Craney Island — Another War of 1812 Episode

Battle of Craney Island

Bat­tle of Craney Island

In June, 1813, the British were cocky. They had only encoun­tered inef­fec­tive local mili­tia. They had block­ad­ed Chesa­peake Bay and chased the frigate U.S.F. Con­stel­la­tion into Nor­folk, VA. At Craney Island, pro­tect­ing both Hamp­ton Roads and ship­yards at Portsmouth and Nor­folk, VA, was a small mil­i­tary con­tin­gent. In every land bat­tle so far, the Amer­i­cans had run rather than fight over­whelm­ing odds. The British did not expect much oppo­si­tion.

Instead, they planned to cap­ture the island, con­tin­ue on to the larg­er Vir­ginia cities, and cap­ture the strand­ed frigate. Accord­ing to a lieu­tenant from the Con­stel­la­tion who vis­it­ed the blockad­ing fleet under a flag of truce, the British offi­cers said they would strike at the ship soon, vow­ing that “they must & will have it!”

USS Constellation-1812

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.”

General Robert Taylor

Gen­er­al Robert Tay­lor

As Gen­er­al Tay­lor wrote in his let­ter of July 4, 1813, to the Sec­re­tary of War: “The whole force on the island at the time of the attack, con­sist­ed of 50 rifle­men, 446 infantry of the line, 91 state artillery, and 150 sea­men and marines fur­nished by Capt. Tar­bell. Of these, 43 were on, the sick list.”

He added, “I can­not with­hold my grate­ful acknowl­edg­ments to Com. Cassin, Capt. Tar­bell, and the offi­cers and crew of the Con­stel­la­tion and gun­boats, who have in every instance aid­ed our oper­a­tions with a cor­dial­i­ty, zeal and abil­i­ty, not to be sur­passed.”

The ship’s crew helped, but as British Napi­er lament­ed in his jour­nal, “A sharp can­non­ade from the works on the island cost us 71 men, with­out return­ing a shot.”

The British did not cap­ture the Con­stel­la­tion, and they left the area with­out attack­ing Nor­folk.

The report­ed num­ber of British casu­al­ties var­ied by source. There were approx­i­mate­ly 80 killed, wound­ed and miss­ing. One barge was cap­tured and at least two more were severe­ly dam­aged. The defend­ers did not suf­fer any casu­al­ties in the first major War of 1812 vic­to­ry on Chesa­peake Bay.

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.

You can’t go vis­it Craney Island today. It’s not immor­tal­ized by a song like the ‘Star-Span­gled Ban­ner,’” he adds.

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.”


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