Two centuries after prowling into Hampton Roads, the size and power of the British fleet sent to punish the Chesapeake Bay region during the War of 1812 can be hard to imagine.
Just one of the Royal Navy's massive ships of the line boasted 74 guns, giving it more firepower than all the American gun batteries defending the Elizabeth River. At its peak this lethal armada could muster nearly a dozen of these multi-decked behemoths as well as scores of frigates, sloops and smaller ships totaling nearly 100 vessels.
Little wonder that any hope of resistance by the American fleet of some 20 small gunboats and the 38-gun frigate Constellation — which the British bottled up in Norfolk not long after arriving in February 1813 — seemed futile.
But those long odds didn't stop its commanders from seizing the chance to strike when they saw it.
Becalmed off Newport News Point, the 38-gun frigate HMS Junon made a perfect target for the mosquito fleet of 15 gunboats that slipped out of the Elizabeth River under the cover of darkness on the night of June 19, 1813.
Powered by oars, the little vessels inched their way through a Hampton Roads squall and formed a crescent around their oblivious target, the American commander later reported. Then they began firing with such ferocity that they might have won the day had the surprised Junon and two other nearby sister frigates remained becalmed.
"The American captains took their lead from the British — which was to be aggressive — and they were," says historian Gordon B. Calhoun of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in Norfolk.
"They saw the Junon as a target of opportunity — and if wind had stayed calm they would have kept fighting and possibly tried to board it."
Few American sailors who took part in the attack had any illusions about the strength of their relatively small vessels.
Modeled by President Thomas Jefferson after the North African gunboats that had captured the grounded U.S. frigate Philadelphia off Tripoli in 1803, these shoal-draft coastal craft averaged about 65 feet in length and mounted two to three guns.
Driven by oars as well as sail, they could maneuver in calms that left other vessels stranded. But even the best of them — including an early example designed by Hampton sailor Capt. James Barron and built at a Hampton shipyard in 1804 — were no substitute for the famous American frigates that Jefferson began to mothball at the same time.
"The idea was that any farmer or militiamen could get into one of these gunboats and fight effectively on the water," Calhoun says.
"But in reality they were only effective if they could take the enemy by surprise and attack in a swarm — and even then they were taking their chances when they went up against larger targets."
So poorly regarded were Jefferson's so-called "Bulldogs" that many of Norfolk's militia defenders refused to serve aboard the suspect vessels.
But after the pursuing British fleet forced the Constellation to seek refuge in the Elizabeth River behind Forts Norfolk and Nelson, many of its officers and men were reassigned to stiffen these crews, giving them a naval experience and skill that had been absent.
So confident was Gosport Navy Yard Commandant John Cassin on June 18 that he ordered 15 gunboats out of the river past Craney Island, where they quickly drove off a flotilla of British attack barges that threatened two American sloops and a schooner.
And when the becalmed Junon became separated from its companions by nearly a mile the next day, Cassin dispatched the Constellation's new commander — Capt. Joseph Tarbell — to cross Hampton Roads with 15 gunboats and attack the isolated target.
"Everyone was impatient to know how Mr. Jefferson's bulldogs would acquit themselves," the Richmond Enquirer reported, "and whether the Philosopher's system would prove, upon trial, to be a monument of his wisdom or his folly."
A surprise attack
Split into two divisions, the gunboats struggled with squalls as they rowed, adding hours to their journey.
Not until early the next morning did they come within 3/4 of a mile of their unsuspecting quarry, at which point Tarbell gave the command to fire.
That concentrated barrage hulled the stricken vessel four times and left its officers and crew reeling.
"No one expected the Americans to attack — and the Junon was caught completely by surprise," says former Virginia War Museum Director John V. Quarstein.
"The British don't see the gunboats until they are almost right on top of them."
Struggling to defend itself, the Junon slipped its cables and attempted to sail away from its attackers. But in the calm it couldn't even maneuver to return what one report described as the gunboats' "growling fire."
Not long after the engagement started, however, the wind returned, turning the tables and giving the frigate and its distant but fast-approaching companion ships a growing advantage.
Still, the outgunned mosquito fleet fought back for more than an hour, during which one American whose boat was hit three times counted "six or seven hundred shot" from the enemy guns. On board Gunboat #139, a master's mate from the Constellation was killed by a cannon ball, while several other boats later reported wounded men as well as damaged oars and rigging.
So thunderous was the sound of the pre-dawn battle that, according to newspaper accounts, Norfolk residents hurried down to Lambert's and Sewells Points to watch.
"The navy men on those gunboats made all the difference with their experience and training," says Maryland historian Christopher T. George, author of "Terror on the Chesapeake: The War of 1812 on the Bay" and editor of the Journal of the War of 1812.
"These guys knew what they were doing. They performed valiantly. And that gave extra steel to the militia."
Escape across the shoals
By the time Tarbell broke off the failing attack about 6 a.m., his gunners had killed at least one Royal Marine and wounded several British sailors. Some 70 causalities were later reported by American newspapers.
In addition to its shot-pocked hull, the Junon's sails and rigging were cut up, too, adding to Capt. James Sanders' problems as he attempted to chase the swarm of gunboats fleeing back to Craney Island.
Not long afterward, he dropped his pursuit because of his uncertainty over the shoals that might ground his 19-foot-deep ship — but across which the Americans scurried with no problems.
"The gunboats probably performed better than they should have — but they were no match for the British frigates," Calhoun says.
"What they did show was that the American forces in Norfolk — unlike a lot of others across the bay — were ready to stand up and defend themselves."
Find more stories about Hampton Roads history at dailypress.com/history and Facebook.com/hrhistory.
The War of 1812 in Hampton Roads
Previously: War comes to Hampton Roads
June 12: A bloody battle on the York
Today: Gunboats attack off Newport News
Coming up: An American surprise at Craney Island
British raiders pillage Hampton
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