Norfolk Towne Assembly
The War of 1812 - Part 2: The Chesapeake Campaign - 1813
In our last post we examined the action in the War of 1812 along the US/Canadian border and in the Old Northwest Territories. As we saw, both sides fought and died, sometimes winning, and sometimes losing, but the result was that, by the end of 1814, there was little to show for it, either strategically or in terms of changes in borders. In this post, we are going to move further south and look at actions in the Chesapeake Bay Theater of Operations during 1813.
The Chesapeake Bay
As we learned in our last post, in June 1812, the US Congress declared war on Great Britain. Within a month, American forces launched an attempt to invade Canada which finally failed on August 16. Although hampered by its ongoing war with France, England began erecting fortifications and added extra garrisons along the American and Canadian border, and the Great Lakes. When the Americans failed in their second attempt to invade Canada, October 10-13, this defeat, along with the British capture of Detroit, left American forces at a disadvantage at the beginning of 1813.
For years, ships launched from Baltimore Harbor, and other American ports, had harassed the British fleet, and the British had labeled Baltimore as a den of privateers and pirates. Wishing to halt such assaults, as well as hamper transport of goods or troops by sea, the British Navy blockaded much of the eastern seaboard. In March, Royal Navy frigates and other warships sailed up the Chesapeake, blockading from Norfolk, Virginia to Harve de Grace, MD.
By mid-April, one division of Admiral John Warren’s fleet had taken up station off the Elizabeth River to blockade Hampton Roads, while Admiral Cockburn led the other on a series of raids on the towns of the upper Chesapeake. On the sixteenth, his squadron showed itself off the mouth of the Patapsco River, the gateway to Baltimore. Cockburn intended the display to hold the attention of the militia commander in the region, Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith, before sailing farther north. For the rest of the month, Cockburn sent expeditions of sailors and marines ashore, supported by warships and auxiliary vessels, to raid small port towns.
The first British incursions occurred in Maryland at Frenchtown and Elk Landing (Elkton) on April 29, 1813. At 7 AM British barges advanced upon the town. While the militia “made a brave but ineffective effort to intercept their advance” they were overmatched. By 1 PM the British had captured and destroyed the town. Among the items destroyed were copious quantities of U.S. army clothing, saddles, bridles, and other cavalry equipage destined for the American army in Canada. From Frenchtown the British moved onto Elkton but were repulsed by American troops at Fort Hollingsworth and Fort Defiance, earthen artillery redoubts along the river approach.
Cockburn next sailed toward Maryland’s Western Shore and in early May anchored off Havre de Grace at the mouth of the Susquehanna River. An artillery battery on Concord Point, called the Potato Battery, defended the seaward approach to the village of about sixty dwellings. The battery opened fire as the landing barges and a boat armed with Congreve rockets approached in the early morning of May 3, but British return fire forced most of the militia to abandon the position. Despite Cockburn’s threats of punishing resistance, the militia had opposed the landing and the town refused Cockburn’s ransom demand of $20,000. British sailors and marines looted and burned most of the town’s structures, including the home of Commodore John Rodgers.
Cockburn next sent an expedition up the Susquehanna River to burn a warehouse at Smith’s, or Bell’s, Ferry but was prevented from landing at Port Deposit by a battery manned by militia. Cockburn then targeted the nearby Principio Iron Works on the Northeast River. The Ironworks, described as one of the most valuable Works of its kind in America, containing one of the few cannon foundries in the country, was the most significant target in the region. The raiders destroyed at least forty-six cannons, including twenty-eight 32-pounders ready for shipment. Cockburn then weighed anchor for the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay where they burned the towns of Georgetown and Fredericktown. With its mission complete, the squadron returned to the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, where Admiral Warren was massing for the long-awaited assault on Norfolk.
Battles of Craney Island and Hampton
The attack on Norfolk, at this time, was made possible by the May arrival, from Bermuda, of the British Army’s 102nd Regiment of Foot, a company of Royal Artillery, two Independent Companies of Foreigners, and two battalions of Royal Marines. Col. Sir Thomas Beckwith, a veteran of Britain’s war against Napoleon, commanded the troops. The independent companies were composed of men who proved to be troublesome. Although led by British officers, their ranks included men of various nationalities, mostly French, who had been captured on European battlefields and who had chosen to serve in the British Army rather than remain prisoners of war. Lt. Col. Napier’s 102d Regiment of Foot also had a less-than-stellar reputation. Originally formed in 1789 as the New South Wales Corps to garrison Australia, it had once served as a penal regiment for soldiers court-martialed in other units. After recruiting “150 lads born in the Colony [Australia] of free birth and good character,” the unit had returned to England in 1810, where it had been reconstituted as the 102d Regiment of Foot. By June, Warren had over twenty-four hundred soldiers and marines under his command, which he believed sufficient to seize Norfolk.
