War Visits the Chesapeake

By Charles E. Brodine Jr.

The War of 1812 was entering its ninth month when British vessels first arrived in the Chesapeake Bay in force. The reason Tidewater residents had enjoyed this respite from enemy attacks was twofold. First, the British government had delayed authorizing active war measures against the United States until all hopes of repairing the Anglo-American breach had evaporated—a period lasting nearly four months. Second, British army and naval forces in North America were so severely understrength at the war’s onset that little thought could be given to anything more than protecting Canada from cross-border assaults and safeguarding British shipping from U.S. predation on the high seas.

By New Year’s 1813, the British government was ready to commit a modest reinforcement to engage in limited offensive operations against the American maritime frontier. It was hoped that such strikes would divert enemy troops from operations against Canada to the protection of U.S. seaboard communities, thereby providing some relief to besieged British forces along the northern frontier. Such a plan also afforded an opportunity to deliver some punishing blows to the upstart Yankee republic.

The choice of the Chesapeake as the place to land these first blows was a logical one, for the Bay contained a variety of targets of political, economic, and strategic significance. Washington was the site not only of the nation’s capital but of one of the U.S. Navy’s most important yards. A second Navy Yard was located as well at Gosport, Virginia. Then there was Baltimore, the third largest American city and home to a thriving commercial trade in flour and tobacco as well as being the source of important shipbuilding and privateering operations. Smaller port towns and communities whose shipping plied the waters of the Chesapeake likewise presented tempting targets of opportunity for an invading force.

In addition, the geography of the Bay enabled the British to leverage their advantage in sea power over the Americans to great effect. The entire Chesapeake region was one vast network of interconnected bays, inlets, rivers, and creeks, much of it navigable by the Royal Navy’s largest warships. These waterways provided convenient avenues of attack for a sea service well practiced in the art of amphibious warfare. British squadron commanders would exploit the mobility and reach the Bay’s waters afforded them, to launch spirited, quick-hitting raids that had a devastating impact on the region’s communities ashore and commerce afloat.

The state of U.S. defenses in the Chesapeake would validate the wisdom of this choice for, as British naval commanders quickly discovered, the American government lacked adequate land and naval forces to challenge their presence in the Bay. In large part this owed to a military and naval establishment that was undersized and underfunded. And while the U.S. Navy demonstrated a competency in action that the Army and state militia forces rarely exhibited, it lacked the ships and men locally to offset the Royal Navy’s advantage. No monumental shipbuilding effort comparable to that mounted on the northern lakes was ever contemplated for the Bay region.

American land forces in the region, on the other hand, collectively outnumbered enemy forces throughout the war, but rarely came out on the victorious side of any encounter. There were several reasons for this. First, American troops were not of the highest quality and the bulk of the manpower defending the region consisted of militiamen. Nor were they well trained, effectively led, or properly armed and equipped. Federal and state leaders also found it difficult to organize, combine, and coordinate their forces to fight effectively in battle. And when it came to meeting hit-and-run British forces, militiamen lacked the training and discipline to stand toe-to-toe with British regulars in a firefight. As a result, British joint forces operating throughout the Bay were, with a few noteworthy exceptions, able to crush local resistance as they met it.

Lastly, the fortifications protecting the region’s shores were too few in number to offset the British advantages of mobility and firepower. Despite the pleadings of local authorities, Secretary of War John Armstrong was unwilling to provide the funds to build new works or improve and strengthen existing ones. The moneys he had at his disposal were too limited to dispense in this fashion. As a result, local communities, not only in the Bay but along the entire Eastern Seaboard, had to rely on their own resources to provide for local defense.

The officer the Admiralty selected to lead its war effort in America was Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren, who had recently commanded in succession the Newfoundland and North America stations. Though criticized by some historians for his “lethargic and uninspired” direction of Britain’s naval forces, it should be noted that that Warren put forward his own bold initiative for offensive operations against the United States after assuming his new command, one that envisioned the seizure of New Orleans, a rigorous blockade of the American port cities, and the use of “a ‘flying army’ to conduct large-scale raids against Charleston, Savannah, New York, and up the Delaware and the Chesapeake.” 3

Lacking the resources to support such an ambitious strategy, the Admiralty agreed to a limited campaign of amphibious attacks along the American seaboard, for which they would provide Warren with a small force of regulars, Royal Marines, and artillerymen. As noted, it was hoped that such attacks would provide relief to the beleaguered defenders of Canada. But to the Admiralty’s leaders, the more important war measure for Warren to undertake was a close blockade of the American coast, in order to throttle the enemy’s trade and confine its privateers and public warships to port. To this end Warren issued a proclamation in February 1813 declaring the Chesapeake and Delaware bays under a state of blockade. Two subsequent proclamations promulgated later that year extended the blockade to include the Eastern Seaboard south of New England and the mouth of the Mississippi River.

