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Chapter 14

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The War of 1812

Francis F. Beirne

published by
E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
New York, 1949

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
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Chapter 16

Chapter Fifteen

 p168  Marauders on the Chesapeake

"Free Trade and Sailors' Rights" was the battle cry of the United States Navy. The "Free Trade," sad to relate, was interpreted by many Americans as trade with the enemy. During 1812 and 1813 the British army under Wellington on the Peninsula was in constant need of flour, grains and other provisions, and the United States was a convenient source of supply. Though their country was at war with Great Britain, American merchants who had passed through lean years, could not resist the temptation to turn a penny that, under the strictest construction, could not be called honest.

The British themselves were a willing party to this business. British consular officers readily granted licenses to American ships allowing them free passage with supplies destined for Wellington's men. The records show that during the year ending September 30, 1813, American home products exported reached a total of $25,008,152 of which provisions to the value of $15,000,000 went direct to Spain and Portugal. This trade could not be blamed on the disgruntled Federalist opposition; for when, in February, 1813, Admiral Warren announced a commercial blockade of the coast as far north as New York and abandoned the practice of issuing licenses, in the loyal port of Baltimore, where Republicans predominated, the price of flour immediately dropped $2 a barrel.

Warren's blockade resulted from the fact that Wellington's army had entered France and no longer needed the provisions. But there was still a British army in Canada to be fed and for that reason Boston and other New England ports were excluded from the blockade so that no obstacle would stand in the way of the profitable business the New Englanders were doing, and had been doing in that field since the commencement of hostilities. As early as November, 1812,  p169 an American in Halifax reported that within the brief space of two weeks he had seen landed there 20,000 barrels of flour by vessels under Spanish and Swedish flags. The flour had come chiefly from Boston.

What the vessels transported was only a part of the trade. Droves of cattle were constantly being herded across the New England border into Canada. In December, 1813, Governor-General Sir George Prevost wrote to his home government: "Two thirds of the army in Canada are at the moment eating beef provided by American contractors. . . . This circumstance, as well as that of the introduction of large sums of specie in the province being notorious in the United States, it is expected that Congress will take steps to deprive us of those resources, and under that apprehension large droves are daily crossing the lines coming to Canada."

The United States Government was quite aware of the illicit trade being conducted by its own citizens but was incapable of stopping it. All that President Madison could do was to berate the wicked British for putting temptation before his people. In his message to Congress in February, 1813, he charged the enemy with having made "an unfortunate progress in undermining those principles of morality and religion which are the best foundations of national happiness." His indignation rising the President charged that, by encouraging the New Englanders to deliver supplies to Canada, Great Britain had introduced into her modes of warfare a system "equally distinguished by the deformity of its features and the depravity of its character; having for its object to dissolve the ties of allegiance, and the sentiments of loyalty in the adversary nation, and to seduce and separate its component parts the one from the other!" The attempted seduction of Canada from her allegiance to Great Britain, the President tactfully over­looked. In spite of the President, New England yielded gracefully to a seduction that brought her a handsome return in cash. While the rest of the coast was blockaded the ports north of Narragansett Bay were left open. New England became the distributing center for virtually all imports. Money poured into her coffers from all the other states which could obtain only there the goods from abroad that were so much in demand. It is estimated that by 1814 the total specie in the country was $17,000,000 and that of this the Boston banks held $10,000,000.  p170 With part of it the bankers purchased British drafts at a discount while to their own government's war loans they contributed a niggardly $3,000,000.

President Madison might protest that "these demoralizing and disorganizing contrivances will be reprobated by the civilized and Christian world, and the insulting attempt on the virtue, the honor, the patriotism and the fidelity of our brethren of the eastern States will not fail to call forth their indignation and resentment, and to attach more and more all the States to that happy union and constitution, against which such assiduous artifices are directed." To these noble sentiments of their stout little President, the reply of the American merchants was "Business as usual," or if anything a little more than usual even though it might be conducted with the enemy to his advantage and to the disadvantage of their own arms.

