The Chesapeake Bay: Avenue for Attack

forts were built to block foreign ships from sailing up the James and Elizabeth rivers, and when cannon were finally powerful enough forts were built at Cape Charles and Cape Henry to control passage into the Chesapeake Bay
forts were built to block foreign ships from sailing up the James and Elizabeth rivers, and when cannon were finally powerful enough forts were built at Cape Charles and Cape Henry to control passage into the Chesapeake Bay
Map Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Wetlands Mapper

The Chesapeake Bay has been a highway, more than a barrier, since Native Americans paddled to the Eastern Shore in canoes. Europeans used sailing ships as the 18-wheel trucks of the colonial era, penetrating up rivers to the Fall Line throughout Tidewater. Both pirates and warships have followed the same routes. Before invading Virginia in 1781, Lord Cornwallis wrote his superior in New York City that North Carolina was hard to conquer because it lacked "interior navigation," but:1

The Rivers of Virginia are advantageous to an invading Army...

The threat of attack via the bay has shaped the location of colonial settlement, and even the location of modern industrial facilities. The Radford Arsenal and the first industrial plant in Blacksburg were placed far inland in Montgomery County in World War II, to avoid threat from an enemy attack along the Atlantic Ocean coastline.

The threat was real. In 1652 during the English Civil War, Governor Berkeley maintained his authority as royalist governor only until a fleet sent across the Atlantic Ocean by Parliament appeared in the Chesapeake Bay, at which point Gov. Berkeley surrendered. During the American Revolution, the British sailed up the James River and seized American ships at Hog Island. During the Civil War, Union farces sailed upstream as far as Drewry's Bluff. Even in 2013, a contractor reported to the Pentagon that the two nuclear reactors at Surry were vulnerable to a terrorist attack from the sea.2

Throughout the colonial era, ships sailed from Caribbean islands or Europe to trade directly with Tidewater plantations. The bay provided equally good access for pirates and foreign navies to attack those plantations. The range of land-based cannon (shore batteries) was inadequate to block the entrance to the Elizabeth and James rivers until Fort Calhoun was constructed on the Rip Raps shoal between Hampton and Norfolk in the 1840-50's.

Even during the Civil War, when a domestic army with support from inland states invaded Virginia, the 1862 Peninsula Campaign and the siege of Petersburg in 1864-65 relied upon water-based transport. Until the creation of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM's) in the 1950's, the greatest foreign threat to Virginia was a military force arriving via the Chesapeake Bay.

Algonquian-speaking Native Americans had crossed the bay in boats long before Europeans arrived. Native American canoes were far less maneuverable than the European sailing ships, and moving a canoe by muscle power was more exhausting than using wind power, but Powhatan's subordinates crossed the bay to establish control over Eastern Shore tribes before English colonists settled in Jamestown in 1607. If the Native Americans had documented their military history in writing, the annals of Powhatan might have included glorious stories of water-based maneuvering and amphibious attacks.

Powhatan's priests had warned him that a threat to his paramount chiefdom would come from the east, and he was aware of European ships occasionally sailing into the Chesapeake Bay. Powhatan had no military capacity to block the arrival of European ships, though warriors in canoes could threaten a small ship. When John Smith explored the Chesapeake Bay in a shallop during 1608, he took defensive precautions whenever canoes paddled out from shore to initiate discussions/trade, and when he "incountred 7 or 8 Canowes full of Massawomeks."3

Powhatan had no technology capable of blocking the arrival of European ships. He lacked the capacity to sink ships of the invading "tassantassas" (strangers), so he normally avoided a direct fight in open fields and relied instead on asymmetric warfare and diplomacy.

His successors attempted to use surprise attacks to expel the invaders, but that technique failed in 1622 and 1644 to push the colonists out of Virginia. The invaders who arrived via the Chesapeake Bay in 1607 would occupy Virginia and displace Powhatan's people, while the waterway would remain as an avenue for attack by others who might displace the English.

England recognized that enemy fleets could project power across vast distances. It worried about invasion of the "home island" across the English Channel by the Spanish in 1588 (and by the Dutch in 1677, the French in 1779, and the Germans in 1941). The Atlantic Ocean was much wider than the English Channel, but the entire ocean was not a barrier to protect English communities growing in the New World after 1607.

high cliffs at Drewry's Bluff allowed Confederates to block the Union navy from sailing upstream from Hampton Roads to Richmond in May, 1862 after the battle of the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia
high cliffs at Drewry's Bluff allowed Confederates to block the Union navy from sailing upstream from Hampton Roads to Richmond in May, 1862 after the battle of the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia
Map Source: Library of Congress, [B]alloon view of the attack on Fort Darling in the James River, by Commander Rogers's [sic] [i.e., Rodger's] gun-boat flotilla, "Galena," "Monitor," etc.

