THE only phase of the Revolutionary War in Virginia in which the few open loyalists played any active pare was in the struggle around Norfolk in the closing weeks of 1775. That any residents of the colony dared side with England was solely on account of Dunmore's presence at Norfolk with a small fleet of men-of-war and a handful of British regulars. His active supporters in the colony were confined to the mercantile class, shippers and their clerks and dependents - the same class that supported British authority in all the colonies because it saw that war with England meant commercial ruin. Fortunately for the patriots Norfolk was a small town of about six thousand inhabitants and the local trading interest of inconsiderable numbers; otherwise, Virginia would have had to contend with a center of disaffection like Philadelphia, a seaport which must inevitably have fallen into British hands on account of its accessibility to sea-power and inaccessibility to the rest of the colony.
The royal governor, after abandoning his "Palace" at Williamsburg, in June, 1775, made his way to Norfolk, where he remained rather inactive for several months for lack of troops to help him to reestablish himself. The Revolutionary government, under the direction of the conservative Committee of Safety, had no wish to disturb him as long as he kept reasonably quiet. Military policy dictated that Dunmore should be attacked without delay, for he had no land force of any sort until the latter part of July. The progressive element would have liked well enough to begin hostilities, but it seems probable that the conservatives still hoped that England would concede the colonial demands and end the dispute. In this hope they were making their last stand for peace.
Dunmore's headquarters were at Gosport, a village on the Elizabeth River above Norfolk, destined in later days to be the site of the United States navy yard from which the Merrimac ventured forth on her famous career. At first the governor had at hand only the sailors and marines of the frigates Mercury and Mars, but he was afterwards reinforced by sixty men of the Fourteenth Regiment of the line, and eventually by a hundred more of the same regiment. This was a force too small to be of importance in itself, but valuable as a nucleus for building up some sort of military organization. Owing to the reluctance of the Virginia Revolutionary government to take the initiative, he was allowed time to gather a small and motley company of recruits, mostly Scotch clerks and runaway negroes. With these he soon succeeded in making himself a good deal of a nuisance.
The county committees along the Chesapeake are said to have begun the war by their rigid enforcement of the Continental Association, but the actual beginning of hostilities resulted from British activities in August, 1775. In that month Captain Squier, of the sloop-of-war Otter, cruised in the Chesapeake and its tributaries, plundering plantations and carrying off provisions and slaves. He conducted this annoying warfare in ship's tenders and confined himself chiefly to raiding for provisions in the neighborhood of Norfolk; occasionally, however, a coasting schooner was seized and held as a prize.
The earliest show of violence occurred on September 2, 1775. On that date Squier, while apparently engaged in one of his chicken stealing expeditions along the Bay, had his tender driven ashore near Hampton by a storm. The exasperated inhabitants took advantage of the opportunity to appropriate the guns and burn the tender, but without offering to injure or detain the crew. Squier made repeated demands for the return of the stores and finally went to Hampton with several tenders. He attempted a landing, but a brisk fire from one of the houses drove him off with a loss of two killed and two wounded.<a href="#1" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 1
Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, xiv 133.">
This beginning of hostilities, together with Dunmore's threatening attitude, compelled the Revolutionary government to move against Norfolk. The Committee of Safety gradually gathered a considerable body of militia at Williamsburg, consisting in large part of riflemen, who were expert marksmen with considerable experience in bush fighting and by far the most efficient soldiers the colony possessed. These troops, when organized into two regiments, formed a fairly well-trained force.
During the summer a strange condition of affairs existed in Norfolk. The rigid enforcement of the non-exportation policy had ruined business and greatly lessened the early enthusiasm for the colonial cause displayed by the merchants of that place. Besides, the presence of Dunmore, even though he took no active measures against the patriots, made necessary a policy of loyalism or neutrality on the part of those who remained at home. Dunmore, in one way and another, during his stay at Norfolk managed to gain a considerable number of adherents in that region and to cause the revolutionists no little uneasiness.
But his resources were too small to be of much use in a serious conflict with the provincial forces. He had about three hundred British regulars, some sailors, a handful of Scotch merchants and clerks gathered from Norfolk and Portsmouth, and about two hundred slaves, ignorant for the most part of the use of arms. However much hope Dunmore's natural optimism may have aroused in him, the Norfolk loyalists did not delude themselves as to the seriousness of their position. They heard with growing dismay the reports from Williamsburg, whither the upcountry riflemen were flocking in numbers, and wrote pessimistic letters home to Scotland.