The first division of Warren’s squadron, under the command of Rear Admiral George Cockburn, arrived in the Chesapeake Bay on 3 March, while Warren himself arrived with the second division 19 days later. Several of the more important goals Warren hoped to achieve in the Chesapeake included blockading the ports and harbors of the Bay, capturing and destroying American shipping, gathering intelligence on the strength and distribution of U.S. naval and military forces, and procuring pilots with knowledge of the Bay’s navigation. In Cockburn, Warren had an able and aggressive subordinate who was eager to help accomplish these objectives.

Between April and May, Cockburn conducted a series of hit-and-run raids while ascending the Chesapeake as far north as the mouth of the Susquehanna River. In a memorable eight-day stretch, boats bearing sailors and marines from his squadron attacked the Upper Bay towns of Frenchtown, Elkton, Havre de Grace, Fredericktown, and Georgetown. In addition, these raiders marched on and destroyed the Principio Iron Furnace in Cecil County, a maker of cannon for the federal government. This expedition not only resulted in the destruction of large quantities of public and private property, it yielded welcome supplies of foodstuffs, livestock, and captured vessels. Moreover, it enabled Cockburn to gather valuable intelligence on the region—such as river soundings, sites for suitable anchorages, and the location and disposition of enemy fortifications and troops—with which to guide future operations.

Cockburn’s operations in the Upper Bay gave Chesapeake residents a foretaste of the rough treatment they could expect at the hands of the enemy in the coming months. It was the Scottish admiral’s policy to offer swift retribution to any town whose residents offered resistance to his landings. When militiamen at Havre de Grace fired on Cockburn’s men then fled into the woods, he ordered “Fire [set] to some of the Houses to cause the Proprietors (who had deserted them and formed part of the Militia . . .) to understand and feel what they were liable to bring upon themselves by . . . acting towards us with so much useless Rancor.” 4 By employing such frightening, retaliatory measures, Cockburn hoped to neutralize public support for the American war effort and minimize local opposition to British presence in the Chesapeake.

The U.S. Navy was unable to oppose Cockburn’s springtime raid up the Bay. The force it commanded in the Chesapeake region at this time was comprosed of two ship-rigged vessels, the frigate Constellation (then under blockade) and corvette Adams (then under repairs); approximately three dozen gunboats divided between the Navy Yards at Gosport and Washington; plus a half-dozen schooners leased from the city of Baltimore. All Secretary of the Navy William Jones could do was order some of his smaller craft to shadow the enemy and gather intelligence on his movements and operations.

On 19 June the British government’s promised troop reinforcement arrived in the Chesapeake, upon which Warren set in motion a plan to capture and destroy the U.S. Navy Yard at Gosport and take the American frigate Constellation , then anchored in the Elizabeth River below Norfolk. Having already suffered three frigate defeats in 1812 at the hands of the U.S. Navy, the British considered the capture or destruction of these powerful warships a priority of the highest order. Given the token resistance British raiders met with during earlier strikes up the Bay, Warren and his subordinates expected a gratifying victory over Norfolk’s defenders.

These expectations were quickly dashed when American gunboats and land forces combined to turn back a two-pronged British boat assault on Craney Island, which commanded the navigational channel to the Elizabeth River. 5 This temporary setback to British ambitions in the Bay owed to several factors, poor planning and execution among them. More telling, it revealed that when confronted by alert and capably led American forces, fighting from well-prepared defensive positions, in an environment that limited maneuver ashore and afloat, British victory was anything but certain.