The earliest English settlers to Virginia chose to sail past the excellent harbors on the Elizabeth River, following instructions of the London Company. The Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery went upstream to Jamestown. That lengthened the supply line, but reduce the potential of a surprise attack by the Spanish, French, or Dutch. The instructions prepared by the London Company in 1606 presumed that sailing inland would also force an attacker to sail up a narrow river channel, which could be lined with musket-firing colonists protecting their base:4

Choose your place...a hundred miles from the Rivers mouth and the farther up the better... if he be Driven to Seek you a hundred miles within the Land in boats you shall from both sides of your River where it is Narrowest So beat them with Your muskets as they shall never be Able to prevail Against You.

The colony at Jamestown was protected, but the more-valuable ships and cargoes at Hampton Roads were still exposed to fleets from other nations - or to individual ships that were authorized as privateers or "went rogue" as pirates.

building the Jamestown fort in May, 1607
building the Jamestown fort in May, 1607
Source: National Park Service - Sidney King collection of paintings created for the 350th Anniversary of Jamestown

After all, if the English could sail from Europe to Virginia, so could the enemies of England or water-based thieves. Into the 1800's, a sail spotted in the Chesapeake Bay could mark the arrival of a commercial business opportunity - or a pirate masquerading as a merchant from England or the West Indies, coming to seize ships and even raid Virginia plantations along Tidewater shorelines.

For 350 years after Jamestown, American ships and cargoes transiting through the Chesapeake Bay have been a target for attack. In colonial times, the ships were far more valuable than the public buildings at the colonial capital. Today, though destruction of public buildings in Washington DC would have great symbolic importance (as demonstrated in the September 11, 2011 terrorist attacks), the shipping is more valuable. The Atlantic Fleet based at Norfolk, armed with nuclear weapons, is the most valuable military asset to protect on the East Coast.

Guarding the Mouth of the Bay

Observation posts located at Hampton and Cape Charles/Cape Henry have provided advance warning of ships entering the bay since 1609. Pirates or countries with a navy found the time required to cross the bay would provide the Virginians with time to assemble the militia.

The Jamestown settlers built Fort Algernourne in 1609, near the town of Kecoughtan on the end of the Peninsula where Fort Monroe is now located. The fort provided an early warning system of Spanish, Dutch, and pirate ships. (Perhaps more importantly, moving some starving settlers away from Jamestown in 1609 reduced the demand on the fort's food supplies, and may have reduced transmission of density-dependent disease.) The Algernourne Oak on the parade ground at Fort Monroe germinated around 1540, so that live oak tree would have provided shade for the colonists who built the first fort.5

In the first successful foreign attack on Virginia during the Anglo-Dutch War in 1667, Dutch warships captured and destroyed the ineffective Elizabeth guardship, and the fort at Point Comfort was useless in protecting the tobacco fleet from capture. In theory, the English ships could have sailed near the fort and received protection from the fort's guns. However, the guns at the fort were not powerful enough to hit enemy ships sailing in the channel. Providing effective cannon, and maintaining the fort's walls, had been considered as too expensive. The fort ended up being nothing but a drain on the valuable resources of the Virginia colonists.

Despite the failure in 1667, and a repeat when the Dutch arrived again in 1673, Fort George was built on the tip of the Peninsula in 1727. Brick walls were built 16' apart and connected by brick crosswalls, and apparently the cells were then filled with sand to create sturdy fortifications.

Fort George lasted a little over 20 years, before it was destroyed by the 1749 hurricane that created Willoughby Spit. Hampton Roads offers several sheltered locations for a harbor, but a storm surge of 10-15 feet can rearrange channels/spits as well as sink ships and destroy buildings. The flaw in the design of Fort George was in its weak foundation:7

It was built on a Sandy Bank; no care to drive the piles to make a Foundation; the Sea and wind beating against it has quite undermined it and dismantled all the Guns which now lie buried in the Sand.

Old Point Comfort, at tip of the Peninsula, has been fortified since 1609... with a few gaps
Old Point Comfort, at tip of the Peninsula, has been fortified since 1609... with a few gaps
Source: US Geological Survey, Hampton 7.5x7.5 topographic quad (2011)
Willoughby Spit, formed in part by the 1749 hurricane
Willoughby Spit, formed in part by the 1749 hurricane
Source: US Geological Survey, Norfolk North 7.5x7.5 topographic quad (2011)

Fort George was not rebuilt after the hurricane. After the 1748 Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle ended the War of Austrian Succession (also known as King George's War) between France and England, tensions had eased in Europe. Even during the Seven Years War (also known as the French and Indian War), Virginia did not rebuild a maginally-useful fort at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Instead, the colony focused on defending its western borders against French invasion and Native American raids.

Revolutionary War

In the Revolutionary War, when the American rebels had few warships in the Chesapeake Bay, the British were able to raid up the Elizabeth, Nansemond, Appomattox, James, and Potomac rivers with ease.

At the start of the war, Lord Dunmore abandoned Williamsburg and found safety on the HMS Fowey, a British warship in the York River. After raiding plantation homes for supplies and to damage property of prominent rebellious colonists, his flotilla sailed south to Norfolk.

Loyalists controlled the town, but Virginia militia marched towards it in October, 1775. Dunmore's ships were unable to move up the James River fast enough to block the Virginia militia from crossing from Jamestown to the southern side, and Col. Woodford led five companies of the Second Regiment through Nansemond County to threaten Norfolk from the south. Patriots also assembled a force at Kemps Landing at the tip of the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River.

