War of 1812

USS Chesapeake
The USS Chesapeake was built in Gosport (Norfolk) Navy Yard, and later captured by the HMS Shannon after sailing from Boston in 1813. Here she is depicted flying a banner proclaiming “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights,” a political slogan that encapsulated the meaning of the War of 1812 for many Americans.

Library of Congress


Lessons Learned: Fort Monroe and the War of 1812

When hostilities broke out between Americans and British in 1812, the strategic importance of Point Comfort, at the mouths of the James and Elizabeth rivers had been known for almost two hundred years. Yet the deep natural harbor at Hampton Roads remained largely undefended and the United States paid dearly for leaving the Chesapeake Bay and its Atlantic coastline vulnerable during the War of 1812. Searing memories of enemy invasions steeled America's resolve for stronger coastal defenses after the war ended in 1815. Fort Monroe is the first and largest of an extensive system of massive coastal fortifications constructed, according to President James Madison, as the "best security for continuance of the peace."

Congress appropriated funds to construct a lighthouse at Point Comfort in 1801 and the 54-foot beacon had been operating for nearly a decade when, on June 1, 1812, President Madison sent his "war message" to Congress outlining American grievances against Great Britain. The British response to several spectacular American victories on the high seas early in the war was to blockade the Delaware and Chesapeake bays in February 1813 and seize the Point Comfort light soon after that.

A Royal Navy flotilla, commanded by Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn, sailed through the Virginia Capes into the Chesapeake that spring, burning and looting the countryside. Americans reviled Cockburn for destroying Havre de Grace, Maryland, more than 200 miles north of Hampton. First Lady Dolley Madison summarized the fears of residents from up and down the Chesapeake about invasion and decried the "savage stile [style] of warfare."

By June, the British had turned their sights on the Gosport navy yard, an important shipbuilding site near Norfolk where the USS Chesapeake, one of the Navy's first frigates, had been launched in 1799. American forces placed defenses at Craney Island, near the mouth of the Elizabeth River, and together with the devastatingly accurate gunners of the USS Constellation, successfully repelled the British assault on June 22, 1813. Three days after their defeat, British forces sailed across Hampton Roads and took vengeance on Hampton, burning it to the ground and according to a British officer, committing "every horror" that also went unpunished.

The British went on to attack Washington, D.C. in August, 1814, burning the White House and the Capitol and underscoring the vulnerabilities of the American coastline. After the war President James Monroe and Congress created a plan to protect coastal cities, including the nation's capital, with a comprehensive "Third System" of coastal fortifications. Construction of Fort Monroe, the first and largest of these Third System forts, began at Old Point Comfort in 1819.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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