THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Sunday, October 1, 1995 TAG: 9509290198 SECTION: PORTSMOUTH CURRENTS PAGE: 13 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: Alan Flanders LENGTH: Medium: 88 lines
BY ALL ACCOUNTS, the British sacking and burning of Hampton, which began June 25, 1813, and the subsequent burning of Washington, D.C., just 18 months later, had to be two of the worst atrocities of the War of 1812.
And there was no doubt in anyone's mind on either side of Hampton Roads that the pillaging of both cities was a direct result of an American victory over the British at Craney Island just days before when there had been plenty to celebrate in Norfolk and Portsmouth.
On June 21, a sizeable force of British troops under Adm. George Cockburn and Gen. Sir Sydney Beckwith was solidly defeated on the beaches of Craney Island by a 750-man combination made up mostly of Norfolk and Portsmouth militiamen and sailors from the USS Constellation. Not only had both Elizabeth River seaports been saved, giving the Americans one of the very few land victories over the British during the War of 1812, but Gosport Navy Yard also had been spared destruction, leaving a fledgling navy a base from which to sail.
The entire episode began when British naval forces arrived off Old Point Comfort June 19, 1813, to carry out their mission to serve as part of an naval embargo of the entire East Coast. Just before daybreak the following morning, an armada of 14 rowboats filled with militiamen from Portsmouth attacked one of the Royal Navy warships. Once the British were able to surmount a counterattack, the Americans were forced to flee, back to Gosport.
Determined to end the harassment of his ships, Cockburn ordered a flotilla of 20 British men-of-war, frigates and transports to sail in the direction of Craney Island. Their intentions were obvious to local pilots, who quickly passed the word to the American forces at Fort Norfolk that an enemy attack was imminent. Brig. Gen. Robert Barraud Taylor, headquartered at Norfolk, was able to coordinate building a large defense force with Portsmouth's militia leader, Capt. Arthur Emmerson. When word reached the shipyard that sailors were needed to man the lines and artillery at Craney Island, sailors from the frigate Constellation were ordered to augment Taylor and Emmerson's 750-man unit.
Militiaman William P. Young described the beginning of the battle: ``While we were hoisting the American flag, the enemy was landing his infantry and marines, in all about 2,500. We knew not but their intention was to march to the town of Portsmouth and destroy the Navy yard. We were, however, soon undeceived.''
Indeed they were ``undeceived'' as Emmerson ordered his artillery unit, which comprised only two 24-pounders and one 18-pounder, to hold its fire until the enemy formed up in ranks and began their slow trudge inland. With his barking command ``Fire!'' hundreds of British forces fell in their tracks with the rest of the first amphibious wave in disorderly retreat. Among the casualties that day was Capt. Hanchett, illegitimate son of King George III.
Having been humiliated at Craney Island, the British forces swarmed over the undefended beach at Celey's Plantation near Hampton. Without concerted resistance by local forces, it was just a matter of hours before British forces captured and occupied Hampton, where they spent the next several days in a state of riot, burning, stealing and abusing the citizens.
The city's American commander, Major Stapelton Crutchfield, sent a report to Virginia Gov. John Barbour in Richmond on June 28 stating: ``The enemy landed and had drawn up in battle array at least 2,500 men. The unfortunate females of Hampton who could not leave the town were suffered to be abused in the most shameful manner.'' Crutchfield noted that the British ``pillaged and encouraged every act of rapine and murder, killing a poor man by the name of Kirby . . . shooting his wife in the hip at the same time, and killing his faithful dog.''
What wasn't burned was stolen as the entire town was left in ruins.
Hearing that Hampton was being destroyed in retaliation for his victory at Craney Island, Taylor protested formally to Adm. Sir John Boarlase Warren, British squadron commanding officer aboard his flagship HMS San Domingo. Warren's reply was chilling as he defended his men's behavior saying they were only taking their revenge for the cruelty shown them at Craney Island.
But there was some honor among the enemy invaders. Lt. Charles James Napier, a veteran of the Battle of Craney Island, noted in his diary that ``Every horror was perpetrated with impunity - rape, murder, pillage - and not a single man was punished.''
And even after a year and a half, the British were still not satisfied with their revenge. The nation's capital, Washington, D.C., was captured and burned with many further eye-witness accounts of British misdeeds against innocent citizens. ILLUSTRATION: File photo by LAWRENCE JACKSON
In 1813, a sizeable force of British troops was defeated on the
beaches of Craney Island by a 750-man combination comprising Norfolk
and Portsmouth militiamen and sailors from the Constellation.