at the time of the Revolutionary War, the stretch of water called the "Thoroughfare" separated Craney Island from the mainland
(NOTE: north is to the right)
Source: Library of Congress, Chart showing the depth of the James and York rivers as they enter Chesapeake Bay, with towns adjacent
Until 1938, Craney Island was an island, with enough herons ("cranes") nesting on it in colonial times to suggest where the island got its name. Between the mainland and the island ran the Thoroughfare, a shallow stream that could be crossed on horseback or waded at low tide. In 1813, Craney Island was:1
Craney Island was a mudflat and sandbar, stable enough for vegetation to support nesting herons
Source: Benson J. Lossing, Pictorial Field-Book Of The War Of 1812
Prior to the arrival of English colonists in 1607, Craney Island was occupied by the Chesapeake tribe, but Powhatan eliminated that tribe by 1608.
John Smith did not record Craney Island on his map
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia / discovered and discribed by Captayn John Smith, 1606
During the American Revolution, Craney Island was not fortified. In 1779, the British sailed past the island, captured Fort Nelson on the west bank of the Elizabeth River, then seized all the local ships and tobacco in Portsmouth and destroyed the Gosport Shipyard (today's Norfolk Naval Shipyard). In 1780 General Leslie re-occupied Portsmouth, and in 1781 General Benedict Arnold led British forces through the town again.
Craney Island was not connected to the mainland when French engineers mapped the Yorktown area after Cornwallis's surrender in 1781
Source: Library of Congress, Carte de la partie de la Virginie ou l'armée combinée de France & des États-Unis de l'Amérique a fait prisonnière l'Armée anglaise commandée par Lord Cornwallis le 19 octobre. 1781
After the American Revolution, the now-independent Americans rebuilt Fort Nelson and constructed Fort Norfolk opposite it on the east bank of the river, as part of the "First System" of coastal defense forts. During the War of 1812, Craney Island became a key part of the American's defense of the Gosport Navy Yard at Portsmouth.
A British fleet under Admiral Sir John B. Warren and his subordinate, Admiral Sir George Cockburn, arrived in 1813 to blockage the Chesapeake Bay. They quickly realized there was an opportunity to capture the USS Constellation at the Gosport Navy Yard, and to destroy the American navy yard (as the British had done in 1779, during the American Revolution).
To block the British, the Americans anchored the USS Constellation in the Elizabeth River between the Fort Nelson and Fork Norfolk as a floating battery. After discovering the British planned to send fireships up the river to destroy the US frigate, the Americans moved their ship to the safety of Gosport and built a defensive line further downstream on Craney Island. Guns and personnel from the USS Constellation were moved to Craney Island, to block any British advance up the Elizabeth River.
If the British attacked and overwhelmed the defenses, the Americans recognized that any retreat from their position on Craney Island would be very difficult if not impossible. In a council of war, local military leaders reconsidered their plan and voted to abandon Craney Island. After a 30-year old Army engineer, Walker K. Armistead, voiced his objections, a second council of war reversed the decision and the Americans re-committed to fighting at Craney Island.2
The British managed to get a local pilot to identify the shallow, twisting channel of the Elizabeth River, but knew that their fleet would be exposed to American fire unless the British controlled the shoreline. Because the Americans had fortified Craney Island with cannon and troops, seizure of the Gosport shipyard required capture of Craney Island first.3
The British landed two regiments of troops to the west near Hoffler's Creek on June 22, 1813. The soldiers marched to the Thoroughfare, which separated Craney Island from the mainland, but arrived when tide was too high to wade across. The American artillery shelled the soldiers waiting on the mainland for the tide to change, and that fire forced the British army to retreat.
