Battle of Craney Island mural comes to life

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Story by Max Lonzanida on 10/08/2018
Craney Island lies at the mouth of the Elizabeth River, across from Lamberts Point in the Hampton Roads Area. The facility is utilized by the US Army Corps of Engineer's Norfolk Disrict to deposit dredged material, and it's also used by the US Navy as a fueling depot. Habitat restoration efforts have thrived aboard the facility, and today it's also considered a birding hotspot via the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's E-Bird program. According to the Virginia Society of Ornithology, a recent field trip just prior to fall migration netted sightings of Great Egrets, Red Shouldered Hawks, Sanderlings, Mallards, and European Starlings. The group also spotted common species of gulls, including Herring Gulls and Laughing Gulls; all of which call the facility home during part of the year. The facility was also the scene for the Battle of Craney Island, which took place on June 22, 1813. The battle pitted US forces defending the area against a numerically superior British force. The resulting defeat of the invading British forces was no laughing matter.

The Battle took place on June 22, 1813 during the War of 1812. British forces had blockaded the Chesapeake Bay, and had anchored off of Craney island intending to capture the Frigate, USS Constellation. The Constellation was anchored to a position opposite of Fort Norfolk; however she supplied sailors and marines to augment the defenses.

The Constellation was one of the original six frigates authorized by the Naval Act of 1794; passed by the third US Congress and signed into law by our nation's first President, George Washington. The act itself allowed for the construction of the first ships to become part of the US Navy, at a cost of just over 600,000 dollars. In 1813, British forces intended to lay waste to the shipyard and continue to neutralize American outposts. British forces succeeded in blockading the Constellation at Gosport Navy Yard; thus preventing the frigate from totaling offensive action. Records indicate that in October 1812, with hostilities imminent, Gosport Navy Yard provided considerable amounts of timber, lumber, and munitions of war to the Army in an effort to augment shore based fortifications in the area. By 1813, defenders at Craney Island consisted a blockading force of gunboats, US Sailors and US Marines from the USS Constellation (along with cannons from the Frigate) augmented by ground forces from the Virginia Militia and shore batteries consisting of 18 pounder and 26 pounder cannons; all totaling a little over 700 men.

Visitors to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum often stop to get a glimpse of the 18-pounder naval gun that is on display in the gallery. The naval gun is one of a few surviving examples of an 18-pounder naval gun used during the war. It often draws the attention of visitors with a loud and thunderous boom as visitors walk by. The sound is generated by a motion activated switch that adds a nice sound element to the display. The naval gun weighs in at 4,700 pounds, is mounted on a carriage, and during the Battle of Craney Island on June 22, 1813; it made multiple booms as multiple rounds were launched towards British Forces coming ashore.

On June 22, 1813, an overwhelming force of over 2,000 British Soldiers, Royal Marines, Royal Navy Sailors and French Prisoners attacked on that day. The invading force was quickly overcome by obstacles such as dense brush and high water which impeded the advance of invading barges filled with British combatants. The invading barges, were also met with accurate cannon fire by shore batteries, using grape and canister shot; forcing the British forces to retreat. Reports vary by sources but point to 80 British casualties while the defending forces did not suffer any casualties in a clear victory for the US defenders.

The above is what is recorded in history, which is applicable if one is to present mere facts. Those facts in a history book were brought to life during Museum Day on Saturday, October 6, 2018. The event was organized and coordinated by the non-profit Old Town Business Association, and sought to encourage visitors to enjoy the historical and popular venues in the City of Portsmouth. The association's director, Audrey Lassiter, indicated that the event was funded in part by a grant received from the Virginia Tourism Commission.

While museum day brought visitors to popular attractions in Portsmouth, such as the Portsmouth Children's Museum, Lightship Museum, and local vendors touting crafts; the event also brought out a unique living history display. Members of the non-profit Fort Norfolk and Frigate Constellation were out in front of the mural to breathe life into some of the aspects in the mural. The group, under the leadership of Matthew Krogh, had several historical re-enactors dressed in period specific uniform, and gladly touted the history of the battle to visitors who stopped by. Their display included a period specific canvas tent, a swivel gun, muskets, clothing, and other articles that brought a sense of authenticity. Also taking part in the living history event was Clay Farrington, the Historian at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. Farrington, along with Krogh, were able to shed some light to the once forgotten engagement. Many curious visitors, including high school students from Woodrow Wilson High School, stopped by because they saw the encampment in front of the large mural which depicted the battle and were delighted to see, hear, and touch some of the period specific articles on display.

A few weeks prior to the event, another organization, the Portsmouth Heritage Initiative, commissioned a huge mural which depicted the Battle of Craney Island. Sam Welty and an associate, Shah, spent a few days transforming and entire side of a two story building at the Breeden Company's Montgomery Square Building at the 700 Block of High Street. The wall was once painted a neutral color, and the painting of the mural proved that walls don't have to be plain; and also brought art to the public. A previous mural, which depicted the same engagement, was located at historic Cedar Grove Cemetery; which is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. However, that mural was damaged in 2016 after the wall that depicted it collapsed during a hurricane. This particular mural brought to life the once forgotten clash and showcases the rich history found within the City of Portsmouth.

About the Museum:

The Hampton Roads Naval Museum is one of ten Navy museums that are operated by the Naval History & Heritage Command. It celebrates the long history of the U.S. Navy in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia and is co-located with Nauticus in downtown Norfolk, Virginia. Admission to the museum is free, simply by-pass the ticket line and take the stairs or elevator to the museum on the second deck. The museum hosts a robust educational program for area schools and commands, with free educational programs to area schools aligned with state curriculum standards, a travelling sea chest program, a premier Lego outreach program, and historical presentations for area commands. To inquire, contact their Educational Director, Laura Orr at Laura.L.Orr@navy.mil or at (757) 322-3018. The museum is also host to a robust volunteer corps, who serve as docents, support special events, and assist in museum archives. To inquire, contact their Volunteer Coordinator, Darcy Sink at Darcy.Sink@navy.mil or at (757) 322-2992. Lastly the museum proudly hosts military ceremonies, such as re-enlistments, retirements, and promotions for area commands aboard the U.S.S Wisconsin and in the museum's gallery. To inquire, contact their special events coordinator, Tom Dandes at Thomas.Dandes@navy.mil or call (757) 322-3106.


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