Congreve's Rockets

The British rockets made famous by the lyrics of the Star-Spangled Banner were used first in attacks on Craney Island and Hampton. (Courtesy of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum / February 8, 2013)

No one could mistake the intent of the British warships that appeared at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay early on the frosty morning of Feb. 4, 1813.

Just one of the immense 74-gun ships in this advance squadron boasted more firepower than all the cannons defending the Elizabeth River in Norfolk — and within weeks the number of tall masts and Union Jacks commanding the waters between Lynnhaven Bay and Old Point Comfort would multiply many times over.

Not for several days, however, did the nature of the threat become clear to mariners, shopkeepers, farmers and militiamen sizing up His Majesty's might from afar.

About noon on Feb. 8, a lookout aboard the HMS Maidstone spotted a sail approaching from the northwest. An hour later, after eluding several smaller British ships, the six-gun schooner Lottery out of Baltimore found itself becalmed off Old Point and beset by a swarm of enemy vessels.

That's when the first cannon shots rang out, signaling the start of the War of 1812 in Hampton Roads.

Heard as far away as Norfolk, the ferocious two-hour battle sparked a panic as residents loaded carts with furniture and raced to escape a feared invasion. But the thundering sound was merely the first salvo in a campaign of fire, plunder and fear that would terrorize Tidewater and the bay for two years.

Bent on punishing the United States for declaring war the previous June, the Royal Navy would seize or burn hundreds of vessels, launch scores of hit-and-run raids and pillage untold numbers of farms and towns in an iron-fisted answer to the Times of London's demand that "America must be BEATEN INTO SUBMISSION!"

"The War of 1812 is a forgotten war — but it shouldn't be," says Newport News historian J. Michael Moore, a contributor to the forthcoming book "Tread of the Tyrant's Heel: Virginia's War of 1812 Experience."

"For two years, the British raided up the James River as far as Lawnes Creek and Jamestown. They raided Warwick County. They attacked Norfolk. They burned and plundered Hampton. They marauded up the bay, attacking Maryland and Baltimore and burning Washington.

"In the Chesapeake Bay, the British showed they could do just about anything they wanted. And if it wasn't for the Civil War, this is the war we'd be talking about today."

A narrow escape

Designed to blunt the American invasion of Canada by attacking the Chesapeake, the advance elements of the British expeditionary force appeared without warning.

Among those who saw it first was Capt. Charles Stewart of the frigate USS Constellation, which had arrived from Annapolis the night before and anchored off Hampton Roads.

Early the following morning, Stewart woke to hear that British warships had entered the bay. But not long after weighing anchor and setting course to investigate, he came about and raced back for the channel at Old Point, straining to escape a lopsided clash with two ships of the line, three frigates, a brig and a schooner.

When the tide and wind turned against him, the Constellation seemed lost. But Stewart doggedly dragged his becalmed frigate out of reach by kedging across Hampton Roads: Hauling in the anchor, carrying it forward by rowboat and then dropping and hauling it in again and again.

His crew labored for hours, struggling to pull themselves out of harm's way. Even after grounding in the mudflats at the mouth of the James River, they toiled on, lightening the Constellation until it refloated on the evening tide and found refuge under the guns of Fort Norfolk.

"It was a pretty close call," says Williamsburg historian Stuart L. Butler, retired assistant branch chief of the National Archives' Military Archives Division and author of the new book "Defending the Old Dominion: Virginia and Its Militia in the War of 1812."

"He almost didn't escape — and he knew he could never take on a force like that in battle."

A call to arms

That was the same conclusion Lt. Col. Henry Howard of York County reached after debriefing a cavalryman who had seen the British fleet come in and assemble some 8 miles from his post at Buckroe.