The British fortified the causeway at Great Bridge, building Fort Murray to block troops under Col. Woodford from advancing to Norfolk. To recruit new soldiers and to threaten the colonists, Dunmore issued a proclamation offering freedom to slaves who joined his forces and fought for the King. Though the British controlled the Chesapeake Bay with powerful warships, Dunmore recognized that the threat of slave uprisings and emancipation of laborers from Chesapeake Bay plantations was also an effective military measure.

After the British rashly attacked across the causeway and were defeated at Great Bridge, they retreated to Norfolk. The Americans gradually forced the loyalists and troops to abandon the city and stay on the warships in the harbor. American riflemen on the Norfolk shoreline then made it difficult for anyone to expose themselves on the ships.

In response, on the first day of 1776 Dunmore shelled Norfolk and landed troops. They did not re-occupy Norfolk; instead, the British troops burned the structures on the shoreline that might used by Virginia sharpshooters. Rather than fight to save the town, the Americans burned the rest of Norfolk to ensure it could not become a Loyalist base.

Dunmore finally abandoned efforts to establish a permanent base on the Elizabeth River. He sailed away to establish another base on Gwynn's Island. Disease substantially reduced his forces there, especially among the escaped slaves. When the Americans placed cannon on the mainland that could reach his ships, Dunmore fled to New York. The Virginia militia succeeded in pushing the British away from the Chesapeake Bay, using just land forces without use of naval forces - but the British had the military capacity to sail back to Hampton Roads or anywhere else in the Chesapeake Bay, at any time.

the British controlled the water with their warships, but Fort Murray failed to block the Virginia militia from crossing Great Bridge over the Southern Branch of the Eizabeth River (NOTE: on this map, south is at the top and north is at the bottom)
the British controlled the water with their warships, but Fort Murray failed to block the Virginia militia from crossing Great Bridge over the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River
(NOTE: on this map, south is at the top and north is at the bottom)
Source: Library of Congress, Part of the Province of Virginia (1791)

In May, 1779, Sir George Collier led 28 ships with 1,800 men under General Edward Mathew and surprised the Virginians in Hampton Roads. Fort Nelson, guarding the Gosport shipyard in Portsmouth, was quickly captured. The fort was very well constructed, and with the British attacking by land there was no problem with the range of the Virginia weapons. However, the British forces outnumbered the Virginians 20-1, and the Virginia commander with only 100 men chose to retreat rather than fight.

The British burned the Gosport Ship Yard, where the Continental Navy was trying to complete the frigate Virginia. Collier wanted to stay at Portsmouth, which he described as "an exceeding and safe asylum for ships against an enemy." Collier viewed Portsmouth as the best location for a base to support the British blockade, ultimately starving the American rebels of gunpowder, weapons, uniforms, and other military supplies being imported from Europe.6

By 1779, British strategy was shaped by the threat of the French fleet as well as of the American militia and Continental Army. Creating a permanent base in the Chesapeake would over-extend the American Squadron, so Collier was summoned back to New York. Before leaving, he burned Virginia and a massive stockpile of high-quality shipbuilding timber.

The Collier-Mathew hit-and-run attack made Virginia's legislators realize that the Revolutionary War would be fought in their state, as well as in the north between Philadelphia and Boston. The raid destroyed extensive supplies in Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Suffolk, as well as warships under construction.

Merchant ships loaded with tobacco for France ended up as prize ships, and the profits went to British officers rather than helping the American side. Including the ships seized in the upper Chesapeake Bay, 137 vessels were captured by the British at the cost of just two men being wounded. By the time the Virginia militia had been assembled, the British had returned to their ships. Various British warships continued to patrol the Chesapeake Bay in 1779, with no resistance by the Americans.8

Another British invasion in 1780 showed Virginia was better prepared to defend itself. General Alexander Leslie brought only a half-dozen or so ships, but 2,200 men. He landed at Portsmouth on October 21 and attacked Newport News/Hampton on October 23, 1780. The intent was to intercept Virginia supplies and divert American troops away from the British campaign under Lord Cornwallis, as they marched north after capturing Charleston, South Carolina in May.

However, the Virginians mobilized while minimizing the impact on their support for the Southern armies. Most of the Virginia Line had been captured in the disastrous defeat at Charleston, but the rebellious American forces in South Carolina were still resisting Cornwallis' northern advance. As directed by George Washington, Virginia continued to send reinforcements and supplies south, rather than to the Continental army that kept the British trapped in New York City.

British forces captured the battlefield at Camden, Kings Mountain, Cowpens, and Guilford Courthouse, but those Pyrrhic skirmishes cost the British irreplaceable soldiers. To maintain the army fighting in North America, the British had to hire Hessian soldiers from Germany as mercenaries. Recruiting and shipping replacement troops across the Atlantic was as challenging as getting American soldiers to Vietnam 35 years ago.