Thwarted in his determination to take Norfolk, Warren pivoted and attacked the town of Hampton on the north shore of Hampton Roads. Supported by cannon and rocket fire from the squadron, two British amphibious forces landed and converged on the town, putting the American troops to flight. In the occupation that followed, two Independent Companies of Foreigners abandoned all military discipline, plundered the town, and brutalized its inhabitants. “Every horror was committed with impunity,” recalled one senior British officer present, “rape, murder, pillage: and not a man was punished!” Reports of Hampton’s sufferings received widespread, sensationalized treatment in the American press, further embittering public opinion toward the British invaders. 6

It was at this juncture that Joshua Barney forwarded a proposal for defending the Bay to Secretary of the Navy Jones. Barney’s plan called for building a flotilla of highly mobile, shallow-draft barges, armed with 24-pounder cannon, to stalk and harass the enemy’s shipping. “ A flying Squadron ” of such craft, Barney opined, could readily disrupt and thwart British amphibious attacks on Tidewater communities. 7 Barney’s reputation as a former Continental Navy officer and successful commander of the Baltimore privateer Rossie, no doubt lent credibility to his plan. The Navy secretary eagerly embraced Barney’s scheme and appointed the Marylander to build and command the new force. Administrative and logistical hurdles, however, prevented Barney from having the Chesapeake Flotilla operational until the spring of 1814.

Warren closed out his summertime campaign in the Chesapeake with additional strikes up the Bay as far north as Baltimore. In mid-July, he detached five ships to sail up the Potomac to test the American defenses, sow destruction ashore, and “create an Alarm at Washington.” 8 The following month, an expeditionary force under Cockburn occupied Kent Island and attacked the Eastern Shore towns of St. Michaels (twice) and Queenstown. The impunity with which Warren’s squadron operated throughout the Chesapeake only served to confirm the low opinion Britain’s political and military leadership held of Americans as a weak and cowardly people.

Despite Warren’s success in waging a punitive war in the Chesapeake, the Admiralty was displeased with his overall direction of the naval war against America, in particular his failure to blockade U.S. warships and privateers in port. Accordingly it ordered his recall, replacing him with Vice Admiral Sir Alexander F. I. Cochrane, who promised to bring a more vigorous prosecution to the war. Cochrane, whose brother had been killed at the battle of Yorktown, held no love for Americans, and he brought not only a personal animus to his new assignment but considerable experience in amphibious and joint operations. Armed with the Admiralty’s pledge of more ships and troops, Cochrane would inaugurate a more destructive phase in the war on the Chesapeake.

The admiral officially assumed the duties of his new command on 1 April 1814 at Bermuda, from whence he would direct American operations over the next four months. Like his predecessor, Cochrane had received instructions from the Admiralty to make diversionary raids in the Chesapeake “to draw off in part the Enemy’s Efforts against Canada.” He had also been directed to offer asylum to the region’s slaves, encouraging those who sought such assistance either to enter the king’s service or to settle “in the British American Provinces.” The British ministry hoped this new war measure would prove a powerful economic and psychological weapon to wield against its American cousins.

To initiate this latter directive, Cochrane ordered Cockburn to identify and fortify a suitable island in the Bay to serve as a place of refuge for “the Negroes, and their Families.” For this purpose, Cockburn settled on Tangier Island, Virginia, which afforded a strategically safe anchorage, from which the squadron might conduct its offensive operations against communities in the Upper Bay. Cochrane also provided Cockburn with a thousand printed copies of a proclamation advertising the British offer to circulate among the local slave population. 9

Though initially skeptical about the willingness of refugee blacks to join the king’s colors, as well as their fitness for soldiering, Cockburn soon became an enthusiastic devotee of his commander-in-chief’s plan. Within a month of distributing the proclamation, nearly 50 runaways had enlisted as Colonial Marines, a figure that would swell sixfold by September. Cockburn admired the exceptional fighting qualities of these black troops and noted with satisfaction their ability to strike panic in the region’s white populace.

The appearance of Captain Joshua Barney’s flotilla off the mouth of the Patuxent River on 1 June posed a hazard to Cockburn’s squadron that the Scottish admiral could not ignore. As matters evolved, the Yankee flotilla was less a serious threat than an annoyance, albeit one that had to be contended with. Regrettably for Barney, he was ill-served by the collection of vessels that had been cobbled together to form his command, for they could not be maneuvered together effectively or swiftly in the face of the enemy.

The American commander soon found himself bottled up in St. Leonard’s Creek, Maryland, on the eastern shore of the Patuxent River. In the first of two battles fought in June, the British were unable to dislodge Barney from his anchorage and got their nose bloodied for their efforts; in the second, the flotilla fought its way past blockading ships and escaped up the Patuxent. The British moved downriver to keep station off the mouth of the river. From that point forward, Barney’s flotilla acted as a floating observation force,­ but its days were numbered.

