In all the sectors of the New York front there was now nothing more ambitious than minor raids across the frozen St Lawrence River until the spring of 1813. Throughout the disastrous Niagara campaign the largest single American force in the theatre had remained inactive at its base area near Albany, about 250 miles (400 km) from the Niagara River. This numbered some 5,000 men under the command of Major General Henry Dearborn, an officer who had distinguished himself in the Revolutionary War and later served as secretary of war in President Thomas Jefferson’s administration. Although he was commander of all the forces in the northern theatre with the exception of those under Hull in the far west, Dearborn was uncertain if his authority truly extended to the Niagara front. Even when his authority over this sector was confirmed, he was reluctant to exercise it.
Dearborn planned to make his main effort after moving forward to Lake Champlain, where his forces would be handily placed for an advance down the Richelieu River and an attack on Montreal. The best way to achieve this object would clearly have been in co-ordination with any Niagara offensive, thereby facing the smaller British forces with threats on two fronts. Dearborn refused to impose any such plan on the Niagara commanders, and even when van Rensselaer went over to the offensive Dearborn did not seize the opportunity and push forward from Albany.
At the beginning of November Dearborn finally started his command in the direction of Canada. A large detachment was sent ahead to Plattsburg, on the western side of Lake Champlain, and Dearborn announced that he would lead his army into Montreal. Most of the army never crossed the border into Canada, however. When the American advance guard was driven back into the border village of Champlain by Canadian militia units with a strengthening of Indians, on 19 November Dearborn’s New York and Vermont militia men refused to leave American soil and the army quietly turned back to take up winter quarters in Plattsburg.
The land campaigns of 1812 had proved uniformly disastrous for the United States, with not a single success to set against a mass of reverses. Yet all did not seem lost, for the infant US Navy had scored a string of victories and American privateers had taken hundreds of British merchant ships. These successes are all the more remarkable given the comparative size of the contestants: the US Navy had but 14 effective sea-going warships, whereas the Royal Navy had no fewer than 1,048 in commission during the same period. Of course large numbers of the British ships were tied up in operations against France, but even so the success of American frigates against comparable British ships in a number of single-ship duels was clear proof that there was nothing wrong with the design of American warships or with the skills and fighting determination of their officers and men.
Land reverses offset by naval successes
The first success came on 13 August off the coast of Nova Scotia. Here Constitution, a 44-gun heavy frigate commanded by Captain Isaac Hull, encountered the 38-gun Guerriere after slipping through the British blockade and escaping from a pursuing squadron in an extraordinary stern chase. In a savage 30-minute engagement Constitution battered and captured Guerriere , the 736-lb (334-kg) broadside of the American ship proving decisive over the British ship’s 570-lb (259-kg) broadside. The edge was taken off this victory when it was reported in Boston on exactly the same day as the arrival of news about the surrender of the captain’s uncle in Fort Detroit! Commanded by Captain William Bainbridge, the same American frigate was also successful in another ship-to-ship duel on 29 December of the same year. In this engagement off Bahia in Brazil, ‘Old Ironsides’ outmanoeuvred and outfought Java, a 38-gun frigate with a broadside weight of 576 lb (261 kg). The action lasted about two hours, and at the end of this time the British ship was a wreck and surrendered.
Another success for the US Navy in this first year of the War of 1812 was that of the United States, commanded by Captain Stephen Decatur, on 25 October. Off the Atlantic Ocean island of Madeira United States, a 44-gun frigate with a 786-lb (357-kg) broadside weight, encountered Macedonian, a 38-gun frigate with a broadside weight of 547 lb (248 kg). The American ship used the longer range of her guns to devastating effect, and in a 90-minute battle crippled Macedonian, which finally struck her colours. The partly dismasted British warship was brought into Newport, Rhode Island, repaired and taken in American service. A more even match was that between the 18-gun US and British sloops Wasp and Frolic on 17 October. In a 43-minute battle off the coast of Virginia the two vessels fought it out side-to-side. Wasp’s determined and rapid gunnery turned the British sloop into a floating wreck, but the American vessel’s rigging was so severely damaged that when a British 74-gun line-of-battle ship came over the horizon she was unable to escape and forced to surrender. Another American success, although one against a hopelessly inferior enemy, was scored by the 32-gun frigate Essex, which captured the 20-gun sloop Alert.