It will be recalled that in one of his most inspired passages in his speech before the Twelfth Congress, John Randolph exclaimed: "Go march to Canada! Leave the broad bosom of the Chesapeake and her hundred tributary rivers; the whole line of seacoast, from Machias to St. Mary's, unprotected." The words proved prophetic. The march to Canada had been made. And now, as Randolph had predicted, the broad bosom of the Chesapeake was to feel the rough hand of the invader. Stung by the defeats of their frigates, the attacks on Canada and the burning of the capital at York, and with their forces partially released by Napoleon's retreat from Moscow and the rapid disintegration of the Corsican's empire, the British public became impatient to launch a punitive expedition against the presumptuous Yankees and show them just what the British lion was like when aroused. Chesapeake Bay offered the most convenient field for the demonstration, and the British navy had just the man to strike terror into the hearts of the planters and townspeople along its shores.

George Cockburn was a hard-bitten sailor. He had entered the Navy at the tender age of nine years and been cuffed about until he was good and tough. In the course of his career he sailed the seven seas, took part in the battle of Cape St. Vincent and in the defense of Cadiz and passed so successfully through the hardening process that a grateful sovereign bestowed a knighthood upon him and raised him to the rank of rear admiral before he had passed his  p171 42nd birthday. In response to public appeal at home an order in council was issued on December 26, 1812, declaring the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays blockaded, and an expedition under the command of Admiral John B. Warren was organized at Bermuda with the object of invading the two bays and giving the neighboring inhabitants a taste of real war. Cockburn was at the moment fresh, and to him was intrusted the actual chastisement as second in command. There is no record of his having protested the unpleasant assignment and he executed it with efficiency and dispatch. Where there was looting and destruction, there was Sir George. Where the war assumed its harshest aspects it was a good guess that Sir George was around. So thoroughly did he go about the business of harassing and terrifying the civilian population that within a few months his name was the most feared and hated of all His Majesty's officers on service in America.

On a crisp morning in early February, 1813, lookouts at Cape Henry, Virginia, sighted enemy sails and immediately messengers were dispatched posthaste to the military authorities at Norfolk and throughout the countryside to announce the dreaded news of the arrival of a British fleet. Looming large and menacing were four ships of the line, of 74 guns each, every one of them more power­ful than any American ship afloat. They were accompanied by a large number of smaller craft and aboard them was a land force of 1,800 men, fully equipped with surfboats for landing, and the very latest models in bomb ships and rocket ships to deliver bombshells and the terrifying Congreve rockets.

Norfolk had long been preparing for just such a descent and full precautions had been taken. The town itself was defended by two forts. At the mouth of the Elizabeth River, which separates Norfolk from Portsmouth, was a line of gunboats that reached all the way from Norfolk to Craney Island at the far end of the river's mouth. On the island was a strong force of regulars, volunteers and Virginia militia, including both infantry and artillery. In support of the gunboats was the frigate Constellation, 38 guns, which was in the navy yard for repairs, had not gone to sea, and was now anchored to serve as a battery.

Arrived in Hampton Roads, the invaders reconnoitered the defenses and concluded that Norfolk was too strong to attack. For the  p172 time being they turned their attention elsewhere. Cockburn, in the Marlborough, was ordered to Lynnhaven Bay, near Cape Henry, while Captain J. B. Beresford, commanding the Poictiers, was detached with his ship and Belvidera and directed to proceed to Delaware Bay and commence operations in that vicinity.

Pursuant to his orders Beresford hoisted sail and passed out of the Capes, appearing next off Lewes, Delaware, where he anchored and dispatched a boat to land to demand supplies for which he offered to pay. The request was refused and the town prepared to defend itself. In response to this inhospitable reception Beresford proceeded to bombard the town, but his fire did little damage. The Du Ponts got news of the arrival of the British ships and rushed to Lewes a generous supply of powder from their factory at Wilmington. Spent cannon balls from the guns of the Poictiers were now lying about Lewes and the townspeople, upon examining them, were delighted to find that the balls exactly fitted their own guns. So, with the assistance of the Du Pont powder, they sent the British cannon balls flying back at the Poictiers as quickly as they arrived.

After a while Beresford grew tired of this exchange, called off the bombardment and attempted a landing below the town for the purpose of filling his water casks. This effort, too, was defeated and, concluding that the Delawareans were too hard a nut to crack, Beresford upped anchor and sailed away to Bermuda, leaving the good townspeople of Lewes once more in peace.

