadelphia for them.  Barney would receive ½ of 1% as a commission for physically transporting the funds, and another portion for the expenses of the voyage.

The French government would provide a frigate at Le Cap Francais, on the island of Hispaniola, to act as an escort.  The written orders concluded with the statement, “you are on no account to risk your ship or delay your voyage by chasing vessels, making prizes, or engaging, unless as a last necessity.”  Despite his orders, on the way down, Barney captured a brigantine with a cargo of rum.


He placed a prize crew on board and ordered them to follow the General Washington to Le Cape Francais.  Barney anchored in the harbor.  He presented his letters to the American agent and began repairs on his ship.  The prize ship made port shortly thereafter and was sold.  The revenue was distributed, and the crew had a pleasant, if short, liberty in the tropical port.  Barney left port along with the promised French escort, the Eveillee, a 64 gun ship.  The two ships made the passage in just four days.  Barney’s business in Cuba went smoothly.  The American ship took aboard $600,000.00 in negotiable tender from various private businesses in the area.  For his services, Barney received what was then a tidy fortune.  In addition he organized the American ships in Havana harbor who had been waiting for an opportunity to sail home with some degree of safety.  On his way into port, Barney captured three more prize ships.  The sloops Sally, Boreas and the schooner Happy Return, which were sold to the benefit of Barney and his crew.


During the summer of 1782 Barney found himself ashore with little to do.  The war was winding down, and raids on the Delaware were less of a problem.  The Pennsylvania commissioners decided that they needed the money, and sold the General Washington at auction for 7,550 pounds, but retained the Hyder-Ally for privateer duty.  On October 7, 1782 Barney received orders from the marine office instructing him to carry diplomatic papers to Europe.  Robert Morris cautioned Barney that “since his safe and speedy arrival was of great importance he was to take care not to chase any vessel, and avoid as much as possible everything which could delay or endanger him”.  For once Barney respected his orders and sailed directly for France.  On reaching Europe he met John Adams, Henry Laurens, John Jay and Benjamin Franklin who were engaged in treaty negotiations with the British.  Franklin took a particular liking to Barney. The 76 year old Philadelphia Quaker and noted diplomat admired youth, enthusiasm, good-looks and fearlessness.  Qualities Barney possessed in profusion.  Franklin dined with the naval Lieutenant, and thoroughly enjoyed listening to  his tales of bloody battles and the changing fortunes of war.  These were still a source of pride for the American patriots, and Franklin enjoyed conversing with the charming and adventurous naval hero. 


After the defeat of England in America, Barney traveled to Paris to deliver peace documents to Benjamin Franklin. While in France, he was introduced at court and met Marie Antoinette. In 1795, he accepted a position as commander for the French Navy which he held for five years before returning to his home in Maryland. In 1812, Joshua Barney was  fifty-three years old and living in Elk Ridge, Maryland. Because of his previous service to France, Barney was not allowed a leading position in the U.S. Navy, but accepted command of the schooner Rossie.


He also served in the French Navy as did  John Paul Jones between 1796 and 1802,  rising  to the rank of Commodore.    In 1812, Barney enjoyed remarkable success at privateering, taking 18 British vessels that year.  In 1813, he submitted a plan for the defense of the Chesapeake Bay area to the Secretary of the Navy, who subsequently offered Barney command of the American flotilla of gunboats at Baltimore.  Barney declined, but helped plan the beginnings of the US Coast Guard.


On July 11, 1814 Barney was again fighting the British.  He sailed his ship up the Patuxent River, where he scuttled and burned it to block the British from access.  In August 1814, Barney and his men were ordered by President James Madison to Bladensburg . He and his crew hauled two naval 18 pound cannon, and three 12 pound cannon all the way.  The British advanced on Barney’s position at the top of a hill three times, and were repelled each time.  The militia who was supposed to support Barney and his men had fled at the sight of the superior British forces.  Barney and his men were alone.  Out of ammunition, Barney got on his horse to lead a retreat, when his horse was shot out from under him.   Moments later he took a musket ball in his thigh.  Seriously injured, Barney was taken prisoner.  Captain Wainwright was familiar with Barney’s military accomplishments, and pardoned him after seeing to it that his wounds were treated.


Bladensburg was the capitol of the United States, and Barney and his men had delayed the British just long enough for the towns 8,000 inhabitants to flee.  Barney’s efforts also proved enough time for removal of most of the historic artifacts from the capitol, knowing that the British would burn the town once they got there.


Joshua Barney died on December 1, 1818 from a thrombosis from his leg wound.