These defeats in single-ship actions were a great humiliation to the British, and a source of immense pride to the Americans. In the later stages of the Napoleonic Wars the captains of British ships had little prospect of action, and had therefore concentrated on the ‘spit and polish’ aspects of their commands rather than exercise of the ‘great guns’, which was in any case limited by the British government’s desire not to ‘waste’ money in live-firing practice. In general the British frigates were faced by larger American frigates, but this cannot alter the fact that the British were also outfought by the Americans. The victories of their frigates against British warships combined with the successes of their privateers to disguise from many Americans the fact that the very size of British naval power would finally become decisive.
The American plan for the land operations of 1813 called for the recapture of Fort Detroit and, once more, an offensive against Upper Canada. The latter was to comprise a two-pronged advance preceded by an amphibious attack across Lake Ontario to take York. The commander selected for the task of retaking Fort Detroit was Brigadier General William H. Harrison, currently governor of the Indiana Territory and celebrated throughout the USA as the man who had beaten Tecumseh in the Battle of Tippecanoe. Promoted to major general, Harrison had the personal capabilities for his task, but had relatively few men or equipment. Harrison wanted to delay the start of the offensive so that he would have more time to to train and equip his growing force, but the the American people wanted action. The year’s defeats still rankled, and despite the difficulties of a winter campaign Harrison moved toward Lake Erie in October 1812 with about 6,500 men.
Disaster at Frenchtown
In January 1813 Brigadier General James Winchester’s advance guard of about 1,000 men, most of them Kentucky riflemen, reached Frenchtown, a small Canadian post on the Raisin River about 25 miles (40 km) south of Fort Detroit. Here the Americans halted, and Winchester deployed his force with its back to the river in an area of thick snow and no natural cover. In short, the American force could not retreat, could manoeuvre only with difficulty and lacked all natural protection and even concealment. On January 22 a slightly larger force of British regulars, Canadian militia men and Indian skirmishers under Colonel Henry Proctor soundly defeated Winchester’s command, American losses being 197 killed and wounded in addition to 737 captured. Many of the wounded were killed by the Indians, and ‘Remember the Raisin’ became a local rallying cry.
Harrison now decided that the pressure of public opinion was irrelevant to his situation and ordered a winter halt to further operations. The army established itself at the western tip of Lake Erie close to the border between Ohio and the Michigan Territory, and to secure its line of communications round the south of the lake built Fort Meigs on the Maumee River and Fort Stephenson on the Sandusky River. The British laid siege to the two forts, but were unable to take either.
The offensive on and around Lake Ontario were planned by John Armstrong, the secretary of war, and operations were placed under the overall command of the previous year’s undistinguished commander in the same New York theatre, Major General Henry Dearborn, with the naval portion of the offensive controlled by Commodore Isaac Chauncey. The essential first step of the campaign was the movement of Dearborn’s army south-west from Plattsburg on the western side of Lake Champlain to Sackett’s Harbor on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario, where Chauncey had been assembling his ‘invasion fleet’. In broad terms, the plan called for a portion of the American force to cross Lake Ontario, capture Kingston, and destroy the British flotilla based there. Next the Americans would turn their attentions to the capture of York farther to the west along the northern shore of Lake Ontario and, after seizing the military stores there, co-operate with land forces from Buffalo on the Niagara front in the reduction of the British forts on the Canadian side of the Niagara River.
