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Dolphin’s courageous stand honored 200 years after battle

Posted on Monday, December 9, 2013 at 9:18 am

A historical highway marker that was unveiled yesterday in Lancaster County drew attention to the courageous stand of one American privateer during one of the largest naval battles in Virginia waters in the War of 1812.

The unveiling ceremony for the marker “Capture of the Dolphin” took place Tuesday, Dec. 3 just off of Route 3 at Willaby’s Café in White Stone. Historian Stuart Butler, County Supervisors Wally Beauchamp and Butch Jenkins, County Administrator Frank Pleva and Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert L. Cunningham were among the featured speakers at the ceremony.

According to the text of the marker, the naval engagement occurred on April 3, 1813 at the mouth of the Corrotoman River in Lancaster County where a British cutting out party of 105 naval and marine forces under Lieutenant James Polkinghorne managed to capture four American privateers, but not without fierce resistance.

Based on information shared by Kathy Schuder, Executive Director of the Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Society, the British vessels sighted and chased the armed American schooners, which sought safety by moving up the Rappahannock River. Because the British had difficulty rowing up the Rappahannock during the descent, several boats fell behind, leaving only five British vessels to make the attack.

According to Craig Kilby and Retired U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Myron “Mike” Lyman, Sr., the battle involving the four ships began when the 161-ton Dolphin spotted an American clipper six miles away at Mosquito Point and, under the command of Captain W.J. Stafford, sailed downstream to offer assistance. But they discovered too late that the clipper was the British prize ship known as the Highflyer, and that it was leading the British vessels toward them. Before returning to the Corrotoman, Stafford fired off a cannon round, the first shot fired in the waters of the Northern Neck according to Kilby and Lyman.

The four American vessels formed a line across the Corrotoman and prepared for battle against the enemy forces that were headed their way. There are conflicting perspectives on what happened next.

In his 1899 publication A history of American privateers, Edgar Stanton Maclay wrote that the first captured schooner, the Arab, struggled desperately against the British forces, but soon surrendered with losses on both sides. He added that the crew of the second ship, the Lynx, hauled down their colors after “observing the fate of the Arab and seeing that resistance was hopeless,” with the third privateer, the Racer, following suit after a very brief skirmish.

But according to Kilby and Lyman, the Arab, instead of fighting back, deliberately ran ashore and all but three of the 39-men crew made their escape.

The Dolphin was the last of the four schooners to fall into British hands during the battle. With 100 men and 12 guns, Captain W.J. Stafford had refused to surrender despite the other three vessels’ capture.

“In consequence of the above cowardly conduct of [Captain D. Fitch of the Arab], and in order to be acquainted with the intention of my crew I…

-To read the full story, pick up a copy of the December 4 issue of the Northern Neck News, on stands now!