In the early 1800’s, the British and French were involved in a protracted war known as the Napoleonic wars. The United States declared its neutrality and attempted to trade freely with all of the belligerent parties. This angered both the British and French who attempted by various means to interfere with US trade and the rights of US citizens.
Finally on June 18 1812 at the request of President James Madison, Congress declared war on Britain. The stated reason for the war was to force Britain to respect U. S. sovereignty but a significant objective of the War Hawks in Congress was to annex all or a portion of Canada.
The War was fought at sea, along the Canadian border, on the western frontier, and in the Chesapeake. Virginia troops served in Virginia, in the Canadian campaign, the defense of Baltimore and elsewhere.
Thirty one months elapsed between the declaration of war and the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent. For twenty four of those months, a substantial British naval force blockaded and occupied the Chesapeake Bay. Although all counties bordering the Bay and the navigable portions of the Potomac, Rappahannock, York and James rivers were affected, the most significant economic losses occurred in the Northern Neck counties of Northumberland and Westmoreland and in Accomack County on the Eastern Shore.
The British objective in the Chesapeake Bay was to: 1. cripple the American economy by destroying American merchant shipping, 2. protect British commercial vessels from attack by American naval vessels and the numerous privateers sailing out of Baltimore, and 3. divert American troops from the Canadian border to the Chesapeake
Virginia was defended almost entirely by a part time local militia which was poorly trained, armed, and equipped. Although greatly outnumbering the British, they were disbursed throughout the Chesapeake region and could not be quickly gathered in sufficient force to match the size of British landing parties. The Bay and rivers were the highways and the British controlled them. The British never had more than 3,000 troops available to attack Virginia targets.
In 15 instances the British landed between 500 and 3,000 troops to battle the militia. In only one engagement, Craney Island, did the militia prevent the British from accomplishing their goal. In addition there were numerous landings by small groups to procure water, meat and other supplies. Occasionally these landings resulted in skirmishes with the militia but frequently the British landed and departed before the militia could gather in sufficient force to oppose them. There are no reliable overall casualty figures for these engagements but due to the high number of British casualties at the battles at Craney Island and Hampton, it would appear that the British losses exceeded that of the Americans. The British also reported over 300 desertions in the Chesapeake area, but it was probably considerably higher.
In ship to ship encounters involving a British Naval vessel, the British invariably won. The British captured or destroyed several hundred commercial vessels plus several dozen armed privateers and naval vessels.
The British encouraged, assisted, and provided refuge to escaping slaves. After the War, Virginians claimed that over 3,000 slaves were taken by or made their way to the British during the war. Most of these ex-slaves were resettled in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Bermuda or the islands of the West Indies.
Source: Encounters with the British in Virginia During the War of 1812 by Myron (Mike) E. Lyman, Sr. and William W. Hankins, published byThe Society of the War of 1812 in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Copyright 2008-2009 by The Society of the War of 1812 in the Commonwealth of Virginia.