Cockburn, however, was more persevering. He terrorized the countryside around Lynnhaven Bay, sending out marauding parties to plunder and burn the farmhouses, arm the slaves and make off with the cattle, pigs and poultry. Sir George justified his unseemly behavior on the ground that extreme measures were taken only where resistance was offered. Indeed, throughout his entire expedition the people were forced to an unhappy choice. Submission carried with it a certain amount of disgrace and, besides, the Americans could not be quite certain that Sir George would live up to his promise not to molest them. On the other hand, if they offered resistance by appealing for protection to the local militia, they could not be sure that, at the first sound of a musket, the militia would not scamper to safety and leave them to the tender mercy of Sir George.

Finally, having reached the conclusion that he had taught the people  p173 of the Lynnhaven Bay country enough for one lesson, Cockburn weighed anchor and sailed off up Chesapeake Bay. On the way he made a feint at Baltimore, but knowing it to be well defended, he continued northward until he reached the Elk River at the head of the bay. As a result of the blockade the coastal trade had been interrupted and the route now passed inland up the bay. Frenchtown, on the Elk, had become an important commercial center, for there freight was removed from the bay boats and placed in warehouses to await shipment by wagon to Philadelphia and other Northern markets.

On Apr. 29 Cockburn's flotilla, consisting of two brigs, several tenders and a complement of land troops aboard, entered the river and lay off Frenchtown. The Admiral met with no serious opposition and set to work pillaging the storehouses, after which he set fire to them and burned them to the ground. It was admitted that he spared the private houses, treated the women and children with respect and gave receipts for all property commandeered from noncombatants. Having completed the devastation of Frenchtown, Cockburn next turned his attention to Havre de Grace, a few miles distant. This town was unfortunate in that it was allegedly protected by a battery and a detachment of militia and, consequently, was classified as "armed" and subject to the use of force. It also bore the distinction of being the home of Commodore Rodgers whose estate, Sion Hill, was situated on the outskirts.

On May 2, in the middle of the night, Havre de Grace received the first warning of Cockburn's approach when the inhabitants were awakened from sleep by the noise and light of rockets which came whistling through the air to fall on rooftops and start a number of fires. The rockets were followed by a shower of bombs. The terrified populace lost no time fleeing the town and along with them went the raw militia. There was, however, in the town one John O'Neil, an elderly Irishman. O'Neil had seen service in the Revolution and enemy fire was nothing new to him. His Irish blood was up. Making his way through the militia that was flying in the opposite direction O'Neil hastened to the battery. He looked for officers and men but found nobody there. Even that did not discourage him. He had some knowledge of ordnance and singlehanded he manned one of the heavy guns, rammed home the charge and the ball, trained the  p174 gun on the British ships in the harbor, then lit the fuse and stepped back as the gun boomed and the shot went hurtling toward the enemy craft. O'Neil stuck courageously to his post until at last he failed to step back quickly enough, the gun rebounded, struck him on the side and put him out of action. Cockburn had by now dispatched a strong force from the boats to assault and take the battery at the point of the bayonet. The men rushed forward expecting to encounter at least a company. To their astonishment, as they leaped over the ramparts, they discovered one old and disabled Irishman who alone had undertaken to defend a town against a whole flotilla. O'Neil was captured and taken aboard one of the ships as a prisoner. But O'Neil's pluck appealed to Cockburn who treated him handsomely and, a few days later, let him go.

Commodore Rodgers was on the high seas, but Mrs. Rodgers was at Sion Hill. So was her sister-in‑law, Mrs. William Pinkney, wife of the Attorney General. The ladies, in spite of all the terrible stories they had heard of Cockburn, dared to approach him to spare the town. Thanks to their efforts Cockburn was persuaded to leave some of the houses untouched and, among them, Sion Hill. He insisted, however, upon searching the house for important papers and took possession of the Commodore's mahogany writing desk, through which his men plunged a saber in the hope of finding a secret drawer. Not satisfied with that they took the desk off with them to one of the ships. According to family tradition the desk was later recovered when it was found by the Commodore on a British ship he had captured.