In this preliminary period before the beginning of undisguised war, Norfolk was reduced almost to a condition of blockade by the county committees along the Chesapeake. Communication between that town and Hampton and Williamsburg was cut and no person might travel in and out of Norfolk without a pass. Suspicious characters were not allowed to come within thirty miles of the place; newspapers were held back from it; and ships coming from that direction could not go up the rivers. A small trade of some sort continued, but many of the Norfolk people, alarmed by the situation and by the reported threats of the colonial troops at Williamsburg, moved into the country with their families and effects.<a href="#2" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 2
Andrew Sprowle's letter in Miscellaneous Papers of the Committee of Safety and the Convention of 1775. Virginia State Library.">
For some months Dunmore made no attempt to take possession of Norfolk, but contented himself with remaining on his ships in the harbor and assuming a rather overawing attitude. Naturally there was some irritation. In spite of the town's small size it boasted a mob, which, unlike the merchants, was more or less patriotic in feeling. A loyalist named John Schau, who had made himself obnoxious, was roughly mishandled - apparently affording the only instance in Virginia of violence offered to Tories during the early part of the Revolution. Even this outrage was probably due to the presence of the British, who frequently visited Norfolk from their ships and inclined to carry things with a high hand. Early in August a few soldiers took possession of a store in Gosport belonging to Andrew Sprowle, the leading merchant in the colony. Sprowle, by quietly submitting to this quartering on his property or by a generally lukewarm and loyalist attitude, awakened the suspicions of the Norfolk borough committee, and he was summoned to appear before it and give an explanation of the use of his house by the British. Instead of obeying, Sprowle replied that the soldiers had insisted on escorting him to the committee meeting in order to protect him from Schau's fate, but added that he refused the escort for fear of provoking a disturbance. As an alternative he suggested that the committee visit him under a pledge of safe conduct on board of one of the warships or at his house in Gosport. The committee must have believed that he had been coerced, for, in its reply of August 21, 1775, it approved of his behavior and thanked him for the information given. "In the mean time," it wrote, "they see the fatal necessity of your submitting to this Arbitrary & Unprecedented Act of Tyranny - a cruel situation indeed when every petty Officer in His Majesty's service assumes the Authority of an Absolute Monarch, and the private property of a peaceable Citizen is seized upon as Lawful prey."<a href="#3" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 3
Miscellaneous Papers of the Committee of Safety and the Convention of 1775.">
Sprowle's case is a sad example of what usually happens to prominent citizens caught between the upper and lower millstones of civil conflict. He had no real partisanship, merely desiring to live in peace; but it was not possible in Norfolk for a man of his position to occupy a neutral attitude during the latter months of 1775. Sprowle could not bring himself to abandon his property and seek safety in the interior like the majority of Norfolk people of patriot sympathies. He stuck by his goods and paid for it; for Dunmore later came ashore and quartered his retinue on him, and, when the approach of the Virginia troops forced an evacuation, ended by carrying the merchant with his family aboard the British fleet. There he was treated with inhumanity, till, worn out by his misfortunes and sufferings, he died on ship some months later. By a former marriage Sprowle's wife had a son, John Hunter, who had accepted a commission in the British army and was then a prisoner in American hands. On the pretense of letting her see her son, but really to get rid of her, the governor allowed the widow to visit Norfolk. The Committee of Safety, considering her a dangerous person, ordered her back to Dunmore, and he in turn refused to receive her. The poor shuttlecock at length escaped from an impossible situation by sailing for England.<a href="#2" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 2
Legislative Petitions. Norfolk (B4228). Virginia State Library.">
Dunmore ventured on his first act of aggression in Norfolk in the latter part of September, 1775. One morning a boatload of grenadiers and marines landed there, surprised a printing establishment which had been issuing revolutionary pamphlets and manifestoes, and carried off both press and printers. A crowd of several hundred people watched the proceedings without daring to interfere. The militia, when called out, failed to respond in any numbers, and the British went back to their ship full of contempt for provincial valor.<a href="#5" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 5
Miscellaneous Papers, 1775-1776 (Virginia State Library)."> The Williamsburg government is said to have blamed the Norfolk people for making no fight.<a href="#6" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 6
Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, xiv, 134."> but with the frigates lying in the harbor ready to open fire, the local soldiery could have done nothing.