The town’s defenses — Craney Island at the mouth of the Elizabeth River and two forts located closer to the city — were considerable. The federal government had neglected the two Revolutionary War–era forts until 1794, when Congress appropriated $3,000 to repair Fort Nelson on the west bank of the Elizabeth River at Windmill Point and to rebuild Fort Norfolk on the east bank. In 1813, Fort Nelson had parapets fourteen feet high and walls that were fifteen feet thick with embrasures for forty-two guns facing the water but was weaker on its landward side. Due to President Thomas Jefferson’s controversial policy of building low-cost gunboats for coastal defense instead of deep-water warships, and the importance of Gosport Navy Yard, twenty-one gunboats augmented the region’s defenses. Each gunboat measured between fifty to seventy-five feet long and was propelled by sails and oars. The boats mounted either one 24- or 32-pounder gun in the bow on a carriage and two 12-pounder carronades, one on each side. However, of the twenty-one gunboats, Capt. Charles Stewart and Navy Yard Superintendent Capt. John Cassin could only man seven of them. Captain Stewart reported to Secretary of the Navy William Jones that to prevent them falling into enemy hands, and being used against Norfolk’s defenders, he had withdrawn them within the fortifications of Norfolk.
In early June, the secretary of the Navy ordered Stewart to take command of the frigate Constitution, and temporarily replaced him with Master Commandant Joseph Tarbell. Captain Cassin, now the senior naval officer in the area, repositioned the gunboats toward the mouth of the Elizabeth River and forward of the line of sunken hulks blocking the channel. They formed a mutually supporting defensive arc that extended from Lambert’s Point on the east bank to low-lying Craney Island on the west.
Meanwhile, the War Department had assigned Capt. Walter K. Armistead of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin construction of fortifications on the southeast part of Craney Island facing the channel and to dig trenches at its vulnerable northwest corner. General Taylor assigned Lt. Col. Beatty to command the post and its garrison of about 450 men. Maj. Faulkner commanded all the artillery on Craney Island. He had two heavy naval 24-pounders and one 18-pounder positioned in the unfinished fort, augmented with the Portsmouth Light Artillery company’s four 6-pounder field guns and the Charlotte County Light Artillery acting as infantry. Maj. Waggoner commanded the infantry, which included his own battalion of the 4th Virginia Regiment and a company of riflemen.
When the defenders saw British masts approximately five miles away on 20 June 1813, the Americans knew that the long-expected attack was imminent. The next day, Taylor reinforced the defenders with a company of regulars from the 20th U.S. Infantry, a detachment of the 5th Virginia Regiment, and a detachment of riflemen from the 3rd Virginia Regiment. Tarbell sent about one hundred sailors to supply crews for the great guns and fifty marines to reinforce the infantry. At that point, Beatty then had approximately 740 men to oppose Warren’s soldiers and marines.
During the pre-dawn hours of 22 June, an alarm gun sounded due to an alert, but jittery, sentry on Craney Island who thought he saw a boat moving near the Thoroughfare, a narrow strait between the island and mainland. Although the sighting proved to be floating debris, the entire garrison was awake and ready for action as dawn broke. as the light increased, the Americans clearly saw redcoats landing and assembling across the water at the nearby Wise farm. Colonel Beatty arranged his infantry into a line that faced The Thoroughfare on the northwestern part of the island. Major Faulkner’s artillerymen—without the help of draft animals—manhandled the heavy naval guns to the threatened part of the island and combined them with the six-pounders into a single battery.
Col. Beckwith’s regiment made up the bulk of the British landing force. He had planned the landing at Wise farm as a diversion, while another detachment crossed Wise Creek to the Stringer farm on the western side of Craney Island. At the same time, more barges would carry soldiers and marines for a direct assault against the island’s northwestern beaches. The plan went wrong when the British found that neither Wise Creek nor The Thoroughfare was wadable and Beckwith’s troops, unable to cross, massed on the riverbank. Attempting to draw the American artillerymen’s attention away from this target, Beckwith had the supporting Congreve rocket batteries, located near a building on the Wise farm, fire their noisy missiles. This drew American counterbattery fire that destroyed the building and caused several casualties. British soldiers who fled from the cover of the building, as well as those on the beach, were subjected to canister and grapeshot from the American artillery.
