Chesapeake at War

Chesapeake at War

Today, the 200-mile long Chesapeake Bay is a destination for seafood lovers, boaters, outdoor buffs and those drawn to the relaxed coastal lifestyle. Known for its oysters and blue crabs, the country’s largest estuary is also home to generations of watermen.

But in 1812, the Chesapeake Bay was swarming with British warships, and coastal communities lived in fear of violence. Although many War of 1812 battles were fought along the US-Canada border, the Chesapeake region experienced more enemy raids than any other part of the country. The British Royal Navy needed food and supplies, and the Chesapeake region’s thriving farms were ripe for picking. The British also had their eye on nearby Washington, DC, and on the port of Baltimore, home to many of the American privateers who preyed on British merchant ships.

More than 4,000 British troops landed and encamped at Benedict, Maryland, on August 19 and 20, 1814, to prepare for an invasion of Washington, DC. ©Gerry Embleton

For two years—from February 1813 to 1815—the British blockaded the Bay, disrupting trade and devastating the region’s economy. The Royal Navy tormented the entire length of the Bay—from Norfolk, Virginia, to the mouth of the Susquehanna River near Pennsylvania—and used Tangier Island, Virginia, as their principal base of operations. On land, British troops raided coastal towns, often leaving them burnt and looted.

Americans fought to protect their communities, and in some cases succeeded at holding off British attacks. But the loss of life and property shaped the Chesapeake Bay region for decades to come.

  • Visit the Glossary for definitions of military and historical terms of the period.
  • The Bay’s central location on the eastern seaboard, network of navigable waterways, robust natural resources, and fertile agricultural lands made it a prime target for the British in the War of 1812. This region suffered more raids, skirmishes, and battles than any other theater in the War of 1812. View a series of maps showing how wartime actions escalated in the Bay region: 1807-12, 1813, 1814, and 1815.

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