War of 1812 in Virginia

quickly-built fortifications at Craney Island blocked a British attempt to seize the Gosport Navy Yard in 1814
quickly-built fortifications at Craney Island blocked a British attempt to seize the Gosport Navy Yard in 1814
Source: Library of Congress, Part of the Province of Virginia (1791)

In North America, the British navy played the primary role at the start of the War of 1812. The British army was fighting against Napoleon in Europe, until his defeat in April 1814 enabled the shipment of 14,000 troops across the Atlantic Ocean. The army was then able to attack major cities. It captured Washington, DC, but Americans successfully defended Baltimore in August 1814 and New Orleans in January 1815.

In 1813, before arrival of substantial numbers of army soldiers, the navy's main task was to blockade American ports and interrupt trade. Damaging the American economy was expected to reduce public support of "Mr. Madison's War," and divert enough resources to deter another invasion of Canada.

British warships began patrolling the Chesapeake Bay in February, 1813. Maryland towns were briefly occupied and looted, including Harve de Grace on May 3. The Principio Iron Works were destroyed as well. During the 1813 Chesapeake Campaign in Virginia:1

British raids took place on Carter Creek, Rappahannock River, Pagan Creek, James River, Lawnes Creek, Rosier Creek, and Mattox Creek... The looting and destruction that began in 1813 severely affected the economy and commerce of the Chesapeake Bay region for many years.

The raids enriched British officers. They were rewarded with a share of the goods seized during a raid, in a form of authorized theft. Alexandria was occupied in August 28-September 3, 1814, after the British sailed up the Potomac River as another force marched through Maryland and occupied Washington, DC. During the five days of occupation, the British loaded tobacco, flour, and cotton from the warehouses onto captured American merchant ships.

The terms under which Alexandria's common council surrendered to the British were:2

Terms of Capitulation. His majesty's ship Sea Horse, off Alexandria, 29th August, 1814.
Gentlemen -
In consequences of a deputation yesterday received from the city of Alexandria, requesting favorable terms for the safety of the city, the under mentioned are the only conditions in my power to offer. The town of Alexandria, with the exception of public works, shall not be destroyed, unless hostilities are commenced on the part of the Americans, nor shall the inhabitants be molested in any manner whatever, or their dwelling houses entered, if the following articles are complied with:
All naval and ordinance stores, public or private, must immediately be delivered up.
Possession will be immediately taken of all the shipping, and their furniture must be sent on board by the owners without delay.
The vessels that have been sunk must be delivered up in the state they were, on the 19th of August, the day the squadron passing the Kettle Bottoms.
Merchandise of every description must be instantly delivered up, and to prevent any irregularity, that might be committed in its embarkation, the merchants have it at their option to load the vessels generally employed for that purpose, when they shall be towed off by us.
All merchandise that has been removed from Alexandria, since the 19th inst. is to be included in the above articles.
Refreshments of every description to be supplied [to] the ships, and paid for at the market price, by bills of the British government.
Officers will be appointed to see that article No. 2, 3, 4 and 5, are strictly complied with, and any deviation of non-compliance, on the part of the inhabitants of Alexandria, will render this treaty null and void.
I have the honor to be, John A. Gordon, Captain of H.M. ship Sea Horse, and senior officer of H.M. ships off Alexandria. To the Common Council of the town of Alexandria.

after the British Army burned public buildings in Washington DC, Alexandria surrendered to a fleet and allowed its warehouses to be looted
after the British Army burned public buildings in Washington DC, Alexandria surrendered to a fleet and allowed its warehouses to be looted
Source: Architect of the Capitol, British Burn the Capitol, 1814

The 1813 raids in the Chesapeake Bay were a sideshow while Britain focused most resources on defeating Napoleon. The attacks on Virginia and Maryland towns and plantations near the water were punishments intended to force Americans to end the war, rather than part of an effort to re-conquer and occupy the former colonies.

Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn perfected amphibious landing techniques for raids against the militia found along the shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay. Cockburn assembled an overwhelming force of trained marines and used:3

...first-light landings to provide the element of surprise, armed boats to offer fire support against artillery and coastal defenses ashore during the infantry assault and the presence of Congreve Rocket boats leading the assault to strike terror into both defender and citizen alike.