While his brigs lay at Havre de Grace Cockburn sent out a party which destroyed an ironworks and cannon foundry situated farther up the Susquehanna River. Pleased with the success he had achieved Cockburn next crossed the bay to the Eastern shore and entered the Sassafras River. There he met with opposition from the defenders but drove them off and requited himself for the trouble they had given him by burning the villages of Fredericktown and Georgetown. Having terrorized the head of the bay as successfully as he had terrorized the Lynnhaven country, Cockburn now returned triumphantly to rejoin the fleet in Hampton Roads.

On the first day of June Admiral Warren entered the Capes with the grandest fleet that had yet been assembled in American waters.  p176 It consisted of no less than eight ships of the line, 12 frigates and many smaller boats. With these impressive reinforcements the British felt that they were now strong enough to attack and capture Norfolk. In the fleet was a landing force of 5,000 men, many of them veterans of Wellington's campaigns. To oppose them the Americans had assembled an army of several thousand men, including regulars, sailors, marines and Virginia militia, all under the command of Brigadier General Robert B. Taylor. Craney Island, lying at the mouth of the Elizabeth River, was within wading distance of the western shore. To the east of the island were anchored the gunboats in a line extending all the way to Lambert's Point, thus completely covering the approach to the river and to Norfolk. Craney Island therefore constituted the left flank of the defenses and served to anchor the whole line. Recognizing its strategic importance General Taylor posted a strong garrison there consisting of two companies of artillery, a company of rifle­men, 416 infantrymen of the Virginia militia, reinforced by 30 regulars, 30 volunteers, 150 sailors and 50 marines, bringing the grand total to 737 men, of whom many were veteran fighters who might be expected to temper the whole force. (See Map IV)

General Taylor was fortunate in penetrating the enemy's designs and putting his strongest force at the very point the British had selected to strike. The British landing force was under the command of General Sir Sidney Beckwith. His plan of action was to engage the fort in front while part of his force was being dispatched to the mainland to wade across the shallows to the island and take it on the flank. After this initial success the British anticipated an easy task in breaking the line of gunboats.

At sunrise on the morning of June 22 Admiral Warren gave an order for the commencement of the attack. Pursuant to the plan 2,500 men landed to the west of the island. Simultaneously 50 barges, containing 1,500 sailors and marines, put out from the fleet and pointed their prows directly toward the island. They were led by the big green barge of Admiral Warren himself. So confident of victory without a struggle were the British officers that they took their shaving kits and pet dogs into the battle with them.

The 50 barges, loaded to the gunwales with men, created no alarm among the Americans. The sailors and marines had faced  p177 broadsides at point-blank range from the decks of men-of‑war and their calm and self-possession spread among all ranks and steadied the whole force. Quietly the gunners trained their pieces on the approaching barges and awaited the order to fire. That order was not long in coming. Suddenly the American batteries blazed away with a tremendous roar that shook the surroundings while the smoke from the guns clouded the clear morning sky. The barges made perfect targets. One of the first to receive a direct hit was the barge of the Admiral, which filled with water and sank, carrying down all aboard it. Seeing the Admiral's barge go down, the whole attack was thrown into confusion. Men went overboard in heavy equipment and were drowned while the Americans poured a relentless fire into the struggling masses. Hardly had the attack begun when the few barges that had miraculously escaped the storm of shot and shell put about and scurried back to seek protection under the guns of the fleet. The attack on the flank was no more success­ful. This, too, the Americans had foreseen and posted men and guns in position to drive it off. When the British land force saw what had happened to the sailors and marines in the barges they, too, retreated, leaving the Americans in continued possession of the island. This spirited defense served as sufficient warning. Once more the invaders abandoned the idea of taking Norfolk.

Stung by the unexpected defeat and the loss of many of their comrades in the waters before Craney Island, the British now looked for a spot where they might wreak vengeance on the Americans for what had just occurred. Their eye lit upon the little town of Hampton across the Roads. Hampton was defended by a body of Virginia militia that, from all accounts, was not too strong and consequently seemed a likely prey. Thither the British sailed on June 24 and anchored opposite the town. To oppose them was a little band of 450 militiamen under Major Stapleton Crutchfield. Commanding the British flotilla was the redoubtable Admiral Sir George Cockburn.