General Leslie was deterred from sailing up the James River by reports of large groups of Virginia militia and strong fortifications on the riverbanks. The Virginians freed up the guards responsible for 2,800 prisoners in Charlottesville by marching those prisoners north to Frederick, Maryland. The Albemarle Barracks (west of the modern Barracks Road Shopping Center on Route 29) had been built by the prisoners, primarily Hessians who had been captured at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 and marched from Boston to Virginia in 1779 for safekeeping.9

The next assault via the Chesapeake Bay came soon after Leslie was redirected south to reinforce Cornwallis at Charleston. General Benedict Arnold sailed from New York to the James River and arrived on December 30, 1780 with almost 30 ships and 1,500 troops.

Virginia's military defenses were, once again, revealed to be inadequate. There were no American cannon or troops at Point Comfort to delay movement up the James River; Fort George had not been rebuilt after its destruction in a 1649 hurricane.

When Arnold was spotted in the Chesapeake Bay off Willoughby Spit, the Virginians could not determine if his target was Williamsburg, Petersburg, or Richmond until the fleet sailed upriver past Jamestown. Arnold put troops ashore on the south bank, and they forced the militia to evacuate the incomplete Virginian fort at Hoods Point. That fort, opposite Weyanoke Point at a sharp bend in the river, was the only opportunity to block the British fleet from going upriver all the way to Richmond.

after sailing past the incompleted Virginian fort at Hoods Point (1), Benedict Arnold landed at Westover Plantation (2) and marched on the north bank of the James River to Richmond
after sailing past the incomplete Virginian fort at Hoods Point (1), Benedict Arnold landed at Westover Plantation (2) and marched on the north bank of the James River to Richmond
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

The British chose to go onshore and move overland to seize the capital. About 900 soldiers and loyalists organized as the marched quickly from William Byrd's plantation wharf at Westover to Richmond. The Virginians did manage to move some supplies to the south side of the James River, but the British burned public records and destroyed the Westham foundry that produced cannon for the Americans.

Benedict Arnold's troops and loyalists also burned private warehouses loaded with tobacco. Since the American currency had depreciated to the point that it was "not worth a Continental" and money issued by the state had lost much of its value, importing military supplies from Europe usually involved trading with Virginia tobacco. Arnold's burning of tobacco in Richmond was equivalent to burning money in the state treasury.

Arnold's concern about the Virginia militia deterred the British from crossing the James River and capturing Manchester in January. Arnold returned to Portsmouth after his January, 1781 Richmond raid. He established a permanent British occupation post in Virginia, fulfilling the plan originally assigned to Leslie several months earlier.10

The Virginia militia were organized under General Thomas Nelson north of the James River, and under General Peter Muhlenberg south of the river. General Greene left Baron von Steuben in overall command, but there were not enough men or supplies for the militia to go on the offensive and attack Portsmouth.11

George Washington and his French allies tried to provide assistance to the Virginians. In February, the French sent ships from their fleet at Newport, Rhode Island to the Chesapeake Bay. They were able to sail into the Lynnhaven Bay, but those ships required deep water. Arnold simply moved up the Elizabeth River, where water depth was shallow. The French squadron did not carry the army troops required to attack Portsmouth on land, so the squadron returned to Newport and left Arnold unchallenged.

A second initiative of Washington and the French involved sending the Marquis de Lafayette and French troops to Virginia. American troops marched south from New York, while French troops were sent via ship from Rhode Island. Washington planned to relieve the pressure on Virginia so it could renew its shipment of supplies to the Continental Army challenging Cornwallis in South Carolina, and also hoped to capture and execute Benedict Arnold as a traitor.

The initiative required close cooperation between American/French troops on land and French ships. The Americans, with Lafayette, were able to march south and then sail down the Chesapeake Bay to Hampton Roads. However, the French fleet with 1,200 essential troops was unable to force its way past a British fleet blocking access to the Chesapeake Bay and had to return to Newport. (Six months later, Washington and Rochambeau would repeat the maneuver and, thanks to a more-successful French fleet, catch Cornwallis at Yorktown.)12

General Clinton sent 2,000 more troops from New York to Hampton Roads in March. They were led by General William Phillips, and Arnold remained in Hampton Roads as Phillip's subordinate. Lafayette ended up staying in Virginia with a small force of Continental Army troops, enough to harass but not to defeat the British.

The British based at Portsmouth could move throughout Tidewater with impunity. The majority of the Continental Army was far to the north, keeping the British trapped in New York City, and could not spare enough troops to protect Virginia.

On a raid up the Potomac River, a British squadron sailed past Mount Vernon before seizing merchant ships and tobacco from Alexandria. Lund Washington, cousin of George Washington and caretaker at Mount Vernon, provided supplies to the British in exchange for protecting the mansion - to George Washington's great embarrassment.

From their base at Portsmouth, Phillips and Arnold destroyed the Virginia State Navy shipyard on the Chickahominy River, which had been developed after Collier's destruction of the Gosport Ship Yard in 1779. They sailed to City Point and marched to Petersburg, easily defeating the Virginia militia under General Peter Muhlenberg that assembled at Blandford. (During that battle, American artillery based on bluffs north of the Appomattox River gave the name to Colonial Heights.)13

Phillips destroyed tobacco, flour, and other military supplies at Petersburg, then moved north to burn the military training camp (and former prisoner of war camp) at Chesterfield Courthouse. Arnold split off and marched his troops swiftly to Osbourne's Landing on the James River. He surprised the remnants of the Virginia Navy there.