At the same time, an amphibious assault by British troops on barges was blocked on the east side of the island by American guns, plus shallow mudflats that stranded some of the barges. The American defense at Craney Island saved the USS Constellation and the shipyard, though British naval forces blocked the American warship from sailing into the Chesapeake Bay until peace was declared in 1814.4
Craney Island in 1813, when the Thoroughfare separated the island from the mainland
Source: Benson J. Lossing, Pictorial Field-Book Of The War Of 1812
After the British were blocked at Craney Island, they seized the town of Hampton on the other side of the James River. Former French prisoners, who had been enlisted to fight for the British, demonstrated what undisciplined troops can do to defenseless civilians. An English officer wrote in his diary "Every horror was perpetrated with impunity - rape, murder, pillage - and not a man was punished."
When challenged in a letter from an American officer to explain the behavior, another British officer responded that the American behavior at Craney Island justified what happened at Hampton (a claim the Americans rejected):5
fortifications on Craney Island were allowed to erode after the War of 1812 ended
Source: Benson J. Lossing, Pictorial Field-Book Of The War Of 1812
During the Civil War, Craney Island was fortified again by the Confederates. They seized the navy yard at Gosport, raised the burned hull of the USS Merrimack, and converted that ship the Confederacy's ironclad warship, the CSS Virginia.
before the USS Monitor arrived, the CSS Virginia was able to destroy wooden warships that could not sail away fast enough
Source: Illustrated London News, The Civil War in America: Fight in Hampton Roads between the Federal floating-battery Monitor and the Confederate Iron-Plated Steamer Merrimac (or Virginia) Running into the Federal Sloop Cumberland (April 5, 1862)
On March 9, 1862, early in the 1862 Peninsula Campaign to capture Richmond, the CSS Virginia crew had "two jiggers of whiskey and a hearty breakfast" before fighting the USS Monitor. The CSS Virginia was not the first Confederate ironclad, but the "battle of the ironclads" made it the most-remembered in history.
After the two ironclads fought to a draw, the CSS Virginia steamed past Craney Island and returned back up the Elizabeth River. It remained trapped in Portsmouth by the Union fleet - just as the USS Constellation had been trapped by the British fleet in 1813-14.6
To capture Norfolk in 1862, Union troops landed 6,000 troops at Ocean View. In response, the Confederates abandoned Norfolk and Portsmouth, and burned the Gosport Navy Yard.
Craney Island was an island, separate from the mainland, in 1861
Source: Library of Congress, The key to East Virginia showing the exact relative positions of Fortress Monroe, Rip Raps, Newport News, Sewalls [sic] Point, Norfolk, Gosport Navy Yard and expressing the soundings of every part of Hampton Roads & Elizabeth River
The CSS Virginia planned to break through the Union fleet at Newport News and escape up the James River towards Richmond, but the water depth was too shallow for the ironclad. On May 11, 1862, Confederate captain Josiah Tattnall (who had been involved in the 1813 battle of Craney Island) ordered the CSS Virginia to be run aground near Craney Island. The crew rowed safely to the island while the warship was intentionally destroyed:7
destruction of the CSS Virginia at Craney Island in 1862
Source: Library of Congress, Destruction of the rebel monster "Merrimac" off Craney Island May 11th 1862 (Currier & Ives print)
At the start of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln made clear that the primary war aim was to maintain the union, not to end slavery. When three escaped slaves arrived at Fort Monroe and sought protection, General Benjamin Butler refused to return them to a Virginia slave owner. Under Lincoln's policy, Butler could not declare the escaped slaves to be free, but he was unwilling to return them under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
Instead, Butler categorized the men as "contraband of war," after which hundreds more then arrived at Fort Monroe. Hampton became a nucleus for contrabands, where they lived in small huts, were employed as military laborers, and survived off food from the military and donations from Northern sympathizers.