Nevertheless, the affair gave Norfolk a black mark among the patriots. Loyalists complained in their letters that the provincials were breathing out threatenings against the town and predicted that it would be destroyed unless help came from England. In anticipation of this fate, a good part of the population moved into the interior or sailed for the British Isles. Anthony Warwick, a Tory., reported that a third of the people had gone away, carrying most of their property. Deep apprehension prevailed among those who remained.
After the attack on the printing-press, Dunmore went on to seize persons conspicuous for activity in the patriot behalf, among them John Goodrich, who had recently brought powder into the colony for the Committee of Safety. Goodrich, a man of rather low moral nature, was so wrought upon by Dunmore's threats or promises that he changed sides - most disastrously for himself. The governor also began to put pressure on the people of the Norfolk neighborhood to declare for the royal cause, while in retaliation the county committees blockaded the town more and more rigorously. A Tory, writing on November 10, 1775, vividly describes the difficulties created by the committees:
It is not now possible for any of our Countrymen to travel the Country without a pass from Committees or Commanding officers, which none of them can procure & indeed its difficult for even the Natives to get permission to come here; so that we receive no Intelligence of what is doing in the Country except by water & none but the Tenders belonging to the Men of War are allowed to come up to this place .... It is now certain that the provincials are on their march from Williamsburg for this place or Norfolk, it is uncertain which, tho it is generally believed they come with a professed Intention of destroying by fire both Towns . . . the whole Country are anxious to have these Towns destroyed as they think them places of refuge for those who are Inimical to what they call the Liberties of America; & true it is there are not so many Inhabitants now in both Towns but what are avowed Tories & have publicly declared themselves friends to Government & willing to take up arms in its defence. Petitions and addresses are daily presented to the Governor by the Inhabitants of Norfolk & the Country around it praying that they may be presented with arms to assist in the defence of themselves & of Government & some of them have taken those who are most troublesome in their neighborhood & brought them on Bd the Man of War where they are detained prisoners & will soon be sent to Boston for their tryal.<a href="#7" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 7
Miscellaneous Papers, 1775-1776.">
The royal governor, partly by flattering and raising the hopes of the loyally inclined and partly by hectoring the neutral, collected a small levy of auxiliaries -possibly two hundred in all. In addition to these, several hundred runaway and kidnapped slaves were armed and uniformed; but time and officers were lacking to turn them into efficient troops, and we are told that the British regulars greatly disliked serving alongside them.<a href="#8" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 8
Miscellaneous Papers, 1775-1776."> Dunmore offered commissions in the service with great liberality, but found few takers. Among the handful who accepted was Josiah Philips, afterwards noted as a loyalist outlaw operating in this district. The governor also directed town meetings to be held in Norfolk from time to time for the purpose of arousing enthusiasm for the British cause, at one of which he was formally invited to take possession of Norfolk. John Woodside, who seconded this motion in the meeting, thereby gained the reputation of being "inimical" and was afterwards refused recompense for his property destroyed at the burning of Norfolk: the other loyalists who suffered by it shared the same fate.<a href="#9" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 9
Legislative Petitions. Norfolk (B4265).">
While people of importance were lured by flatteries or coerced by threats into espousing the British side, the sailors and marines worked on the lower classes along the shores of the Bay, endeavoring to wean them from their lukewarm allegiance to the province, or at least to keep them indifferent. The Northampton Committee complained to Congress of this practice; they declared that the British tenders, plying along the Eastern Shore, assured the fishermen that nobody had to fear the British except the committeemen and leading patriots, and that the men who urged them to take up arms were their greatest enemies. These advances made some impression. While people of property were in the main well affected to the American cause, many feared to declare their sentiments openly until a force arrived to assist them:<a href="#10" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 10
Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, xiv 253."> in southeastern Virginia, the lower classes for the most part remained indifferent or hostile to the Revolution until the end of the war.