In its overall terms Armstrong’s strategic plan was good. The capture of Kingston would deprive the British of the only useful naval base on the northern side of Lake Ontario, give the Americans control of the lake to ease their own future operations, and by cutting the British line of communications make more difficult their continued presence in Upper Canada. Within the overall context of the scheme the most important part was the seizure of Kingston, after which the capture of York and the Niagara forts would be little more than mopping-up operations.
As the two American commanders prepared for the operation, reports reached them that the British had reinforced Kingston. Dearborn and Chauncey therefore decided to bypass Kingston and launch their first attack on York. The American naval flotilla sailed from Sackett’s Harbor with 1,700 men of Dearborn’s army, and completed its preparations at Oswego on the south shore of Lake Ontario due east of York. The American force arrived off York before dawn on 27 April. Dearborn was ill and entrusted command of the attack to Brigadier General Zebulon M. Pike, who had gained a considerable reputation as an explorer in the south-west. The Americans landed about 4 miles (6.4 km) west of York without resistance and then advanced east toward the town. About 2 miles (3.2 km) from York lay the fort of the region’s 600-man garrison, and after a short but sharp fight the Americans overwhelmed the British resistance and prepared to advance on York proper. At this point a powder magazine exploded, killing and wounding 320 Americans, including Pike, in addition to numbers of the British. In the confusion the remnants of the British garrison retreated toward Kingston, about 150 miles (240 km) to the east.
The Americans moved into York without difficulty, but in the absence of any senior officers the soldiers lost all sense of discipline and, contrary to Dearborn’s express orders, looted and burned public buildings as well as ruining all local records. After holding the town for a week, the Americans re-embarked and returned to Oswego on 8 May, the troops then moving overland to Fort Niagara. The whole expedition had served no real purpose: the Americans had suffered about 20% losses in dead and wounded, and the effective destruction of York had so infuriated the Canadians that more strenuous resistance was inevitable in the future.
The needs of the York expedition and the departure of the remaining troops to the Niagara front had meanwhile left the defence of Sackett’s Harbor to a force of 400 regulars and 750 militia men under the command of Brigadier General Jacob J. Brown, a New York militia officer. This was just the opportunity needed by the British, who had an energetic commander in Major General Sir George Prevost, now governor of Upper Canada. In Kingston he assembled a force of 800 regulars bolstered by numbers of Canadian militia men, and sailed for Sackett’s Harbor on 26 May. Brown had anticipated such a move. As the British began to come ashore they were faced by two lines of American infantry ranged in front of a fortified gun battery. Despite the weight of the fire pouring down on them, the British pushed ashore with great determination, broke the first line of infantry and drove the second back against the guns. The Americans refused to be pushed back any farther, and beat off two British attacks with heavy losses. As the British were re-forming for a third attack, Brown pushed his militia men round the British right flank to threaten their rear. In combination with their heavy losses, the danger of being cut off from their ships was too much for the British, who wasted no time in pulling back to the shore and re-embarking.
On the day that Prevost launched the British raid on Sackett’s Harbor at the eastern end of Lake Ontario, major events were taking shape at the other end of the lake, where Dearborn’s army launched an invasion of Canada. Dearborn was still sick, so operational command fell to Colonel Winfield Scott, Dearborn’s adjutant general. The offensive began with an amphibious assault by 4,000 men under Scott and Commander Oliver Hazard Perry of the US Navy. The troops came ashore on the south side of Lake Ontario to the west of the Niagara River’s mouth, and the gunfire support of the ships was all important in allowing the Americans to overcome the stiff British resistance. The British were outnumbered by about two to one, and pulled back from Fort George and Queenston. At the other end of the Niagara front the British also abandoned Fort Erie on the western side of the Niagara River’s outfall from Lake Erie. This fort’s artillery had kept a number of American naval vessels trapped in Black Rock navy yard on the other side of the river, so the British retreat allowed the vessels to emerge onto Lake Erie.