The Virginia Navy had concentrated its ships there, with plans to attack Portsmouth if the French sent another fleet south from Rhode Island to capture Portsmouth. Instead, Arnold's land-based troops used cannons and rifle fire to capture or destroy the entire fleet. (In 1985, marine archeologists unsuccessfully sought to find the sunken wrecks. The James River may have migrated westward. If so, any remnants of the Virginia Navy ships destroyed by Arnold in April, 1781 may be underneath Farrar's Island today.)14

on April 27, 1781, Benedict Arnold destroyed the Virginia Navy, which had gathered at Orbourne's in anticipation of a joint French-American attack on the British base at Portsmouth
on April 27, 1781, Benedict Arnold destroyed the Virginia Navy, which had gathered at Osbourne's in anticipation of a joint French-American attack on the British base at Portsmouth
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Phillips and Arnold then moved upstream to Manchester at the end of April, and destroyed tobacco and supplies there. A small force of Continental Army troops under Marquis de Lafayette watched from the Richmond side of the James River, in a mirror image of how Thomas Jefferson had observed British forces from the opposite side of the river in January 1781.

in April 1781, General William Phillips and Benjamin Arnold sailed from Portsmouth to City Point (yellow line), marched to Petersburg and destroyed supplies after the Battle of Blandford (red line), and then Phillips went to Manchester via Chesterfield Court House (green line) while Arnold detoured first to Osbourne's Landing to destroy the Virginia Navy
in April 1781, General William Phillips and Benjamin Arnold sailed from Portsmouth to City Point (yellow line), marched to Petersburg and destroyed supplies after the Battle of Blandford (red line), and then Phillips went to Manchester via Chesterfield Court House (green line) while Arnold detoured first to Osbourne's Landing to destroy the Virginia Navy
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

The easy military successes of Phillips and Arnold in Virginia affected two key decisions, one political and one military.

The political decision was made by Virginia's leaders within the General Assembly and in Congress.

In 1781, Virginia was clearly unable to protect itself; it needed assistance from the other colonies. To encourage the other states in the Continental Congress to contribute more troops to protect Virginia, the state's political leadership decided to compromise on its boundary claims to western lands north of the Ohio. Virginia ceded what became the "Northwest Territory" to the national government. Virginia also resolved an old boundary dispute with Pennsylvania. The General Assembly abandoned Virginia's claims to the Forks of the Ohio (Pittsburgh) area, which had triggered George Washington's 1753 trip and ultimately the French and Indian War.

Both Virginia and Pennsylvania agreed to extend the Mason-Dixon line to five degrees west of the Delaware River, then draw a line due north to define Pennsylvania's western boundary. Virginia was unwilling to extend the western boundary directly to the Ohio River, however. Pennsylvania ended up with some straight boundaries while Virginia (now West Virginia) created a "panhandle" between Pennsylvania's western border and the Ohio River.

The military decision was made by General Cornwallis.

He had left Charleston and fought American forces at various locations in South Carolina and North Carolina. The Americans maneuvered ahead of Cornwallis, reducing his military capability. After Guilford Courthouse, there was a "race" to the Dan River. General Greene and the Americans won that race, moving all the boats to the north bank near South Boston. That blocked Cornwallis from crossing, though in some cases the Americans were just barely across the Dan River when the British scouts first arrived on the other shore.

In April, 1781, the British general chose to abandon the pursuit of the American forces and march to the sea rather than proceed north into Virginia's Piedmont. Cornwallis moved first to Wilmington, North Carolina, for resupply. It was a safe place, but simply keeping his army idle at that port would do nothing to end the American rebellion.

Cornwallis chose to join Phillips, and marched overland to Petersburg in May, 1781. There he took command from Arnold of all British troops in Virginia, a week after Phillips had died from disease.

Cornwallis went on the offensive. He crossed the James River to the wharf at Westover, then marched north to Hanover Court House and up to the Rapidan River. Lafayette fled to the north bank, crossing at Ely's Ford. There were no military resources or tobacco worth capturing or destroying at Fredericksburg, so that town was spared a visit by the British.

Charlottesville was not so lucky. The General Assembly had abandoned Richmond and fled inland, and the British considered the rebel leaders to be an attractive target. Col. Banastre Tarleton (the villain in the movie The Patriot) led a fast raid to Charlottesville.

However, while Tarleton's Legion stopped briefly at a tavern in Louisa County, Jack Jouett started a dramatic nightime ride to warn the General Assembly. He had to avoid the main roads where the British were arresting everyone. Reportedly, Jouett's face was scarred for life from the branches that he hit in the dark, on the way to Charlottesville. He got there just in time. Governor Thomas Jefferson, at the end of his term in that office, fled across Carter's Mountain as the British reached Monticello. The General Assembly fled across the Blue Ridge to Staunton.

