On March 9, 1798, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the newly created United States Navy. Barron demonstrated superior seamanship abilities as an officer of the frigate United States. Two years later, he was promoted to Captain and commanded the sloop-of-war Warren during the final months of the Quasi-War with France. He served in the First Barbary War in the Mediterranean and supervised the construction of a gunboat.
Barron commanded the frigate USS Chesapeake as a commodore. On June 22, 1807, his ship was involved in the Chesapeake–Leopard Affair, which preceded and helped cause the War of 1812. The British frigate HMS Leopard hailed his frigate outside of Hampton Roads and asked to search for British Navy deserters. Barron refused. The Leopard then opened fire on the Chesapeake, killing three crewmen and wounding eighteen. Caught completely unprepared for battle, Barron surrendered. A British party boarded his ship and took away four alleged deserters.
At a court-martial, Barron was convicted of not preparing his ship in advance for possible action, and was suspended for 5 years without pay. John Rodgers was the president of the court-martial, and Stephen Decatur was a member. When Barron finally returned to duty, he remained controversial and was greatly criticized. Commodore Stephen Decatur, a former subordinate, was one of the most vocal. Barron challenged Stephen Decatur to a duel with pistols, which they fought on March 22, 1820. Barron was seriously injured in the leg, and Decatur was fatally wounded.
Barron remained in the Navy on shore duty, becoming the Navy's senior officer in 1839. He died in Norfolk, Virginia, on April 21, 1851. His personal papers, which primarily relate to the Chesapeake–Leopard Affair, can be found in the Special Collections Research Center at the College of William & Mary.
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