Hostilities may be said to have begun about the middle of November. If the initiative had devolved on the reluctant Committee of Safety, there is every reason to suppose that the year would have passed without fighting. Such a result would have been greatly to Dunmore's advantage; even though the provincial levies were preparing for conflict and so improving with time, his own force was as yet too small to engage in a real struggle: he had only one chance and that was that a breeze might blow through the Capes a few transports carrying a British regiment. Until this happened his cue was to lie low.
But Dunmore thought that boldness was his best policy. By this time he had succeeded in collecting a mixed and untrustworthy force of negroes, Scotch loyalists, and Norfolk and Princess Anne militiamen who had absolutely no stomach for fighting on either side. Trusting to this undisciplined band and his few regulars, the governor ventured to make open war and thus forced the Committee of Safety in self-defense to attack him. Unable to remain inactive any longer, the Williamsburg government put its troops into motion along the south side of James River in October, 1775. About the same time two militia colonels, Anthony Lawson and Joseph Hutchins, gathered at Kempsville that part of the Princess Anne and Norfolk militia that remained true to the colonial cause. Kempsville, the county seat of Princess Anne, is a village on the headwaters of the East Branch of the Elizabeth River, a few miles southeast of Norfolk. Being at the intersection of several roads, it was a place of some strategic importance in a country where roads were few and swamps abounded. Dunmore, in turn, sallied forth from Norfolk on November 14, 1775, with about one hundred and fifty grenadiers and fifty or more loyalists and negroes, and marched to Great Bridge on the South Branch of the Elizabeth River, twelve miles due south of the town. He had been led to take this step by a report that a party of North Carolina militiamen had advanced thither for the purpose of supporting the Virginia troops,<a href="#11" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 11
Virginia Gazette, January 20, 1776."> and also possibly by a rumor of the coming of the dreaded "shirtmen."<a href="#2" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 2
Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, xiv, 387."> But as neither Carolinians nor the detachment from Williamsburg had reached Great Bridge, Dunmore turned east along the edge of a large forest to Kempsville, where he had learned the local militia were gathered in some force. The colonial troops, about three hundred in all, had taken post in the woods along the highway, and were prepared for resistance. When the head of the marching column came in sight some distance down the road, the militiamen fired a volley, but without effect. The regulars, returning the fire, drove their opponents from cover into the river near by, with a loss of several killed, several drowned, and fifteen or twenty prisoners, including Lawson and Hutchins.<a href="#13" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 13
Ibid., xiv 256."> The affair was an easy triumph of regulars over undrilled and half-hearted farmers and fishermen, but the participants on the British side made much of it as an omen of future success and a specimen of Virginia valor. The soldiers jocularly asserted that Hutchins had been captured because he was too drunk to run away with his followers.
The night following the skirmish the grenadiers and negroes broke into the houses in the hamlet and insulted the owners, apparently without restraint by Dunmore. A woman who had been frightened by an armed negro appealed to the governor for protection. "Why, madam," he nonchalantly replied, "this is a provoking piece of insolence, indeed, but there is no keeping these black rascals within bounds. It was but the other day that one of them undertook to personate Captain Squier, and actually extorted a sum of money from a lady in his name. But we must expect such things, whilst this horrid rebellion lasts." He then asked: "But, pray, madam, where is your husband all this time?" The woman replied that she did not know and, furthermore, could not tell when she would see him. "Well, madam, when you do," said Dunmore, "you must be sure and tell him, for me, that this is no time for a man like him to be out of the way. His Majesty wants his service, and I will give him any place he will name, if he will come in and join us. But join us he must."<a href="#14" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 14
Lower Norfolk County Antiquary, ii, 135.">
The first successes in a war, trifling as they usually are, have an effect altogether disproportionate to their importance. Dunmore signalized his victory by erecting the king's banner at Kempsville next day - a performance recalling the planting of the standard by Charles I at Nottingham. The immediate neighborhood and some of the poor Pungo fisher-folk who had run away the day before came in and took the oath of allegiance. The people of the county, aware of their helplessness or impressed by Dunmore's success, also took the oath in considerable numbers and wore on their breasts the British badge of red. The price of red cloth rose in the Norfolk stores, and the woman who had interviewed Dunmore at Kempsville was shocked to have her husband come home wearing the familiar scarlet. "Oh!" she said, "is it come to this? Believe me, I would rather have seen you dead than to have seen you with this red badge." "Pshaw!" he answered, "do you think it has changed my mind? Don't you see how Dunmore is carrying all before him, and, if I can save my property by this step, ought I not in common prudence to wear it, for your sake and the children?"<a href="#15" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 15
Lower Norfolk County Antiquary, ii, 136.">
Menaces were mixed with flatteries to induce the backward to take the oath. Matthew Phripp, a prominent merchant, who was forced into subscribing, was roundly rated by Dunmore for not coming in before.<a href="#16" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 16
Miscellaneous Papers, xiv, 256."> The potent conjurer was fear. The governor, indeed, succeeded so well in his coercive policy that on November 15, 1775, he took the step of declaring martial law, ordering all loyal men to repair to the standard under the penalty of being considered traitors and proclaiming freedom to the slaves and indented servants of rebels.
