Not long after British assault troops stormed past the outnumbered defenders of Hampton — leaving a trail of pillage, murder and rape in their wake — the alarm began to sound along the James River.
The day after the June 25, 1813 attack, the governor called militia infantry and cavalry units from Goochland and Powhatan into the field and sent them to positions south of Richmond.
Volunteer regiments from Chesterfield, Hanover, Charles City and New Kent received their summons the day after that, as did mounted companies from Halifax, Cumberland and Prince Edward. And that doesn't count all the men from Elizabeth City, now part of Hampton, as well as Williamsburg, James City, York, Warwick, Isle of Wight and Surry who were already bearing arms in the defense of Norfolk and the lower Peninsula.
No matter how quickly they responded, however, these part-time soldiers rarely provided more than an occasional obstacle to the British raiding parties that began to maraud along the James even before Rear Adm. George Cockburn had withdrawn from Hampton.
For nearly two weeks, thousands of Virginians gazed out over the water with dread, fearful of catching sight of a fluttering Union Jack and the fast shoal-draft barges with which the Royal Navy carried out dozens of devastating strikes against mostly undefended targets.
"With all the creeks that run into the James, this entire area was vulnerable to attacks from the water. So the feeling of helplessness must have been immense," says curator G. Richard Hoffeditz Jr. of the Virginia War Museum in Newport News, which houses a collection of rare militia weapons and uniforms from the war.
"The British were doing these crash and dash raids just about anywhere they wanted — and that left people feeling exposed and defenseless."
Campaign of fear
The nerve-wracking assaults played a critical role in the Royal Navy's plan to force the United States to refocus its attention — and its regular army troops — on the Chesapeake Bay rather than its invasion of Canada.
They also provided an iron-fisted answer to the chorus of voices in Great Britain who demanded that the former colonies be punished for declaring war, including the Times of London editors who thundered that "America must be BEATEN INTO SUBMISSION."
With the arrival of more than 2,500 troops in June, however, the commanders of what was already an immense and constantly hungry fleet had another pressing reason for pillaging the region's plantations and farms.
"They've got a lot of people to feed," former Virginia War Museum Director John V. Quarstein says.
"So they're taking all the sheep, pigs, cattle, corn and barrels of flour they can lay their hands on — and there were a lot of prosperous farms on the James they could target."
Even before the predatory squadron of frigates, sloops and barges sailed from Hampton Roads on June 28, smaller raiding parties from the hungry fleet had left a trail of fear along the river.
Just two days earlier, the Isle of Wight militia repulsed several boats during a spirited firefight on the Pagan River near Smithfield, notes Williamsburg historian Stuart L. Butler, retired assistant chief of the military archives branch of the National Archives, in "Defending the Old Dominion: Virginia and its Militia in the War of 1812."
By the time a second raid rowed within three miles of the town on July 2, most of the residents had hedged their bets and fled with their belongings.
"Even if they should succeed in getting possession of it, they will find nothing but bare walls," the Norfolk Herald reported. "Every article of value is removed, and all the inhabitants except those under arms, have left the town."
Smithfield's escape reflected the abundance of many other, more vulnerable targets as much as its frantic militia.
Farther up river in Surry, the few volunteers who had not previously been sent to Norfolk arrived too late to prevent a July 1 raid on Four-Mile Tree Plantation, where the British wrecked the furniture and snatched all the sheep and cattle they could load on their boats.
At nearby Mount Pleasant Plantation, a landing party broke more than 120 panes of glass, cut up the window sash and trashed the stairs. Then they punctuated their visit by stealing 28 sheep, 40 geese and nearly all the vegetables in the garden.
On the north side of the James, the relentless barges began by attacking Denbigh Plantation.
Rather than retreating from the musket volley fired by the owners, however, the angry sailors speedily drove off their assailants and looted their home, leaving little but destruction.
Several other places in Warwick County suffered attacks, too, including Mulberry Island. And in each case, no herd of livestock was too large to herd aboard the Royal Navy boats, as evidenced by Wilson Miles Cary's loss of 65 sheep.
"The British felt they could do just about anything they wanted along the water," Butler says.
"And they could."
The marauders struck again at Jamestown Island, pillaging the Ambler house while the owner was away on militia duty.
Williamsburg resident St. George Tucker was among those who recorded the James City attacks. So did William Tazewell, who described the lack of resistance as "disgraceful."
"We have been for some days in a state of great consternation…," he wrote.
"Not less than 14 of the enemy's barges, accompanied by an armed Brig and 6 or 87 tenders, have engaged in the works of plundering and desolation in our immediate neighborhood."
Just days later, the raiding parties returned to Isle of Wight and Surry, attacking and burning vessels and rounding up livestock at Lawnes Creek and Hog Island.
By the 8th they'd prowled as far as Sandy Point in Charles City, sparking panic in Richmond.
Though the rampage finally stopped with the squadron's withdrawal a few days later, the fear remained — and it continued to resonate well after the war's end.
"The waterways made this a dangerous place to live — and they became avenues of invasion and destruction during the War of 1812," Hampton History Museum curator J. Michael Cobb says.
"We had very little defense against anyone who came through the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay with a powerful navy. That's the reason we built Fort Monroe."
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