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Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881
By George Holbert Tucker

Chapter 32

The Battle of Craney Island

Craney Island at the mouth of the Elizabeth River, the scene of the American victory that spared Norfolk from being captured by the British during the War of 1812, was originally known as Crayne or Craney Point.

The name was derived from the fact that the early settlers on the Elizabeth River were impressed with the great number of what they mistakenly believed to be cranes that inhabited it. Hence the name Crayne or Craney Point, although the birds the settlers thought were cranes were actually white and blue herons, still fairly common birds in the Tidewater area.

After an uneventful Colonial history, Craney Island came into its own in 1813 when an American force stationed there successfully repelled a British attack during this country's second war with England. In February of 1813 an impressive British squadron commanded by Admiral Sir George Cockburn sailed through the Virginia Capes to blockade the Chesapeake Bay.

This action bottled up the U.S. frigate Constellation in Norfolk harbor. But this was a blessing in disguise as the officers, sailors, marines, guns, and small boats of the frigate proved invaluable in defending Norfolk from the blockaders.

The appearance of the British in Norfolk-area waters hurried the preparations for defense, the coordination of which was placed under the command of General Robert Barraud Taylor of Norfolk. Fortifications on the outskirts of Norfolk and Portsmouth were hastily thrown up, but Taylor had no idea of letting the enemy get that close to home if he could help it.

Commandeering every vessel he could, Taylor threw a floating barrier across the mouth of the Elizabeth River, while Craney Island was strengthened with a fort and redoubts. These were manned by personnel from the Constellation and two companies of light artillery, one of which was commanded by Captain Arthur Emmerson of Portsmouth.

On June 21, 1813, the already formidable British fleet was strengthened by new arrivals, after which the entire squadron moved up to the mouth of the Nansemond River.

Early on the morning of June 22, 1813, a long drum roll in the American ranks announced that the British had launched a ground attack on the western side of the island. In the excitement, the defenders realized that they were not displaying a flag, so a pole was hastily hunted up, and American flag was nailed to its top, and it was hoisted over the breastworks.

About two thousand British took part in the land attack, but the American fire was deadly that they eventually fell back with heavy losses. In the meantime, an attack was launched on the river side of the island by a double column of fifty British barges, led by the fifty-two-foot barge, Centipede, a handsome craft with a shining brass three-pounder in its bow.

Waiting until the floating attack was well within range of his guns, Captain Emmerson finally yelled, "Now my brave boys, are you ready? Fire!"

The result was lethal, and the barges were sunk and scattered like so many sitting ducks. In all, the British lost around two hundred men and the defenders not one.

The American victory at Craney Island saved Norfolk and Portsmouth from being captured and pillaged by the enemy,. Commenting on the bravery of the defenders, General Taylor wrote the United States Secretary of War:

"The courage and constancy with which this inferior force, in the face of a formidable naval armament, not only sustained a position in which nothing was complete, but repelled the enemy with considerable loss, cannot fail to command the approbation of the government and the applause of their country."

Chapter 33
Lafayette's Four Visits

Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881

Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881

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