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e-book Defending the Old Dominion: Virginia and Its Militia in the War of 1812

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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. Armistead to plan and construct the new stronghold.

The Decision at Craney Island

Joining this council of war was Gosport Navy Yard Commandant John Cassin, who stationed about 20 gunboats across the channel. 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. Instead the combined forces rushed to improve the low-lying 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 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, 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.

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


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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.

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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 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.

French and Indian War -- Reasons to Join the Colonial Militia

So they rowed in as if they were just waiting to be shot at. They were sitting ducks. Just how many British soldiers and sailors felt the sting of the unexpected American marksmanship is hard to determine. 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.

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

It's not immortalized by a song like the 'Star-Spangled Banner,'" Quarstein says. Find more stories on Hampton Roads history at dailypress. Brown, among others, offered important contributions to our understanding of the nature and conduct of the war. In the s and early s, a new generation of political, military, and cultural historians, such as Don Hickey, J.

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Stagg, and Steven Watts presented new interpretations of the war. Still another group of historians dissected how the war impacted individual states. The bicentennial of the War of witnessed more scholars offering nuanced interpretations about the conflict. Stuart L.


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Butler has dissected how the conflict impacted the state of Virginia, while setting the war in context for the mid-Atlantic region and the nation. The greatest flaw was that the militia did not have adequate training to prevent British army and naval forces from landing wherever they wanted. The federal government had stationed very few army forces in Virginia, and the United States had scant naval forces on the Chesapeake Bay. This permitted the British to treat the estuary as their own private harbor.

Using shallow-draft ships and small boats, the British landed anywhere water permitted and at almost any time. Ill-trained Virginia militia could not anticipate where the enemy would attack next. They could not assemble in a timely manner, nor did they have the training to defeat an experienced and capable British fighting force. Moreover, the state did not possess adequate manufacturing facilities or the ability to supply and distribute arms and ammunition to isolated and exposed state militia units.

Whenever British forces landed, Virginia militia often retreated because they lacked sufficient ordnance, ammunitions, training, and confidence. British troops advanced into the Virginia countryside, requisitioning tobacco and other valuables, liberating slaves, and destroying plantations. In fact, Virginia suffered disproportionally during the war as the British devastated the local American economy.

The conduct of the war also revealed the contentious relationship festering between the U.


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Finally, the conflict demoralized Virginians who suffered from the ravages of war. Additionally, Butler offers a brief discussion about the plight of Virginia slaves during the conflict.