Attack on Chesapeake - History

Attack on Chesapeake - History


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MARCH 22, 1808.
To the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States:

At the opening of the present session I informed the Legislature that the measures which had been taken with the Government of Great Britain for the settlement of our neutral and national rights and of the conditions of commercial intercourse with that nation had resulted in articles of a treaty which could not be acceded to on our part; that instructions had been consequently sent to our ministers there to resume the negotiations, and to endeavor to obtain certain alterations, and that this was interrupted by the transaction which took place between the frigates Leopard and Chesapeake. The call on that Government for reparation of this wrong produced, as Congress has been already informed, the mission of a special minister to this country, and the occasion is now arrived when the public interest permits and requires that the whole of these proceedings should be made known to you.

I therefore now communicate the instructions given to our minister resident at London and his communications with that Government on the subject of the Chesapeake, with the correspondence which has taken place here between the Secretary of State and Mr. Rose, the special minister charged with the adjustment of that difference; the instructions to our ministers for the formation of a treaty; their correspondence with the British commissioners and with their own Government on that subject; the treaty itself and written declaration of the British commissioners accompanying it, and the instructions given by us for resuming the negotiation, with the proceedings and correspondence subsequent thereto. To these I have added a letter lately addressed to the Secretary of State from one of our late ministers, which, though not strictly written in an official character, I think it my duty to communicate, in order that his views of the proposed treaty and of its several articles may be fairly presented and understood.

Although I have heretofore and from time to time made such communications to Congress as to keep them possessed of a general and just view of the proceedings and dispositions of the Government of France toward this country, yet in our present critical situation, when we find that no conduct on our part, however impartial and friendly, has been sufficient to insure from either belligerent a just respect for our rights, I am desirous that nothing shall be omitted on my part which may add to your information on this subject or contribute to the correctness of the views which should be formed. The papers which for these reasons I now lay before you embrace all the communications, official or verbal, from the French Government respecting the general relations between the two countries which have been transmitted through our minister there, or through any other accredited channel, since the last session of Congress, to which time all information of the same kind had from time to time been given them. Some of these papers have already been submitted to Congress, but it is thought better to offer them again in order that the chain of communications of which they make a part may be presented unbroken.

When, on the 26th of February, I communicated to both Houses the letter of General Armstrong to M. Champagny, I desired it might not be published because of the tendency of that practice to restrain injuriously the freedom of our foreign correspondence. But perceiving that this caution, proceeding purely from a regard to the public good, has furnished occasion for disseminating unfounded suspicions and insinuations, I am induced to believe that the good which will now result from its publication, by confirming the confidence and union of our fellowcitizens, will more than countervail the ordinary objection to such publications. It is my wish, therefore, that it may be now published.

TH: JEFFERSON.


Fort McHenry

The failed bombardment of Fort McHenry forced the British to abandon their land assault on the crucial port city of Baltimore. This British defeat was a turning point in the War of 1812, leading both sides to reach a peace agreement later that year.

How it ended

United States victory. American forces resisted the dramatic British bombardment of Fort McHenry and proved they could stand up to a great world power. The exploding shells and rocket fire from British warships inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the lyrics to the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Seeing no way to penetrate American defenses, the British withdrew their troops and gave up their Chesapeake Campaign.

In context

Initially, the British strategy during the War of 1812 had been defensive. The British were more concerned with defeating Napoleon in Europe than fighting a minor war with the United States. This changed on April 6, 1814, with the defeat and abdication of Napoleon, which freed up veteran troops for a more aggressive strategy. Major General Robert Ross was sent to command all British forces on the East Coast of the United States, with Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane leading a fleet of warships.

Encouraged by their victory at Bladensburg on August 24, 1814, and the subsequent burning of Washington, D.C., the British turned north, intent on capturing the major port city of Baltimore, Maryland. Militarily, Baltimore was a far more important city than Washington because of its thriving port and strategic location. The British hoped the loss of both Washington and Baltimore would cripple the American war effort and force peace. However, the citizens and militia of Baltimore had been preparing for such an assault for more than a year. The imposing Fort McHenry, at the mouth of the inner harbor, provided the linchpin for the American defenses.

Fort McHenry, a large star fortress built in 1800, guards Baltimore’s inner harbor at a bend in the Patapsco River. The British plan to land troops on the eastern side of the city while the navy reduces the fort, allowing for naval support of the ground troops when they attack the city’s defenders.

The British land a combined force of soldiers, sailors, and Royal Marines at North Point, a peninsula at the fork of the Patapsco River and Chesapeake Bay, on September 12, 1814. After landing unopposed, they advance toward Baltimore. The Maryland militia commander, Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith, orders Brig. Gen. John Stricker to delay the advance by provoking an engagement.

Around midday, while the British halt for a meal, Stricker orders 250 riflemen and cannon to draw the British toward his forces. Ross, hearing the skirmishing, rides forward to assess the situation. While ordering his men to drive off the American riflemen, Ross is shot in the chest and dies a few hours later. Command of the land forces passes to Col. Arthur Brooke.

Brooke collects the main body of the British troops and presses forward. Around 3:00 p.m., he attacks the American positions. The American defenders hold initially, inflicting heavy casualties and resorting to firing scrap metal from their cannon because of a lack of canister. Despite a stalwart initial defense, the Americans begin to give way to the British regulars. The Americans withdraw to Baltimore and Brooke halts for the rest of the day to consolidate his forces. This delay gives the American defenders in Baltimore time to bolster their defenses.

September 13. The Americans assemble 10,000 men and 100 cannon astride the Philadelphia Road, blocking the British advance toward Baltimore. This is a far stronger defense than the British expect they are outnumbered two to one. Naval support will be required to dislodge the American forces, and Fort McHenry will have to be eliminated.

The 1,000 Americans at Fort McHenry are commanded by Maj. George Armistead. In the early morning of September 13, British warships begin their bombardment. Because of the shallow water, Admiral Cochrane is unable to use his heavy warships, and instead attacks with the bomb vessels HMS Terror, Volcano, Meteor, Devastation, and Aetna. These ships fire exploding mortar shells at high angles into the fort. Joining them is the rocket ship HMS Erebus, which launches the newly invented Congreve rockets. The ammunition used by these ships later inspire Francis Scott Key’s famous lines “and the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air.”

Initially the British fleet exchanges fire with the fort’s cannon, but soon withdraw out of range. For the next 27 hours, in driving rain, the warships hammer the fort. More than 1,500 cannonballs, shells, and rockets are fired, but only inflict light damage thanks to fortification efforts completed before the battle. During the night, Cochrane orders a landing party to slip past the fort and attempt to draw troops from the force opposing Brooke, but other than diverting some fire from the fort, this proves unsuccessful.

September 14. That morning the American defenders lower their battered storm flag and raise the large, 30 by 42-foot garrison flag that Major Armistead ordered a year earlier from local flag maker Mary Pickersgill. The garrison flag is raised every morning at reveille, but on this day—September 14, 1814—its presence has special significance.

The failed bombardment of Fort McHenry forces Brooke to abandon the land assault on Baltimore. The British set sail for New Orleans.

American Lawyer Francis Scott Key, held on a British warship for a prisoner negotiation during the frightening siege, feared that the fort had succumbed to the bombardment. But when he sees the large flag flying over the fort on the morning of September 14, he knows the fort held. The relief and awe he feels inspire him to write a poem, "Defense of Fort McHenry," which is later be set to the tune “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Renamed "The Star-Spangled Banner," the song officially becomes the national anthem of the United States in 1931.

The United States declared war on Britain in June 1812 to protect “free trade and sailors’ rights.” Heading into a conflict against a country with such superior naval power was a daunting prospect for the young nation. The government, therefore, turned to the many merchants and private sailors inhabiting its ports, issuing licenses to those who wished to gain financially from capturing enemy vessels. The privateers were armed, and their work was legally sanctioned. Although other East Coast ports were used by privateers, Baltimore was an especially busy haven for these sailors, who were paid generously for their work. Baltimore privateers were responsible for as much as one-third of all captured British vessels during the war. The harbor’s 122 American privateering vessels would ultimately cause some 16 million dollars of damage to the enemy.

The British hated the privateers and so despised the Baltimore that they called it a “nest of pirates.” They vowed to take revenge. Military personnel and residents of Baltimore were well aware that they were a target of enemy wrath and started shoring up their defenses. Among the preparations were upgrades of Fort McHenry, a 32-pound cannon battery along the water’s edge, fortifications at Lazaretto Point, and additional batteries arrayed along the banks of the Patapsco. Barges were stretched across the watery approaches creating choke points, and channels were left open to lure the British ships into kill zones. Volunteers dug huge entrenchments east of town, and the city militia drilled regularly. On land, defensive positions were established along North Point to prevent British troops from advancing. Thanks to these early and exhaustive plans, the British were repulsed at Fort McHenry in 1814 and abandoned their Chesapeake Campaign.

The flag we all know as the “star-spangled banner” is a massive 30 by 42 feet in size and sewn of wool bunting. Each of its 15 stars measures about two feet across and each of its 15 stripes are about two feet wide. Major Armistead commissioned Baltimore flag maker Mary Pickersgill to craft this dramatic emblem for his garrison as he was making preparations for Fort McHenry’s defense. He wanted to be sure the British could see the United States colors from their distant warships. Most people assume that this grand banner flew through “the rockets’ red glare.”

Or, maybe it was another flag. Some historians believe that a smaller, 17 by 25-foot storm flag may have flown over Fort McHenry during the rainy evening of the bombardment. Using a storm flag in those conditions would have been standard practice. The “star-spangled banner” may not have been run up the flagpole until first light on September 14.

We have Francis Scott Key to thank for the mix-up. Key, a 35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet was detained on the British ship Tonnant off the cost of Baltimore when the bombardment began. He had successfully negotiated with the British for the release of an American prisoner but was held onboard because an assault was imminent. As the sloop tossed in violent waves, Key could only see the “red glare” of the enemy’s rockets and the sound of “bombs bursting in air.” He thought it unlikely that the Americans could hold out against such a volley of gunfire.

It was with huge surprise and joy that as dawn broke, he saw, not the Union Jack flying above the fort, but the American flag. But the inspiring banner he glimpsed may only have been raised at daylight. It may not have weathered “the perilous fight” as many believe.

Key started composing a verse about his experience while still onboard the Tonnant, and once he was safely rowed ashore, he edited the work into four stanzas. The final poem, called “The Defense of Fort M’Henry,” was printed and later set to the tune of a popular song. It was eventually retitled “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The composition was sung at patriotic gatherings and political events for more than a century before President Herbert Hoover proclaimed it the national anthem of the United States in 1931. But not everyone was a fan. The New York Herald Tribune wrote that the song had “words that nobody can remember to a tune nobody can sing.”


Pirates in Calvert County

We anchored in Chesapeake, after a most favorable passage, and the next day proceeded up as high as Lynnhaven." Thus wrote British General Alexander Leslie of his arrival in Bay waters with 2,500 soldiers aboard a strong Royal Navy task force on October 20, 1780. Leslie's orders were to destroy rebel munitions supplies at Richmond and Petersburg and to establish a permanent post on the Elizabeth River. For the picaroons of the tidewater, the presence of the British, especially the naval squadron commanded by Captain George Gayton, rekindled flickering loyalties to the Crown. Within days of Gayton's arrival, the lower and central Bay region, particularly in the vicinity of Tory hotbeds along the Eastern Shore, literally swarmed with the predatory barges, galleys, and privateers of the enemy. Some began to probe as high as the Patuxent on the western shore, while others contented themselves with penetration raids, plundering, and foraging into the heart of the defenseless Delmarva Peninsula.

For Maryland the enemy's return to the Bay came at a most inopportune time, for the state's naval defenses had practically ceased to exist. Never very large, by early 1780 the state navy force, with the exception of the little schooners Dolphin and Plater , had all been auctioned off. Virginia, against which the main thrust of the enemy was directed, was in near chaos as far as defense capabilities for the lower Bay. Now, suddenly, the Chesapeake was being subjected not only to the assault of powerful regular land and sea forces of the British, but also to the "numberless Depredations committed with Impunity by Picaroons.

One of the first targets on the revitalized picaroons' map was the Patuxent River, one of Maryland's most important and commercial waterways. Of its 110 miles, nearly 50 were accessible to seagoing ships of up to 300 tons burthen, and it sliced directly through the very heart of the western shore's richest, most productive tobacco-growing regions. The little towns dotting its banks, such as St. Leonard, Benedict, Huntingtown, Nottingham, Upper and Lower Marlboro, Pig Point, and Queen Anne's, were easily among the more prosperous in the central tidewater. Its waters were deep, its plantations numerous, and best of all for the picaroons, it was practically defenseless.

On November 5, 1780, the enemy finally entered the mouth of the Patuxent, probing only as high as Point Patience, a narrow finger of sand projecting into the river from the Calvert County peninsula. The raiders landed without warning on the point, burned the home of a local planter, John Parran, and seized two vessels laden with eighty hogsheads of tobacco. Retiring downriver, they sought provisions from Colonel William Fitzhugh's estate, Rousby Hall. Denied, they battered Fitzhugh's manor house to pieces with cannon fire, then burned what was left.

With the assistance of local Tory pilots from both St. Mary's and Calvert counties, the raiders hovered about the mouth of the Patuxent and Potomac for weeks on end, pouncing on any unsuspecting prey that sailed their way. The ad hoc blockade was so effective that on January 3, 178 1, Joseph Ford, Maryland Commissary of Purchases for St. Mary's County, complained to Annapolis that the "enemies Barges so closely watch Patuxent and Potomac Rivers, [that it] is too dangerous to send forward supplies. . ."

Among those Tories who had taken heart from the resurgence of Royal Navy power on the Bay was Joseph Wheland, jr., who had, after nearly five years of confinement, finally secured his freedom when a £10,000 bond was posted in his behalf at Baltimore by Samuel Covington and Thomas Holbrook. Wheland superficially appeared willing to reconcile his loyalist leanings, for in December he met with Colonel George Dashiell of Somerset County and sought to explain away his former actions. He had, he lied, indeed been concerned in attacks on patriot shipping, but it was only because he had been a British captive, in irons, and locked up below decks during actual fighting. He had been released and his boat was returned to him soon afterward. Now he chose to come up the Wicomico with his family to remove them from exposure to the picaroons. To prove his supposedly newfound loyalty, he told Dashiell he would even serve against the Tories and contribute to the expense of building a barge to be used against them!