During July Cockburn undertook a series of diversionary raids up the Patuxent and Potomac to capture stores, destroy shipping, liberate slaves, and spread alarm and confusion among the enemy. The landings were conducted so swiftly and unexpectedly that only token opposition was encountered. In a series of after-action reports forwarded to Cochrane, Cockburn encouraged his commander to bring his force to the Chesapeake and descend on the American capital. All his experience in the spring and summer raids of 1814 had convinced him that the large body of troops could be landed at Benedict, Maryland, on the Patuxent and march overland on Washington.

Cochrane finally joined Cockburn in the Chesapeake on 14 August, accompanied by a force of 3,000 regulars, seasoned veterans of the Peninsular War, under the command of Major General Robert Ross. Though Cochrane was considering a number of targets at which to strike, including Washington, he deemed the capture of that city a lesser priority than the taking of Baltimore. But in a joint conference with Cockburn and Ross, his subordinate’s ideas and arguments carried the day and both Cochrane and Ross agreed to essay an attempt on Washington City.

The finalized plan called for a movement on the American capital in two stages, the first being the landing of an assault force at Benedict, followed by a quick march northward on a route parallel to the Patuxent River. If Ross executed this initial stage without encountering major opposition or military reversal, he could then put the second stage into motion and continue the march on Washington. To obscure British objectives and further confound those charged with Washington’s defense, Cochrane ordered Captain James A. Gordon to ascend the Potomac with a seven-ship squadron “to destroy fortifications along the river” and aid Ross’ army in the event “its return route was cut off.” He also directed Captain Sir Peter Parker to lead a small squadron in harassing operations between the head of the Bay and Baltimore. 10

On 19 August a combined British force of soldiers, sailors, marines, and artillerymen landed at Benedict and commenced their march northward. Three divisions of boats, barges, and other squadron craft moved up the Patuxent in tandem with this little army to provide Ross logistical support and counter any hostile action by the Chesapeake Flotilla. When news reached Ross at Upper Marlborough of the scuttling of Barney’s “mosquito fleet” on the 22nd, he decided, with Cockburn’s full-throated encouragement, to press home the attack on Washington.

The nation’s capital was ill-prepared to meet Ross’ oncoming army. Believing that large numbers of bayonet-wielding soldiery formed “the most efficient barriers” to an advancing army, Secretary of War Armstrong had resisted calls to build fortifications guarding the landward approaches to the District of Columbia. Armstrong’s austere philosophy regarding military expenditures also made him reluctant to authorize the cost of expensive militia call-ups whenever the enemy threatened the Potomac region. Indeed, even when British forces arrived on the Patuxent River, the secretary remained unconcerned that the capital was their military objective, being convinced that Baltimore was the enemy’s true target. To aggravate matters, President James Madison and his cabinet issued competing and conflicting orders for the city’s defense that prevented a swift and organized response to the enemy’s approach. 11

Predictably, Ross’ troops routed the hastily assembled, numerically superior American force barring the route to Washington at the crossroads town of Bladensburg, Maryland, on 24 August (see “Last Stand at Bladensburg,” p. 26). While Barney’s flotillamen and Captain Samuel Miller’s company of Marines put up a stout resistance, the other defenders, composed largely of militiamen, retreated so precipitously that their flight to the capital was later lampooned in a poem titled the “The Bladensburg Races.” Pausing only briefly to regroup his forces, Ross continued his march until he reached the seat of government that evening. By and large, the British troops remained under strict discipline and respected private property. Public buildings, however, were put to the torch, including the Capitol, the President’s Mansion, and the offices of the Treasury, Navy, and War departments. Commodore Thomas Tingey ordered fire set to the Washington Navy Yard to prevent its ships, armaments, and naval stores from falling into enemy hands. Within 24 hours of all this destruction, the British occupiers had set out on their return march to Benedict.

The arrival of James Gordon’s squadron off the port of Alexandria, Virginia, just below Washington, on 28 August prompted a new panic in the region. Fearful that their town might suffer the same fate as the capital, Alexandria’s councilmen sent an embassy to Gordon to seek terms of surrender. In return for Gordon’s pledge to respect persons and their property, the town’s citizens agreed to surrender their ships, warehouse goods, and naval and military stores to the British. After a brief occupation, Gordon returned to Cochrane’s squadron with 21 prize ships filled with cargoes of wine, tobacco, and sugar.