In this situation rapid action might have secured a decisive victory for the Americans, but once he had arrived Dearborn was content to occupy Fort George. Only several days later did he despatch a force of 2,000 men, including Brigadier Generals William H. Winder and John Chandler, in pursuit of the British, whose 700-man rearguard was led by Brigadier General John Vincent. The American force was very badly led, and on the night of 6 June camped on open ground with only a few pickets despite the fact that the British were only 10 miles (16 km) distant. This was just the opportunity needed by Vincent. In the Battle of Stony Creek he launched a night attack and drove back the larger American force, whose considerable losses included the capture of both generals. Dearborn was so worried by this reverse that he pulled his entire command into the area round Fort George, allowing the British to re-occupy Fort Erie.
About a fortnight after the Stony Creek fiasco, Dearborn sent out a 500-man detachment. About 15 miles (24 km) from Fort George it ran into a 250-man British and Indian force, and surrendered. This effectively broke Dearborn, who was still sick and resigned from the army in July. For the rest of the year there was little real activity on the Niagara front, where both sides were hard hit by disease. The American strength was further whittled away by demands for men by more active commands to the east and west.
The focus of attention was meanwhile shifting to the west, where American offensive operations were about to resume in the campaign to retake Fort Detroit. Hull’s failure in August 1812 and Harrison’s failure in January 1813 showed that success in the land campaign was wholly dependent on American control of Lake Erie, and this demanded naval action.
At the beginning of the War of 1812 the British already possessed several small warships on Lakes Erie and Ontario, whereas the Americans had none. In a major effort to remedy this defect Chauncey had been given the responsibility of building American naval strength on the lakes. On Lake Ontario the main base and yard was Sackett’s Harbor, and on Lake Erie construction of vessels was undertaken at Black Rock and Presque Isle (now Erie). As the shipwrights completed each vessel it was manned by sailors sent from the Atlantic coast. Chauncey was in overall command, but local responsibility for Lake Erie was entrusted to Perry. With the exception of the time he spent on Lake Ontario supporting Scott’s assault on Fort George, Perry spent all his time at Presque Isle on the Ohio shore of the lake assembling his flotilla of ships, together with its armament and men. By July 1813 the American flotilla was ready: it consisted of two brigs, six schooners and one sloop. The opposing British flotilla consisted of two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop under the command of Captain Robert Barclay. Perry had more ships than his British counterpart, but the American ships were more lightly armed than the British vessels, especially in long-range guns.
Barclay maintained a blockade of Presque Isle until 30 July, when its unaccountable lifting allowed the Perry to slip out with his ships and make for Put-in-Bay toward the western end of Lake Erie. From this forward base, near the line held by Harrison’s forces at Fort Meigs and Fort Stephenson, Perry instituted a blockade of Fort Malden during August, effectively preventing waterborne supplies from reaching this vital British position. Early in September Barclay decided that he had to break the American blockade by destroying Perry’s flotilla. The British flotilla sailed from Fort Malden on 10 September and Perry, after embarking a number of Harrison’s soldiers as sharpshooters, responded by sailing from Put-in-Bay.
Battle of Lake Erie
Thus the scene was set for the Battle of Lake Erie. The two flotillas formed into line at about 10.00. The American vessels were upwind of the British vessels, and were therefore in a position to dictate the course of the battle. The main American strength was vested in the 20-gun brigs Lawrence and Niagara, while the British could call on the 19-gun Detroit, 17-gun Queen Charlotte, 13-gun Lady Prevost and 10-gun Hunter. The battle started at 11.45. Detroit and Queen Charlotte concentrated their fire on Lawrence, Perry’s flagship, which was so badly damaged that at about 14.30 Perry had himself rowed to the Niagara, which had dropped back at the beginning of the battle and failed to regain her place behind Lawrence. By this time Detroit, Barclay’s flagship, had also been very badly knocked about, and Perry now broke the British line in Niagara, cutting between Lady Prevost and Detroit to round on the tail of the British line and engage the last three ships. At 15.00 Barclay struck his colours, and the entire British flotilla fell into American hands. American losses were 27 dead and 93 wounded (including 22 killed and 61 wounded on the Lawrence ), while those of the British were 41 killed and 91 wounded.