George Dashiell was completely taken in by Wheland's story, and sent a letter to Governor Lee exculpating the crafty picaroon. Immediately afterward, he received an urgent express from Colonel Henry Hooper, commander of Dorchester County, requesting him to arrest Wheland, enclosing with the letter an affidavit from one Captain Valentine Peyton of Stafford County, Virginia. Peyton, it seemed, had been captured by Wheland on August 31 off Poplar Island. Soon afterward, Captain Oakley Haddaway's vessel had also been snapped up, as was one belonging to William Barnes. It seemed that the old picaroon had returned to his nefarious activities without batting an eye, in command of a white-bottomed pilot boat fitted with a jib, and a small crew of veteran Tories. Others of his kind followed suit. Among these was John Botsworth, a onetime ship's carpenter from Annapolis who had piloted British raiders up the Annemessex. Once, when a vessel Botsworth was piloting had gone into action against an American vessel, he had himself placed in chains so that in the event of capture he could claim he had been pressed into service. There were active loyalists from Holland and Tangier islands such as Thomas Prior and a desperado known only to authorities as Jack. Wheland was soon working frequently in close concert with the roaming armed barges of the British, passing secret signals of recognition when occasion demanded: three successive hoistings and lowerings of the mainsail, and then an English Jack raised at the masthead. He would soon become the undisputed king of the picaroons and gather about him a loyal following. Within a short time he had assembled a small but deadly flotilla of four barges, each of them commanded by himself or one of his trusted lieutenants, Shadrack Horseman or the brothers Michael Timmons and William Timmons, Jr., of Hooper's Strait.

Wheland's activities caused injury to friend and foe alike, even before he turned to outright piracy. On December 11, Samuel Covington and Thomas Holbrook were obliged to acknowledge themselves to be indebted to the State of Maryland for £5,000 each if the picaroon captain did not appear before Governor Lee and his Council "to answer a charge of high treason. Wheland, of course, failed to appear, and the bond was presumably forfeited."

By late fall 1780 there seemed to be no sanctuary for patriot shipping anywhere on the Chesapeake. "Several of the enemy's small armed vessels have recently," reported the Pennsylvania Gazette, "visited Oxford and other places on the Eastern Shore, Poplar Is1and in the Chesapeake and the Mouth of the Patuxent, on the Western Shore of this State, at all of which places their crews committed the greatest outrages. Not content with plundering the inhabitants of their Negroes, cattle and other property, they savagely laid several of their inhabitants in ashes."

On January 11, 1781, the Maryland Council learned that the notorious traitor Benedict Arnold, taking up where Alexander Leslie left off, was at the head of an army said to be nearly three thousand strong. He had taken Richmond and had sent a sizable force to capture Petersburg. The state of Virginia was, of course, panic-stricken. Towns on the Rappahannock and the Potomac, such as Fredericksburg and Alexandria, feared imminent attack. Maryland warned its county commanders that invasion of the state was expected. Relay systems were set up along the Potomac to warn of the enemy's approach. And the enemy did approach.

On January 22 a British frigate drove three Maryland State chartered vessels ashore, two of which were destroyed, at Cedar Point, near the mouth of the Patuxent. Raids were carried out on plantations at Point Lookout and Smith Creek, on the Potomac. A schooner was seized and burned several days later on the St. Mary's River. More raids were carried out in St. Mary's County.

The spate of plundering and foraging attacks continued unrestrained on the Eastern Shore as well as on the western shores of the Bay, and Joseph Wheland seemed to be in the thick of it. Colonel Joseph Dashiell of Worcester County, apparently aware of the Tory's release on bond, was more than a little upset over his inauspicious reappearance. On March 4, Dashiell wrote in irritation to Governor Lee:

Joseph Wheland that old offender is down in Somerset plundering again and we have reason to believe that the Gaoler in Baltimore is alone to blame as Wheland's Father informed one of our Neighbours that he let him go at large sum time before he Came away if this practice is followed no one will venture to take any of them up and send them forward as they will be there to suffer for it. If I had Directions to go into Somerset, I think I could apprehend him, as he has lately robed a certain Thomas Reuker who I think would assist me to Trap him.

Dashiell was equally distraught over the nest of Tories on the islands in Tangier Sound. Citing the recent robbery of a local citizen, one Plannor Williams, by a band of nine picaroons from the sound, he volunteered to the Governor that whenever your Excellency & Council propose to Remove the people and stock of the Islands I should be Glad to assist with all my heart as I consider them at this time the most Dangerous Enemy we have to watch the Motions off—and am Certain if they Can do us no other Damage they will rob & Plunder all they Can before they are removed.

Neighboring Somerset County was being constantly savaged by hit-and-run raids, for which Dashiell repeatedly blamed British cruisers, and more often than not, the picaroons from the larger islands in the sound. On Saturday morning, March 10, he was right on both counts, when a joint privateer-picaroon expedition once again assaulted the town of Vienna.

The invaders approached the town by water, coming up the Nanticoke in a brig and two sloops, one of them newly built and armed with fourteen 18-pounders. They began their attack with a heavy bombardment of the town, firing both round and grapeshot. A few resolute militiamen, commanded by Colonel John Dickinson and Captain William Smoot, gathered along the riverbank to stand their ground. When an enemy barge loaded with men rowed toward the shore, the defenders opened up with a brisk fire on them. Three times the enemy attempted to land, and three times they were beaten back. Finally, the intense fire from the shipping drove the militiamen back, and the barge reached the shore, though not without loss on both sides. Three of the attackers were wounded and one was killed, while the defenders suffered one killed. Soon after the enemy drew up on the shore, a flag of truce was forwarded to the militiamen. The attackers said they wanted nothing more than the grain stored in the town. If the militiamen would give it up, the invaders would leave a part of it for the inhabitants and would plunder nothing more. They promised to pay the market price for the grain, but if the defenders refused to agree to the deal and resumed hostilities, the town would be burned to the ground and everything in it destroyed. Colonel Henry Hooper, who had apparently arrived on the scene just before the landing, reasoned that as his force "could defend nothing, the Town and Grain lying under the command of their Vessels we agreed to their Terms."

The raiders carried off between 900 and 1,000 bushels of Indian corn before the eyes of the militiamen. While the flotilla lay at anchor, Hooper learned that another privateer brig guarded the mouth of the river, preventing possible relief or rescue by water. Speaking to several of the enemy, he discovered that they were actually foraging for Benedict Arnold's forces in Virginia. The invaders expressed disappointment that there had not been more grain stored in the town. They hinted broadly that they might next try the Choptank or Wicomico rivers for additional grain supplies. Since there was also a serious need for planks to complete the construction of some forty flat-bottomed boats being built at Portsmouth, they were also in the market for lumber boats. In fact, much to Hooper's chagrin, they had already captured two or three during their short visit to the Nanticoke! On Monday morning the invaders, having honored their word, and to Hooper's great relief, departed.

Colonel Joseph Dashiell, whose hands were quite full resisting landings from the raiding cruisers and barges on Worcester County shores, was deeply angered over the surrender of Vienna and blamed Hooper for the militia's retreat under fire. The Lieutenant of that County arrived and ordered the Militia to retreat as I am told, & has made a Capitulation that in my Oppinion will Disgrace us, & be attended with the worst Consequences."

British depredations continued without letup in the Bay. The port of Annapolis was blockaded by enemy warships. The Elk River area was threatened. Landings were carried out on Poole's Island and in Harford County, and the Maryland state government rushed to mobilize. Scenes of chaos and disorder were repeated throughout the central and upper Bay region—a schooner run ashore by Tory barges here, a refugee with all his belongings forced to flee before the marauders there, and everywhere looting, homes burned, and waterborne commerce throttled by picaroons, privateers, and the Royal Navy.

By early April Maryland's two principal waterways, the Potomac and Patuxent, were being brutally hit almost simultaneously. On Saturday, April 7, a picaroon barge, manned principally by blacks but commanded by Captain Jonathan Robinson, a white man, probed far up the Patuxent, causing the local population along the banks no end of despair. Within a short time of the alarm, riverfront homes from Swanson's Creek northward to Upper Marlboro were totally abandoned in an atmosphere of panic. The picaroons proceeded as high up as Lower Marlboro, where they landed unopposed and promptly plundered the town. The home of Captain John David, former commander of the Maryland State galley Conqueror, along with an unsuspecting traveler sleeping inside, was burned to the ground. Colonel Peregrine Fitzhugh and William Allein, a local merchant, were taken prisoner but later released. All of the vessels lying before the town, including one fully laden with provisions, were captured. The tobacco stores in the local warehouse were entirely plundered. On Sunday morning, the raiders, satiated by their robberies, set off down the river, with a strong northwest wind behind them and a large band of slaves belonging to Colonel Fitzhugh, now freed from their bondage.

"Every hours experience," wrote Stephen West, a leader and civic bulwark of the Patuxent mercantile community, "shows the necessity of having some Armed Vessels in the great Rivers especially the Patuxent and Potowmack." His prognosis was underscored almost immediately, for the barge escaped unscathed and on the day following the raid rendezvoused with two ships and a brig at the river's mouth. That evening, the barge landed a few miles to the south at Cedar Point on the Bay, and its occupants ruthlessly burned the home of Nicholas Sewell, an ardent patriot of St. Mary's County.

Similar depredations were carried out by enemy privateers on the Potomac. Probes were carried out as far upriver as Alexandria, followed by a series of landings at various places along both shores of the river. Homes and plantations were plundered and burned, slaves stolen, and innocent civilians carted off as prisoners. At Young's Ferry, Hooe's Ferry, Robert Washington's plantation, and Port Tobacco they came ashore and conducted their nefarious activities. Estates such as Walter Hanson's, the "Elegant Seat" of George Dent, and others fell victim. Local militia units seemed powerless to stem the assaults. At Alexandria the militia mustered, and the foe turned his attentions to the Maryland shore. There too, opposition congealed only to fall away under heavy attack.

Finally, about the latter part of April, the raiders withdrew, the holds of their ships and barges filled with plunder. It had been a miserable experience for Maryland and Virginia, both of which had been entirely unprepared to meet the emergency. "I expect we shall have frequent visits from these plundering Banditts, " wrote Thomas Stone of Maryland after the raiders' departure. "I hope we will so well prepare as to repel their attacks that they will find the business as unprofitable as it is disgraceful."

Despite the best intentions of the nearly impotent Maryland government to blunt the amphibious depredations of picaroons and privateers, it was becoming painfully evident that the burden of naval defense—until the State Navy might be revitalized and operational would have to fall on regional self-defense efforts. The Eastern Shore, isolated from the center of state government and frequently cut off from outside help, was particularly vulnerable. "Local circumstances render it Difficult," wrote two Dorchester County leaders, Robert Goldsborough and Gustavus Scott, "for the Inhabitants of this Shore, exposed as they are to the utmost Calamities of War & Piracies to expect assistance from our more powerfull neighbours of the western shore." Dorchester County, with 1,700 effective fighting men (of which only 150 were armed), reflected the deadly vulnerability to attack of all the Eastern Shore counties without naval protection."

One of the first major efforts to address the issue of regional defense in the absence of a state navy force was in Somerset County. On March 21, 1781, twenty-six of the county's leading citizens, stirred to action by the mounting attacks against their region by picaroons and privateers, proposed to the Maryland Council a scheme fathered by Captain Zedekiah Walley. Walley's plan was to build a barge of 50-foot keel length capable of carrying 60 men and a 24-pound bow gun to protect county waters. Such a vessel might be built for less than £150 hard money, and Walley himself volunteered to superintend the construction. Though the state was sympathetic to the proposal, there was virtually no money in the treasury. Somerset Countians, therefore, went ahead on their own with the project. Built at Snow Hill, the barge was dubbed Protector . She was destined to sail with great success, on one occasion even driving the picaroon raiders from the Pocomoke region and capturing several prizes. Soon, taking heart from Somerset's self-reliant stance, Queen Anne's and Talbot counties offered to support and maintain a barge called Experiment , and to build a number of boats for their own protection. These vessels would be stationed in Eastern Bay and would cruise occasionally between Kent Point and Tilghman Island. Dorchester County followed suit with the construction of the barge Defence . Eventually, more barges, either captured from the enemy or finally constructed for the state government, began to appear in Bay waters, vessels with names like Intrepid , Terrible , and Fearnaught .

On the western shore, the first area to consider a local naval defense force and a policy of its own were the counties bordering on the Patuxent River, but principally Prince George's and Calvert counties. It had been apparent, even before the Lower Marlboro raid, that the Patuxent needed a standing defense system to counter picaroon incursions. Driven, like their counterparts on the Eastern Shore, to desperation, twenty-three merchants and gentlemen of Calvert and Prince George's counties convened a meeting at the river port of Nottingham on April 21. There, they set in motion a plan to raise their own naval defense force. Calling themselves the Board of Patuxent Associators and led by Colonel William Fitzhugh, the body was soon able to secure authority from the Governor of Maryland to manage their own regional defenses, impress vessels, move equipment, and protect the Patuxent.

Yet even as the Board of Patuxent Associators sought to improve the river's defenses against the picaroons, the battle raged on. On April 25, off the mouth of the river two American privateer schooners, Antelope , Captain Frederick Folger, and Felicity , Captain Cole, fell in with a New York privateer called Jack-a-Lanthorn , Captain Mangen, of six guns and thirty-six men, and a small prize sloop. The two American privateers had already captured a British ship called Resolution in the lower Bay, and when they encountered and took the New Yorker, they not only relieved the Patuxent region of a potential attacker, but promised to enrich the coffers of their owners through the sale of their new prizes.

The Board of Patuxent Associators was frustrated by lack of funds, state support, and a paucity of armament, supplies, and vessels. Yet the members pressed ahead. Artillery was mounted at strategic positions on the river. Beacons were erected at appropriate locations to provide early warning of intruders. And a move was set afoot to secure a row galley, a 40-foot-long armed barge, and a whaleboat to serve as look-out. A committee was sent to Baltimore to examine the recently captured Jack-a-Lanthorn for possible purchase, but the price was too high. On May 10, the Board's agents, Samuel Maynard and Renaldo Johnson, purchased a ship, a battered schooner called Nautilus , salvaged from the shoals of Cedar Point, where she had been run aground by a British warship in January. This vessel, of eighty-five tons burthen, was armed with eight 3-pounders and lay at Fells Point. The price was right, and an agreement was struck with her owners, Dorsey Wheeler and Company and Thomas Worthington. The ship was sold for 357,000-pound weight of tobacco. Captain John David of Lower Marlboro was charged with command of the vessel and with getting her down the picaroon-infested Bay to the Patuxent. Apparently, though, no one bothered to consult with David before assigning him the task, for he had already engaged to serve in another vessel. By the end of May Nautilus was still lying at Fells Point, Baltimore. A barge and a whaleboat had yet to be procured. When Nautilus finally did reach the Patuxent, her suitability as a guardship was apparently questionable, for on August 11 she was put up for sale at Nottingham by the Board. With the sale of Nautilus , the intended fulcrum of the Patuxent naval defense, the efforts of the short-lived Board of Associators to protect their river ended in abject failure.

The fear of an invasion of Maryland lingered like a dull headache throughout the early summer of 1781. County militia units were held in readiness to march at a moment's notice, and commissaries were directed to purchase or seize all stocks in the event of attack to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Enemy warships appeared in the Potomac again in early June, dispatching armed barges on occasion to conduct foraging raids or simply to plunder and terrorize the civilian population. By mid-June the enemy had disappeared from the river, but the picaroons, hovering like birds of prey, frequently flew in to pick up the leavings.

