By Egon Hatfield, Research, Development and Engineering Command History OfficeJune 6, 2013
After wreaking havoc in the northern Chesapeake Bay area in May 1813, the British turned their attention to Norfolk, Va.
Reinforcements from Great Britain allowed the British to plan larger raids, which intended to draw U.S. forces from operations in Canada.
The British arrived in Hampton Roads June 21 with eight men-of-war, 20 frigates and numerous smaller ships. Their goal was to gain control of the Elizabeth River entrance to facilitate an attack on the USS Constellation (a U.S. frigate moored under the guns of Fort Norfolk), the complex of fortifications in the area and the Gosport Navy Yard. The British had to gain control of Craney Island first.
Craney Island was a flat, 50-acre island on the western side of the mouth of the Elizabeth River. To the west was a narrow channel separating the island from the mainland. To the north and east were shoals, which kept larger ships at bay. Further east was the main channel.
A blockhouse on the southeastern corner of the island, fortifications for a seven-gun battery along the northern part and a redoubt on the northeastern corner were constructed. U.S. defenders included 580 regulars and militia as well as sailors and Marines from the USS Constellation. The stage was set.
The British attack was a joint Army-Navy operation June 22. More than 800 Royal Marines, British regulars and French prisoners, who volunteered to serve with the British, landed on the mainland, west of Craney Island, and moved east along the beach.
At the same time, 500 Royal Marines, sailors, British regulars and additional French prisoners on 15 barges, attacked from the north and the northwest.
Both forces ran into natural obstacles. The landward advance was hindered by dense brush and high water while the barges got hung up on the shoals. The actual fighting was brief and decisive. A U.S. 24-pounder gun kept the British forces on the mainland at bay.
The remaining U.S. artillery was so effective raking the barges with grape and canister rounds that British soldiers never even got out of the barges. As the British withdrew, U.S. sailors counterattacked over the shoals and captured a barge filled with British wounded.
British casualties vary by source. There were approximately 80 killed, wounded and missing. One barge was captured and at least two more were severely damaged. The defenders did not suffer any casualties in one of the few U.S. victories during the War of 1812.
The British realized that trying to capture Norfolk would result in prohibitive casualties, so they departed, searching for easier targets in the Chesapeake Bay area, including Hampton, across Hampton Roads from Craney Island.
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