Butler's replacement, General John A. Dix, tried to move contrabands away from the fort and put them to work on plantations abandoned by Confederate owners. By the start of 1863, over 1,600 freed slaves were living in a refugee camp on Craney Island. The island was small (contemporary accounts describe it as having shrunk by half to 20 acres in size), and the camp was closed in September, 1863.8
between slavery and freedom - contrabands in Virginia
Source: Library of Congress, A group of "contrabands" (1862)
Craney Island was then occupied by the 10th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry. That regiment was raised in Hampton Roads after the Union decided to recruit and arm black soldiers. The 10th Regiment camped on Craney Island only briefly, until moving to the Eastern Shore in January, 1864.9
Craney Island was fortified by the Confederates in 1862
Source: NOAA Office of Coast Survey, Map of Craney Island, Near Norfolk, VA, from the Survey of 1862
Craney Island in 1887
Source: Library of Congress, Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Norfolk, Independent Cities, Virginia (Sanborn Map Company, 1887)
The challenge of shipping troops to France during World War I overwhelmed the Navy's existing shipyards. In 1918, the War Shipping Board built an oil tank farm on Craney Island, and twenty 50,000 gallon tanks were filled with oil brought by railroad. (The oil arrives now via Colonial Pipeline.)10
In 1919, the War Department traded Craney Island to the Public Health Service (then part of the Treasury Department) for use as a quarantine site. The US Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, first built in 1827 on the former site of Fort Nelson south of the island, already served the sailors and workers at the Norfolk Navy Shipyard.
In exchange for Craney Island, the Treasury Department gave Fisherman's Island to the War Department, which had already fortified that island to control access to the Chesapeake Bay.11
In 1938, the Thoroughfare was filled in and Craney Island lost its status as an island.
in 1948, the Thoroughfare had been filled in and Craney Island was no longer an island, but deposition of dredge spoils to the north was just starting
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Norfolk North 7.5x7.5 topographic quad (1948)
In 1942, the 18' deep channel in the Elizabeth River was dredged to 42' deep to improve access to the fuel depot built. That channel probably destroyed any substantial remains of the CSS Virginia that might have survived previous salvage efforts and souvenier collecting, but some small historic fragments may still lie underwater near the Craney Island Fuel Terminal piers.12
by 1941, Craney Island was identified as the dumping site for dredge spoils created by deepening the Elizabeth River channel
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Newport News 1:62,500 topographic quadrangle (1941)
Since the 1950's, Craney Island has been expanded far to the north and west in order to serve as a dredge spoil site. The Craney Island Dredged Material Management Area is now being expanded to the east, and a new terminal to handle containerized cargo is planned for that location.
dredging the shipping channels - and disposing of the muck - is essential to maintaining the Port of Virginia and private terminals along the Elizabeth and James rivers
Source: Virginia Maritime Association, Full Potential
In the meantime, Craney Island serves as a graveyard for whales. In 2014 a 45-foot long sei whale died in the Elizabeth River, perhaps because it had swallowed a 3x5 inch piece of plastic that blocked digestion and perhaps because the whale had been struck by a ship. After towing the carcass to Craney Island and completing a necropsy on the beach, personnel from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center dug a hole for the remains close to where a fin whale had been buried in 2007.13
Craney Island, on the west side of the Elizabeth River in Hampton Roads, has been dramatically transformed since this 1902 map
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Norfolk 30x30 Grid topographic map (1902)
Craney Island in 1892, before conversion to dredge spoil site
Source: Library of Congress, Panorama of Norfolk and surroundings 1892
French engineers who came to Yorktown in 1781 noted that Craney Island was separated from the mainland