In July, Joseph Wheland struck again. This time the victim was Greyhound , "a beautiful boat laden with Salt, Peas, Pork, Bacon and some Dry Goods." Captured in Hooper's Strait, the skipper and his crew were detained for twenty-four hours aboard Wheland's barge, during which time one of the passengers, a Mr. Furnival, was robbed of his money and watch "and indeed every Thing that the Thieves could lay their Hands on." The captain of the schooner and his men were set ashore at Dames Quarter. Before he was released, Furnival later reported, he "saw several other Bay craft fall into the Fangs of the same Vultures."

As the picaroon attacks continued unabated, pressure increased for the Maryland government to act. The region between the mouth of the Patuxent south to Tangier Sound had become a virtual no-man's-land through which shipping ventured to pass at its own great risk. In early July Samuel Smith of Baltimore informed Governor Lee that two of his vessels, commanded by James Rouse and Martin Trout (apparently chartered to the state to carry tobacco), had been taken. "This is a heavy loss to my business," he complained, as "they were taken just coming out of Patuxent by three Barges full of Men one of which went down & the other two up to burn Capt. [Jeremiah] Yellet's Brig."

From Salisbury, Joseph Dashiell informed the Governor that "there is four privetars and as many Barges in our sound they have plundered the Houses of Leven Gale & Levin Dashiell & Burned all the Houses of the Latter yesterday morning." Such reports flowed daily through the Maryland chief executive's office. Not only were picaroons becoming bolder, but the occasional barbarity of their actions seemed to be increasing as well. In mid-July Captain Gale of the Somerset County Militia was literally hauled from his bed by a protégé of Joseph Wheland, one Captain John McMullen, commander of the picaroon barge Restoration , accompanied by four white men and nine black men. The unfortunate militiaman was hauled off to Clay Island, "where he was most inhumanly whipt six lashes" and then hung until they believed him dead. Soon after he was cut down, he revived. McMullen attempted to persuade his crew to hang their victim again, but they refused. He proposed drowning the poor man, but again they refused. Finally, Gale was released after taking an oath not to bear arms against the King.

Wheland, McMullen, and Robinson frequently acted in concert now, occasionally rendezvousing at Courtney's Island before setting out upon a cruise. Wheland and his chief lieutenant, William Timmons, Jr., occasionally preferred the mobility of a small whaleboat to the larger barge, and visited the Wicomico or any other place along the Eastern Shore to their liking, defended or not, with relative impunity. They did not discriminate in the selection of their men, and frequently employed black slaves whom they had freed during their attacks as crewmen. Indeed, the black picaroons proved to be so ferocious in battle as to intimidate their white opponents, a trait that frequently played in Wheland's favor. Neither were the picaroons particular in the selection of their victims, be it a helpless widow or a patriot militia officer of local political or economic stature. Eventually, for Joseph Wheland, it wouldn't even matter whether his prey was patriot or Tory.

At last, in response to the picaroon and privateering depredations of the foe, Maryland fielded its first barge flotilla to cruise since the reduction of its Navy in 1778-1779. The flotilla's first expedition, initiated on July 28, 1781, was designed specifically to rid the Bay of the picaroons. Commodore George Grason of the Maryland Navy was given command. The flotilla was to be composed of the barges Intrepid , Captain Levin Speeden, Terrible , Captain Robert Dashiell, and Grason's own flagship Revenge . Two days after sailing, on July 30 , the little squadron engaged two picaroon barges, a whaleboat, and two smaller vessels. By chance they had fallen in with the leading pirates on the Bay, Wheland, Robinson, and McMullen. The barge Restoration , with McMullen, and two boats were taken. Robinson in the second barge, and Wheland in the whaleboat, were put to flight. Euphoria over this victory was contagious on the Eastern Shore. "The event has given general joy," wrote one Matthew Tilghman on August 3, "and if we cannot flatter ourselves with peace, we begin to think we have a chance of remaining safe from the plunderers that have late infested us."

The picaroons were not intimidated in the least and did not refrain from their attacks. In late August they again visited the Patuxent, leaving the river only after capturing three vessels laden with tobacco. On August 27 two barges pushed up the Nanticoke to Vienna, plundered the inhabitants of the town, and captured two or three fully laden vessels lying in the river there. One of the barges proceeded up beyond the town and captured two more vessels, even as her sister barge retired downriver with her prizes. Belatedly alerted, Colonel Henry Hooper collected a party of militia as quickly as possible and retook three of the vessels. Then, posting some men on each side of the river, he effectively cut off the retreat of one of the barges, forcing the enemy to run her ashore and make their escape on foot. Three picaroons were captured and sent to Annapolis on August 31. After securing the barge, Hooper dispatched a party of light horse down the river, but the second barge and her prizes had disappeared. Upon receiving a report from the party of light horse that the enemy's barge was not to be seen in the river, the colonel discharged the militia.

At one o'clock the following morning, Hooper received an urgent express that the barge had returned in the night and made the inhabitants of Vienna prisoners. Orders were issued for the militia to reassemble and march to the town. But it was already too late, for the elusive enemy had escaped once again.

Farther south on the Chesapeake, Tory and privateer raids were conducted with equally unvarnished bravado, though they were increasingly motivated, as the war dragged on, by a desire for the fruits of plunder rather than by patriotic devotion to the King and England. Occasionally, but with accelerating frequency, picaroon raids were conducted without discrimination against both sides. By the late summer of 1781 Gwynn's Island at the mouth of the Piankatank River was frequently being used as a picaroon base for barge operations—which were increasingly directed against fellow Tories as well as patriots. A number of picaroons had, in essence, degenerated from seaborne guerrillas to little more than out-and-out pirates, who plundered at will, when and whom they pleased. In mid-June, General George Weedon of Virginia wrote that some "of their vessels are continually in the mouth of the river and I am convinced from many circumstances hold a correspondence with . . . inhabitants of Gwyn's Island and Middlesex . . . " The loyalists of the region, as far away as Urbanna on the Rappahannock, a place patriots called a "sink" of Tory disaffection, were rapidly becoming disenchanted with their so-called waterborne allies. On June 19, it was reported that such notable and influential loyalists as Ralph Wormley of Rosegill, John Randolph Grymes, Beverly Robinson, and the inhabitants of Urbanna themselves had been plundered by Tory picaroons. When Wormley and Robinson assembled a band of loyalists at Robinson's estate, "to consult a plan of recovery," the picaroons struck again "and plundered them a second time, without landing at any other house.

The depredations of the pirate picaroons and privateers had by now disgusted the leaders of both sides. Even Lord Cornwallis, who had recently arrived at Portsmouth, Virginia, with his veteran army, was shocked by their vindictive activities and commented in a letter to Sir Henry Clinton, British Commander in Chief in North America, that the "horrid enormity of our privateers in the Chesapeake Bay" was quite "prejudicial to his Majesty's service." Indeed, it was driving some loyalists away from the Crown and hardening the resolve of the American cause.

Cornwallis, however, had more important matters to occupy his time than the dirty little guerrilla war on the Bay. He had an army to move, and a town to fortify—a little place on the York River called Yorktown. Tory picaroons, such as the likes of Joseph Wheland, Jr., were Maryland's and Virginia's problem.


The War in the Chesapeake

The strategic location of the Chesapeake Bay near the U.S. capital made it a prime target for the British.

Learning Objectives

Describe the burning of Washington, D.C. and the subsequent battles of Baltimore and Fort McHenry

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The British, in retaliation for the burning of York in Upper Canada, went on an extended raid of the Chesapeake region.
  • The British went up the Chesapeake to attack Washington, D.C., famously burning the White House in 1814. This successful British raid dented American morale and prestige.
  • Having destroyed Washington’s public buildings, including the president’s mansion and the Treasury, the British Army next moved to capture Baltimore, a busy port and a key base for American privateers.
  • The attack on Baltimore and the Battle of Fort McHenry inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Key Terms

  • Fort McHenry: A star-shaped building in Baltimore, Maryland, best known for its role in the War of 1812, when it successfully defended Baltimore Harbor from an attack by the British Navy in Chesapeake Bay September 13–14, 1814.
  • Francis Scott Key: An American lawyer, author, and amateur poet from Georgetown who wrote the lyrics to the U.S. national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The Chesapeake Bay

The strategic location of the Chesapeake Bay near America’s capital made it a prime target for the British during the War of 1812. Starting in March of 1813, a squadron under British Rear Admiral George Cockburn started a blockade and raided towns along the bay from Norfolk to Havre de Grace.

On July 4, 1813, Joshua Barney, a Revolutionary War naval hero, convinced the Navy Department to build the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla, a squadron of twenty barges to defend the Chesapeake Bay. Launched in April of 1814, the squadron was quickly cornered in the Patuxent River while successful in harassing the Royal Navy, the squadron was powerless to stop the British campaign that ultimately led to the burning of Washington.

The Burning of Washington, D.C.

Burning of Washington D.C.: This drawing shows the capture and burning of Washington, D.C. by the British in 1814. 1876 publication.

The expedition against Washington, led by Cockburn and General Robert Ross, was carried out between August 19 and 29, 1814, as the result of the hardened British policy of 1814. British and American commissioners had convened for peace negotiations at Ghent in June of that year however, Admiral Warren had been replaced as commander in chief by Admiral Alexander Cochrane, with reinforcements and orders to coerce the Americans into a favorable peace.

Governor-in-Chief of British North America Sir George Prevost had written to the admirals in Bermuda, calling for retaliation for destructive American raids into Canada, most notably the Americans’ burning of York in 1813. A force of 2,500 soldiers under General Ross had recently arrived in Bermuda aboard the HMS Royal Oak, three frigates, three sloops, and ten other vessels. Released from the Peninsular War in Europe by British victory, the British intended to use these ships for diversionary raids along the coasts of Maryland and Virginia. In response to Prevost’s request, the British decided to employ this force, together with the naval and military units already on the station, to strike at Washington, D.C.

On August 24, U.S. Secretary of War John Armstrong insisted that the British would attack Baltimore rather than Washington, even when the British Army was obviously on its way to the capital. The inexperienced U.S. militia, which had congregated in Maryland to protect the capital, was routed in the Battle of Bladensburg, opening the route to Washington. After the U.S. government officials fled from Washington, First Lady Dolley Madison remained behind to organize the slaves and staff to save valuables from the British. Although she was able to save valuables from the presidential mansion, both she and President James Madison were forced to flee to Virginia.

Upon arriving, the British commanders ate the supper that had been prepared for the president before they burned the presidential mansion. A furious storm swept into Washington, D.C. later that same evening, sending tornadoes into the city that caused even more damage but finally extinguished the fires with torrential rains. The naval yards were set afire at the direction of U.S. officials to prevent the capture of naval ships and supplies. The British left Washington, D.C. as soon as the storm subsided. The successful British raid on Washington, D.C., dented American morale and prestige.

The Battle of Baltimore

Having destroyed Washington’s public buildings, including the president’s mansion and the Treasury, the British Army next moved to capture Baltimore, a busy port and a key base for American privateers. The subsequent Battle of Baltimore began with the British landing at North Point, where they were met by American militia. An exchange of fire began, with casualties on both sides. General Ross was killed by an American sniper as he attempted to rally his troops. The sniper himself was killed moments later, and the British withdrew. The British also attempted to attack Baltimore by sea on September 13 but were unable to reduce Fort McHenry at the entrance to Baltimore Harbor, due to recent fortifications.

The Battle of Fort McHenry

The bombardment of Fort McHenry: A contemporary rendering of the engagement that provided the inspiration for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The Battle of Fort McHenry was no battle at all. British guns and rockets bombarded the fort and then moved out of range of the American cannons, which returned no fire. Admiral Cochrane’s plan was to coordinate with a land force, but from that distance, coordination proved impossible. The British called off the attack and left.

All the lights were extinguished in Baltimore the night of the attack, and the fort was bombarded for 25 hours. The only light was given off by the exploding shells over Fort McHenry, illuminating the flag that was still flying over the fort. The defense of the fort inspired the American lawyer Francis Scott Key to write a poem that would eventually provide the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner.”


The Incident

The Chesapeake had left the Norfolk coast of Virginia when it encountered the Leopard. The crew of the HMS Leopard hijacked and bordered the USS Chesapeake. Captain Salusbury Pryce Humphreys blew a trumpet to order Barron to surrender. Barron failed to surrender, and the Leopard, therefore, fired several shots at the Chesapeake. The Leopard crew was seeking for four deserters of the Royal Navy. The attack by the Leopard crew was so sudden that it caught the Chesapeake unprepared. After encounter, James Barron, the commander of the Chesapeake surrendered the frigate to the British crew. At the time of surrender, the Chesapeake had only fired one shot. Four crew members who had deserted the Royal Army, Daniel Martin, Jenkin Ratford, William Ware, and John Strachan, were found in the Chesapeake. They were tried for the desertion of the Royal Navy. One of the four members, Jenkin Ratford was hanged. The remaining three had American citizenship, yet they were taken to Britain. The Chesapeake was set free and was allowed to go back to America. It was, however, severely damaged. James Barron, the commander, was tried and later suspended from the command. Three members of the Chesapeake crew died during the confrontation and 18 were severely wounded. Britain is considered to have emerged victorious during this affair.


Battles That Saved America: North Point and Baltimore 1814

These few words—the opening line of the United States’ national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner”—are some of the most recognizable in American history and move the heart all that hear them. Nearly every school child in America knows that Francis Scott Key wrote the anthem as a poem after observing the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor throughout the night of 13 September and into the morning of 14 September 1814. From his vantage point on a British ship he watched through the rainy night as British guns pummeled the fort. As dawn broke, Key saw a massive American flag defiantly flying over the fort signaling that the British attack had failed. Had the British captured and burned Baltimore, as they had Washington the month before, Philadelphia and New York City would have been the next likely targets.

This story is well known but only tells a small part of what are known as the Battles of North Point and Baltimore, depending on which part of the engagement is being discussed. In truth these are just part of the same combined arms effort undertaken by the British on land and sea against Baltimore in September 1814. Fort McHenry is important and the most famous aspect of the battle, but there is much more to the events of 13 and 14 September 1814. This article will discuss some of those important and little known aspects of the battle.

The story begins in August 1814. After sailing up the Chesapeake Bay, British troops marched on Washington, DC, where they easily scattered the militia and handful of Regulars, Marines, and sailors assembled at the Maryland village of Bladensburg. This engagement, often derisively referred to as the “Bladensburg Races,” left the nation’s capital defenseless. Soon much of Washington, including the Capitol building, the White House, and other federal buildings, was in flames and President James Madison was forced to flee. Only severe thunderstorms saved the entire city from burning to the ground.

The British then focused their attention on Baltimore, a significant commercial and naval center, just forty miles northeast of Washington. Perhaps more than any other American city, the British wanted to capture Baltimore. One London newspaper declared, “The seat of the American government but particularly Baltimore, is to be the immediate object of the attack.”

Situated on the Patapsco River which offered entry to the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean, Baltimore was the homeport for a group of nautical soldiers of fortune called privateers. Privateering was a legal activity of the day in which privately armed and outfitted sailors roamed the seas under the license of a combatant nation looking for commercial and military prey of an enemy nation. These privateers seriously damaged British naval aims while bolstering the local economy. Other cities saw the effectiveness of privateering and soon commissioned their own schooners, but Baltimore alone accounted for thirty percent of British merchant ships seized during the war. The British response was an attempt to seize the privateers’ homeports and strike blows against America’s economy as well as its morale. They hoped to destroy Baltimore’s ship building facilities at the Fell’s Point Naval Yard, where the large frigate USS Java was nearing completion, along with stockpiled naval stores. The potential economic damage made Baltimore a lucrative target for British military might.

