While not nearly as prominent as it was in the American Revolution, Yorktown had its moment in history during the War of 1812.

By 1813 the British had the Chesapeake Bay bottled up with 300 warships compared with only seven by the United States. But we also had 14 small schooners known as revenue cutters, one each for 13 ports of call along the East Coast and two for the Chesapeake Bay.

The cutter Surveyor came under attack on June 12 as she lay near where the Coleman Bridge is anchored at Yorktown today. Some 50 British sailors boarded her one rainy night from the frigate Narcissus. They approached by rowboat with muffled oars, jumping on at the bow and stern to avoid the cannon guns on the gunwales. Capt. Samuel Travis gave his men two muskets each, and “then with a whoop the curter men cut loose their muskets and stood by to repel boarders,” according to the official history of the Revenue Cutter Service.

In a modern reenactment of the Surveyor’s defense that night, three columns of adults at the Watermen’s Museum stood ready with swords, pikes and rifles to take on the British.

Alas, the British overwhelmed Travis’s 15 men in a short battle that led to their surrender after several were injured on both sides and three Brits died. The British commander was so impressed with the bravery of the Americans that he returned the surrendered sword to Capt. Travis. The Surveyor disappeared into the British fleet as a prize, and her fate remains unknown. The Revenue Cutter Service evolved into the US Coast Guard, and the Yorktown Training Center lies a few thousand yards downriver from the noble battle.

  • Adapted from “York River Stewardship: The History of the Watermen and Life along the Shores of the York,” by Michael Steen, director of programs for the Watermen’s Museum, Christopher Wren Association, Oct. 19, 2015.

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