In July 1813, Cockburn forced an American army regiment at Leonard's Town in Maryland to withdraw. After the British seized supplies there, the fleet sailed into the Nominy River on the Virginia side:4

...while the main body was disembarking at the ferry, the Americans fell back, and, although pursued for several miles, escaped with the loss of a few prisoners... After taking on board all the tobacco and other stores found in the place, with a quantity of cattle, and destroying all the store-houses and buildings, the rear-admiral re-embarked; and dropping down to another point of the Nominy river, observed some movements on shore. Upon this he again landed with the marines. The Americans fired a volley, but, on the advance of the marines, fled into the woods.

Every thing in the neighbourhood was therefore destroyed or brought off; and, after visiting the country in several other directions, covering the escape of the negroes who were anxious to join him, the rear-admiral quitted the river, and returned to the ships with 135 refugee negroes, two captured schooners, a large quantity of tobacco, dry goods, and cattle, and a few prisoners.

The Nominy River raid occurred after the British had failed to capture Norfolk and Portsmouth, where the USS Constellation and the Gosport Navy Yard were military targets. The British attack on Norfolk and Portsmouth was repulsed at the mouth of the Elizabeth River on June 22, 1813. The Americans fortified Craney Island, and the British had to capture it in order to sail up the Elizabeth River channel.

The British had a divided command which planned and led the failed assault on the Craney Island fortifications. Colonel Sir Sidney Beckwith was responsible for the soldiers. Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren was in charge of the navy, with Rear Admiral George Cockburn as his second-in-command. They timed the attack badly.

Beckwith's 800 troops included the 102md Regiment, Royal Marines, plus the 1st and 2nd Independent Companies of Foreigners. The Independent Companies had ben formed with French prisoners and deserters brought from Europe.

The British force landed near the Nansemond River and marched to the western edge of Craney Island. At the Thoroughfare, the channel separating Craney Island from the mainland, they were blocked by high water. American artillery forced a retreat, but some of the Independent Company soldiers deserted rather than return to the British ships.

On the east side of Craney Island, the two navy leaders launched an amphibious assault. 15 barges loaded with 500 troops headed to shore, rowing against an ebb tide. The boats grounded on mudflats as the water level dropped, and became easy targets for American guns. The British barges with Congreve rockets and cannon, which could have returned fire against the Craney Island fortifications, were at the back of the flotilla and could not be used. The amphibious assault, like the effort on the west side of Craney Island, was a total failure.5

Hoffler's Creek and Craney Island have been transformed since the Battle of Craney Island in 1814
Hoffler's Creek and Craney Island have been transformed since the Battle of Craney Island in 1814
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

The British took out their revenge of that loss on Hampton three days later, attacking and occupying that city between June 25-27, 1813. The Independent Companies were assigned to outpost duties, and were not under the direct supervision of British officers.

The French units were undisciplined, and both enlisted men and officers deserted. An unusually uncontrolled level of looting and rape occured:6

...it appears that, in the course of a 24-hour period, they killed at least one and perhaps a second American prisoner in cold blood, murdered an elderly man, wounded his wife and another older man, and sexually assaulted between five and seven American women besides robbing several civilian residences. There was never much doubt that the Independent Companies were responsible for these crimes as they spoke French and were dressed in green uniforms unlike the rest of Beckwith's troops who were clad in the more normal red or blue, and thus witnesses were able to easily identify them. Most of the crimes took place in and around isolated farmhouses outside Hampton...

An English officer wrote in his diary:7

Every horror was perpetrated with impunity - rape, murder, pillage - and not a man was punished.

When challenged in a letter from an American officer to explain the behavior of the British forces, a different British officer defended the actions by claiming they were justified retaliation. The officer asserted that American cruelty during the battle at Craney Island justified what happened at Hampton as appropriate retaliation:8

...the excesses of which you complain at Hampton were occasioned by a proceeding of so extraordinary a nature that if I had not been an eyewitness I could not have credited it. At the recent attempt on Craney Island, the troops in a barge sunk by the fire of your guns clung to the wreck of the boat. Several Americans, I assure you most solemnly, waded off from the Island and, in presence of all engaged, fired upon and shot these poor fellows. With a feeling natural to such a proceeding, the men of that corps landed at Hampton.

