James Barron



Occupation 1

naval officer


Tripolitan War


The World


Maritime Republic (1751-1815)






Barron began his sea service before the age of twelve on board his father's ship in the Virginia service. He was commissioned a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy in 1798, presumably having sailed in merchant vessels in the intervening years, since he would be known throughout the service for his masterful seamanship.

Barron's first naval appointment was as third lieutenant in the frigate United States under the navy's senior captain, John Barry (1745-1803). In October 1798 his skill saved the ship during a violent storm, and his captain recommended his promotion. He received his captain's commission in 1799, but his first command was unlucky: the Warren's officers and crew had been decimated by yellow fever on a previous cruise and suffered the same fate under Barron...

After this Barron served in a number of naval ships, mainly as a flag captain under the respective squadron commodores in the Mediterranean during the war with Tripoli. Between cruises, in 1803, he supervised the building of one of the navy's first gunboats... His most important Mediterranean service was under the command of his brother, when he effectively ran the squadron for many months while Samuel Barron suffered from severe liver disease. At the same time, he incurred the enmity of Captain John Rodgers (1773-1838), who aspired to the squadron command and thought James Barron was merely encouraging Samuel Barron to retain command in order to thwart Rodgers's ambitions. There was a threatened duel, but in the end the quarrel was allowed to subside.

Unfortunately for this consummate master of seamanship, he is most often remembered for two tragic events. The first was the so-called "Chesapeake-Leopard incident" in June 1807. Barron had been given command of the Mediterranean Squadron and was sailing from Hampton Roads in his flagship, the frigate Chesapeake, when the ship was stopped by the somewhat heavier British frigate Leopard, whose commander demanded the surrender of several supposed deserters from His Majesty's Navy. Not prepared for resistance, the Chesapeake had just left port on what was expected to be a peaceful cruise, its anchor cables were not yet stowed, and some of its late-arriving stores were lying about the decks. The powder cartridges, wads, matches, and other accoutrements of the great guns were not ready. When Barron rejected the demand for the deserters, however, the British commander fired into the Chesapeake, which could fire only one gun in retaliation and was forced to surrender. The Leopard's officers then mustered the Chesapeake's crew, removed five accused deserters, and left the American frigate to limp back into port with its dead and wounded. The outcry in the United States was piercing. Diplomatic relations with Great Britain reached a new low, and the memory of this incident was probably a major contributor to the American decision to declare war on Great Britain in 1812. Tardily, the British admitted wrongdoing and returned two of the men taken from the Chesapeake, but they did not reach Boston until after the declaration of war.

It would probably be fair to say that James Barron was made a scapegoat for American humiliation. The court-martial which tried him was headed by his longtime personal enemy, Commodore Rodgers, and Captain Stephen Decatur (1779-1820) sat as a member, even though he had publicly declared beforehand that he thought Barron was at fault in the incident. The court found Barron negligent in not preparing his ship for the possibility of a hostile encounter and sentenced him to a five-year suspension without pay. He left the country, and although his suspension expired in 1812, he remained in Europe, engaged in commercial trading, and did not return to the United States until after the end of the war in 1815, asserting in his defense that he could not afford to return. He probably did not expect to be actively employed in any case, and as it turned out he never commanded a naval ship again.

The second unhappy event for which Barron is remembered is the duel he fought with Commodore Decatur at Bladensburg, Maryland, in March 1820. The sources of Decatur's enmity toward Barron have never been fully clarified. In the months before the duel, he had gone out of his way to impugn Barron's character and courage, provoking the challenge that finally came. In the exchange of shots, Decatur was mortally wounded; Barron's wounds were severe, but he survived. The death of the popular Decatur brought Barron's reputation to a new low. He continued in the navy until his death, on half pay or in a series of shore commands, usually the less significant ones. Ironically, when he died at Norfolk, Virginia, Barron was the senior officer of the U.S. Navy.

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