Colonel John Simcoe led a simultaneous British raid on the north bank of the James River to Point of Fork at the mouth of the Rivanna River. There he captured a large number of Virginia supplies. General Baron von Steuben managed to escape with most of the Continental Army supplies to the south bank of the river. He described his maneuvers as successful, since he had fulfilled his mission, but that claim ignored the overall impact of the military losses due to the American inability to defend any fixed location against the British forces in 1781.

By 1781, six years after open warfare started at Lexington and Concord, the British forces had captured all of the large American cities, marched through the various state capitals with ease (including Richmond), and were now disrupting the ability of the Americans to maintain an army in the field by destroying the supply bases throughout Virginia. Eighty years later, Union generals would do the same to the Confederates... and in the 1860's, France would not come to the rescue, as it did in 1781.

Chesapeake Bay - British attack routes
Chesapeake Bay - British attack routes in 1780-81

Cornwallis then concentrated his forces at Yorktown, with fortifications across the York River in Gloucester. He considered but rejected Old Point Comfort, and evacuated Portsmouth. Yorktown was a deepwater port, the existing town offered shelter, and his troops could forage and raid to provide supplies while Cornwallis awaited reinforcements promised by General Clinton in New York.

The amazing defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown in October, 1781 can be explained best by the unwillingness of the British commanders to work as members of a team. The British army depended upon re-supply from the sea, but the navy did not synchronize its operations to support Cornwallis's army. In contrast, the French and the Americans coordinated their operations, to maximize their opportunities.

The French were partners, not subordinates who took orders from George Washington. The French rejected George Washington's proposals to attack on New York, because the British fleet and soldiers on the ground were too powerful. The Americans had minimal naval assets, and the British had defeated the French several times in previous naval engagements.

The French were not reluctant to fight, just careful to pick a fight they could win. They moved their fleet from the West Indies and created an extraordinarily large fleet, for a brief moment, to fight the British off the coast of Virginia.

In September, American and French troops stationed outside of New York marched south to the head of the Chesapeake Bay. French ships then provided transportation to move the troops by water to the Peninsula, while the artillery moved by land to Cornwallis's encampment at Yorktown. By consolidating their forces in Virginia rather that at New York, the French and Americans briefly outnumbered the British in troops and artillery.

That advantage would disappear if the British fleet brought reinforcements from New York to strengthen Cornwallis. However, on September 5, 1781, the French warships fought the British in the "Battle of the Capes" and blocked resupply.

The French fleet sailed out of Chesapeake Bay, surprising the British with the number of "ships of the line" they had assembled. The Battle of the Capes was a draw, basically, with each navy punishing the other but not gaining domination over the other. The key to the eventual victory at Yorktown was that the French retained control of the Chesapeake Bay, and the British fleet returned to New York for repairs. Cornwallis was trapped and unable to get new supplies or troops.

The French gamble to risk taking their warships from the Caribbean to the Chesapeake came just in time. A year later, in the Battle of the Saintes, the French fleet was destroyed by the English.

Cornwallis had played it safe and waited for help from his navy, while Washington and the French allies gambled and won at Yorktown. Had Cornwallis showed more energy, he could have broken through the French or American lines before they established siege trenches and trapped him in Yorktown. In particular, he could have crossed the York River and marched north past Gloucester as the Americans/French were marching south from New York.

Chesapeake Bay on New Year’s Eve, 2003
Chesapeake Bay on New Year’s Eve, 2003
Source: NASA Earth Observatory

War of 1812

The English general waited too long. He assumed his commander in New York would deliver on his promises and prevent the British Army from being trapped. When Cornwallis finally tried a breakout, a storm prevented the British ships from evacuating Yorktown and on October 19, 1781, he surrendered.

During the War of 1812, the British were unable to capture the navy yard at Portsmouth as Sir George Collier had done in 1779. The Americans fortified Craney Island, and their cannon and accurate rifle fire stopped a British amphibious assault. In reaction, the British burned Hampton; there were no American fortifications at Point Comfort to protect the town.

The British blockaded the Chesapeake Bay, and the USS Constellation was trapped for the duration of the war at the navy yard on the Elizabeth River. British warships raided the Virginia coastline at will in 1813, seizing supplies and allowing slaves to escape. Some of those freed slaves then joined the Colonial Marines regiment and fought for the British.

The British fleet established a base on Tangier Island and built Fort Albion. In August 1813, the majority of those warships sailed up the Patuxent River in Maryland, forced the destruction of the small flotilla of American barges intended for defense, and landed army troops so they could march westward across Maryland to Washington, DC. General Ross defeated the thin American forces at Bladensburg, then burned the public buildings in the US capital before returning to the ships in the Patuxent River.

At the same time, a squadron of British ships sailed up the Potomac River. The warships were delayed crossing the shallow Kettle Bottom, a series of shoals and oyster bars downstream of the modern Route 360 bridge across the Potomac River. The Potomac River flotilla arrived after British troops had burned Washington and withdrawn. Alexandria officials surrendered with great haste to the British, to avoid having the town bombarded and/or burned. The British seized 21 prize ships, emptied the local warehouses of tobacco, rum, and other goods, and sailed back down the Potomac River to rendezvous with the rest of the fleet.