The brush at Kempsville, together with the proclamation of martial law, had the immediate effect of inducing a large proportion of the population of Norfolk and Princess Anne to take the oath. Tories noted with exultation the sudden change of sentiment in the countryside. It was even asserted that the two counties had come in bodily except for a few formerly active patriots, to whom Dunmore, by way of making an example, refused to tender the oath.<a href="#17" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 17
Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, xiv 249."> Unquestionably the citizens of Norfolk went to great lengths to show their loyalty on Dunmore's return to town from Kempsville. An entertainment regaled the weary and triumphant party and the British standard was erected before the court-house, while the timid and time-serving strove with each other to reach the Bible and swear allegiance.<a href="#18" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 18
Ibid., xiv, 256"> Andrew Sprowle, a conservative witness, stated that about five hundred men had taken the oath at Norfolk.<a href="#19" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 19
Ibid., xiv, 387."> Probably others came in later, for an optimistic Tory asserted that "Treason had not one Abettor in the extensive county of Princess Anne." Dunmore himself declared (with evident exaggeration) that three thousand people had sworn,<a href="#20" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 20
Virginia Gazette, January 24, 1776."> and added that with a few more men he would march on Williamsburg.
With the exception of Isle of Wight, where Dunmore's adherents were crushed, serious signs of disaffection to the patriot cause began to appear in the whole lower country. Men in Norfolk and Princess Anne who had taken a prominent part as revolutionists were driven into hiding to escape the visitations of the British and negroes. The Isle of Wight patriots retaliated by tarring and feathering the conspicuous loyalists, which frightened others into taking refuge with Dunmore.<a href="#21" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 21
Calendar of Virginia State Papers, 3, 92."> The situation was undeniably one of danger for the colony. If at this time, as might well have chanced, a British regiment had arrived under the command of a competent officer, there is no telling the result. The willingness of so many under a little urging to take the oath of allegiance to the king is evidence that no great enthusiasm for the American cause animated the inhabitants along the lower Chesapeake. The coming of troops, entailing a prolonged and doubtful military struggle, might have changed indifference into royalist partisanship; and a Tory party would have arisen in Virginia as in other colonies. The energies of the Revolutionary government would have been largely expended on the internal contest at the very time when the resources of the colony were most needed to maintain the American arms in the North. From this situation Virginia and the Confederation were saved by the speedy collapse of Dunmore's defense - a collapse due largely to want of support from the home government, which forgot for some critical months that the governor of Virginia still existed and flew the British flag.
The fall of the royal governor was also owing in no small measure to himself. A weak and commonplace man put in a position of extreme difficulty, it is small wonder that he blundered in making those obviously opportunist moves which always seem wisdom to his kind. By proclaiming freedom to the slaves and indented servants of rebels, Dunmore probably hoped to embarrass the planters with a servile rising at the same time that he secured recruits for himself. He may also have imagined that many slave-owners would declare for him in order to preserve their blacks or prevent an insurrection. As a result of the proclamation a few hundred runaway slaves joined him, and these he furnished with arms and attempted to drill into soldiers. Later on a few hundred more came to his support and, together with the slaves he kidnapped, sailed away in his ships. These negroes, some of them savages almost ignorant of English, were of little service. The great majority of slaves, fortunately for themselves, remained quietly at home attending to their work.
