This detailed period illustration shows various sizes and types of Congreve rockets as well some of the tools used by the Royal Marine rocketeers in the June 1813 assaults on Craney Island and Hampton. (Courtesy of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum / June 24, 2013)
Long before the British launched the rockets made famous in the "Star-Spangled Banner," they were aiming the fiery missiles at the outnumbered Americans defending Craney Island.
And three days after that June 22, 1813 attack at the mouth of the Elizabeth River fizzled because of the American gunners' superior marksmanship, the Royal Marine Artillery was lighting fuses again -- this time during a predawn amphibious assault against the Cedar Point gun batteries on the Hampton River.
It wasn't the first time British forces had used their Congreve rockets in the Chesapeake Bay. Just weeks earlier they'd killed a man during a Maryland raid.
The Royal Marine rocketeers who accompanied the British navy assaults in the Chesapeake Bay were capable of firing their weapons from both the water and the land. (Courtesy of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum / June 24, 2013)
At Craney Island, the first volley of rockets created momentary chaos as they screamed through the air and landed amidst the militia.
"It produced an involuntary dodge from the bravest & at first produced great confusion in the ranks," one observer recorded.
"But when the first had passed off without doing the least injury they (the militia) observed: 'Why damn the things, we thought they were going to kill us, but they cannot hurt...'"
The attack on Hampton was just as threatening at first, then just as quickly dismissed as the artillerymen manning guns at Cedar Point returned fire, driving the British boats back up the river.
Two houses caught fire from the attack, but the initial state of alarm rapidly disappeared.
"A great number of rockets, charged with combustible matter, which, with very exceptions, and those without injurious effect...either fell short or over reached their object," American militia commander Maj. Stapleton Crutchfield later reported.
All in all, the rockets performed relatively poorly in both Hampton Roads attacks -- and certainly with less lasting drama than Francis Scott Key describes in the national anthem.
But in the first moments they must have been exciting to watch.
"The British fired their rockets first -- both from the barges and land battery -- when they attacked Craney Island. They placed a lot of confidence in them as a way to scare and terrorize green troops," Hampton Roads Naval Museum historian Gordon B. Calhoun says.
"But they were like big bottle rockets -- and they screamed through the air the same way. They made a lot of very scary noise -- but you had to hope that they would go straight."
-- Mark St. John Erickson