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Attack on the Battery at Chesconessex Creek

Updated: Dec 10, 2023

Unit/ Formation: Colonial Marines

Location: Chesconessex Creek

Period/ Conflict: War of 1812

Year: 1814

Date/s: 24 June 1814

A force of 50 Colonial Marines and 180 Royal Marines attacked the battery at Chesconessex Creek on 24 June 1814, two days before the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla escaped from St. Leonard's Creek.

On June 25 1814, Lieutenant James Scott led a British raid against the battery position commanded by Captain John G. Joynes at Chesconessex Creek in Virginia. The raiding party was guided by a former slave of Captain Joynes, and included about fifty runaway slaves, who had taken up arms against their former masters, and formed part of the Colonial Marines.

These units had been formed by Rear Admiral George Cochrane from runaway slaves who had found their way to British lines as a result of Cochrane’s proclamation of April 2 1814.

The proclamation did not mention slavery or slaves, but was worded so as to encourage slaves to leave their masters and fight with the British. Alternatively, the former slaves could become settlers in the “British possessions in North America or the West Indies.”

Alan Taylor, in his excellent The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832, writes about the June 25th raid.

LIEUTENANT JAMES SCOTT and Captain John G. Joynes were ambitious young officers at military odds. Devoted to the empire, Scott became Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn’s protégé on his flagship HMS Albion, while Joynes was a planter in the Accomack County militia on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Where Scott meant to rise through the ranks of a hierarchical and professional military service, Joynes was a fiery Republican who defied the dominant Federalists of his county in both elections and the militia. Scott and Joynes developed a fierce rivalry during the British raids on the exposed farms and militia batteries of Accomack County.

Visiting HMS Albion, under a flag of truce, Joynes confronted Scott to denounce his nocturnal raiding: “tarnation seize me in the bramble-bush of damnation if I don’t blow you to hell if you put your foot within a mile of my command. . . . I would give you such a whipping as would cure you from rambling a-night, like a particular G[o]d d[amne]d tom-cat.”

Fired up by the challenge, Scott secured Cockburn’s permission to attack Joynes’s battery at Chesconessex Creek in a raid guided by one of his former slaves and conducted by other runaways who had become Colonial Marines in the British service.

At dawn on June 25, 1814, the raiders captured the battery as Joynes fled, leaving behind his cherished sword, feathered hat, and uniform coat. Scott kept the sword but gave the clothing to “a serjeant of the Black Marines.” In an angry letter to Scott, Joynes denounced “the dishonor I had put upon him by making over his military attire, cocked-hat, sky-scraper feathers and all, and allowing them to be worn by a ‘G[o]d d[amne]d black nigger.’” Serving as guides and marines, the runaways enabled the British to wage a war intended to embarrass as well as to defeat the Virginians.

As they recruited more runaways, the British had to increase their shore raids to obtain more livestock and provisions to feed the fugitives. Thanks to the local expertise of the former slaves, those raids could push deeper into the forested countryside. Black guides and fighters steered the raiding parties around militia ambushes to find hidden herds and secluded farms. The runaways naturally led the raids to the places they knew best: their former neighborhoods, where they could retrieve kin and plunder their former masters. By aggressively recruiting runaways, the British could escalate their war in the Chesapeake during the campaign of 1814.

The naval officers sought to punish their foes for deploying torpedoes and snipers and for looting and burning villages in Canada, where the British commander called for revenge on the American coast. Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane agreed: “Their Sea Port Towns laid in Ashes & the Country wasted will be some sort of retaliation for their savage Conduct in Canada.”

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Further Reading/ References:

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