During their march back to their ships after torching Washington, British troops took Dr. William Beanes of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, into custody. Dr. Beanes was said to have harassed British troops on the march—specifically he jailed two drunken British soldiers as they passed through Upper Marlboro. In retaliation for his bold actions the British seized Dr. Beanes and threw him in irons aboard the ship HMS Tonnant. Friends enlisted the aid of local lawyer and amateur poet, Francis Scott Key, to gain the release of Dr. Beanes. Key approached the British and was taken aboard a ship to negotiate Dr. Beanes’ release. The ship sailed up the Chesapeake to the Patapsco River, taking a station about eight miles before Fort McHenry. The British agreed to release Beanes but insisted that Key remain on the ship until after the imminent battle was over. From his vantage point on that ship, just beyond where the modern Francis Scott Key Bridge (Interstate 695) crosses the Patapsco today, Key observed the 25-hour bombardment of the fort.

Baltimore was not surprised by the approach of the enemy in mid-September 1814. They expected that the British would target the city sooner or later. A year and a half before the battle the governor of Maryland, Levin Winder, instructed Revolutionary War hero and Whiskey Rebellion veteran, congressman, senator, merchant, and commander of the state militia, MG Samuel Smith, to improve the defenses of Baltimore. Using extremely limited state and federal funds, and continuously soliciting funds from the local citizenry, Smith was able to emplace fifty-six long-range cannon at Fort McHenry. In addition, Smith ordered the construction of several other lesser installations around Baltimore Harbor.

Among the improvements were upgrades of Fort McHenry, a 32-pound cannon battery along the water’s edge, fortifications at Lazaretto Point, and additional batteries arrayed along the banks of the Patapsco. Barges were stretched across the watery approaches creating choke points that were covered by supporting batteries at Fort Covington (named for BG Leonard Covington, a Marylander who was killed at Chrysler’s Farm, 11 November 1813) and Fort Babcock (named for Army CPT Samuel Babcock, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who was the foreman in charge of the improvements and emplacements around the harbor). Channels were left open to lure the British ships into kill zones. All the improvements were designed to absorb the punishment expected from the better armed British in a “bend but do not break” strategy. A committee of public supply raised funds for construction projects. Volunteers dug huge entrenchments east of town. The city militia drilled regularly. Additionally, Smith anticipated that a naval bombardment would be just one aspect of the operation. He not only surmised that British troops would mount a ground campaign, he correctly predicted their route of march and prepared defensive positions along North Point.

The British plan was to squeeze the city in a combined land/sea pincer movement. Part of the plan was a naval bombardment to reduce the harbor defenses and land troops along the northern branch of the Patapsco. At the same time 5,000 infantry troops would land at North Point and march in an arc into the city from the east. Caught in the middle of these two overwhelming forces, the city was expected to capitulate just as quickly as Washington did a few weeks before. It all began in the predawn darkness of 12 September 1814.

At 0300 six British ships anchored off of North Point and began to offload troops and supplies under the command of MG Robert Ross, getting everyone on shore around 0700. Ross had three brigades of infantry, plus a company of Royal Sappers and a contingent of Royal Marines, under his command. British Rear Admiral George Cockburn accompanied Ross but had no authority to command. Once assembled into march formations the British began advancing up Long Log Lane, now Old North Point Road. The head of the mile-long column reached a homestead owned by Thomas Todd, established in 1664. The central feature of this 1,700 acre farm was a house called Todd’s Inheritance with a commanding view of the Chesapeake Bay. This aspect of the house doomed it to the British torch upon their retreat back down Long Log Lane.

Just over two miles along the march from Todd’s Inheritance, the British encountered an unfinished trench line designed to obstruct the British on a strip of land barely one mile across between Back River on the east and Humphrey Creek on the west. Today it is hardly visible and Humphrey Creek no longer exists. The line was abandoned for one a few miles closer to Baltimore at a point more strategically advantageous to the defenders. Although unmanned, this line did delay the British, as they had to deploy to meet the potential threat. Further up the road American BG John Stricker, who, like Smith, was a veteran of the Revolutionary War and the Whiskey Rebellion, posted his 3d Maryland Militia Brigade (also known as the City Brigade) of Maryland’s 3d Militia Division in three lines between the Back River and Patapsco River. Stricker had 3,185 men in five infantry regiments (5th, 6th, 27th, 39th, and 51st), one cavalry regiment, one artillery regiment, and a battalion of riflemen.

Battle of North Point, by Don Troiani (National Guard Heritage Series)

Approximately seven miles into the march, the British commander, MG Ross, stopped at Gorsuch Farm to eat breakfast. When Stricker learned of this he assembled a volunteer force of 250 men to reconnoiter the British advance. After breakfast, Ross rode to the front to observe and command his troops. As he moved forward of his own men, Ross presented a tempting target, all the while ignoring Admiral Cockburn’s warnings that he was too exposed. Legend has it that two youthful–some say as youthful as 14 years of age–American sharpshooters, PVT Daniel Wells and PVT Henry G. McComas from CPT Edward Aisquith’s rifle company from the 1st Rifle Battalion, Maryland Militia, took aim and fired at MG Ross.

Whether it was Wells and McComas or other soldiers that fired at Ross remains in dispute, but beyond question is that Ross was struck in the arm and the projectile lodged in his chest, knocking him to the ground. Although mortally wounded Ross refused the use of a rocket wagon to evacuate him, saying that he did not want to deprive his troops of an important weapon. Instead, soldiers commandeered a cart from the farm of George Stansbury to carry the general from the field. He died at a spot approximately one mile from the site where he was wounded. As British soldiers carried him to the rear, Ross’ blood-soaked horse ran back to the main body alerting the British troops to the wounding of their commander.

Ross’ body was taken to the HMS Tonnant, flagship of Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane where he was preserved in a barrel of rum. On 29 September 1814 he was buried with military honors at Saint Paul Church in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His assailants, Wells and McComas, were themselves killed in action shortly after Ross was hit on 12 September.

Upon the death of Ross, COL Arthur Brooke, commander of the 1st (Light) Brigade, took command of the British ground forces. The American defenders were deployed in a line across Bolden’s Farm on the afternoon of 12 September. British and American artillery traded shots while the British attacked in an orderly and disciplined manner. As the enemy got closer, Stricker ordered the artillery to charge their guns with canister, which proved effective against the approaching British infantry. As the British ranks closed to within 100 yards–the effective maximum range for most smoothbore muskets of the day–the Americans kept up a heavy fire against the approaching infantry. In particular, the 5th Maryland, holding the American right flank and commanded by LTC Joseph Sterrett, put up stiff resistance in the face of murderous British rocket and artillery fire. Unlike the American forces at Bladensburg, Stricker’s troops did not panic and break when confronted by highly disciplined veteran British regulars. Once the British adavance was slowed, the Americans conducted a fighting retreat through a heavily wooded area to their next defensive line at Bread and Cheese Creek. Colonel Brooke did not pursue the Americans, choosing instead to camp for the night.

When Stricker saw that the British were not going to continue the attack he ordered his troops to fall back into the city to Hampstead Hill, part of an expanse owned by the second wealthiest Marylander at that time and the biggest contributor to Baltimore’s defenses. At this spot 5,000 defenders manned two and half miles of entrenchments. In some reports Hampstead Hill is also known as Loudenslager’s Hill or Chinquapin Hill. Today it is known as Patterson Park. As the American’s fell back they burned a large building used for making ship’s rigging commonly called in that day a “rope walk.” The fire’s glow seen from the city caused some panic among the populace.

The first day’s losses were significant for both sides, but the British suffered the heaviest casualties. Twenty-four Americans were killed that day and 139 were wounded. British losses were forty-six killed, including MG Ross, and 300 wounded. Many of the wounded, American and British alike, were treated at a local Methodist church where British surgeons worked through the chilly and damp night to save them.

The British suffered through the night for lack of shelter as they left their tentage and coats back at North Point, expecting that they would have been in Baltimore by nightfall. Heavy rain drenched the soldiers and rendered many weapons inoperable. As the British infantry shivered through the night, British warships moved up the Patapsco to within two miles of Fort McHenry. The second phase of the Battle of Baltimore had begun. Before dawn on the morning of 13 September the British continued their march on Baltimore along the Philadelphia Road. By first light they were within sight of the city at a position where the present day Francis Scott Key Medical Center is located.

At 0630 the Royal Navy opened their bombardment of Fort McHenry with five bomb ships, a rocket ship, and ten other warships of various types. British troops outside Baltimore were probably heartened by the sound, but what they saw must have shocked them. They believed that the day before they had defeated the entirety of the American defenders and expected to march easily into the city. The rising sun revealed the spectacle of 12,000 soldiers facing them. Among the defenders were militia units from the city and surrounding counties some units came from as far away as Pennsylvania. Furthermore, the Americans possessed 100 cannon, giving the Americans a three-to-one advantage over their British foes. The land between the American and British lines had been largely cleared, offering little in the way of cover of concealment, and the heavy rains from the night before turned much of it into a quagmire. COL Brooke sent patrols out to probe for weaknesses in the American lines, but none were discovered. All Brooke could do was wait for support from the heavy naval guns of the British fleet. Before it could get within supporting range of the troops in Baltimore, however, it would have to reduce Fort McHenry.

The garrison commander of Fort McHenry, MAJ George Armistead, a Regular Army officer, had completed the preparation of the fort’s defenses only days before the British landings. Armistead had a 527-man composite unit comprised of soldiers from the 12th, 36th, and 38th U.S. Infantry Regiments, in addition to Regular and militia artillery units. The fort was well protected except for one glaring weakness: the magazine was a simple brick structure with only a shingle roof and vulnerable to a direct hit by enemy fire. One shell actually struck the magazine during the bombardment but failed to explode. Eventually, the 300 barrels of power stored within the magazine were distributed throughout the fort to reduce the chance of a devastating explosion.

The bombardment opened with rockets (the newfangled Congreve rockets made famous by Key’s line “rocket’s red glare”), bombs (actually mortars that exploded above the fort as in Key’s line “bombs bursting in air”), and cannon balls all aimed at the fort. For the defenders in the fort, the noise was deafening (CPT Frederick Evans described it as “overwhelming”). Four men were killed and 24 wounded, but overall, casualties were light and only a few guns were ever put out of action.

The bombardment continued until early in the afternoon when the fleet, under the command of Rear Admiral Cockburn, attempted to move closer so that their fire would be more effective. This maneuver failed when the return fire from Fort McHenry forced them back to their original positions. From there the British fleet resumed the bombardment of Fort McHenry.

After dark, with the rain falling and their army still menacing the outskirts of Baltimore, the British attempted to bypass the guns of Fort McHenry. Just before midnight on 13 September, boats carrying 1,200 soldiers slid under the guns of Fort McHenry making their way into the middle branch of the Patapsco River. The British obviously intended to mount a ground attack on the rear of the fort. Thinking that they were out of danger from the fort’s guns, they sent up rockets. Perhaps the firing of the rockets was an ill-advised celebration of their having bypassed Fort McHenry, or perhaps it was meant as a signal. In either case, it gave away their position and pinpointed them as targets for the guns at Forts Babcock and Covington. Many of the 1,200 unfortunate British troops were killed or drowned in the ensuing crossfire. Most of those who survived were taken prisoner.

With the coming of dawn on 14 September the British realized that despite firing 1,500 to 1,800 rounds at the fort, they were not going to prevail. The cold rainy night gave way to a breezy dawn. As the wind kicked up, Fort McHenry’s commander, MAJ Armistead, ordered the raising of a huge American flag that he had made by local seamstress Mary Pickersgill just for such an occasion. It is said that the fort’s musicians played “Yankee Doodle” as the garrison rasied the flag. The sight of that flag broke the will of British military commanders and convinced them that they could not take Baltimore.

This flag, the standard garrison flag measuring 42 feet by 30 feet, was large enough so that ships on the river would be able to see its fifteen 26-inch stars and fifteen two-foot wide stripes clearly from far away (the flag did not revert to the thirteen stripe version we know today until 1818). Some are under the impression that that flag flew during the entire battle but that is unlikely due to the weather. It is more likely that a smaller flag flew during the height of the bombardment. Today, the Smithsonian Institution is repairing damage done to the famous large flag by souvenir hunters and time.

As the fleet withdrew, COL Brooke retreated from Baltimore. The British infantry boarded the ships where they had disembarked two days earlier and the fleet sailed out of the Chesapeake Bay. For several days the defenders of Baltimore stood by to repulse an expected second assault, but the British did not return. British forces were as disheartened as Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the words that would become the United States’ national anthem 116 years later.

The burning of Washington during the British Chesapeake Bay offensive was their highlight of 1814. After being repulsed in the Chesapeake, and in upstate New York at Plattsburgh on 11 September, the British concentrated their operations in the Gulf of Mexico which resulted in further defeats and culminated in the disaster at New Orleans. The Battles of Baltimore and North Point silenced opponents of the war, restored national pride, and helped convince the British that the cost of the war would be more than they could bear.

There were many American heroes of the battle including MG Smith, MAJ Armistead, and the garrison of Fort McHenry. Smith used his military, political, and business connections to get the city prepared. After the battle he was held in such high esteem that the citizens returned him to Congress. The people of Baltimore honored him with a park in his name that disappeared in the urban renewal movement of the 1970s.

MAJ George Armistead was also a hero of the battle. This Regular Army officer saw to the preparations of Fort McHenry and was the backbone of the defenses throughout the 25-hour bombardment. Just when the time was right he ordered the raising of the most famous flag in American history signaling his defiance to the British leaders and inspiring Francis Scott Key. Coincidentally, he is not the only Armistead with a significant place in American military history. His nephew, Lewis Armistead, gained fame for himself as a Confederate general in the Battle of Gettysburg when he breached the Union lines during Pickett’s Charge before being mortally wounded. Both George and Lewis are interred together in Baltimore.

Fort McHenry is an icon of American history. It was built to withstand foreign invasion, a role it filled admirably. After serving in the War of 1812, Fort McHenry stayed on active duty into the twentieth century. During the Civil War it served as a Union prison for Confederates and southern sympathizers. At one point a son of Francis Scott Key was imprisoned there under suspicion of being a secessionist. Later it served as a training installation and hospital. Today it is part of National Park Service and host to thousands of visitors annually. Occasionally it still sees active service as the landing pad for the Presidential helicopter (Marine One) when the President of the United States pays a visit to Baltimore.

Most of the details of the Battles of North Point and Baltimore are seldom talked about today. Fort McHenry is more than the coincidental location of writing of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Both Fort McHenry and North Point are testaments to American bravery and commitment to the nation. Had it not been for the courageous defenders of Baltimore in September of 1814 the United States might have gone the way of Washington, DC. The young nation known as the United States of America might have ceased to exist and may have become a mere footnote in the history of the world. For that, all Americans owe the defenders a significant debt.

