When you live in one of the most fought-over places in the Western Hemisphere, you can literally pick your battles. And I've been sifting through a lot of them in my mind while putting together my upcoming story on the too-often overlooked Battle of Williamsburg.
Like many of the other clashes that have taken place in and around Hampton Roads since the planting of the first permanent English-speaking settlement at Jamestown in 1607, this early, bloody and revealing Civil War fight has been pushed aside by the landmark 1781 Siege of Yorktown and a kind of regional myopia spawned by the brilliance of Colonial Williamsburg as well as -- to be fair -- a colonial history that reshaped the world.
Even the epic struggle between the Monitor and the Virginia in the milestone Battle of Hampton Roads takes a back seat to the nation's founding battlefield --and between the two they've left a string of military encounters that would be big history anywhere else but which in Hampton Roads are barely noticed.
Some of my favorites in this roll call of the mostly forgotten are the Battle of Craney Island and Sack of Hampton from the War of 1812, both of which provide tons of largely unsuspected heroism and drama as well as battlescapes filled with warships, invasion fleets, rockets and thousands of attacking soldiers descending on wildly outnumbered defenders.
But the fight I keep returning to right now is the April 1700 clash off Lynnhaven Bay in which Gov. Francis Nicholson and a Royal Navy ship manned largely by kids went toe-to-toe with pirates in one of the great and too-little celebrated sea battles of the Golden Age of Piracy.
Sailing from Hampton, Capt. William Passenger and the 32-gun HMS Shoreham battled the notorious French pirate Louis Guittar for 10 hours, with Nicholson standing on the quarterdeck and firing his pistols. "It was a close, tough fight with severe casualties," historian Carson Hudson says, and when it finally ended in Guittar's reluctant surrender the Shoreham had expended 30 barrels of powder and 1,671 cannon balls that "shot all his masts, yards, sailes, rigging all to shatters, unmounted several guns and hull almost beaten to pieces."
"I can't think of any other battle like it," says Mark G. Hanna, a University of California-San Diego historian who studied colonial piracy at the College of William and Mary's Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.
You can still find find evocative evidence of the battle in the age-worn headstone of Hampton customs officer Peter Heyman, who was standing next to Nicholson when he was killed by pirate fire.
"...In pursuit of a pyrate," his epitaph reads, "(he) was killed by small shot ...(as) he stood next ye Govenour upon the quarter deck ..."
Whether this is my short list of great Hampton Roads battles or just incomplete, I don't know. But I'm still wary about leaving out such possibilities as the Battle of Big Bethel, which ranks as the first battle of the Civil War, as well as a pair of late-17th-century attacks by powerful Dutch fleets that tied up Hampton Roads for weeks and threw the colony into panic and confusion.
And what about the Civil War Siege of Yorktown, in which the largest army then yet seen in the Western Hemisphere massed for attack? Then there's the dashing amphibious raid at Hill's Point in which a daring combination of lower-level Union army and navy commanders embarrassed some of the Confederacy's best troops and broke the Siege of Suffolk.
And what about the French victory over the Royal Navy in the Battle of the Capes that made the victory at Yorktown possible?
When I heard a couple of years ago from historian and marine archaeologist Donald Shomette that the Lower Chesapeake Bay was one of the most fought-over bodies of water on earth, I soon discovered that he was right.
But throw in all the struggles that have taken place here on land and you can add a thousand more pages to the region's history book.
Here's a link to my story on the battle in Lynnhaven Bay.
-- Mark St. John Erickson
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