A British officer made a claim which the Americans declared to be false:9

One boat with thirty of the foreigners stranded with a shot through her, and the Americans, wading to it, deliberately massacred the poor men!

the British raided up the Potomac River in 1814, reaching Alexandria after the burning of public buildings in Washington
the British raided up the Potomac River in 1814, reaching Alexandria after the burning of public buildings in Washington
Source: Perry-Castaneda Library Map Collection, Campaigns of the War of 1812 ("Historical Atlas" by William R. Shepherd, 1923)

The British were stretched thin by the war in Europe and North America until Napoleon was defeated. During the 1813 Chesapeake Bay expedition, Colonel Sir Sidney Beckwith had only 2,000 soldiers in Bermuda that he could use in the American campaign.

One way to gain extra manpower was to recruit French soldiers who had been captured in Europe, and French conscripts who had deserted to the British. Those French prisoners/deserters who were willing to serve in the British Army were organized into Independent Companies of Foreigners. Two companies totaling 300 men were sent to Bermuda and then North America.

As in the American Revolution, during the war of 1812 British forces were willing to carry enslaved men, women, and children away from their white "owners" in Virginia. The British organized formerly enslaved men in the Corps of Colonial Marines, comparable to the Ethiopian Regiment created by Lord Dunmore in the American Revolution in November 1775. On April 2, 1814, Alexander Cochrane issued a proclamation saying in part:10

This is therefore to Give Notice,
That all those who may be disposed to emigrate from the UNITED STATES will, with their Families, be received on board His Majesty's Ships or Vessels of War, or at the Military Posts that may be established, upon or near the Coast of the UNITED STATES, when they will have their choice of either entering into His Majesty's Sea or Land Forces, or of being sent as FREE settlers to the British Possessions in North America or the West Indies, where they will meet with due encouragement.

Of the 3,600 African Americans recruited into the Corps of Colonial Marines, 550–700 were deployed as fighters known as "Blue Jackets." The rest of the recruits were used as laborers. The Corps of Colonial Marines were based on Tangier Island, where they built Fort Albion.

The first raid by the Corps of Colonial Marines was up Pungoteague Creek on the Eastern Shore. British officers were favorably impressed by the skills of the soldiers.11

the first raid of the Corps of Colonial Marines was up Pungoteague Creek, north of Hacks Neck on the Eastern Shore
the first raid of the Corps of Colonial Marines was up Pungoteague Creek, north of Hacks Neck on the Eastern Shore
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

The December 1814 Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812, though news did not reach North American until after the Battle of New Orleans in January, 1815. The treaty was ratified by both sides in February 1815. the USS Constellation was finally able to sail out of the Elizabeth River on March 15, 1815.

Since the war was over, the British removed whatever materials they could from Fort Albion and burned the rest before sailing to Bermuda. A dispute over what the British removed from Tangier Island was not settled until 11 years later.

Article 1 of the treaty included:12

All territory, places, and possessions whatsoever taken by either party from the other during the war, or which may be taken after the signing of this Treaty, excepting only the Islands hereinafter mentioned, shall be restored without delay...,/dd>

The definition of "property" included the enslaved Americans who had fled to the British during the war. When American commissioners arrived at Tangier Island to demand return of people who had escaped slavery, citing Article 1, the British official there reported to his superiors:13

That part of the first article of the Treaty relative to Slaves is a most melancholy Thing, as I am well Convinced that the American Government, considers that the whole of the Black Battalion, comes within it, and will be given up.

Rear Admiral Cockburn refused to abandon the members of the Corps of Colonial Marines or the families that had reached Tangier Island. He issued orders that "em>on no account a single negro be left except by his request" for those who had reached Tangier by 4:00pm on February 17, 1815, the moment when the treaty was ratified.

Many enslaved people had already been transported away from Tangier Island before the American Commissioners arrived. James Monroe, the US Secretary of State, send representatives to Nova Scotia, the West Indies, and Bermuda with the intent of interviewing formerly enslaved people and asking if they wanted to return. The hope was that British treatment was so harsh that a voluntary return to enslavement was preferable, but none chose that option.

The Americans claims under Article 1 were disputed for years by the British, and in 1818 Czar Alexander I of Russia agreed to serve as arbitrator. In 1822, he determined that most of the American claims were valid. In 1826 the British finally paid $1.2 million in compensation. None of the those who escaped slavery were forced to return to the United States. In essence, the British financed freedom for over 3,000 people.14

The Chesapeake Bay: Avenue for Attack

Craney Island

Did Enslaved Virginians Choose to Be Loyalists or Revolutionaries in the Revolutionary War?