For additional information on the Battles of North Point and Baltimore, please read: The Battle for Baltimore, 1814, by Joseph A. Whitehorne Terror on the Chesapeake: The War of 1812 on the Bay, by Christopher T. George The War of 1812 on the Chesapeake Bay, by Gilbert Byron The Darkest Day: 1814, The Washington-Baltimore Campaign, by Charles G. Muller Amateurs to Arms! A Military History of the War of 1812, by John R. Elting and The War of 1812, by Harry L. Coles.


Attack on Chesapeake - History


Union forces entered the Chesapeake Bay with impunity during the Civil War, once the CSS Virginia was destroyed
Source: Library of Congress, Panorama of the seat of war. Birds eye view of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia

The Chesapeake Bay has been a highway, more than a barrier, since Native Americans paddled to the Eastern Shore in canoes. Europeans used sailing ships as the 18-wheel trucks of the colonial era, penetrating up rivers to the Fall Line throughout Tidewater. Both pirates and warships have followed the same routes. Before invading Virginia in 1781, Lord Cornwallis wrote his superior in New York City that North Carolina was hard to conquer because it lacked "interior navigation," but: 1

The Rivers of Virginia are advantageous to an invading Army.

The threat of attack via the bay has shaped the location of colonial settlement, and even the location of modern industrial facilities. The Radford Arsenal and the first industrial plant in Blacksburg were placed far inland in Montgomery County in World War II, to avoid threat from an enemy attack along the Atlantic Ocean coastline.

The threat was real. In 1652 during the English Civil War, Governor Berkeley maintained his authority as royalist governor only until a fleet sent across the Atlantic Ocean by Parliament appeared in the Chesapeake Bay, at which point Gov. Berkeley surrendered. During the American Revolution, the British sailed up the James River and seized American ships at Hog Island. During the Civil War, Union farces sailed upstream as far as Drewry's Bluff. Even in 2013, a contractor reported to the Pentagon that the two nuclear reactors at Surry were vulnerable to a terrorist attack from the sea. 2

Throughout the colonial era, ships sailed from Caribbean islands or Europe to trade directly with Tidewater plantations. The bay provided equally good access for pirates and foreign navies to attack those plantations. The range of land-based cannon (shore batteries) was inadequate to block the entrance to the Elizabeth and James rivers until Fort Calhoun was constructed on the Rip Raps shoal between Hampton and Norfolk in the 1840-50's.


forts were built to block foreign ships from sailing up the James and Elizabeth rivers, and when cannon were finally powerful enough forts were built at Cape Charles and Cape Henry to control passage into the Chesapeake Bay
Map Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Wetlands Mapper

Even during the Civil War, when a domestic army with support from inland states invaded Virginia, the 1862 Peninsula Campaign and the siege of Petersburg in 1864-65 relied upon water-based transport. Until the creation of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM's) in the 1950's, the greatest foreign threat to Virginia was a military force arriving via the Chesapeake Bay.

Algonquian-speaking Native Americans had crossed the bay in boats long before Europeans arrived. Native American canoes were far less maneuverable than the European sailing ships, and moving a canoe by muscle power was more exhausting than using wind power, but Powhatan's subordinates crossed the bay to establish control over Eastern Shore tribes before English colonists settled in Jamestown in 1607. If the Native Americans had documented their military history in writing, the annals of Powhatan might have included glorious stories of water-based maneuvering and amphibious attacks.

Powhatan's priests had warned him that a threat to his paramount chiefdom would come from the east, and he was aware of European ships occasionally sailing into the Chesapeake Bay. Powhatan had no military capacity to block the arrival of European ships, though warriors in canoes could threaten a small ship. When John Smith explored the Chesapeake Bay in a shallop during 1608, he took defensive precautions whenever canoes paddled out from shore to initiate discussions/trade, and when he "incountred 7 or 8 Canowes full of Massawomeks." 3

Powhatan had no technology capable of blocking the arrival of European ships. He lacked the capacity to sink ships of the invading "tassantassas" (strangers), so he normally avoided a direct fight in open fields and relied instead on asymmetric warfare and diplomacy.

His successors attempted to use surprise attacks to expel the invaders, but that technique failed in 1622 and 1644 to push the colonists out of Virginia. The invaders who arrived via the Chesapeake Bay in 1607 would occupy Virginia and displace Powhatan's people, while the waterway would remain as an avenue for attack by others who might displace the English.

England recognized that enemy fleets could project power across vast distances. It worried about invasion of the "home island" across the English Channel by the Spanish in 1588 (and by the Dutch in 1677, the French in 1779, and the Germans in 1941). The Atlantic Ocean was much wider than the English Channel, but the entire ocean was not a barrier to protect English communities growing in the New World after 1607.


high cliffs at Drewry's Bluff allowed Confederates to block the Union navy from sailing upstream from Hampton Roads to Richmond in May, 1862 after the battle of the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia
Map Source: Library of Congress, [B]alloon view of the attack on Fort Darling in the James River, by Commander Rogers's [sic] [i.e., Rodger's] gun-boat flotilla, "Galena," "Monitor," etc.

The earliest English settlers to Virginia chose to sail past the excellent harbors on the Elizabeth River, following instructions of the London Company. The Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery went upstream to Jamestown. That lengthened the supply line, but reduce the potential of a surprise attack by the Spanish, French, or Dutch. The instructions prepared by the London Company in 1606 presumed that sailing inland would also force an attacker to sail up a narrow river channel, which could be lined with musket-firing colonists protecting their base: 4

Choose your place. a hundred miles from the Rivers mouth and the farther up the better. if he be Driven to Seek you a hundred miles within the Land in boats you shall from both sides of your River where it is Narrowest So beat them with Your muskets as they shall never be Able to prevail Against You.

The colony at Jamestown was protected, but the more-valuable ships and cargoes at Hampton Roads were still exposed to fleets from other nations - or to individual ships that were authorized as privateers or "went rogue" as pirates.


building the Jamestown fort in May, 1607
Source: National Park Service - Sidney King collection of paintings created for the 350th Anniversary of Jamestown

After all, if the English could sail from Europe to Virginia, so could the enemies of England or water-based thieves. Into the 1800's, a sail spotted in the Chesapeake Bay could mark the arrival of a commercial business opportunity - or a pirate masquerading as a merchant from England or the West Indies, coming to seize ships and even raid Virginia plantations along Tidewater shorelines.

For 350 years after Jamestown, American ships and cargoes transiting through the Chesapeake Bay have been a target for attack. In colonial times, the ships were far more valuable than the public buildings at the colonial capital. Today, though destruction of public buildings in Washington DC would have great symbolic importance (as demonstrated in the September 11, 2011 terrorist attacks), the shipping is more valuable. The Atlantic Fleet based at Norfolk, armed with nuclear weapons, is the most valuable military asset to protect on the East Coast.

Guarding the Mouth of the Bay

Observation posts located at Hampton and Cape Charles/Cape Henry have provided advance warning of ships entering the bay since 1609. Pirates or countries with a navy found the time required to cross the bay would provide the Virginians with time to assemble the militia.

The Jamestown settlers built Fort Algernourne in 1609, near the town of Kecoughtan on the end of the Peninsula where Fort Monroe is now located. The fort provided an early warning system of Spanish, Dutch, and pirate ships. (Perhaps more importantly, moving some starving settlers away from Jamestown in 1609 reduced the demand on the fort's food supplies, and may have reduced transmission of density-dependent disease.) The Algernourne Oak on the parade ground at Fort Monroe germinated around 1540, so that live oak tree would have provided shade for the colonists who built the first fort. 5

In the first successful foreign attack on Virginia during the Anglo-Dutch War in 1667, Dutch warships captured and destroyed the ineffective Elizabeth guardship, and the fort at Point Comfort was useless in protecting the tobacco fleet from capture. In theory, the English ships could have sailed near the fort and received protection from the fort's guns. However, the guns at the fort were not powerful enough to hit enemy ships sailing in the channel. Providing effective cannon, and maintaining the fort's walls, had been considered as too expensive. The fort ended up being nothing but a drain on the valuable resources of the Virginia colonists.

Despite the failure in 1667, and a repeat when the Dutch arrived again in 1673, Fort George was built on the tip of the Peninsula in 1727. Brick walls were built 16' apart and connected by brick crosswalls, and apparently the cells were then filled with sand to create sturdy fortifications.

Fort George lasted a little over 20 years, before it was destroyed by the 1749 hurricane that created Willoughby Spit. Hampton Roads offers several sheltered locations for a harbor, but a storm surge of 10-15 feet can rearrange channels/spits as well as sink ships and destroy buildings. The flaw in the design of Fort George was in its weak foundation: 7

It was built on a Sandy Bank no care to drive the piles to make a Foundation the Sea and wind beating against it has quite undermined it and dismantled all the Guns which now lie buried in the Sand.


Old Point Comfort, at tip of the Peninsula, has been fortified since 1609. with a few gaps
Source: US Geological Survey, Hampton 7.5x7.5 topographic quad (2011)


Willoughby Spit, formed in part by the 1749 hurricane
Source: US Geological Survey, Norfolk North 7.5x7.5 topographic quad (2011)

Fort George was not rebuilt after the hurricane. After the 1748 Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle ended the War of Austrian Succession (also known as King George's War) between France and England, tensions had eased in Europe. Even during the Seven Years War (also known as the French and Indian War), Virginia did not rebuild a maginally-useful fort at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Instead, the colony focused on defending its western borders against French invasion and Native American raids.

Revolutionary War

In the Revolutionary War, when the American rebels had few warships in the Chesapeake Bay, the British were able to raid up the Elizabeth, Nansemond, Appomattox, James, and Potomac rivers with ease.

At the start of the war, Lord Dunmore abandoned Williamsburg and found safety on the HMS Fowey, a British warship in the York River. After raiding plantation homes for supplies and to damage property of prominent rebellious colonists, his flotilla sailed south to Norfolk.

Loyalists controlled the town, but Virginia militia marched towards it in October, 1775. Dunmore's ships were unable to move up the James River fast enough to block the Virginia militia from crossing from Jamestown to the southern side, and Col. Woodford led five companies of the Second Regiment through Nansemond County to threaten Norfolk from the south. Patriots also assembled a force at Kemps Landing at the tip of the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River.

The British fortified the causeway at Great Bridge, building Fort Murray to block troops under Col. Woodford from advancing to Norfolk. To recruit new soldiers and to threaten the colonists, Dunmore issued a proclamation offering freedom to slaves who joined his forces and fought for the King. Though the British controlled the Chesapeake Bay with powerful warships, Dunmore recognized that the threat of slave uprisings and emancipation of laborers from Chesapeake Bay plantations was also an effective military measure.

After the British rashly attacked across the causeway and were defeated at Great Bridge, they retreated to Norfolk. The Americans gradually forced the loyalists and troops to abandon the city and stay on the warships in the harbor. American riflemen on the Norfolk shoreline then made it difficult for anyone to expose themselves on the ships.

In response, on the first day of 1776 Dunmore shelled Norfolk and landed troops. They did not re-occupy Norfolk instead, the British troops burned the structures on the shoreline that might used by Virginia sharpshooters. Rather than fight to save the town, the Americans burned the rest of Norfolk to ensure it could not become a Loyalist base.

Dunmore finally abandoned efforts to establish a permanent base on the Elizabeth River. He sailed away to establish another base on Gwynn's Island. Disease substantially reduced his forces there, especially among the escaped slaves. When the Americans placed cannon on the mainland that could reach his ships and attacked on July 9, Dunmore fled to St. George's Island near the mouth of the Potomac River. Maryland militia forced him away from there, and the British ships sailed out of the Chesapeake Bay in August, 1776.

The Virginia militia succeeded in pushing the British away from the Chesapeake Bay, using just land forces without use of naval forces - but the British had the military capacity to sail back to Hampton Roads or anywhere else in the Chesapeake Bay, at any time.


the British controlled the water with their warships, but Fort Murray failed to block the Virginia militia from crossing Great Bridge over the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River
(NOTE: on this map, south is at the top and north is at the bottom)
Source: Library of Congress, Part of the Province of Virginia (1791)

In May, 1779, Sir George Collier led 28 ships with 1,800 men under General Edward Mathew and surprised the Virginians in Hampton Roads. Fort Nelson, guarding the Gosport shipyard in Portsmouth, was quickly captured. The fort was very well constructed, and with the British attacking by land there was no problem with the range of the Virginia weapons. However, the British forces outnumbered the Virginians 20-1, and the Virginia commander with only 100 men chose to retreat rather than fight.

The British burned the Gosport Ship Yard, where the Continental Navy was trying to complete the frigate Virginia. Collier wanted to stay at Portsmouth, which he described as "an exceeding and safe asylum for ships against an enemy." Collier viewed Portsmouth as the best location for a base to support the British blockade, ultimately starving the American rebels of gunpowder, weapons, uniforms, and other military supplies being imported from Europe. 6

By 1779, British strategy was shaped by the threat of the French fleet as well as of the American militia and Continental Army. Creating a permanent base in the Chesapeake would over-extend the American Squadron, so Collier was summoned back to New York. Before leaving, he burned Virginia and a massive stockpile of high-quality shipbuilding timber.

The Collier-Mathew hit-and-run attack made Virginia's legislators realize that the Revolutionary War would be fought in their state, as well as in the north between Philadelphia and Boston. The raid destroyed extensive supplies in Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Suffolk, as well as warships under construction.

Merchant ships loaded with tobacco for France ended up as prize ships, and the profits went to British officers rather than helping the American side. Including the ships seized in the upper Chesapeake Bay, 137 vessels were captured by the British at the cost of just two men being wounded. By the time the Virginia militia had been assembled, the British had returned to their ships. Various British warships continued to patrol the Chesapeake Bay in 1779, with no resistance by the Americans. 8

Another British invasion in 1780 showed Virginia was better prepared to defend itself. General Alexander Leslie brought only a half-dozen or so ships, but 2,200 men. He landed at Portsmouth on October 21 and attacked Newport News/Hampton on October 23, 1780. The intent was to intercept Virginia supplies and divert American troops away from the British campaign under Lord Cornwallis, as they marched north after capturing Charleston, South Carolina in May.

However, the Virginians mobilized while minimizing the impact on their support for the Southern armies. Most of the Virginia Line had been captured in the disastrous defeat at Charleston, but the rebellious American forces in South Carolina were still resisting Cornwallis' northern advance. As directed by George Washington, Virginia continued to send reinforcements and supplies south, rather than to the Continental army that kept the British trapped in New York City.

British forces captured the battlefield at Camden, Kings Mountain, Cowpens, and Guilford Courthouse, but those Pyrrhic skirmishes cost the British irreplaceable soldiers. To maintain the army fighting in North America, the British had to hire Hessian soldiers from Germany as mercenaries. Recruiting and shipping replacement troops across the Atlantic was as challenging as getting American soldiers to Vietnam 35 years ago.