As this bloodbath took place, the main British assault force of fifteen hundred soldiers and marines, in fifty barges, approached the northwestern shore of Craney Island. Led by flag captain, Capt. Pechell in Admiral Warren’s personal barge, the British landing craft began to close on the island at 11 AM. Capt. Pechell, commanding the amphibious force, had tried to time his assault with Beckwith’s flank attack, but was unaware that it had already been smashed by Faulkner’s artillery. As the British amphibious forces moved toward the beach, the American gun crews brought their guns to bear on this new threat. They held their fire until the barges were well within range, at which point the artillerymen fired a deadly volley. With most of the barges grounded on unseen mudflats about three hundred yards from shore, the Americans poured volley after volley into them. Men who jumped over the sides of their barges sunk knee-deep into the muck. Standing in the command barge, Royal Navy Capt. Hanchett was trying to rally his men when a cannon shot smashed through the hull and severely wounded him in the thigh. Hanchett and his men abandoned their barge, while nearby barges recovered survivors. Captain Pechell ordered a retreat to the ships, and Warren directed the troops in the vicinity of Wise farm to return to their ships as well.
The Americans had won. Captain Cassin wrote to Secretary of the Navy Jones that the gun crew from Constellation “fired their [cannon] more like riflemen than Artillerists,” but he did not mention the role Virginia militia had played at all. In contrast, Colonel Beatty praised all the participating units in his report, including the few gunboats that had briefly engaged British barges. The Americans reported no casualties, while the British suffered at least sixteen men killed and sixty-two missing.
Unable to take Norfolk, the Gosport Navy Yard, or the USS Chesapeake, Admiral Warren now turned his attention across the mouth of the James River to Hampton, Virginia. There, unlike at Craney Island, the British did not have to contend with river forts, gunboats, or sunken hulks. The many undefended inlets just west of town made Hampton especially vulnerable to an amphibious attack.
Cockburn positioned his ships off Blackbeard’s Point near Newport News. A joint force consisting of marines under Lt. Col. Richard Williams and soldiers of Beckwith’s regiment, almost two thousand men, landed about two miles west of Hampton on 25 June. As the landing party advanced eastward on the Celey Road, Cockburn’s small craft fired their cannon at a militia camp and artillery battery. Cockburn's actions, however, were merely a diversion to allow Williams’ and Beckwith’s troops to move to the defender’s right flank. Upon receiving reports of British troops advancing from the west, the American commander sent reinforcements, but these were ambushed as they approached the wood line that flanked the road. Confused fighting raged in the woods that separated the Celey Road and the main militia camp until the British landed some light field guns and fired grapeshot into the militia positions, sending the Americans in full flight through Hampton and northward on the road toward Yorktown. Just before being overrun, the militia artillerymen spiked their guns and then swam the creek to avoid capture.
As most of the inhabitants fled Hampton, British soldiers looted private homes and harassed civilians. The British claimed the plundering was committed in revenge for the Americans firing on their wounded at Craney Island. Later, while officers confirmed that their men committed several crimes, they were almost unanimous in blaming the green-coated Independent Companies of Foreigners for the most egregious conduct. Colonel Beckwith noted that with “their dispersing to plunder in every direction, [and] their Brutal treatment of several peaceable Inhabitants,” their officers “found it impossible to Check Them.” Because of their conduct, the colonel sent them to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Adm. Cochrane then sent Cockburn with a detachment of ships and elements of Beckwith’s regiment to raid Ocracoke and Portsmouth Islands, in North Carolina. This expedition netted two privateers. While Cockburn was away, Warren ordered Capt. Shirreff of HMS Barrossa to take his frigate, four shallow-draft vessels, and a landing force of six hundred men up the Potomac River toward Washington, D.C. The city had little military value, except as the seat of government, and therefore its defenses were less robust than those at Norfolk or Baltimore. Warren hoped threatening the national capital might compel the Americans to detach forces from the Canadian border. While the approaching British did cause the mobilization of local militia, the U.S. government did not redeploy any Regular Army units from the Canadian border. Secretary of War John Armstrong did, however, direct the 36th and 38th U.S. Infantry to deploy to Fort Washington, Maryland, overlooking the Potomac at Digges Point a few miles south of the capital district.
