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Robert Barrie’s Letters to his Mother Part II: Chesapeake Bay, 1815

Posted by Paul Martinovich , on October 4th, 2022


This post presents another of Robert Barrie’s letters to his mother, written at St Mary’s in Georgia in the new year of 1815. A previous post presented extracts written whilst on station as Senior Naval Officer of the Great Lakes of Canada.

Robert Barrie was born in 1774 at St Augustine Florida; his father, also Robert Barrie, was the 31st Regiment of Foot’s surgeon and died while on passage home a year later. His Mother’s brother, Alan Gardner (1742-1809), the future Admiral of the Blue, 1st Baron Gardner, guided young Barrie into a naval career. Aged fourteen, he was placed on the books of Uncle Alan’s ship the 64-gun Europa; this was common practice to cheat the promotion system. Barrie attended an academy at Liverpool to learn French and navigation followed by sea experience in the Eliza, a merchant vessel trading with the West Indies commanded by Captain Wiseman, a friend of the family. Uncle’s friend, Captain Andrew Douglas in the 74-gun Goliath, appointed him as a midshipman; his Uncle’s forethought gave him the necessary two years seniority. This was followed by a four year commission in Discovery under Captain George Vancouver exploring the Pacific and the west coast of North America; Vancouver Island was named after his Captain. This experience would prove an excellent foundation for a future naval career.

In the American War of 1812, the Royal Navy’s aim was to prevent commerce along the east coast of the United States, as well as more importantly, to prevent trade with Napoleon’s Europe and generally rough up the Americans. The Western Squadron was commanded by Admiral Warren with his deputy Commander-in-Chief, Rear-Admiral Sir George Cockburn ((1772-1853). Cockburn is famed for The Burning of Washington on the 24 August 1814; he stressed that only public buildings including the Capitol were burnt avoiding private property. This had been a unique event until today when President Trump’s mob stormed the Capitol. Barrie arriving on station in 1813 in the 74-gun Dragon was directly under Admiral Cockburn.

A collection of nineteen of Admiral Barrie’s letters, fifteen of which were written to his mother, and four to his half-sister Miss Eliza (Pieris) Clayton are held in William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.  Acquisition No: 1964. M-1329.  This acquisition also included thirty orders by Rear-Admiral Sir George Cockburn ((1772-1853) deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Western Squadron tasking Barrie when he was Commodore of the Squadron in the large Chesapeake Bay. This post is particularly interesting since it describes Barrie, when Commodore of the Chesapeake Squadron in the 74-gun Dragon 1815, personally leading his Royal Marines to fight ashore.

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