As the price of this paltry accession of force, Dunmore became detested throughout the colony. He completely demonstrated the fallacy of attempting to incite slave risings - a policy which the home government had looked to as a means of paralyzing the resistance of the South. Possibly some of the negroes were sufficiently intelligent to doubt the advantages of freedom gained by violence: at all events, hesitation was wisdom here, since the majority of blacks who joined Dunmore, after being used as drudges in his fleet, died of smallpox or were carried off and never heard of again. Runaway negroes who took arms under Dunmore were not put to death by the patriots when captured, as would have been the case if they had risen of their own accord. A few of them were sold in the West Indies; but the greater part were sent to penal servitude in the lead-mines in southwestern Virginia, where they served the American cause with considerable effectiveness.
The proclamation of freedom to slaves destroyed the last vestige of influence remaining to Dunmore. It did more: it made him the best-hated man in the colony and settled all the colonists' scruples about making war on him; it converted into active patriots the large class which, having something to lose, came to the conclusion that it was better off under the Revolutionary regime than under the royal administration. In fact, Dunmore's policy, by displaying the representatives of Britain in the character of incendiaries and enemies to society, had the paradoxical effect of converting the Revolutionists into the champions of law and order. The Committee of Safety, which without legal title had ruled Virginia solely through moral authority, was recognized henceforth by almost the entire population as the de jure government of the colony.
Dunmore's performances at Norfolk at length forced the Committee of Safety to move against him. Edmund Pendleton, the chairman, was practically the directing head of this body and as such the most powerful man in Virginia during the latter part of 1775. Patrick Henry, in deserting the convention to become colonel of the First Virginia Regiment, and Jefferson and Lee, through their absence in Philadelphia, left the conservative party in power, with the result that the Revolution almost stood still in the fall of 1775. The Committee of Safety, indeed, actively supervised the work of the local committees in crushing disaffection, but, inconsistently enough, hesitated to attack Dunmore. His depredations, however, left it no recourse. On October 24, 1775,<a href="#22" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 22
Miscellaneous Papers of the Committee of Safety and the Convention of 1775."> the committee, after a lengthy discussion of the various hostile acts he had been guilty of, such as harboring fugitive slaves, seizing a slave woman and other private property, and arresting and carrying on board his ships several patriots, decided to send the Second Regiment of the line and the Culpeper battalion to the neighborhood of Norfolk as an observation force. Even then, apparently, the committee had no definite intention of precipitating a conflict if it could be avoided.
This decision to send the Second Regiment instead of the First was important, inasmuch as it meant the passing over in favor of a subordinate commander of Patrick Henry, colonel of the First Regiment and ranking officer of the Virginia forces. While it is likely that Pendleton and his associates in the Committee of Safety naturally preferred an actual soldier like William Woodford to a politician entirely without military experience, they were also influenced by other considerations. Pendleton, the leader and best representative of the conservative party, had been opposed to Henry on many occasions beginning with 1765, so that the head of one faction was acting as the superior and director of the head of the other. Under the circumstances it is not to be wondered at that the popular orator was denied the opportunity of cementing his greatness by winning a military reputation. Thus the conservatives gave him his final checkmate.
Woodford possessed some ability as a commander and won a victory over Dunmore that, by the fame and popularity it gave him, served to show what it would have meant to a striking personality like Patrick Henry. While Woodford was winning laurels, Henry ingloriously idled at Williamsburg with a command put to no more serious labor than guard-mounting. In his impatience the orator wondered whether it would ever be called on to do anything more as long as he remained its commander, for he realized that the conservatives feared his popularity.<a href="#23" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 23
Henry's Patrick Henry, I, 333."> Indeed the committee was almost openly hostile. Although Henry was the superior officer, he ceased to receive reports from Woodford, who preferred to report directly to the committee. That body did not discourage his insubordination. The Virginia force was afterwards joined by a North Carolina contingent under Colonel Robert Howe and he assumed command of the joint army, thereby completely doing away with Henry's shadow of authority. The latter attempted to assert himself and failed. He then appealed to the Committee of Safety, which decided that Woodford ought to report to him, but receive orders either from itself or the convention.<a href="#24" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 24
Henry's Patrick Henry, i, 343."> In this way the democratic leader saw himself quietly negatived in military affairs and relegated to garrison duty in a place where a battle was little likely to occur. Distrust of Henry's military ability was not confined to the Committee of Safety; Washington shared it and regretted his continuance in the service, and Congress passed him over to appoint Robert Howe and Andrew Lewis brigadier generals. Hurt by this treatment, Henry resigned his commission and returned to civil life. It was a final choice, for he never went back to the army. By leaving it, he played a great part in the founding of the Commonwealth of Virginia, of which he became the first governor, and rendered important service to the American cause in an administrative capacity; but his chief work was done before the war began, and possibly he made a mistake in returning to politics. When the technical ignorance and general mediocrity of the American officers are recollected, there seems no reason why a man so audacious, determined, and masterful as Patrick Henry should not have made a successful brigade commander. Politics and war have much in common.