Source: Library of Congress, Campagne en Virginie du Major Général M'is de LaFayette : ou se trouvent les camps et marches, ainsy que ceux du Lieutenant Général Lord Cornwallis en 1781
1. Bruce Linder, Tidewater's Navy: An Illustrated History, Naval Institute Press, 2005, p.41, http://books.google.com/books?id=awYJ7aSWNWsC; Benson J. Lossing, "Predatory Warfare Of The British On The Coast," Pictorial Field-Book Of The War Of 1812, pp.675-678, https://archive.org/details/fieldbookswar181200lossrich (last checked March 22, 2014)
2. 3. William S. Dudley (ed.), "Rear Admiral George Cockburn, R.N., to Admiral Sir John B. Warren, R.N.." March 23, 1813, in The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History, American Naval Records Society, pp.326-327, http://www.ibiblio.org/anrs/docs/E/E3/dh_1812_v02.pdf; William Maxwell, The Virginia Historical Register and Literary Advertiser, Vol. I, No. III (July 1848), p.132, https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=xkUUAAAAYAAJ (last checked March 25, 2014)
4. Bruce Linder, Tidewater's Navy: An Illustrated History, p.85 (last checked March 22, 2014)
5. Parke Rouse, Jr., "The British Invasion of Hampton in 1813: The Reminiscences of James Jarvis," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 76, No. 3 (July, 1968),p.319, pp.330-331, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4247407 (last checked March 26 2014)
6. "Roots," Norfolk Naval Shipyard, US Navy, http://www.navsea.navy.mil/shipyards/norfolk/History/Roots.aspx; "The Attack on the Federal Fleet," The National Republican (Washington, D.C.), October 22, 1861, Page 2, in "Chronicling America," Library of Congress, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014760/1861-10-22/ed-1/seq-2/#date1=1861 (last checked March 15, 2015)
7. "Merrimack (U.S.S.)," National Underwater and Marine Agency, September 1982, http://www.numa.net/expeditions/merrimack-u-s-s/ (last checked March 22, 2014)
8. "The Contrabands at Craney Island--Their Labors, Their Hopes and Prospects--Deaths, &c.." The New York Times, February 16, 1863, http://www.nytimes.com/1863/02/16/news/fortress-monroe-contrabands-craney-island-their-labors-their-hopes-prospects.html; Gary W. Gallagher, The Richmond Campaign of 1862: The Peninsula and the Seven Days, UNC Press Books, 2000, p.140, http://books.google.com/books?id=5neZUIQoDWEC; "Lucy Chase to Major General John A. Dix, Commanding Department of Virginia, Craney Island, VA," January 19, 1863, posted onine in Through a Glass Darkly: Images of Race, Region, and Reform, An American Antiquarian Society Online Exhibition, http://faculty.assumption.edu/aas/Manuscripts/Chase/01-19-1863.html; (last checked March 26, 2014)
9. "10th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry," National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/civilwar/search-regiments-detail.htm?regiment_id=UUS0010RI00C (last checked March 26, 2014)
10. "Finally, 1813 battle gets some respect," The Virginian-Pilot, June 24, 2008, http://hamptonroads.com/2008/06/finally-1813-battle-gets-some-respect (last checked March 24, 2014)
11. "An Act Transferring the tract of land known as Craney Island from the jurisdiction of the War Department to the jurisdiction of the Treasury Department and transferring the tract of land known as Fishermans Island from the jurisdiction of the Treasury Department to the jurisdiction of the War Department," US Congress, P.L. 66-87 (41 Stat. 358), November 19, 1919
12. "Maintenance of Chesapeake Bay Entrance Channels and use of sand borrow areas for beach nourishment," National Marine Fisheries Service Endangered Species Act Biological Opinion, October 16, 2012, pp.8-9, http://www.nero.noaa.gov/prot_res/section7/ACOE-signedBOs/BioPChesapeake%20Bay101612.pdf (last checked March 22, 2014)
13. "Dead whale likely struck by ship, necropsy shows," The Virginian-Pilot, August 23, 2014, http://hamptonroads.com/node/726413; "How do you haul a whale carcass? Make it a balloon," The Virginian-Pilot, August 22, 2014, http://hamptonroads.com/node/726278 (last checked August 23, 2014)
Craney Island in 1861, before dumping of dredge spoil converted the island into a rectanglar peninsula attached to the west bank of the Elizabeth River
Source: Library of Congress, Outline map of Hampton Roads, and the vicinity of Norfolk, Va.