War of 1812: An American surprise at Craney Island

"Taylor called the navy and army officers in — and enough was said that the council changed its mind," Butler says.

"But they almost abandoned Craney Island on the eve of the British attack."

A two-pronged assault

Instead the combined forces rushed to improve the low-lying 50-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 150 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 2,300 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.

Lt. Col. 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.

"One (of the sergeants of the 102nd was) recovered, the other killed, both his legs being shot off close to his body," Napier wrote.

"Good God! What a horrid sight it was!"

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

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. 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 300 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.

"The British became the victims of their own overweening arrogance," says Maryland historian Christopher T. George, author of "Terror on the Chesapeake: The War of 1812 on the Bay" and editor of the Journal of the War of 1812.

"They thought they were facing ill-trained rustics. So they rowed in as if they were just waiting to be shot at. They were sitting ducks."

A landmark victory

Just how many British soldiers and sailors felt the sting of the unexpected American marksmanship is hard to determine.

Adm. 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. 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.