Perry’s communiqué, beginning ‘We have met the enemy and they are ours…’, has gone down as an American classic.
The Battle of Lake Erie was the turning point of the war in the north-west. Perry immediately put in hand the process of repairing the damage to his flotilla, which had been considerably enlarged by the addition of the ex-British vessels. Throughout the spring and summer Harrison had undertaken the training of his army, which now totalled some 7,000 men. As soon as Perry’s vessels were ready for action, Harrison set in motion his long-prepared plan for the recapture of Fort Detroit and the capture of Fort Malden. While a mounted regiment of Kentucky riflemen under Colonel Richard M. Johnson rode round the west end of Lake Erie, Harrison embarked his main strength, and in particular the infantry and its supporting artillery, in Perry’s vessels. The troops were loaded at Fort Stephenson, and Perry then sailed for Amherstburg on the Canadian side of the Detroit River’s mouth.
Faced by a vastly superior army, which was advancing on them from two directions and could call on the gunfire support of Perry’s vessels, the British realised that Fort Detroit and Fort Malden were no longer tenable. Proctor therefore pulled his forces back to the east, allowing Harrison to retake Fort Detroit on 29 September and occupy Fort Malden. Leaving part of his army to garrison the two forts, Harrison launched a pursuit of the British, who had pulled back first to Lake St Clair and then up the Thames River into Upper Canada proper. Harrison’s force comprised about 3,500 men, including part of the 27th Infantry Regiment, five brigades of Kentucky volunteers, and Johnson’s mounted regiment of Kentucky riflemen. Perry provided support with his three shallowest-draught vessels, and when the river became too shallow even for these the naval commander landed and accompanied the advance as an aide to Harrison.
After an 85-mile (135-km) advance from Fort Malden, the Americans caught the British on 5 October near Chatham on the banks of the Thames River. Proctor’s force numbered about 2,900 men. About 900 of these were British regulars, and the remainder were Indians under Tecumseh, who had received a commission as brigadier general in the British army. In the Battle of the Thames Harrison did not adopt the standard tactic of the day, which demanded that his infantry advance against the enemy’s infantry, with the cavalry committed later. Instead Johnson’s mounted riflemen were committed against the British right wing as the American infantry attacked the British centre. The British collapsed, suffering casualties of only 12 killed and 22 wounded before the bulk of the force surrendered. Some 477 British soldiers were captured, but the rest managed to escape. The Indians held firm until Tecumseh was killed, and then fled leaving 35 dead on the field. American casualties were a mere 29 killed and wounded.
This American victory ended the war in the north-western theatre, and remains a telling example of what can be achieved when land and naval forces co-operate effectively. Harrison had fully exploited the advantage given to him by his amphibious capability to pursue the enemy and defeat him decisively in a battle in which the principles of the offensive and mass were clearly visible. Lake Erie became an American ‘sea’, the Indian confederacy was smashed, the American position on the Fort Detroit frontier was restored, and a sizeable part of Upper Canada was brought under American control.
The 250-man remnant of the British force, together with a few loyal Indians, made its way overland to the head of Lake Ontario and there linked up with other British forces. The Department of War deemed the north-western campaign finished, and ordered Harrison to demobilize his militia forces and to send the bulk of his regulars to the Niagara front, leaving in the west only sufficient strength to protect the Michigan Territory. Harrison was intensely angered at what he saw as the waste of a golden opportunity in the north-west, and after delivering his regulars to the Niagara front he resigned his commission. At Niagara Harrison’s men were used to plug the manpower gaps left by the withdrawal of substantial forces for the offensive toward Montreal that had been planned as the north-western campaign was unfolding.