Fort Washington was the only fortification guarding the river approaches to Washington, D.C. and the post had significant deficiencies. Based on the plan used for Fort Madison at Annapolis, Maryland, the dimensions proved too large for the four acres at Digges Point. Having no alternative, its designer altered the plan, reducing the number of guns to fifteen, half as many it needed to be effective. Furthermore, the site did not allow enough room for barracks to house more than the artillerymen to man the guns facing the water and relied on militia to defend the landward side. American Maj. Gen. Wilkinson remarked that Fort Washington “could easily be knocked out either by the guns of a frigate or taken by a landing force at night from the back.” As it turned out, these concerns, and Armstrong’s preparations proved unnecessary. Upon encountering the treacherous Kettle Bottom Shoals, forty miles from the city, the British decided to return to the mouth of the Potomac.
Next, Cockburn landed about four hundred troops on Blackistone [St. Clement’s] Island off the western shore of Chesapeake Bay near St. Mary’s City, Maryland and put the men to work digging wells for a source of fresh water. When Secretary of State James Monroe heard of yet another British incursion into southern Maryland, he rode to personally reconnoiter, and requested Armstrong to send at least 350 regulars to drive off the enemy. Instead, the Secretary of War sent a small detachment, which did not intimidate the British as they plundered St. Mary’s, Charles, and Calvert Counties southeast of Washington
On August 8, the British anchored fifteen ships off the mouth of the Patapsco River, appearing to threaten Baltimore again, but it proved to be a ruse. The British weighed anchor after a few days and headed south to threaten Annapolis. After finding the state capital too strongly defended, Cockburn established a base on the eastern side of the Chesapeake Bay at Kent Island, from which his forces could threaten both Baltimore and Annapolis. After driving off the local militia, the 102nd Foot and a battalion of Royal Marines built huts for an extended stay.
Hearing rumors that there were two privateers under construction at the Eastern Shore town of St. Michaels, Maryland, the British planned a raid. On the evening of August 9, they embarked about three hundred troops in cutters and barges for a predawn attack that would catch the volunteer and drafted companies detached from the 12th Militia Brigade by surprise. The Talbot Volunteer Artillery Company had distributed their guns to several batteries - a four-gun battery located at Parrott’s Point was the town’s principal defense, while an auxiliary battery of two guns at the wharves and two guns at Mill Point made up the rest.
As the British approached to within thirty yards, the Parrot’s Point battery fired a single volley, which only caused a few casualties. British troops quickly overran the battery as the militiamen fled toward town. Vickers’ two guns then opened fire on the British, who after observing no privateer vessels in the harbor, destroyed the Parrott’s Point battery and returned to their barges. By 1 PM, they headed back to Kent Island. The Americans suffered no losses, but claimed to have inflicted twenty-nine British casualties, although the Royal Navy reported only two wounded.
A few days later, Cockburn went after a bigger target. The 38th Maryland Regiment had assembled near Queenstown, just a few miles away across the Kent Island Narrows. The understrength Queen Anne County militia, commanded by Maj. Nicholson, had an infantry battalion of 244 men; a cavalry unit of about one hundred men; and a 35-man artillery company with two 6-pounders. In the early morning of August 13, a cavalry scout informed Nicholson that British troops had crossed the Kent Narrows and were headed toward Queenstown. Alerted, the Queen Anne County Militia prepared to resist the British advance. At about 4 AM, a scout reported that several barges had entered Queen Anne’s Creek and three hundred British marines had landed at the Bowlingly Plantation. In fact, the British had mistakenly landed at Blakeford—the home of former Maryland governor Robert Wright—on the opposite shore. The error bought the militia time to avoid being surrounded, and Nicholson ordered a retreat toward Centreville, which allowed the British to seize Queenstown without further resistance. The British did not burn Bowlingly but looted several homes before withdrawing. Warren made another brief attempt at St. Michaels on 26 August and then brought the 1813 campaign to a close.
With hurricane season approaching, the British established a small base on Tangier Island for the naval forces that would stay behind to maintain the blockade and to train the liberated and runaway slaves who agreed to join the Colonial Marines in fighting the Americans in exchange for their freedom. In September, most of the fleet sailed for Halifax, while Cockburn took the rest to Bermuda for the winter. Although the 1813 British campaign had spread fear throughout the region, they had failed to divert U.S. forces from Canada.
We hope you found Part 2 of our series on the War of 1812 to be interesting and informative. In Part 3 of our series, we will look at the 1814 campaign in the Chesapeake Bay, including the burning of Washington DC and the attack on Baltimore and Ft. McHenry. Please join us again in two-weeks for this next chapter.
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