On the morning of the 25th Sir George made a demonstration with the fleet before the town while General Beckwith, who commanded the military, dispatched a force of 2,500 men in surfboats to land below it. Conspicuous in this force was a detachment of French prisoners who had preferred action to the boredom of Dartmoor Prison and had volunteered for service in the American campaign.  p178 These French troops, uniformed in green, bore the name of Chasseurs Britanniques.

For a short time Crutchfield and his handful of men resisted the landing but he soon realized that the odds were hopelessly against him. His retreat quickly became a rout, every man looking to his own safety. The American loss was 30 killed and wounded, while the British lost 50 killed and wounded. The victors now proceeded without further molestation to make themselves at home in the town. Admiral Cockburn and General Beckwith landed and established their headquarters in the home of a Mrs. Westwood. A British officer killed in the action was interred with due religious ceremony in the Westwood yard.

The night passed quietly and the people of Hampton began to assume that they would escape without great annoyance. Next day, however, witnessed a sudden change in the temper of the invaders. In spite of the presence of the two commanding officers the soldiers engaged in a wild orgy that had no counterpart in the whole war. Houses were looted from ground floors to attics, several women were ravished and an aged bedridden man was deliberately murdered and his wife wounded in her effort to protect him from the fury of the soldiers.

When the news of the disgraceful happenings at Hampton became known a wave of indignation swept over the whole country. General Taylor, in Norfolk, promptly addressed a letter of protest direct to Admiral Warren. "The world," he said, "will suppose these acts to have been approved, if not executed, by the commanders, if suffered to pass with impunity; I am prepared for any species of warfare which you are disposed to prosecute. It is for the sake of humanity that I enter this protest."

The United States appointed two commissioners, Thomas Griffin and Robert Lively, to investigate the Hampton outrage. The commissioners having heard witnesses and collected the evidence, put their findings into a report in which they declared:

"We are sorry to say, that from all information we could procure, from sources too respectable to permit as to doubt, we are compelled to believe that acts of violence have been perpetrated which have disgraced the age in which we live. The sex hitherto guarded  p179 by the soldier's honor escaped not the rude assaults of superior force."

Against the charges of disorder General Beckwith defended his men on the ground that they were exacting reprisals for the shooting of the helpless crew of a British barge as it went down in the fight at Craney Island. As for the "assaults of superior force" upon the "sex hitherto guarded by the soldier's honor," he protected the British character by laying that to the Chasseurs Britanniques. As a result of their conduct at Hampton the French soldiers were made the scapegoats and dismissed from the service.

During the last few days of June the British fleet left Hampton and continued the reign of terror by sailing for the Potomac. On July 1 seven ships of the line, seven frigates, and a complement of smaller vessels entered the river and threw Washington and Alexandria into a panic. They came no closer than 70 miles from the capital. The fleet then returned to Chesapeake Bay and threatened Annapolis and Baltimore in turn, but disappeared without launching an attack. Cockburn then devoted his attention to the coasts of the Carolinas and Georgia, raiding the country about Pamlico Sound, seizing cattle, slaves and other property that could be carried off. Not until the following year did he return to ruffle the accustomed calm of Chesapeake Bay.

If the summer of 1813 was the most distressing and painful one the delight­ful Chesapeake Bay country has ever had to endure, on the other hand it was not without its pleasant and amusing moments and many stories of the times have been handed down to become a part of local tradition.

There is, for example, the story that has to do with one Jacob Gibson, a well-to‑do planter who owned Sharp's Island and an estate known as Marengo, on the mainland of the Eastern Shore of Maryland not far from the little town of St. Michael's. Gibson was one of those who believed that the best policy was to deal peaceably with the invaders. When Cockburn came up the bay he did not spare Sharp's Island but replenished his stores with its cattle, sheep and hogs. Nothing daunted Mr. Gibson boarded the Admiral's flagship, was hospitably entertained and received payment for his commandeered property. While this action squared him with Cockburn it  p180 aroused bitter criticism among his neighbors who spread the report that he had sold out to the enemy. Gibson heard of the gossip and determined to avenge himself.

