Commodore Joshua Barney: “Forty came on board the evening of the 13th. All drunk. & caused the greatest confusion”

On April 15, 1814, Commodore Joshua Barney again wrote to Secretary of the Navy William Jones describing Captain Robert T. Spence’s resistance to transferring his men to the Chesapeake Flotilla. Barney was even more upset when the men finally arrived but were so drunk he had to “[put] the most of them in Irons” and send seventeen others to the hospital.

Detail of a grog cup, U.S. Navy
Detail of a grog cup with the incised letters “CW” which archaeologists believe may be the initials of USS Scorpion’s cook Caesar Wentworth. Courtesy of NHHC UAB, Department of the Navy

Writing for the U.S.S. Constitution Museum in Feeding a Frigate, Commander Tyrone G. Martin describes how the United States Navy inherited the tradition of a twice daily “spirit ration” from the British Navy. Since the 1740s, British sailors had enjoyed a serving of rum mixed with an equal share of water. By mixing alcohol and water, Rear Admiral Edward “Old Grog” Vernon (credited with inventing the unusual cocktail) hoped to discourage binge drinking since the water made the rum unpalatable in a short time so sailors could not save up rations for later.

Around 1801, Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith experimented with substituting American sour mash bourbon for the traditional West Indies rum. Around the War of 1812, a Navy sailor would typically receive half their ration at noon and the remainder in the late afternoon after a meal. Sailors who passed on their ration for the day were credited with four cents on their account. Evidently, the sailors recruited by Captain Spence in Fell’s Point the exercised no such restraint.

Thanks again to the Blog of 1812 and the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum for sharing their transcript of Joshua Barney’s correspondence, that we have published below:

Baltimore April 15th 1814


I had the honour to receive yours of yesterday, and shall communicate the contents to Captain Spence in the morning. The Conduct of that officer in not transferring the men, put me under the necessity of telling him that I understood it was your intention it should be done, and if so, why not, when he saw that the enemy was at the mouth of the river, in consequence of which he told me they should be sent onboard, & which was done in a manner to require censure. Forty came on board the evening of the 13th. All drunk. & caused the greatest confusion. Yesterday twenty Eight more were sent in the same situation, so that I was under the necessity of putting the most of them in Irons, (all of which has a fatal tendency) Seventeen are, returned, as in the Hospital, making in the whole Eighty five. I know not what has become of the remainder, but I shall be better informed in the morning.

Yesterday Mr. Frazier arrived from St. Michaels; he came over in an Open Barge, with 30 men for the flotilla. He passed a 74 and two Schooners, a few miles below Sandy point, and above Annapolis. They had been for two days off St. Michaels, I suppose, to hear of our Barges but finding them safe, they proceeded up the Bay. They have taken a number of Craft & set fire to them in the night.

The weather has been bad all day & I have no news from below. I have no certain news of my look out boat but rumour says, she is in some creek below, yet I fear for her safety—

I hope to move down in a few days if the weather will permit, with Seven heavy Barges, four smaller, the Scorpion, Galley & one Gun boat—

If I had the Sea fencibles which are doing worse than nothing at the fort, I could man five more Barges.

I am with respect your Obt. Servt.

Joshua Barney

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