War of 1812: An American surprise at Craney Island

By MARK ST. JOHN ERICKSON | Published: June 22, 2013

When Lt. Col. Henry Beatty looked out over the earthworks at Craney Island on the morning of June 22, 1813, the vision of imperial might that stretched before his eyes could hardly have been more daunting.

Tall-masted British warships filled the American commander's view of Hampton Roads from one side to the other — and rowing back and forth among the 22 vessels anchored off the mouth of the Elizabeth River were some 50 attack barges bristling with sailors and soldiers.

Simple arithmetic told Beatty that these swarming boats carried two or three times the patchwork force of nearly 800 militiamen, army regulars and navy sailors that defended the channel to Norfolk and the U.S. frigate Constellation. Two miles to the west, another British detachment of at least equal size had already landed and was making its way through the woods to the narrow tidal creek that separated the island from the mainland.

In every land engagement since the Royal Navy arrived in February to pummel the people of the Chesapeake Bay, Americans had run rather than face such odds.

But within hours of nailing their 15-star flag to a pole and hoisting it over their guns in defiance, the garrison at Craney Island had transformed what looked like certain defeat into a victory so unexpected and complete that their foes retreated in humiliation.

"The British had all the advantages. They had the numbers. They had the firepower — and they should have won," said former Virginia War Museum director John V. Quarstein.

"But they also were arrogant. They were expecting another frolic. And they ended up getting pounded by the American guns."

Defending Craney Island

Norfolk's bustling waterfront and proximity to the mouth of the bay made it a likely target early on.

But it drew still more attention after the British chased the Constellation into Norfolk just hours after entering the Chesapeake.

During the previous months of the war, the powerful American frigates had embarrassed their less heavily armed Royal Navy counterparts numerous times, prompting a former foreign secretary to complain in the House of Commons that "the sacred spell of the invincibility of the British Navy was broken."

So when a lieutenant from the Constellation visited the blockading fleet under a flag of truce, the British officers said they would strike at the stranded frigate soon, vowing that "they must & will have it!"

"The British navy really wanted the Constellation," says Williamsburg historian Stuart L. Butler, retired assistant chief of the military archives branch of the National Archives, who describes the threat in his 2013 book "Defending the Old Dominion: Virginia and its Militia in the War of 1812."

"(Adm.) Cockburn was said to be so obsessed that he disguised himself and snuck into Norfolk to see it in person. But I don't know if that story is true."

Far more certain was the vulnerability of the frigate and the port's defenses, which rested on two forts that commanded a down-river section of the channel.

Constellation Capt. Charles Stewart saw the weakness while mooring behind their guns, then wrote the Navy secretary about the urgent need to control the river's mouth by fortifying Craney Island.

Ignoring a reply that assigned Norfolk's defenses to the army and militia, Stewart allied with militia leader Brig. Gen. Robert Barraud Taylor — a graduate of the College of William and Mary — and army engineer Walter K. Armistead to plan and construct the new stronghold. Joining this council of war was Gosport Navy Yard Commandant John Cassin, who stationed about 20 gunboats across the channel.

"The cooperation between the militia, the navy and the army was extraordinary," says historian Gordon C. Calhoun of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in Norfolk. "It made all the difference."

Still, a letter from the Barron Papers at William and Mary's Swem Library shows that some militia leaders raised questions about Taylor's strategy just three days before the British assault.

So worried were they by the isolated position that they voted to withdraw.

"Taylor called the navy and army officers in — and enough was said that the council changed its mind," Butler says.

"But they almost abandoned Craney Island on the eve of the British attack."

A two-pronged assault

Instead the combined forces rushed to improve the low-lying 50-acre stronghold, with the Constellation adding three large-caliber naval guns to the battery of four smaller 6-pound field pieces manned by the militiamen of the Portsmouth Light Artillery.

Some 150 sailors and Marines from the ship and Navy yard reinforced the militia garrison, too, seasoning the volunteer force — which included riflemen from Hampton and Isle of Wight — with their gunnery and small-arms skills.

