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!”
“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.”
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.”