The return trip was delayed by American cannon and troops who fortified a point downstream of Mount Vernon. The ruins of George William Fairfax's plantation home (Belvoir) were still visible there, but the site was better known for a white-painted house on the shoreline that was used to collect customs duties. The British ships were forced to wait five days for favorable winds before sailing past the American fortifications, and three ship captains were wounded.

The successful resistance at Craney Island and the "Battle of White House Landing" on the banks of the Potomac River were the only times that Virginia's military forces mounted an effective defense during the War of 1812.

The inability to defend the nation's capital in the War of 1812 made clear that a new approach was required. Congress funded the Third System of fortifications and Fort Monroe, built at Point Comfort between 1819-1834, was the prime example of that approach. The Third System was designed to block foreign invasion through masonry forts that could resist a long siege.

Civil War

Foreign invasion was never a factor in the Civil War. No fleets from Britain, France, or Spain sailed into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Potomac River was the scene of the first minor conflicts between Union/Confederate forces during the Civil War. In June, 1861, Union ships shelled Confederates on the shore at Aquia Creek. Confederates retaliated by trying to float underwater mines that would destroy those ships.

After the First Battle of Manassas in July, 1861, Confederates build batteries on the Prince William County shoreline of the Potomac River. The cannon and troops stationed at those batteries created a partial blockade of the Union capital, limiting the ability of ships to bring supplies up the river to Washington DC through the winter of 1861-62. The batteries were abandoned when General McClellan sent forces to the Peninsula to advance on Richmond, and reinforcements were required to block his advance.

since the Confederates lacked a Navy on the Potomac River, they practiced asymmetric warfare and tried to use underwater mines to destroy Union ships
since the Confederates lacked a Navy on the Potomac River, they practiced asymmetric warfare and tried to use underwater mines to destroy Union ships
Source: Frank Leslie's Illustrated History of the Civil War, Infernal Machine Designed By the Confederates to Destroy the Federal Flotilla in the Potomac, Discovered by Captail Budd of the Steamer "Resolute" (p.163)

At Point Comfort, Fort Monroe had been completed in 1834 - almost 90 years after Fort George was destroyed in a hurricane. Rock was dumped on the Rip-Raps shoal and Fort Calhoun constructed at the same time, providing another platform for cannon to control the shipping lanes to Norfolk and Richmond.

During the Civil War, Fort Monroe served as a supply base and hospital for Union troops. (Fort Calhoun was renamed Fort Wool, and stayed in Union hands as well.)

the private company Adams Express routinely delivered packages to Fort Monroe during the Civil War
the private company Adams Express routinely delivered packages to Fort Monroe during the Civil War
Source: Frank Leslie's Illustrated History of the Civil War, Scene In Adams Express Office, At Fortress Monroe, VA, in 1861 — Volunteers Receiving Letters And Packages From Home (p.180)

From the perspective of Virginians who supported the Confederacy, forts built at Point Comfort on land donated by the state, and intended to protect Virginia from invasion, became bases to facilitate invasion - especially during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign.

CSS Virginia, Confederate ironclad designed to keep Union navy out of Hampton Roads in 1862
CSS Virginia, Confederate ironclad designed to keep Union navy out of Hampton Roads in 1862
Source: US Navy, CSS Virginia (1862-1862), ex-USS Merrimack

By capturing Portsmouth and Norfolk, the Yankees forced the Confederates to abandon their last efforts to use the CSS Virginia to control the sea lanes at Hampton Roads. Confederates were forced to abandon the Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth and they destroyed the CSS Virginia ironclad. However, they fortified Drewry's Bluff upstream, and Fort Darling plus sunken ships in the James River blocked the Union navy from sailing up the James River. The US Navy was unable to support General McClellan's army during the Seven Days battle, so fortifications on the shoreline did help protect Richmond from being captured.

in 1862, Confederates were able to block the Union navy from reaching Richmond after the CSS Virginia was destroyed, by fortifying Drewry's Bluff far upstream from Hampton Roads
in 1862, Confederates were able to block the Union navy from reaching Richmond after the CSS Virginia was destroyed,
by fortifying Drewry's Bluff far upstream from Hampton Roads
Map Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), The National Map

Drewry's Bluff
Drewry's Bluff
Source: US Geological Survey, Drewry's Bluff quadrangle

After the destruction of the CSS Virginia, the Confederate Navy offered minimal threat to the US Navy. Fort Monroe's guns were used only for practice until 2011, when the base was finally decommissioned as a part of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process. From the perspective of Virginians who supported the Union, Fort Monroe had succeeded in its mission to protect the United States.

Rip Rap Shoal was converted into Fort Calhoun/Fort Wool, to control Hampton Roads
Rip Rap Shoal was converted into Fort Calhoun/Fort Wool, to control Hampton Roads
Source: Library of Congress, Copy of a map military reconnaissance Dep't Va. (1862)

After the Civil War

The Civil War demonstrated that rifled cannon on warships could destroy masonry forts. Fort Monroe and Fort Wool were not upgraded with new technology until after the Spanish American War, when disappearing guns and new batteries were constructed under the Endicott Plan.

