Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Williamsburg author revisits War of 1812 in debut book

Chris Bonin. (WYDaily/Courtesy Chris Bonin)
Local author Chris Bonin is releasing his debut book this summer. (WYDaily/Courtesy Chris Bonin)

A Williamsburg resident is looking forward to the release of his debut book about local involvement in a national war.

Virginia in the War of 1812,” by Chris M. Bonin, 41, comes out July 9 and is available for preorder now. He also hopes to see it in the local authors section of Barnes & Noble.

Bonin said the war is often neglected by scholars and the public, and he will be doing a “state-level study” of Virginia’s participation in the bloody conflict.

“We don’t examine the war as much as we should,” Bonin said. “As a historian I frequently ask the question of ‘How did we get to this point in time and was it always like this?’” adding he’s often told the country is more divided now than at any time since the Civil War.

Bonin said the country’s course was forever altered by the War of 1812 — and Virginia’s future was impacted more than most other states.

At the outset of the war, Virginia was in the midst of a presidential dynasty, as three of the first four U.S. presidents were Virginia natives. James Monroe would also be elected in 1816, but Virginia’s hegemony began to slide, Bonin said.

The cover of Bonin's book. (WYDaily/ Courtesy Amazon)
The cover of Bonin’s book. (WYDaily/ Courtesy Amazon)

The commonwealth had been a prominent player in national politics, and while the state would send three more men to the oval office in the next century after Monroe, political power began to slide north. Ideas of secession also manifested in the War of 1812, leading to an eventual Civil War decades later, Bonin said.

His roughly 200-page, 71,000-word book explores Virginia’s participation in the war, which was mostly limited to Hampton Roads and the Chesapeake Bay, as well as the caputuring of Alexandria.

“The British, with the strength of the Royal Navy — and without Fort Monroe — they were able to sit in Chesapeake Bay for two years,” Bonin said. “They were able to raid wherever they wanted up the two rivers.”

As a result, Bonin said few areas of Tidewater Virginia were ever safe from the threat of British forces.

Virginia’s defensive force was composed of a militia, as the U.S. Army was rather small at the time and totaled about 20,000 men nationwide.

While about 65,000 Virginia overall served in the militia, the commonwealth’s forces never topped 10,000 in service at any one time.

“They certainly did not have the same abilities as regular troops,” Bonin said. “They would not get together and drill constantly, and quite a few men resented being called up and being sent away [to war].”

This militia was the last line of defense for Virginia, and they squared off against a well-trained and mobile enemy who could land troops behind their lines.

Virginia troops also faced an age-old opponent: disease. Much of the militia was stationed in Norfolk, which was plagued by malaria. Up to a third of the Virginia militia was on the sick list at points throughout the war.

“It was definitely not a comfortable, healthy spot, and disease could just decimate someone’s command,” Bonin said.

Norfolk was attacked by more than 8,000 British troops in the 1813 Battle of Craney Island. The British were peppered with artillery, suffering eight casualties before turning around.

Forces from York County made up the bulk of the defenses in the Battle of Hampton, which was attacked and pillaged by the British days later.

“They landed in Hampton and, after defeating the York County militia, they destroyed the town of Hampton and committed quite a few atrocities,” Bonin said.

Altogether there were 27 skirmishes in Virginia, as well as three battles and 11 raids.

Bonin said he wrote his master’s thesis on the War of 1812 at the University of Nebraska at Kearney in 2016 and is hoping to find a wider audience with his book.

“It’s an often overlooked period of our history but spending a little time with it offers quite a few insights and rewards,” Bonin said.

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