General Leslie was deterred from sailing up the James River by reports of large groups of Virginia militia and strong fortifications on the riverbanks. The Virginians freed up the guards responsible for 2,800 prisoners in Charlottesville by marching those prisoners north to Frederick, Maryland. The Albemarle Barracks (west of the modern Barracks Road Shopping Center on Route 29) had been built by the prisoners, primarily Hessians who had been captured at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 and marched from Boston to Virginia in 1779 for safekeeping. 9

The next assault via the Chesapeake Bay came soon after Leslie was redirected south to reinforce Cornwallis at Charleston. General Benedict Arnold sailed from New York to the James River and arrived on December 30, 1780 with almost 30 ships and 1,500 troops.

Virginia's military defenses were, once again, revealed to be inadequate. There were no American cannon or troops at Point Comfort to delay movement up the James River Fort George had not been rebuilt after its destruction in a 1649 hurricane.

When Arnold was spotted in the Chesapeake Bay off Willoughby Spit, the Virginians could not determine if his target was Williamsburg, Petersburg, or Richmond until the fleet sailed upriver past Jamestown. Arnold put troops ashore on the south bank, and they forced the militia to evacuate the incomplete Virginian fort at Hoods Point. That fort, opposite Weyanoke Point at a sharp bend in the river, was the only opportunity to block the British fleet from going upriver all the way to Richmond.


after sailing past the incomplete Virginian fort at Hoods Point (1), Benedict Arnold landed at Westover Plantation (2) and marched on the north bank of the James River to Richmond
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

The British chose to go onshore and move overland to seize the capital. About 900 soldiers and loyalists organized as the marched quickly from William Byrd's plantation wharf at Westover to Richmond. The Virginians did manage to move some supplies to the south side of the James River, but the British burned public records and destroyed the Westham foundry that produced cannon for the Americans.

Benedict Arnold's troops and loyalists also burned private warehouses loaded with tobacco. Since the American currency had depreciated to the point that it was "not worth a Continental" and money issued by the state had lost much of its value, importing military supplies from Europe usually involved trading with Virginia tobacco. Arnold's burning of tobacco in Richmond was equivalent to burning money in the state treasury.

Arnold's concern about the Virginia militia deterred the British from crossing the James River and capturing Manchester in January. Arnold returned to Portsmouth after his January, 1781 Richmond raid. He established a permanent British occupation post in Virginia, fulfilling the plan originally assigned to Leslie several months earlier. 10

The Virginia militia were organized under General Thomas Nelson north of the James River, and under General Peter Muhlenberg south of the river. General Greene left Baron von Steuben in overall command, but there were not enough men or supplies for the militia to go on the offensive and attack Portsmouth. 11

George Washington and his French allies tried to provide assistance to the Virginians. In February, the French sent ships from their fleet at Newport, Rhode Island to the Chesapeake Bay. They were able to sail into the Lynnhaven Bay, but those ships required deep water. Arnold simply moved up the Elizabeth River, where water depth was shallow. The French squadron did not carry the army troops required to attack Portsmouth on land, so the squadron returned to Newport and left Arnold unchallenged.

A second initiative of Washington and the French involved sending the Marquis de Lafayette and French troops to Virginia. American troops marched south from New York, while French troops were sent via ship from Rhode Island. Washington planned to relieve the pressure on Virginia so it could renew its shipment of supplies to the Continental Army challenging Cornwallis in South Carolina, and also hoped to capture and execute Benedict Arnold as a traitor.

The initiative required close cooperation between American/French troops on land and French ships. The Americans, with Lafayette, were able to march south and then sail down the Chesapeake Bay to Hampton Roads. However, the French fleet with 1,200 essential troops was unable to force its way past a British fleet blocking access to the Chesapeake Bay and had to return to Newport. (Six months later, Washington and Rochambeau would repeat the maneuver and, thanks to a more-successful French fleet, catch Cornwallis at Yorktown.) 12

General Clinton sent 2,000 more troops from New York to Hampton Roads in March. They were led by General William Phillips, and Arnold remained in Hampton Roads as Phillip's subordinate. Lafayette ended up staying in Virginia with a small force of Continental Army troops, enough to harass but not to defeat the British.

The British based at Portsmouth could move throughout Tidewater with impunity. The majority of the Continental Army was far to the north, keeping the British trapped in New York City, and could not spare enough troops to protect Virginia.

On a raid up the Potomac River, a British squadron sailed past Mount Vernon before seizing merchant ships and tobacco from Alexandria. Lund Washington, cousin of George Washington and caretaker at Mount Vernon, provided supplies to the British in exchange for protecting the mansion - to George Washington's great embarrassment.

From their base at Portsmouth, Phillips and Arnold destroyed the Virginia State Navy shipyard on the Chickahominy River, which had been developed after Collier's destruction of the Gosport Ship Yard in 1779. They sailed to City Point and marched to Petersburg, easily defeating the Virginia militia under General Peter Muhlenberg that assembled at Blandford. (During that battle, American artillery based on bluffs north of the Appomattox River gave the name to Colonial Heights.) 13

Phillips destroyed tobacco, flour, and other military supplies at Petersburg, then moved north to burn the military training camp (and former prisoner of war camp) at Chesterfield Courthouse. Arnold split off and marched his troops swiftly to Osbourne's Landing on the James River. He surprised the remnants of the Virginia Navy there.

The Virginia Navy had concentrated its ships there, with plans to attack Portsmouth if the French sent another fleet south from Rhode Island to capture Portsmouth. Instead, Arnold's land-based troops used cannons and rifle fire to capture or destroy the entire fleet. In 1985, marine archaeologists unsuccessfully sought to find the sunken wrecks. The James River may have migrated westward. If so, any remnants of the Virginia Navy ships destroyed by Arnold in April, 1781 may be underneath Farrar's Island today. 14


on April 27, 1781, Benedict Arnold destroyed the Virginia Navy, which had gathered at Osbourne's in anticipation of a joint French-American attack on the British base at Portsmouth
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Phillips and Arnold then moved upstream to Manchester at the end of April, and destroyed tobacco and supplies there. A small force of Continental Army troops under Marquis de Lafayette watched from the Richmond side of the James River, in a mirror image of how Thomas Jefferson had observed British forces from the opposite side of the river in January 1781.


in April 1781, General William Phillips and Benjamin Arnold sailed from Portsmouth to City Point (yellow line), marched to Petersburg and destroyed supplies after the Battle of Blandford (red line), and then Phillips went to Manchester via Chesterfield Court House (green line) while Arnold detoured first to Osbourne's Landing to destroy the Virginia Navy
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

The easy military successes of Phillips and Arnold in Virginia affected two key decisions, one political and one military.

The political decision was made by Virginia's leaders within the General Assembly and in Congress.

In 1781, Virginia was clearly unable to protect itself it needed assistance from the other colonies. To encourage the other states in the Continental Congress to contribute more troops to protect Virginia, the state's political leadership decided to compromise on its boundary claims to western lands north of the Ohio. Virginia ceded what became the "Northwest Territory" to the national government.

Virginia also resolved an old boundary dispute with Pennsylvania. The General Assembly abandoned Virginia's claims to the Forks of the Ohio (Pittsburgh) area, which had triggered George Washington's 1753 trip and ultimately the French and Indian War.

Both Virginia and Pennsylvania agreed to extend the Mason-Dixon line to five degrees west of the Delaware River, then draw a line due north to define Pennsylvania's western boundary. Virginia was unwilling to extend the western boundary directly to the Ohio River, however. Pennsylvania ended up with some straight boundaries while Virginia (now West Virginia) created a "panhandle" between Pennsylvania's western border and the Ohio River.

The military decision was made by General Cornwallis.

He had left Charleston and fought American forces at various locations in South Carolina and North Carolina. The Americans maneuvered ahead of Cornwallis, reducing his military capability. After Guilford Courthouse, there was a "race" to the Dan River. General Greene and the Americans won that race, moving all the boats to the north bank near South Boston. That blocked Cornwallis from crossing, though in some cases the Americans were just barely across the Dan River when the British scouts first arrived on the other shore.

In April, 1781, the British general chose to abandon the pursuit of the American forces and march to the sea rather than proceed north into Virginia's Piedmont. Cornwallis moved first to Wilmington, North Carolina, for resupply. It was a safe place, but simply keeping his army idle at that port would do nothing to end the American rebellion.

Cornwallis chose to join Phillips, and marched overland to Petersburg in May, 1781. There he took command from Arnold of all British troops in Virginia, a week after Phillips had died from disease.

Cornwallis went on the offensive. He crossed the James River to the wharf at Westover, then marched north to Hanover Court House and up to the Rapidan River. Lafayette fled to the north bank, crossing at Ely's Ford. There were no military resources or tobacco worth capturing or destroying at Fredericksburg, so that town was spared a visit by the British.

Charlottesville was not so lucky. The General Assembly had abandoned Richmond and fled inland, and the British considered the rebel leaders to be an attractive target. Col. Banastre Tarleton (the villain in the movie The Patriot) led a fast raid to Charlottesville.


Col. John Simcoe landed at Burrell's Landing (modern Kingsmill Resort) in 1781
Source: Levanthal Map Center, Boston Public Library, The landing at Burrell's, April 17th. 1781

However, while Tarleton's Legion stopped briefly at a tavern in Louisa County, Jack Jouett started a dramatic night ride to warn the General Assembly. He had to avoid the main roads where the British were arresting everyone. Reportedly, Jouett's face was scarred for life from the branches that he hit in the dark, on the way to Charlottesville. He got there just in time. Governor Thomas Jefferson, at the end of his term in that office, fled across Carter's Mountain as the British reached Monticello. The General Assembly fled across the Blue Ridge to Staunton.

Colonel John Simcoe led a simultaneous British raid on the north bank of the James River to Point of Fork at the mouth of the Rivanna River. There he captured a large number of Virginia supplies. General Baron von Steuben managed to escape with most of the Continental Army supplies to the south bank of the river. He described his maneuvers as successful, since he had fulfilled his mission, but that claim ignored the overall impact of the military losses due to the American inability to defend any fixed location against the British forces in 1781.

By 1781, six years after open warfare started at Lexington and Concord, the British forces had captured all of the large American cities, marched through the various state capitals with ease (including Richmond), and were now disrupting the ability of the Americans to maintain an army in the field by destroying the supply bases throughout Virginia. Eighty years later, Union generals would do the same to the Confederates. and in the 1860's, France would not come to the rescue, as it did in 1781.


Chesapeake Bay - British attack routes in 1780-81

Cornwallis then concentrated his forces at Yorktown, with fortifications across the York River in Gloucester. He considered but rejected Old Point Comfort, and evacuated Portsmouth. Yorktown was a deepwater port, the existing town offered shelter, and his troops could forage and raid to provide supplies while Cornwallis awaited reinforcements promised by General Clinton in New York.

The amazing defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown in October, 1781 can be explained best by the unwillingness of the British commanders to work as members of a team. The British army depended upon re-supply from the sea, but the navy did not synchronize its operations to support Cornwallis's army. In contrast, the French and the Americans coordinated their operations, to maximize their opportunities.

The French were partners, not subordinates who took orders from George Washington. The French rejected George Washington's proposals to attack on New York, because the British fleet and soldiers on the ground were too powerful. The Americans had minimal naval assets, and the British had defeated the French several times in previous naval engagements.

The French were not reluctant to fight, just careful to pick a fight they could win. They moved their fleet from the West Indies and created an extraordinarily large fleet, for a brief moment, to fight the British off the coast of Virginia.

In September, American and French troops stationed outside of New York marched south to the head of the Chesapeake Bay. French ships then provided transportation to move the troops by water to the Peninsula, while the artillery moved by land to Cornwallis's encampment at Yorktown. By consolidating their forces in Virginia rather that at New York, the French and Americans briefly outnumbered the British in troops and artillery.

That advantage would disappear if the British fleet brought reinforcements from New York to strengthen Cornwallis. However, on September 5, 1781, the French warships fought the British in the "Battle of the Capes" and blocked resupply.

The French fleet sailed out of Chesapeake Bay, surprising the British with the number of "ships of the line" they had assembled. The Battle of the Capes was a draw, basically, with each navy punishing the other but not gaining domination over the other. The key to the eventual victory at Yorktown was that the French retained control of the Chesapeake Bay, and the British fleet returned to New York for repairs. Cornwallis was trapped and unable to get new supplies or troops.

The French gamble to risk taking their warships from the Caribbean to the Chesapeake came just in time. A year later, in the Battle of the Saintes, the French fleet was destroyed by the English.

Cornwallis had played it safe and waited for help from his navy, while Washington and the French allies gambled and won at Yorktown. Had Cornwallis showed more energy, he could have broken through the French or American lines before they established siege trenches and trapped him in Yorktown. In particular, he could have crossed the York River and marched north past Gloucester as the Americans/French were marching south from New York.


the replica of the French tall ship Hermione, which brought Lafayette to America in 1780, met the guided-missile destroyer USS Mitscher on the way to Yorktown in 2015
Source: US Navy (150602-N-OA702-009)

Loyalists controlled many Chesapeake Bay islands during the American Reolution. Even after Yorktown, the loyalists were a threat to shipping and plantations along the shoreline. The Marylnd State Navy tried to seize Tangier Island in May, 1782, but were defeated. In the battle, Maryland Commodore Thomas Gason was killed and one of the three sailing barges on the Maryland State Navy was lost. 15

War of 1812

The English general waited too long. He assumed his commander in New York would deliver on his promises and prevent the British Army from being trapped. When Cornwallis finally tried a breakout, a storm prevented the British ships from evacuating Yorktown and on October 19, 1781, he surrendered.

During the War of 1812, the British were unable to capture the navy yard at Portsmouth as Sir George Collier had done in 1779. The Americans fortified Craney Island, and their cannon and accurate rifle fire stopped a British amphibious assault. In reaction, the British burned Hampton there were no American fortifications at Point Comfort to protect the town.


tidal flats kept British warships away from Craney Island in 1813
Source: Library of Congress, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, New York Daily Tribune, May 12, 1862

The British blockaded the Chesapeake Bay, and the USS Constellation was trapped for the duration of the war at the navy yard on the Elizabeth River. British warships raided the Virginia coastline at will in 1813, seizing supplies and allowing slaves to escape. Some of those freed slaves then joined the Colonial Marines regiment and fought for the British.


Chesapeake Bay on New Year's Eve, 2003
Source: NASA Earth Observatory

The British fleet established a base on Tangier Island and built Fort Albion. In August 1813, the majority of those warships sailed up the Patuxent River in Maryland, forced the destruction of the small flotilla of American barges intended for defense, and landed army troops so they could march westward across Maryland to Washington, DC. General Ross defeated the thin American forces at Bladensburg, then burned the public buildings in the US capital before returning to the ships in the Patuxent River.

At the same time, a squadron of British ships sailed up the Potomac River. The warships were delayed crossing the shallow Kettle Bottom, a series of shoals and oyster bars downstream of the modern Route 360 bridge across the Potomac River. The Potomac River flotilla arrived after British troops had burned Washington and withdrawn. Alexandria officials surrendered with great haste to the British, to avoid having the town bombarded and/or burned. The British seized 21 prize ships, emptied the local warehouses of tobacco, rum, and other goods, and sailed back down the Potomac River to rendezvous with the rest of the fleet.