British prisoners from the HMS Saint Domingo were transported from Northumberland County to Richmond in April, 1813
British prisoners from the HMS Saint Domingo were transported from Northumberland County to Richmond in April, 1813
Source: Library of Virginia, War of 1812 Bicentennial Collection

Links

References

1. "The Decision at Craney Island," American Battlefield Trust, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/decision-craney-island; "1813 Chesapeake Campaign," National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/stsp/learn/historyculture/1813-chesapeake-campaign.htm; "1814 Chesapeake Campaign," National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/stsp/learn/historyculture/1814-chesapeake-campaign.htm (last checked May 23, 2022)
2. Ted Pulliam, "Alexandria and the War of 1812: A Series of Articles Telling How Alexandrians Were Affected 200 Years Ago by the War of 1812," Alexandria Archaeology Publications Number #127, 2014, p.25, https://media.alexandriava.gov/docs-archives/historic/info/archaeology/war1812pulliam.pdf; "First Person Accounts of Alexandria and the War of 1812," in "Alexandria and the War of 1812," City of Alexandria, https://www.alexandriava.gov/1812 (last checked May 28, 2022)
3. "The Decision at Craney Island," American Battlefield Trust, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/decision-craney-island (last checked May 23, 2022)
4. William James, The Naval History of Great Britain From the Declaration of War by France in 1793, to the Accession of George IV - Volume VI, 1886, Richard Bentley & Son (London), p.171, https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Naval_History_of_Great_Britain/PRM5AQAAMAAJ (last checked May 23, 2022)
5. "The Decision at Craney Island," American Battlefield Trust, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/decision-craney-island; "War of 1812 bicentennial: Battle of Craney Island," US Army, June 6, 2013, https://www.army.mil/article/104909/war_of_1812_bicentennial_battle_of_craney_island (last checked May 23, 2022)
6. Donald E. Graves, "'Every horror was committed with impunity... and not a man was punished!' Reflections on British Military Law and the Atrocities at Hampton in 1813," The War of 1812 Magazine, Issue 11 (June 2009), (last checked May 24, 2022)
7. Ronald Utt, Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron: The War of 1812 and the Forging of the American Navy, Regnery History, 2012, p.235, https://www.google.com/books/edition/Ships_of_Oak_Guns_of_Iron/MJHmAgAAQBAJ (last checked May 24, 2022)
8. Parke Rouse, Jr., "The British Invasion of Hampton in 1813: The Reminiscences of James Jarvis," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 76, No. 3 (July, 1968),p.319, pp.330-331, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4247407 (last checked March 26, 2014)
9. Gareth Newfield, "'Rape, Murder and Pillage' - The Crimes of Britain's Foreign Companies in Virginia, 1813," https://www.warof1812.ca/foreigners.htm (last checked May 23, 2022)
10. "Alexander Cochrane: Proclamation," American Battlefield Trust, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/primary-sources/alexander-cochrane-proclamation (last checked May 23, 2022)
11. "The British Corps of Colonial Marines," American Battlefield Trust, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/british-corps-colonial-marines (last checked May 23, 2022)
12. "Tangier Island," National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/places/tangier-island.htm; "Treaty of Ghent (1814)," National Archives, https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/treaty-of-ghent; Stuart L. Butler, Defending the Old Dominion: Virginia and Its Militia in the War of 1812, University Press of America, 2012, p.548, https://www.google.com/books/edition/Defending_the_Old_Dominion/yEcGHZfcKC8C (last checked May 23, 2022)
13. Stuart L. Butler, Defending the Old Dominion: Virginia and Its Militia in the War of 1812, University Press of America, 2012, p.547, https://www.google.com/books/edition/Defending_the_Old_Dominion/yEcGHZfcKC8C (last checked May 23, 2022)
14. Stuart L. Butler, Defending the Old Dominion: Virginia and Its Militia in the War of 1812, University Press of America, 2012, pp.547-550, https://www.google.com/books/edition/Defending_the_Old_Dominion/yEcGHZfcKC8C; "The British Corps of Colonial Marines," American Battlefield Trust, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/british-corps-colonial-marines (last checked May 23, 2022)


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