Failure of co-ordination
On the Niagara front, Dearborn’s replacement was Major General James Wilkinson, who established his headquarters at Sackett’s Harbor. Wilkinson’s force of 6,000 men was to be the western component of a two-pronged attack on Montreal, the other component being Brigadier General Wade Hampton’s force of 4,000 men at Plattsburg on the shore of Lake Champlain. The plan was for Wilkinson’s and Hampton’s forces to advance on Montreal from Sackett’s Harbor down the St Lawrence River and from Plattsburg down the Chateaugay River respectively. Montreal was defended by some 15,000 men, so neither force was strong enough in itself to take Montreal. There was also no overall commander to co-ordinate the activities of the two forces, and the two commanders disliked and distrusted each other while also fearing that they had been appointed by the Department of War to take the blame when and if the operation went wrong.
The operation did in fact go completely wrong, resulting in one of the greatest fiascoes of American military history. Hampton led his force west from Plattsburg to the headwaters of the Chateaugay River and then pushed forward into Canada. By 22 October this smaller American force had reached a point about 15 miles (24 km) from the Chateaugay River’s confluence with the St Lawrence River just upstream of Montreal, where it was scheduled to link up with Wilkinson’s larger force. Hampton’s command was opposed by a smaller British force, and when it attacked on 25 October became badly confused in a swamp. The British commander then caused several bugles to be blown on an American flank. Hampton thought his command was being outflanked, and pulled back not only from the swamp but also from the campaign. The Plattsburg force retired to its base area and went into winter quarters. Hampton resigned his commission and quit the army.
Wilkinson’s force fared very little better. The main body was moved from Sackett’s Harbor by bateaux, with flank guards paralleling the waterborne advance on each bank of the St Lawrence River. When the Americans were about 90 miles (145 km) from Montreal a British force under Colonel J. W. Morrison, totalling some 800 men including Indian skirmishers, attacked the American rear near Ogdensburg. Wilkinson improvised a piecemeal counterattack that was completely bungled, and the Battle of Chrysler’s Farm on 11 November resulted in a decisive American reverse. The Americans lost 102 killed, 237 wounded and more than 100 captured, and Wilkinson immediately abandoned the advance on Montreal. Leaving a sizeable part of his force in winter quarters at French Mills on the Salmon River, Wilkinson led the rest of his force to Plattsburg. So the two American forces finally linked up, but only deep in American territory rather than outside Montreal.
The effort against Montreal had been made possible only by weakening the American defences on the Niagara front, and the British took full advantage of the fact to recapture Fort George. The British then pushed across the Niagara River on 18 December to take Fort Niagara, which remained in British hands until the end of the war. Before they pulled back across the river, the Americans had burned Newark and part of Queenston, and in retaliation a 1,500-man British and Indian column under Brigadier General Gordon Drummond pushed south along the American side of the Niagara River and on 29/30 December burned Buffalo and the Black Rock navy yard.
Throughout 1813 the US Navy was limited by its small size to a programme of commerce raiding, and taken together with the efforts of American privateers this yielded useful results. Many British merchant ships were captured and sent into port, although the increasing effectiveness of the British blockade meant that many ships had also to be burned at sea. This deprived the British of their cargoes and, perhaps more importantly, their use in further trading voyages, but meant that the Americans did not profit directly from their capture.
The year was also marked by a number of single-ship actions between American and British warships. The first of these engagements took place off the coast of Brazil on 13 February between two sloops, the US Hornet and British Peacock. In an 11-minute battle the American vessel comprehensively defeated the British vessel, which sank. On 1 June the boot was on the other foot in the clash between a pair of frigates, the US Chesapeake and British Shannon. Commanded by Captain James Lawrence, Chesapeake was a new ship whose 38 guns provided a broadside weight of 542 lb (246 kW). While still lying in Boston, Chesapeake was challenged to emerge and fight Shannon, whose 38 guns provided a broadside weight of 550 lb (249 kg). Whereas Chesapeake was manned by a large but newly raised and completely untried crew, Shannon was a crack ship whose commander, Captain Philip Broke, was a firm believer not only in gunnery but also in realistic gunnery practice. The American frigate was outmanoeuvred and outfought by the British frigate, and within a short time of the battle’s beginning Chesapeake had been raked with fire several times, leaving about one-third of her crew dead or wounded. Lawrence was mortally hit and gave his crew the order ‘Don’t give up the ship!’, but shortly after this Shannon came alongside and her crew boarded the American frigate, which then surrendered. American losses were 146, including almost all of the officers, while the British suffered 83 casualties. Chesapeake was sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia as a prize, repaired and taken into British service.
