Barron was born in Hampton, Virginia, on November 28, 1809, the son of Samuel Barron (1765–1810) and Jane Sawyer Barron. He had at least one sister. His family had a distinguished naval tradition. His father and his uncle James Barron (1768–1851) were both captains in the United States Navy. They had learned seamanship as young men during the Revolutionary War (1775–1783) when their father James Barron (1740–1787), who also had a brother in the navy, was commodore of the Virginia State Navy. Before Barron’s first birthday his father died, and as a tribute to the elder Samuel Barron, the Department of the Navy appointed his namesake son a midshipman on January 1, 1812.
When Barron was only six years old the Navy Department ordered him to duty at the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth. He was the youngest person ever to receive a commission and go on active duty in the U.S. Navy. For the first four years he learned his numbers and letters, then before his eleventh birthday he sailed on his first cruise aboard the USS Columbus, flagship of the Mediterranean fleet. During his career Barron sailed on thirteen extended cruises, spent more than ten years at sea, and performed shore duty at seven stations. In addition to the Mediterranean, he sailed in the West Indies, off the west coast of Africa, and both coasts of South America. He was aboard the USS Brandywine when it returned the Marquis de Lafayette to France in June 1825, and during the Mexican War he commanded the USS Perry on the Pacific coast. Barron won promotion to lieutenant at the age of eighteen, was made a commander on July 15, 1847, and in September 1855 rose to the coveted rank of captain.
Barron married Imogen Wright, of Norfolk, on October 31, 1832. They had three sons and three daughters. Barron established a financial arrangement with brokers in New York and Norfolk to provide for his family when he was at sea. As was the custom in Tidewater Virginia, he also supplied his wife with household slaves. Barron was in command of the Navy Station at the Gosport Navy Yard in 1855 when a yellow fever epidemic broke out. He used the navy’s resources to help those who were suffering, but his wife and a daughter died as he attended them.
Barron also served during the 1850s as a member of the Lighthouse Board in Washington, where his distinguished bearing and courtly manners won him the nickname of “the Navy diplomat.” Tiring of Washington politics and debates on slavery, he requested sea duty and in 1858 received command of the USS Wabash, flagship of the Mediterranean squadron. When he returned to the United States in 1860, Barron was assigned once again to the Lighthouse Board, where he shared duties with Raphael Semmes, a future admiral in the Confederate navy.
In the spring of 1861, as the secession crisis grew in intensity, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles sent Barron and Senator Stephen R. Mallory, of Florida (the future Confederate secretary of the navy), to mediate between local secessionists and the military personnel at the Pensacola Navy Base. Like Robert E. Lee, Barron strongly opposed secession but decided that he would side with his native state if it left the Union. A few days after Virginia adopted the, Barron tendered his resignation from the U.S. Navy. Welles refused to accept it and on May 14, 1861, dismissed Barron from the service.
Civil War Years
On May 26, 1861, Barron received a captain’s commission in the Virginia State Navy, and he obtained another in the Confederate States Navy, effective June 10, 1861, after Virginia joined the Confederacy. His first assignment as chief of the Bureau of Orders and Detail was to create a navy. He and his staff managed to acquire ships and arm and man them, although his fleet was never a match for the Union navy. On July 20, 1861, Barron assumed the additional responsibility of defending the North Carolina coast, but he and most of his men were captured on August 30, 1861, when a superior Northern force took Fort Hatteras. He was imprisoned at Fort Columbus in New York Harbor until mid-November 1861, then at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor until his exchange in July 1862.
Following his release Barron spent two months with his children at his sister’s home in Warrenton, North Carolina. During that time the Confederate navy ordered him first to take charge of the Navy Ordnance Depot at Charlotte, North Carolina, and then to construct ironclad riverboats at Chattanooga, Tennessee, but he did not report to either place. Finally, he was ordered to take command of all naval forces in Virginia waters and accepted that assignment. As head of the James River Squadron until March 1863, Barron spent most of his time in Richmond serving on various committees rather than aboard his flagship, the Patrick Henry. His most difficult duty was restructuring the navy ranks to place them in better alignment with those of the army. He also went on a secret mission to Jackson, Mississippi, with authority to pay $1 million for six Union river gunboats, but Barron found only two gunboats, both in poor condition and under the command of civilian boatmen rather than Union navy officers. Furthermore, the governor of Mississippi and Generalhad better use for the money, and so Barron arranged to leave the funds in their custody and returned to Richmond.
On August 30, 1863, Barron was ordered to Europe with the rank of commodore. Commander James D. Bulloch at that time had a small fleet of ships under construction and almost ready for action in Great Britain and France. Barron was to serve as the senior Confederate navy officer in Europe and to assume command of the ships. He reached London by October 12, 1863, and arranged for a Liverpool firm to handle Confederate naval funds. He then moved to Paris, where he established his headquarters. Barron made no effort to exercise his higher rank over Bulloch. As senior navy officer he made duty assignments in accordance with Bulloch’s wishes, authorized pay vouchers, and played a social role in Paris. By the time Barron settled in Paris, the European nations had discovered alternative sources of cotton and they had decided to remain neutral in the American Civil War. They accordingly refused to release the warships to the Confederacy.
Battle of Cherbourg During the Civil War
The Confederate steamer Alabama, at right, sinks into the English Channel off the coast of Cherbourg, France, after being defeated in battle by the USS Kearsage on June 19, 1864. This painting was executed by Thomas P. Moses of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, six years after the event.
Captain John Winslow (third from left) stands on the deck of the U.S.S. Kearsage with his fellow officers after sinking the C.S.S. Alabama off the coast of Cherbourg, France, on June 19, 1864.
Raphael Semmes, the captain in command of the Alabama, a Confederate commerce raider, leans on a Confederate flag in this photographic portrait made on January 21, 1863, in Kingston, Jamaica. The Alabama had stopped in Jamaica to drop off prisoners captured after a sea battle. In the spring of 1864 Semmes sailed his ship to a dry dock in Cherbourg, France, for necessary repairs. The USS Kearsage arrived in the harbor, a battle ensued, and the CSS Alabama was sunk. Though Semmes was rescued by an English yacht, many of his crew members died or were captured.
On January 20, 1865, Barron requested permission to return to Virginia in order to take “a more active part in this war.” That permission—indeed, order—arrived in mid-February, and Barron began to arrange the return of most of the officers in Europe. He did not reach home in time to play any other military role, but he found that his family had safely survived, including his namesake son who had also served in the Confederate navy. Barron applied for a presidential pardon in September 1865 but did not receive one until October 10, 1867.
Barron’s financial agents had guarded his interests, and he bought a farm called Malvern near Loretto in Essex County. His unmarried daughter Imogen Barron lived with him at Malvern for the remainder of his life in retirement. Samuel Barron died of what was described as old age at his home on February 26, 1888, and was buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery in Norfolk.