St. Michael's, on the Miles River, was in constant fear of attack and prepared to meet it by raising fortifications, mounting a battery of guns and posting sentinels who were directed to give the alarm if the British fleet should put in an appearance. One fine day a lookout sighted offshore what looked to him like a barge with the British ensign flying from the masthead. His worst fears seemed justified when, over the water, came the sound of the martial beats of a drum. The sentinel immediately gave the alarm and, in a few minutes, the whole town of St. Michael's was in an uproar. Women and children fled to safety, taking with them what possessions they could carry, while the men rushed to man the guns of the battery. Soon all was in readiness for an attack, and the gunners awaited the first hostile move of the barge which was approaching rapidly with its crew straining at the long oars.

Arrived opposite the town the barge shifted its course and passed by; and then, for the first time, the people of St. Michael's realized its true nature. For in the stern sat Jacob Gibson. The "drum" was an empty rum keg resting between his legs. The "British ensign" was his red bandanna handkerchief. The crew were his slaves, rowing him to his home at Marengo!

When they recovered from their fright the people of the town were outraged by the practical joke Gibson had played on them and threats were made against his life. In fact feeling ran so high that Gibson's only means of appeasing his neighbors was by presenting the town with a couple of cannons to add to its defenses.

The cannons proved useful a short time later when the British fleet did actually put in an appearance in the night and bombarded the town. But, according to local tradition, the defenders adopted the ruse of hanging lanterns in the trees. The British trained their guns on the lanterns and so overshot the town. The only blood shed in the attack was that of a chicken which had selected a bad night to roost in one of the trees.

One great annoyance to the people of Chesapeake Bay country — who then, as today, were most sociably inclined — was the interruption caused to the social season. Eastern Shoremen who accepted  p181 invitations from their kinsmen in Baltimore never knew whether they could keep their engagements without being overhauled and captured by a British man-of‑war. Baltimoreans contemplating a quiet week end with relations on the Eastern Shore were similarly incommoded. To obviate this difficulty swift packets were employed. These smart little boats outsailed anything double their size and consequently could generally be counted upon to show their heels to an annoying stranger.

Such a packet was the Messenger, commanded by Captain Clement Vickers, which had succeeded many times in running the blockade. One fine summer morning the Messenger was on just such a trip, returning from Baltimore to Talbot with some dozen passengers aboard, a mixed and lively company of men, women and children and several colored servants to look after their comfort. Among them were a Mrs. Edith Dawson and her two little daughters. Off Poplar Island Captain Vickers sighted the British ship of the line, Dragon, 74 guns, under the command of Captain Barrie of the British navy. Ordinarily Captain Vickers would have clapped on all sail and sped away, but on this occasion a calm set in and there was no escape. While the guns of the Dragon pointed threateningly at the Messenger, a barge put out from the man-of‑war and was shortly alongside the Messenger. In the barge was a British naval officer who introduced himself as Lieutenant Pearson and informed Captain Vickers that the Messenger and all persons aboard were his prisoners.

Men, women and children, in a great state of alarm and not knowing what dreadful fate awaited them, were taken aboard the Dragon. Captain Barrie, however, proved to be a perfect gentleman. He apologized for the inconvenience he was causing them, explained that his orders forced him to hold the men and promised to release the women and children at the first opportunity. Then, still further to relieve their anxiety, he invited the whole party to dine with him in his cabin. A short time later all were seated at a sumptuous repast while Captain Barrie presided at the head of the table with all the consideration of a gracious host. Noticing that one of Mrs. Dawson's little daughters was eating with a pewter spoon, the gallant Captain sent a mess boy to his private lockers for a silver spoon to replace it.

When the meal was over and while arrangements were being  p182 made for the departure of the women and children, Captain Barrie presented the silver spoon to little Miss Dawson and insisted that she keep it as a memento of her captivity. Mrs. Dawson in a few well-chosen words accepted the gift on behalf of her daughter, and the now historic spoon became a treasured possession of the Dawson family, to be handed down to succeeding generations.

The incident, unimportant in itself, is evidence that all of His Majesty's naval officers were not Cockburns. There were Barries as well who could hold their own with the Bay country people on the score of courtesy and social decorum.

Page updated: 7 Apr 16