After the series of American successes up to this time, the defeat and capture of Chesapeake was a blow to US morale, although more far-sighted people realized that such a defeat was inevitable. More importantly, however, Shannon’s success was an immense boost to the morale of British, whose shaken belief in the invincibility of the Royal Navy was now partially restored. That the naval tide was beginning to turn against the Americans seemed to be proved by the next ship-to-ship duel, which took place on August 14 between two sloops, the US Argus and British Pelican. The 18-gun Argus had already enjoyed a successful commerce-raiding cruise in the approaches to the English Channel, capturing and sinking no fewer than 20 British merchant ships, before she was intercepted by the 20-gun Pelican and sunk after a short battle. The Americans enjoyed another success on 3 September, however, when the sloop Enterprise engaged and captured the British sloop Boxer in a short action off the coast of New England. It was clear that such engagements could still be won by the Americans, but that in general the vastly superior strength of the British would ultimately prove decisive.
With the end of their major preoccupation up to this time, the Peninsular War in Spain, clearly in sight by the middle of 1813, the British felt that greater naval forces could be allocated to the western side of the Atlantic Ocean. Thus during 1813 the British succeeded in bottling all but one of the American frigates in harbour, and also halted American coastal trade. Under the command of Admiral Sir John Warren, the British force off the east coast of the USA could be opposed only by American gunboats, which were too small and too lightly armed to achieve any real results. The task of this steadily stronger fleet was ‘to chastise the American into submission’ and, by exerting pressure on the east coast, to force the Americans into a reinforcement that would weaken their effort in Canada.
The main offensive effort was made in the area of Delaware Bay and Chesapeake Bay by a 15-ship squadron under Warren’s deputy, Vice Admiral Sir George Cockburn. In the spring of 1813 this squadron used its mobility to raid along the coast of the area, looting the countryside and burning all that could not be looted. In June the flotilla was reinforced by the arrival of 2,600 regular soldiers, and Cockburn could now consider more ambitious operations. From a purely naval point of view the most tempting targets were the American frigates Constellation and Adams, which were blockaded in Norfolk, Virginia, and in the Potomac River respectively. Cockburn decided to make his first effort against Norfolk, where he planned to raze the navy yard and capture Constellation after his squadron had forced its way past the outer defences and penetrated into the Elizabeth River. The key to the American defence was Craney Island, whose fortification boasted seven guns and a garrison of 580 soldiers (regulars and militiamen) reinforced by 150 of Constellation’s sailors.
Cockburn’s plan was to have 500 men rowed across the shoals at high tide to pin the American defences with a frontal attack and so give maximum opportunity to the flank attack that was to be delivered by 800 men landed earlier on the mainland opposite the island to march across at low tide. The battle began on 22 June, and although the British flanking party landed successfully 4 miles (6.4 km) north-west of Craney Island, it could not get through the accurate fire of Constellation’s gunners and was forced to pull back. The frontal attack was also beaten back by accurate fire, and after the loss of three barges the British called off the operation. The Americans had suffered no casualties, while the British had suffered 81 losses.
Warren was not to be denied completely, however. Leaving Norfolk he sailed across the river to Hampton. Here the 450-man militia garrison was overwhelmed and the town ravaged. The squadron remained in Chesapeake Bay for the rest of the year, but its activities proved unsuccessful. No American troops were recalled from the Canadian front, and the campaign of small raids proved themselves a major factor in uniting Americans against the British.