The return trip was delayed by American cannon and troops who fortified a point downstream of Mount Vernon. The ruins of George William Fairfax's plantation home (Belvoir) were still visible there, but the site was better known for a white-painted house on the shoreline that was used to collect customs duties. The British ships were forced to wait five days for favorable winds before sailing past the American fortifications, and three ship captains were wounded.

The successful resistance at Craney Island and the "Battle of White House Landing" on the banks of the Potomac River were the only times that Virginia's military forces mounted an effective defense during the War of 1812.

The inability to defend the nation's capital in the War of 1812 made clear that a new approach was required. Congress funded the Third System of fortifications and Fort Monroe, built at Point Comfort between 1819-1834, was the prime example of that approach. The Third System was designed to block foreign invasion through masonry forts that could resist a long siege.

Civil War

Foreign invasion was never a factor in the Civil War. No fleets from Britain, France, or Spain sailed into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Potomac River was the scene of the first minor conflicts between Union/Confederate forces during the Civil War. In June, 1861, Union ships shelled Confederates on the shore at Aquia Creek. Confederates retaliated by trying to float underwater mines that would destroy those ships.

After the First Battle of Manassas in July, 1861, Confederates build batteries on the Prince William County shoreline of the Potomac River. The cannon and troops stationed at those batteries created a partial blockade of the Union capital, limiting the ability of ships to bring supplies up the river to Washington DC through the winter of 1861-62. The batteries were abandoned when General McClellan sent forces to the Peninsula to advance on Richmond, and reinforcements were required to block his advance.


since the Confederates lacked a Navy on the Potomac River, they practiced asymmetric warfare and tried to use underwater mines to destroy Union ships
Source: Frank Leslie's Illustrated History of the Civil War, Infernal Machine Designed By the Confederates to Destroy the Federal Flotilla in the Potomac, Discovered by Captail Budd of the Steamer "Resolute" (p.163)

At Point Comfort, Fort Monroe had been completed in 1834 - almost 90 years after Fort George was destroyed in a hurricane. Rock was dumped on the Rip-Raps shoal and Fort Calhoun constructed at the same time, providing another platform for cannon to control the shipping lanes to Norfolk and Richmond.

During the Civil War, Fort Monroe served as a supply base and hospital for Union troops. (Fort Calhoun was renamed Fort Wool, and stayed in Union hands as well.)


the private company Adams Express routinely delivered packages to Fort Monroe during the Civil War
Source: Frank Leslie's Illustrated History of the Civil War, Scene In Adams Express Office, At Fortress Monroe, VA, in 1861 - Volunteers Receiving Letters And Packages From Home (p.180)

From the perspective of Virginians who supported the Confederacy, forts built at Point Comfort on land donated by the state, and intended to protect Virginia from invasion, became bases to facilitate invasion - especially during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign.


CSS Virginia, Confederate ironclad designed to keep Union navy out of Hampton Roads in 1862
Source: US Navy, CSS Virginia (1862-1862), ex-USS Merrimack

By capturing Portsmouth and Norfolk, the Yankees forced the Confederates to abandon their last efforts to use the CSS Virginia to control the sea lanes at Hampton Roads. Confederates were forced to abandon the Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth and they destroyed the CSS Virginia ironclad. However, they fortified Drewry's Bluff upstream, and Fort Darling plus sunken ships in the James River blocked the Union navy from sailing up the James River. The US Navy was unable to support General McClellan's army during the Seven Days battle, so fortifications on the shoreline did help protect Richmond from being captured.


in 1862, Confederates were able to block the Union navy from reaching Richmond after the CSS Virginia was destroyed, by fortifying Drewry's Bluff far upstream from Hampton Roads
Map Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), The National Map


Drewry's Bluff
Source: US Geological Survey, Drewry's Bluff quadrangle

After the destruction of the CSS Virginia, the Confederate Navy offered minimal threat to the US Navy. Fort Monroe's guns were used only for practice until 2011, when the base was finally decommissioned as a part of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process. From the perspective of Virginians who supported the Union, Fort Monroe had succeeded in its mission to protect the United States.


Rip Rap Shoal was converted into Fort Calhoun/Fort Wool, to control Hampton Roads
Source: Library of Congress, Copy of a map military reconnaissance Dep't Va. (1862)

After the Civil War

The Civil War demonstrated that rifled cannon on warships could destroy masonry forts. Fort Monroe and Fort Wool were not upgraded with new technology until after the Spanish American War, when disappearing guns and new batteries were constructed under the Endicott Plan.

During World War II, German U-boats were able to penetrate into the main British naval base at Scapa Flow and sink a battleship, but the US Fleet was never attacked at Norfolk. Between 1942-45, German U-boats stayed in the Atlantic Ocean, sinking tankers and other ships within sight of Virginia Beach.

Once the Atlantic Fleet was based at Norfolk Naval Base, however, enemy access to the Chesapeake Bay has been limited. Creation of an intercontinental ballistic missile defense system in the 1950's completely replaced the concept of blocking warships between Cape Charles-Cape Henry, or at Point Comfort.


long-range guns defended the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay during World War II
Source: Library of Congress, Fort Story coast defense. A sixteen-inch howitzer at Fort Story, Virginia and fighting men who operate it (1942)

The Top Three Key Naval Events Near the Bay

Virginia has always needed some sort of a navy to defend itself from sea-borne attack. Weapons capable of actually blocking entrance into the Chesapeake Bay were not available until World War II. Ships were needed to engage other ships on the water - and the failure to have a defensive naval force until the Spanish-American War left Virginia open to invasion more than once.

Virginia and the United States declined to invest in building and maintaining a standing navy to guard the bay for the first 300 years of European settlement. In the colonial era and during the Confederacy, Virginia assembled the best sailing fleet it could on short notice only after a threat was clearly recognized - and always too late to provide much protection. Just as Powhatan was unable to block the English from sailing up the James River in 1607, Virginians were unable to block the British in the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812, and were unable to block invasion by the Yankees in 1862-65.


On this day in 1942, German mines sink or damage the first of 5 ships off Virginia Beach

Two minutes after 5 p.m. on June 15, 1942, thousands of startled spectators from Virginia Beach to Old Point Comfort saw the Battle of the Atlantic come to Hampton Roads in a spectacularly violent fashion.

Steaming toward the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay with Convoy KN-109 from Key West, Fla., the 11,615-ton tanker Robert C. Tuttle suddenly exploded, spewing out a plume of smoke so dark and high it could be seen at the Hotel Chamberlin in far-off Hampton.

Thirty minutes later, a second blast ripped through the frantically zig-zagging 11,237-ton tanker Esso Augusta, crippling its steering and propulsion.

Three more explosions erupted that evening and during the following two days — all the result of 15 mines that German U-boat commander Horst Degen and the crew of U-701 had laid across the entrance to the Thimble Shoals channel in the early hours of June 13.

But the first impulse of the stunned crowds watching from the Virginia Beach boardwalk, the fearful sailors aboard the scattered merchant ships and the keyed-up crews of the Navy patrol vessels and aircraft that raced to the scene was to blame the blasts on German torpedoes.

"An enemy submarine torpedoed two large American merchant ships yesterday within view of thousands of persons at the Virginia Beach resort," the Daily Press reported.

"(They) stared seaward spellbound as bombing planes, a Navy blimp and a half-dozen naval ships roared over the area in search of the daring undersea raider, dropping bombs and depth charges that sent huge geysers of water skyward."

Shifting tactics

By the time the mines began to find their targets, Degen and U-701 were long gone from Virginia waters.

But all the chaos and commotion spawned by their unseen weapons unfolded almost exactly as the German U-boat high command had hoped.

"In the space of 48 hours, this small field caused the disruption of coastline shipping, the employment of a large number of ships and men in sweeping activities, and the sinking of three vessels with severe damage to a fourth," notes the war diary compiled for the commander of the Navy's Eastern Sea Frontier.

"From a German point of view, this had been a highly successful venture at a relatively cheap cost."

Such attacks had been anticipated after the American response to the devastating losses inflicted by "Operation Drumbeat" in early 1942 finally stiffened, dramatically reducing the toll and forcing the German submariners to be more wary.

"The Great American Turkey Shoot" — as some Kriegsmarine sailors called it — was drawing to an end because of such increasingly effective defenses as the adoption of a convoy system and beefed-up surface and air patrols.

"By the end of April it became apparent that the routing of shipping and the anti-submarine measures in the immediate vicinity of the American coast were becoming more efficient," supreme U-boat commander Adm. Karl Dönitz wrote.

What resulted was a new operation that sent three specially armed submarines to the mouth of the Chesapeake as well as New York — later changed to Boston — and Delaware Bay.

"Even a few mines laid immediately off the busy entrances . are likely to lead to success as mine-countermeasures are sure to be few," the "Most Secret" orders from the Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote noted on May 12.

"(They) will also cause a splitting-up of enemy forces which in some cases will help the torpedo U-boats."

A month later, Eastern Sea Frontier commander Rear Adm. Adolphus Andrews warned that "as attacks on merchant shipping become markedly less successful, an effort would be made to mine the sea lanes and the approaches to the principal ports."

Though based partly on lessons learned from shifting U-boat tactics during World War I, his alert reflected strong intelligence, too, writes former Virginia Gazette and Norfolk Ledger-Star journalist Ed Offley in "The Burning Shore: How Hitler's U-Boats Brought World War II to America."

And he prescribed new measures to prevent losses.

"Every possible effort should be made, in addition to sweeping the approaches, to make exploratory sweeps of the coastal lanes giving particular attention to those areas where well-defined landmarks might be used by the enemy for the laying of mines across the lanes traversed by vessels proceeding along the coast," Andrews directed on June 13.

But early that morning Degen and his crew had completed their mission at the mouth of the Chesapeake, then steamed away to Cape Hatteras, N.C., to hunt for other targets.

Sudden blast

Arriving off the East Coast on June 8, U-701 spent four days making its way south to the Chesapeake.

Though close enough to tune in to American radio broadcasts, the crew saw no sign of coastal surface or air patrols until they approached their target late on June 12, when the glow of light from the shore illuminated the dark silhouette of a blacked-out patrol boat crossing the channel.

"We could see the dark shadows of dunes, with lights here and there . even cars and people and lighted houses," Degen later recalled.

"These Americans didn't seem to know there was a war going on!"

Guided by the lights at Capes Charles and Henry, the stealthy submarine slipped into position just past midnight.

Evading the patrol boat in the darkness, it went about its work quickly and quietly, dropping 15 mines in little more than a half hour before backing out into the Atlantic.

Less than two days later, the mines found their first target, taking out the Tuttle with a single blast.

So powerful was the explosion that the shock wave reverberated under the feet of spectators standing in the water, Offley writes.

Anne Henry looked up from her counter at Jard's Drugstore at 25th and Atlantic to see "a great huge plume of water rise up over the tanker.

"Everybody in the store was shocked and frightened. It was very, very loud." she recalls.

"But we all rushed out to the boardwalk to look."

Offshore chaos

Within minutes, Navy aircraft and a blimp began circling overhead, peering down into the seas between the zig-zagging vessels.

Police began clearing the beach at the 24th Street Coast Guard Station, where thousands looked on as boats landed with survivors and a dead crewman's body, the Daily Press reported.

So close to shore were the racing patrol craft that Henry could see their depth charges roll into the water.

But at 5:30 p.m. a second blast shook the Esso Augusta.

"Can you imagine nice quiet Virginia Beach — with tourist season just starting — and all these great big explosions erupting right on your doorstep?" Henry recalls.

"The water was alive with explosives."

As the frantic hunt continued, a depth charge set off another mine about 6:30 p.m., shaking but not significantly damaging the destroyer USS Bainbridge.

The British anti-submarine trawler HMS Kingston Ceylonite struck another mine an hour later, sparking such a violent secondary explosion in its magazine that it sank in two minutes with the loss of 18 sailors.

Despite the arrival of mine sweepers from Little Creek and Yorktown — which found and detonated nine more mines on June 16 — the beachfront shook again the next morning.

Three men died as the 7,117-ton collier Santore capsized and sank in less than two minutes.

"The mine-laying operation off the Chesapeake was the most successful of the war in American waters," Monitor National Marine Sanctuary Research Coordinator Tane Casserley says.

"In just a few days it had a tremendous impact."

Punching back

Among the first to feel the effects was Henry, then 17, who walked out of the old Bayne theater with friends that evening to find herself lost in a newly blacked-out town.

"There was no light except the glow of something burning out on the water," she recalls.

"It was quite a stumbling adventure to get back home."

Just as swiftly came the mounted patrols that swept the beach with dogs each night looking for saboteurs.

"What happened here was shocking — almost inconceivable," says executive director Kathryn Fish of the Virginia Beach Surf & Rescue Museum.

"People thought the war was happening overseas."

Off Cape Hatteras, the U-701 continued to attack, sinking a patrol boat on June 19, damaging two merchant ships on June 26 and 27 and then sinking the 14,504-ton William Rockefeller — one of the largest tankers in the world at that time — on June 28, Casserley says.

But on July 7 its luck ran out when an Army A-29 subhunter from Cherry Point, N.C., suddenly emerged from the clouds and caught it on the surface.

"A U-boat could usually see a plane before a plane could see it — and then it could submerge in 30 seconds," Offley says.

"But the plane just happened to peek through a break in the clouds at the right time and saw the U-boat on the horizon. By then it too late for them to get away, and they were just below the surface when the depth charges exploded."

Deadly ordeal

Though as many as 16 members of the U-701's crew made it out of the shattered hull, most of them emerged on the surface without life jackets.

So Lt. Harry Kane and his four airmen tore off their own vests and dropped them down to the swimmers struggling in six- to eight-foot waves.

They also tossed out their own life raft and marked the spot with smoke floats.

But after circling out in a futile attempt to find help, the A-29 lost sight of the survivors, and it was still leading numerous other aircraft in the search when it was forced to return home.

There they landed with only five minutes of fuel left and discovered that no one believed them.

"No Army Air Force plane had sunk a U-boat before," Casserley says.

Two days passed before a Navy blimp finally located the delirious and badly sunburned Degen and the few surviving members of his crew, all of whom were transported by seaplane to a Norfolk Navy hospital.

That's where Kane and his airmen found him when they flew in two days later.


Confederate attacks on the Chesapeake Bay spark a punishing Union raid on Mathews

For the first two years of the Civil War, the far reaches of the Middle Peninsula remained a Confederate sanctuary largely unmolested by Union forces.

Though occasional patrols ventured inland from the Federal stronghold at Gloucester Point in search of livestock, grain and other supplies that might be used to help Richmond, the blue-clad soldiers seldom went out in force. Rarer still were marches across the Gloucester County line into neighboring Mathews.

All that changed in the fall of 1863 when Confederate commerce raiders began exploiting the remote waterfront region's unique geography as a base for increasingly ambitious and destructive attacks on Northern shipping in the Chesapeake.


Let it Rain Militia: The Critical Battle for the Chesapeake

M ore than three decades since the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War and 25 years since the U.S. Constitution was signed, the nation was still without a strong central government. Questions remained about trade, economy and the unresolved issue of slavery. No less important were the calls for “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights” by the merchant seafarers and the push of the young war-hawk Republicans for westward expansion. These and other issues came to a head in the spring of 1812, as Americans debated the possibility of a second war with Great Britain. Hot button topics included England’s impressment of sailors and a desired final solution to securing the Northwest Territory, left unresolved in the 1783 Treaty of Paris.