These defenders had just finished dragging their three biggest artillery pieces to a new breastwork on the west side of the island when about 2,300 Royal Marines, British infantrymen and French soldiers under the command of Col. Sir Thomas Sidney Beckwith arrived at the creek — only to discover that it could not be forded at high tide.

Though stymied by the unexpected obstacle, Beckwith ordered his Congreve rocket battalion to open fire from behind a house near the shore, sparking a deadly reply from the American guns.

One shot passed through the wall of the house and smashed into the chimney, sending bricks showering down on the hapless British ducking for cover. Others tore into the reeling column of men as they tried to retreat through the sudden havoc and carnage.

Lt. Col. Charles Napier was trying to rally his force when a nearby sergeant was struck and killed. At least eight or nine others were hit during those first chaotic moments, he later reported.

"One (of the sergeants of the 102nd was) recovered, the other killed, both his legs being shot off close to his body," Napier wrote.

"Good God! What a horrid sight it was!"

To the north of the island, the flotilla of some 50 barges was approaching at nearly the same time in two columns.

Standing in the rear of the lead boat was Royal Navy Capt. John Martin Hanchette — the illegitimate son of King George III — who was reportedly eating strawberries and drinking champagne under the shade of his umbrella. One British historian also describes him as having wrapped himself in a Union Jack in order to inspire his sailors.

When this distinctive green barge known as the "Centipede" grounded on the unsuspected mud flats some 300 yards from shore, however, Hanchette was among the first to fall in the withering American fire. And when his desperate crew tried to escape the mire and turn around, they created a traffic jam that transformed the confident assault into an easy target.

"The British became the victims of their own overweening arrogance," says Maryland historian Christopher T. George, author of "Terror on the Chesapeake: The War of 1812 on the Bay" and editor of the Journal of the War of 1812.

"They thought they were facing ill-trained rustics. So they rowed in as if they were just waiting to be shot at. They were sitting ducks."

A landmark victory

Just how many British soldiers and sailors felt the sting of the unexpected American marksmanship is hard to determine.

Adm. Sir John Borlase Warren lists only one death in his official report. But in other accounts, including that of an American prisoner on board one of the British ships, the casualties numbered in the dozens if not scores.

Mortified British officers told Capt. Samuel Travis, who had been captured just days before on the York River, that one well-placed shot cut off the feet and legs of nearly an entire boat crew. Another landed amid a column of soldiers on land and killed at least seven, while many others in both the land and water assaults were so seriously wounded they had to be carried back to their vessels.

"A sharp cannonade from the works on the island cost us 71 men, without returning a shot," Napier lamented in his journal.

"We despise the Yankees too much."

Whatever the exact damage inflicted by the American guns, however, the humiliated British fleet retired almost immediately and never threatened Norfolk again.

Not a single defender was lost.

"You can't go visit Craney Island today. It's not immortalized by a song like the 'Star-Spangled Banner,'" Quarstein says.

"But the battle there was the first big American victory in a long string of defeats on the Chesapeake Bay — and it deserves to be better remembered."

Find more stories on Hampton Roads history at dailypress.com/history and Facebook.com/hrhistory.

The War of 1812 in Hampton Roads

In February: War comes to Hampton Roads

June 12: A bloody battle on the York

June 19: Gunboats attack off Newport News

Today: An American surprise at Craney Island

Coming up: British raiders pillage Hampton

Terror along the James

Want to go?

Battle of Craney Island Bicentennial

Tours and exhibits at historic Fort Norfolk. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, June 22 and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday, June 23. Free. Corner of Colley Avenue and Front Street, Norfolk. 757-640-1720.

Celebrate Kids, featuring activities and games. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday. Nominal fees charged. Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum and Lightship Portsmouth Museum, 2 High St. and High Street Landing, Portsmouth. 757-393-8983.

Portsmouth's Patriotic Celebration, featuring re-enactors, flag raising, patriotic music and more. 11:30 a.m.-noon Saturday. Free. High Street Landing, Portsmouth.

Norfolk's Victory Celebration, featuring flag-raising, 21-gun salute and the pealing of church bells. Noon Saturday. Free. Fort Norfolk.

For more information: http://www.craneyisland1813.com

Online: Go to dailypress.com/warof1812 for more stories on the War of 1812 in Hampton Roads.