(During World War II, German U-boats were able to penetrate into the main British naval base at Scapa Flow and sink a battleship, but the US Fleet was never attacked at Norfolk. Between 1942-45, German U-boats stayed in the Atlantic Ocean, sinking tankers and other ships within sight of Virginia Beach.)

Once the Atlantic Fleet was based at Norfolk Naval Base, however, enemy access to the Chesapeake Bay has been limited. Creation of an intercontinental ballistic missile defense system in the 1950's completely replaced the concept of blocking warships between Cape Charles-Cape Henry, or at Point Comfort.

The Top Three Key Naval Events Near the Bay

Virginia has always needed some sort of a navy to defend itself from sea-borne attack. Weapons capable of actually blocking entrance into the Chesapeake Bay were not available until World War II. Ships were needed to engage other ships on the water - and the failure to have a defensive naval force until the Spanish-American War left Virginia open to invasion more than once.

Virginia and the United States declined to invest in building and maintaining a standing navy to guard the bay for the first 300 years of European settlement. In the colonial era and during the Confederacy, Virginia assembled the best sailing fleet it could on short notice only after a threat was clearly recognized - and always too late to provide much protection. Just as Powhatan was unable to block the English from sailing up the James River in 1607, Virginians were unable to block the British in the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812, and were unable to block invasion by the Yankees in 1862-65.

Three major sea battles near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay shaped the development of America as a nation:
1) The Battle of the Capes
In 1781, sufficient sea power was finally assembled with the help of France. A victory on the water enabled the Virginians and other rebels to win the battle of Yorktown, establishing the United States of America as an independent nation.
2) Leopard vs. the Chesapeake
American naval unpreparedness in 1807 led to a disaster, when the Leopard captured the Chesapeake and almost triggered a premature war with England. After war actually started in 1812, the British easily sailed up the Chesapeake Bay, capturing Alexandria on the Potomac River and landing the troops that burned Washington, DC on the Patuxent River. No Virginia fort or flotilla gained any military honors. Only one Chesapeake Bay fort managed to block the British - Fort McHenry, where the "bombs bursting in air" over the Chesapeake Bay stirred Francis Scott Key to write the lyrics to what became the national anthem.
3) The Monitor vs. the Virginia (Merrimack)
Technological naval innovation in 1862 almost enabled the Virginians to change the balance of sea power on the Chesapeake Bay - and perhaps win a second rebellion.

First Forts At Point Comfort

Fort Monroe

Fort Wool

Pirates in Virginia

Norfolk Naval Shipyard

Craney Island

Chesapeake Bay on March 24, 2000
Chesapeake Bay on March 24, 2000
Source: NASA Earth Observatory



1. Benjamin Franklin Stevens, The Campaign in Virginia, 1781, London, 1888, p.399, (last checked June 15, 2016)
2. oral interview, James J. Pandapas, July 16, 1997, Virginia Tech Special Collections Department,; "Study: U.S. Nuclear Reactors Vulnerable To Terrorist Attack," Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project (University of Texas), August 14, 2013, (last checked August 20, 2013)
3. John Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles, in University of North Carolina Documenting the American South collection, electronic edition 2006, (last checked August 18, 2013)
4. "Instructions from the Virginia Company of London to the First Settlers (1606)," Encyclopedia of Virginia, (last checked June 20, 2014)
5. "A Remarkable live oak," Remarkable Trees of Virginia and Washington, D.C., (last checked October 13, 2012)
6. Lyon G. Tyler, History of Hampton and Elizabeth City County, Virginia, Board of Supervisors of Elizabeth City County, 1922, p.36, (last checked March 26, 2014)
7. Bruce Linder, Tidewater's Navy: An Illustrated History, Naval Institute Press, 2005, p.10, (last checked January 16, 2015)
8. Selby, John E., The Revolution in Virginia, 1775-1783, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1992, pp. 204-208
9. Selby, The Revolution in Virginia, 1775-1783, pp. 218-221
10. Michael McMillen Decker, "Baron Von Steuben and the military forces in Virginia during the British invasions of 1780-1781," Master's Thesis, University of Richmond, 1979, pp.14-19,; Robert Tonsetic, 1781: The Decisive Year of the Revolutionary War, Casemate Publishers, 2011, pp.44-45, (last checked January 16, 2015)
11. Robert P. Davis, "The Revolutionary War Battle of Petersburg, Virginia," speech presented to the Sons of the Revolution in the Commonwealth of Virginia, April 2003, p.4, (last checked January 16, 2015)
12. "Lafayette's Virginia Campaign (1781)," (last checked January 16, 2015)
13. Robert P. Davis, "The Revolutionary War Battle of Petersburg, Virginia," speech presented to the Sons of the Revolution in the Commonwealth of Virginia, April 2003, p.6, (last checked January 16, 2015)
14. Henry R. Dawson, Battles of the United States, Vol. I, Johnson, Fry, and Company (New York), 1858, pp.687-688,; "James River Search," National Underwater and Marine Agency, June, 1985, (last checked January 16, 2015)

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