On June 18, 1812, with America no longer able to protect its maritime neutrality amidst the Napoleonic Wars, a declaration of war was enacted to preserve and protect America’s global trade. Within months, President James Madison’s military call of “Onward to Canada” along the frontier ended in failure, due to poor leadership, lack of support from New England, poor equipage and lack of preparation. But the American invasion was not without success: In April 1813, Americans captured the Canadian capital city of York, burning much of the city and raising the American colors over Government House. Meanwhile, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s signal victory over a superior British squadron on Lake Erie in September 1813 and other victories proved American naval strength and discipline.

England’s war strategy for 1814 drifted southward from the Canadian frontier to the Chesapeake Bay region. America’s largest estuary was the nation’s heart of farming, commerce, ship-building and government, making it a high prize of war. In March 1814, a British squadron arrived to enforce the admiralty’s blockade declaration of the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays, making use of extensive surveys conducted of those waterways by the Royal Navy during the Revolutionary War.

British frigate, HMA Menelaus, raided along Chesapeake Bay. Royal Museums Greenwich

On April 28, 1814, British Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane directed Rear Admiral Cockburn to begin a devastating naval attack on the Chesapeake.

“Their Sea Port Towns laid in Ashes & the Country wasted will be some sort of a retaliation for their savage Conduct in Canada [at York]. [I]t is . therefore but just, that Retaliation shall be made near to the Seat of their Government from whence those Orders emanated, you may depend upon my most cordial Support in whatever you may undertake against the Enemy.” The offensive was driven by more than vengeance. The global geopolitical game had fundamentally changed. Following his disastrous 1812 Russian campaign and resounding loss at the October 1813 Battle of Leipzig, Napoleon had surrendered in Paris to the allied coalition on March 31, a capitulation so complete that the emperor was forced into exile on the isle of Elba. England found itself able to focus upon a final campaign with renewed strength to chastise the Americans into submission once and for all.

Change was palpable to the Americans as well. Former Maryland Congressman Joseph H. Nicholson wrote to U.S. Naval Secretary William Jones, “We should have to fight hereafter, not for free trade and sailor’s rights,’ not for the conquest of the Canadas, but for our national existence.”

Cross-hairs on the Chesapeake

In the summer of 1814, after 18 months of British occupation and raids against port towns, the British campaign against the American mid-Atlantic was building to a climax, with Baltimore in the cross-hairs. “The Clouds of war gather Fast and Heavy in the East,” wrote American Marine Captain George Stiles that July, “and all Hands are called.”

A large invasion fleet had been reported moving north from the British naval base at Bermuda to Lynnhaven Bay, the entrance to the Chesapeake. They were able to resupply at the fortified British base on Tangier Island, Virginia, from which Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane sought to entice runaway enslaved persons to form a Corps of Colonial Marines, with the promise of freedom in Canada at the conclusion of their service.

On August 19, 1814, British land and sea forces landed at Benedict, Maryland, and swiftly forced the destruction of the U.S. Chesapeake Flotilla on the Upper Patuxent River. The primary objective — destruction of this elusive flotilla of gunboats — met, Major General Robert Ross and Rear Admiral George Cockburn extended their goals. The British routed the ill-prepared American army under Brigadier General William H. Winder at Bladensburg, Maryland, on August 24, entered the nation’s capital and burned many key buildings. The conflagration’s fiery glow was seen 50 miles to the north by Baltimore citizens who gathered atop Federal Hill and steeled themselves for the inevitable invasion.

On the evening of the August 25, amidst a severe summer thunderstorm, the British withdrew from Washington and retraced their march to Benedict, arriving on the 28th, then continued on to their naval base on Tangier Island, Virginia. to regroup, take on fresh water and care for their wounded.

Captain Peter Parker (1785-1814), by John Hoppner Royal Museums Greenwich

Meanwhile, Captain Sir Peter Parker and his HM Menelaus had been dispatched from the main British force to raid along the northern and western shores of Chesapeake Bay, especially Kent County, Maryland. His aim was to drawing American troops away from the primary objectives around Washington and Baltimore, meaning, as British Midshipman Frederick Chamier later wrote, “Our duty consisted in an eternal annoyance of the enemy, and therefore night and day we were employed in offensive operations.”

Among the goods and supplies captured by a raiding party on the evening of August 30, Parker found himself receiving intelligence from four slaves liberated from a nearby plantation. Warned of American militia nearby, Parker was so eager for action he did not even await daylight to dispatch a force of soldiers and Marines against them. Shortly before midnight, the 21st Regiment American Militia caught sight of the raiding party and determined themselves to be the target, rather than another nearby farm. Fighting began around 1:00 a.m., and, although there was a full moon, the Americans — whose commander Lieutenant Colonel Philip Reed, a Revolutionary War field officer and former U.S. senator whose home was nearby and who had served as county sheriff — had the advantage of knowing the land. Amidst the fighting, Parker took a wound to the thigh and perished on the field, the bullet having severed his femoral artery. Although elements of the British force had made it as far as the American camp, even seizing a cannon, the loss of their leader prompted a retreat back to the ship.

According to American reports, a dozen British soldiers were buried on the battlefield at Caulk's Field, but the location of these graves remains unknown. This battlefield in Kent County, Maryland, remains in private hands and agricultural cultivation. Matt Brant

Baltimore: Middle Ground of the Chesapeake

Modern Baltimore can trace its earliest origins to 17th-century English proprietary land grants to Maryland’s oldest planter-class families. The County of Baltimore was erected by 1659, and what became the city was settled in 1661. A key geographic feature of the location is the mouth of the Patapsco River, which forms the strong harbor for which Baltimore is known. The word Patapsco, meaning “back water,” is derived from the Algonquian woodland culture of the region. The area around the river made for a flourishing hunting, fishing and market-farm culture, with tidal creeks creating a marsh patchwork between farms of corn, rye and fruit orchards. Thanks to woodlands of white oak and pine, a flourishing shipbuilding economy emerged, making Baltimore a major eco-nomic center.

By 1810, the city had developed into a major and prosperous international seaport, with a population of slightly less than 50,000 — one-fifth of whom were black, including many free blacks employed as caulkers and carpenters in the Fell’s Point shipyards of Kemp, Despeaux and Price. Other Baltimoreans signed aboard privateers granted Letters-of-Marque & Reprisal to prey on and engage English merchantmen. The attacks were so numerous that London’s Evening Star opined: “The American navy must be annihilated — her arsenals and dockyards must be consumed and the turbulent inhabitants of Baltimore must be tamed with the weapons which shook the wooden turrets of Copenhagen…. America must be BEATEN INTO SUBMISSION.”

The American Battlefield Trust's map of the War of 1812's Chesapeake Campaign for April 23, 1813, to September 14, 1814

Following the American debacle at Bladensburg, American Brigadier General William Henry Winder was replaced with Major General Samuel Smith, a U.S. senator and successful shipping merchant. Although the native Baltimore Brigade had suffered losses at Bladensburg, the city turned overnight into a huge military camp — more than 25,000 militia encamped within a 10-mile radius. It was the largest gathering of militia to defend an American port since minutemen flocked to Boston in 1775, exceeding the forces gathered at Long Island, Charleston or Savannah later in the Revolution.

Merchant and citizen-soldier George Douglas wrote to a friend: “Every American heart is bursting with shame and indignation at the catastrophe [at Washington]… All hearts and hands have cordially united to the common cause.… Bodies of troops are marching in…. The whole of the hills and rising grounds to the eastward of the city are covered with horse-foot and artillery exercises and training from morning until night.”

Baltimore Mayor Edward Johnston organized a Committee of Vigilance & Safety to coordinate defense preparations. For a year, the city had been stockpiling enormous supplies of tents, blankets, canteens, muskets, cartridge boxes, camp kettles, medical supplies and other essential equipage to meet the needs of the hourly arriving independent volunteers. Four thousand Pennsylvania militia arrived with such company names as the Brownsville Blues, York and Marietta Volunteers. From western Maryland came the Hagerstown Homespun Volunteers, Jefferson Blues and Washington Rifle Green, plus more companies from western Virginia. No less than 400 independent companies responded to Baltimore’s defense.

From their camps centered around Hampstead Hill, volunteer units made up of old and young, black and white, free men and enslaved immediately engaged in digging a five-mile entrenchment around the city, bolstered by artillery redoubts. A mile behind this defensive line, U.S. Corps of Engineers Captain Samuel Babcock superintended “a last stand” fortification within the large, rising granite walls of the nation’s first Catholic cathedral in the city’s center. If the American lines failed from the expected British land assault, this would be the last bastion of defense.

From a naval assault, the city was defended by Fort McHenry. Within the star-bastioned fort — named in 1797 for then Secretary of War Colonel James McHenry — Major George Armistead (1780–1818) commanded 1,000 soldiers, militia and sailors with 60 cannon to protect the harbor entrance to Baltimore. In addition, U.S. naval gunboats blocked the entrance behind sunken merchant vessels and a chain-mast boom, all creating a crucial front line of defenses. Also arriving were a thousand sailors and 170 Marines from various independent naval commands, and a makeshift naval regiment under command of Commodore John Rodgers with his 450 sailors and 50 U.S. Marines from the Delaware River defenses. Attached to this command upon its September 9 arrival was Commodore Joshua Barney’s U.S. Chesapeake Flotilla, which, with the District Marines, had made a heroic last stand at Bladensburg, giving a much-needed morale boost to the city.

The harbor entrance of Baltimore, Maryland, protected by the star-bastioned Fort McHenry, named in 1797 for then Secretary of War Colonel James McHenry. Jim Powers

At dawn on September 10, cavalry Major William Barney patrolled the catwalk of the State House dome in Annapolis, eyes on the Bay to watch for British naval movements. As early light broke through the morning mist, he glimpsed the vanguard of 50 British warships sailing north under a light wind. After 19 months of tidewater occupation, the British were making for Baltimore. Four admirals accompanied the fleet — Vice-Admiral Alexander I. F. Cochrane, who conveyed Admiralty orders Rear Admiral George Cockburn, who administered the naval deployment Rear Admiral Pulteney Malcolm, who conveyed the troop ships to the Chesapeake and Rear Admiral Edward Codrington, Captain of the Fleet, who administered the expedition’s conveyance and maintenance in the Chesapeake. Once ashore Major General Robert Ross, R.A., had overall command of the land forces (seamen and Marines) under advice of Admiral Cockburn, who accompanied the land forces.

Around noon on Sunday, September 11, as the British fleet appeared off North Point on the Bay side, a large blue pennant flag was seen atop the old Ridgely House, one of several coastal militia reconnaissance lookouts. The signal was observed at Fort McHenry, more than 10 miles distant, which, in turn, fired three cannon to signal the city of the enemy’s approach. The London-cast belfry bells in Christ Church joined in sounding the alarm. The battle for Baltimore had begun.

At 3:00 p.m., Brigadier General John Stricker’s Baltimore Third Brigade of 3,185 militia marched six miles from Baltimore, encamping at the Trappe-North Point Road near a red-framed Methodist Meeting House nestled against a woodland known as “Godly Woods.” Before them stood a large, level, partially cleared field across which the British would have to pass. That evening, Stricker advanced a reconnaissance force of the 1st Rifle Battalion two miles ahead, accompanied by Lieutenant Colonel James Biays’ 5th Maryland Cavalry, who were deployed near the unfinished earthworks at Humphrey’s Creek. Stricker’s strategy was to carry on a succession of delaying skirmishes, rather than a pitched battle. As such, he left behind some 30 pieces of artillery, taking only Captain John Montgomery’s Baltimore Union Artillery militia unit’s four six-pounder field guns.

The popular name for the engagement that took place the next morning — the Battle of North Point — does not reflect the geography of where fighting occurred. North Point lies at the southern tip of the Patapsco Neck on the Bay shore, some five miles south of the battlefield. Those who fought there would have known the clash as the Battle of Patapsco Neck, the Battle of Long Log Lane or the Battle of Godly Wood.

North Point State Battlefield Park, Dundalk, Md. Matt Brant

The “Shot Heard ’Round the Chesapeake”

With only a blanket, a canteen and three days’ rations apiece, the British columns moved up the North Point Road. In the forefront were Ross and Cockburn the infantry’s second in command, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Brooke, would follow after supervising the landing parties at North Point. The British continued through a line of unfinished American breastworks (the site originally intended for the engagement), overcoming civilian workers and taking prisoner three American cavalry. Disdaining reports of the strong militia ahead, Ross allegedly boasted, “I don’t care if it rains militia, I shall sup in Baltimore tonight or in hell.”

At 1:00 p.m., Ross and Cockburn mounted their horses with an advance of 50 soldiers of the 85th King’s Light Infantry to reconnoiter a British picket who had made contact with the Americans ahead. Within moments, the British campaign was turned on its head: Without adequate protection, Ross — “gaily dressed, and glittering in all the bravery of scarlet and gold” of a major general — rode forward and was mortally wounded by sharpshooters in the woods. The victor at Bladensburg and Washington expired as he was carried back to the fleet. Brooke assumed command and pressed the “forlorn hope” back to Stricker’s main defense lines.

/>Death of General Ross by Alonzo Chappel Library of Congress

Brigadier General John Stricker’s brigade, with its effective force of 3,185 men, had quickly formed into three defense lines that morning when word was received of the British landing. The first, best-disciplined line would receive the initial attack, then fall back 300 yards to the second line. The 6th Maryland regiment was held a mile to the rear in reserve. Meanwhile, two miles south of these lines, at the mouth of Bear Creek, Major Beall Randall’s Rifle Battalion — sent by Stricker the day before to reconnoiter the water approaches to the battlefield — came under barrage by British artillery and Congreve rockets and, fearful of envelopment, returned to Hampstead Hill, protecting the right flank near the shoreline as it withdrew.

Captain John Montgomery’s militia Baltimore Union Artillery commenced the battle, followed by mass musket volleys of the flanking 5th and 27th Maryland Regiments. The British enjoined and began a flanking movement to turn the American left, which began to waver. Two of the Union Artillery six-pounders were moved from the center to bolster the left, along with the 51st and 39th Maryland, which were brought up to support the 27th, as it reeled from the onslaught.

At this critical juncture, the 51st was panic struck, carrying with it the 39th Maryland and reducing the American lines to just 1,000 men. After two hours of unrelenting volleys and unable to secure his failing flank and center, Stricker ordered a steady withdrawal from the field. Both lines moved to the rear, where the 6th Maryland was arrayed on a small rise on the north side of Bread and Cheese Creek. The combined American regiments stopped further British advance by late afternoon and removed steadily to the high promontory defenses of Hampstead Hill (today Patterson Park). From here, reinforced with the Naval Regiment under Commodore John Rodgers and 15,000 militia with 42 pieces of artillery, the Americans commanded the landscape. To prevent any British structural cover in front of the lines, a 1,000-foot-long wooden ropewalk was set alight.


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