War of 1812: An American surprise at Craney Island

When Lt. Col. Henry Beatty looked out over the earthworks at Craney Island on the morning of June 22, 1813, the vision of imperial might that stretched before his eyes could hardly have been more daunting.

Tall-masted British warships filled the American commander's view of Hampton Roads from one side to the other — and rowing back and forth among the 22 vessels anchored off the mouth of the Elizabeth River were some 50 attack barges bristling with sailors and soldiers.

Simple arithmetic told Beatty that these swarming boats carried two or three times the patchwork force of nearly 800 militiamen, army regulars and navy sailors that defended the channel to Norfolk and the U.S. frigate Constellation. Two miles to the west, another British detachment of at least equal size had already landed and was making its way through the woods to the narrow tidal creek that separated the island from the mainland.

In every land engagement since the Royal Navy arrived in February to pummel the people of the Chesapeake Bay, Americans had run rather than face such odds.

But within hours of nailing their 15-star flag to a pole and hoisting it over their guns in defiance, the garrison at Craney Island had transformed what looked like certain defeat into a victory so unexpected and complete that their foes retreated in humiliation.

"The British had all the advantages. They had the numbers. They had the firepower — and they should have won," said former Virginia War Museum director John V. Quarstein.

"But they also were arrogant. They were expecting another frolic. And they ended up getting pounded by the American guns."

Defending Craney Island

Norfolk's bustling waterfront and proximity to the mouth of the bay made it a likely target early on.

But it drew still more attention after the British chased the Constellation into Norfolk just hours after entering the Chesapeake.

During the previous months of the war, the powerful American frigates had embarrassed their less heavily armed Royal Navy counterparts numerous times, prompting a former foreign secretary to complain in the House of Commons that "the sacred spell of the invincibility of the British Navy was broken."

So when a lieutenant from the Constellation visited the blockading fleet under a flag of truce, the British officers said they would strike at the stranded frigate soon, vowing that "they must & will have it!"

"The British navy really wanted the Constellation," says Williamsburg historian Stuart L. Butler, retired assistant chief of the military archives branch of the National Archives, who describes the threat in his 2013 book "Defending the Old Dominion: Virginia and its Militia in the War of 1812."

"(Adm.) Cockburn was said to be so obsessed that he disguised himself and snuck into Norfolk to see it in person. 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. Gen. Robert Barraud Taylor — a graduate of the College of William and Mary — and army engineer Walter K. Armistead to plan and construct the new stronghold. Joining this council of war was Gosport Navy Yard Commandant John Cassin, who stationed about 20 gunboats across the channel.

"The cooperation between the militia, the navy and the army was extraordinary," says historian Gordon C. Calhoun of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in Norfolk. "It made all the difference."

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.

So worried were they by the isolated position that they voted to withdraw.