Despite the spectacular British success at Washington and Alexandria, Cochrane was inclined to carry on his offensive outside the Chesapeake rather than proceeding up the Bay to take Baltimore. But Cockburn’s pleadings coupled with seasonal concerns about navigating the Chesapeake’s passage convinced Cochrane to make the attempt. He would find, though, that the defenders of Baltimore, unlike those of Washington, were well-prepared to frustrate British expectations of another easy victory. For more than a year and a half Major General Samuel Smith had worked tirelessly and effectively to put the city and its defenses in a proper posture to repel an enemy attack. These efforts bore fruit when, between 12 and 14 September, Baltimore’s resolute defenders turned back the combined land and naval assaults on their city (see “Defending the Prize of the Chesapeake,” p. 40). The departure of Cochrane’s invasion force from the Bay signaled the end of major British offensives in the Chesapeake for the remainder of the war.

The most important war aim the British hoped to achieve as a result of their Chesapeake campaigns went unrealized, for the Madison administration did not divert any resources from its Canadian offensive to protect the capital or the Bay’s exposed and vulnerable communities. Ironically, the success of the British blockade, in the Chesapeake and elsewhere, had the opposite effect, freeing up the crews of idled U.S. warships (such as the Erie and Ontario at Baltimore) to serve in the rapidly expanding American fleets on the northern lakes.

Yet the British certainly achieved their aim of bringing home the horrors of war to the Chesapeake’s populace. They were able to do so by taking advantage of their superiority in sea power, combat professionalism, and unified leadership to overpower the more poorly equipped, trained, and led American forces protecting the Tidewater region. However, as the experiences of Norfolk in 1813 and Baltimore in 1814 demonstrated, Yankee defenders were quite capable of delivering blows of their own (with interest) to an overconfident foe who wrongfully concluded that Americans were incapable of fighting with courage and spirit when facing long odds.

1. The other three being the occupation of northern Maine, operations in the Chesapeake, and the attack on New Orleans.

2. On the wartime devastation suffered by Chesapeake inhabitants, see Ralph E. Eshelman, Scott S. Sheads, and Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812 in the Chesapeake: A Reference Guide to Historic Sites in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 22–23.

3. Quotes are from Peter Le Fevre, “Sir John Borlase Warren, 1753–1822,” in British Admirals of the Napoleonic Wars: The Contemporaries of Napoleon , Peter Le Fevre and Richard Harding, eds. (London: Chatham Publishing, 2005), 220, and Marc Drolet, “The North American Squadron of the Royal Navy, 1807–1815,” (PhD diss., McGill University, 2002), 209.

4. Cockburn to Warren, 3 May 1813, in William S. Dudley and Michael J. Crawford, eds., The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History , 3 vols. to date (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1985–), vol. 2, 342.

5. The attack on Craney Island took place on 22 June 1813.

6. The British attacked Hampton on 25 June 1813 and occupied the town for ten days. The quoted text is from William Francis Patrick Napier, The Life and Opinions of General Sir Charles James Napier, G.C.B. , 4 vols. (London: John Murray, 1857), vol. 1, 221. For contemporary reports on this event, see Dudley and Crawford, Naval War of 1812 , vol. 2, 361-65; and, Eshelman, Sheads, and Hickey, The War of 1812 , 235-38.

7. The quoted text is from Joshua Barney’s proposal for the defense of the Chesapeake Bay, which is reproduced in Dudley and Crawford, The War of 1812 , vol. 2, 273–76. The authoritative account of Barney’s flotilla is Donald G. Shomette, Flotilla: The Patuxent Naval Campaign in the War of 1812 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

8. Warren to John W. Croker, 29 July 1813, in Dudley and Crawford, Naval War of 1812 , vol. 2, 369.

9. Cochrane to Sir George Prevost, 11 March 1814, in Dudley and Crawford, Naval War of 1812 , vol. 3, 38–40. The quoted text for this and the preceding paragraph appear on p. 40. For an analysis on how liberating slaves figured in British strategy in the Chesapeake theater, see Gene A. Smith, The Slaves’ Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), chapters 4 and 5.

10. This discussion of the British plan to attack Washington draws upon Roger Morriss, Cockburn and the British Navy in Transition: Admiral Sir George Cockburn, 1772–1853 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997), 100–104. The quoted text is from Dudley and Crawford, Naval War of 1812 , vol. 3, 237.

11. For a cogent treatment of the failure of federal officials to take adequate measures for Washington’s defense, see C. Edward Skeen, John Armstrong, Jr., 1758–1843: A Biography (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1981), 187–208. The quoted text is from p. 188.



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