Woodford, the choice of the triumphant conservative faction, slowly made his way towards the recreant Norfolk. On November 25, 1775, he arrived with his body of riflemen at Suffolk, in Nansemond, at the same time that his advance, under LieutenantColonel Scott, camped within seven miles of Great Bridge on the South Branch of the Elizabeth River. In this region a large part of the inhabitants had declared for the royal cause, and Scott arrested several Tories, among them one Jim Inness, who had made himself prominent in Dunmore's behalf. Eight suspected persons, several of them women, were arrested at Suffolk by local patriots and turned over to Woodford on his arrival. Scott reported that most of the British troops had withdrawn from Great Bridge, leaving the post garrisoned by negroes and Tories. He desired leave to cross the South Branch of the Elizabeth River below Great Bridge and take this force in reverse, but Woodford cautiously refused to run the risk unless his subordinate was certain of the information. Detained at Suffolk by the need of replenishing his arms, the Virginia commander sent forward two companies under Major Alexander Spotswood to reinforce Scott. Woodford, in his report to the Committee of Safety, repeated the account so often given of the general disaffection of the people of that section to the American cause, but added that he had heard they had begun to fall away from Dunmore since the coming of the colonial troops and that it was believed that few of them would fight.<a href="#25" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 25
Miscellaneous Papers, 1775-1776."> Woodford's letter of November 88, 1775. Woodford's letters are printed in the Richmond College Historical Papers, no. 1. Undoubtedly Woodford carried out the wishes of his superiors in moving deliberately. He may also have had military reasons: be had been lately reinforced by the Nansemond militia and by a handful of gentlemen volunteers, and a body of North Carolina militia was en route to join him. Altogether this would give him a force sufficient for his purposes. The appearance of a respectable body of provincial troops in the Chesapeake region at this time was of great importance. Dunmore's continued success, even in trifles, would in all probability have inaugurated a bitter civil war in the tier of southeastern counties, with a disastrous effect on the whole colony, but Woodford's arrival obviated this situation. He directed Scott to offer protection to all who would come in, including those who had taken Dunmore's oath, and to pledge himself to seize no private property except arms and ammunition. With the colonial troops at hand and Dunmore in a bellicose humor, a collision was evidently approaching. In view of the greatly superior strength of the provincials, it was rather expected that Dunmore would relinquish Norfolk without a fight, and it is possible that he would have done so but for the skirmish at Kempsville. That petty triumph seems to have deluded the governor into the belief that he might be able to make a successful defense. Accordingly, he garrisoned a block-house at Great Bridge, which commanded the approach to Norfolk from the south, and threw up earthworks for a space of a half or three quarters of a mile immediately behind the town. These works were mere shallow entrenchments, washed down by each rain; and the difficulty of holding them with a few hundred men, mostly raw recruits, was apparent even to the untrained military perceptions of the Norfolk Tories, who gloomily anticipated the approach of the backwoods marksmen. But Dunmore, assuming his best air of confidence, prepared for battle.
In deciding to make a stand at Norfolk, Dunmore acted with his characteristic unwisdom. True, Norfolk was commanded by the sea, but it could also be attacked by land and a considerable force was now converging for that purpose. Since the provincial army could be indefinitely increased while the governor had only a handful of trustworthy troops, the continuance of the defense was dependent on the arrival of reinforcements from England; and this, in view of the siege of Boston, then under way, was not an immediate probability. Dunmore had small chance of holding the town. He might have been justified, however, in making the effort provided he had no other resort, no stronger position. But he did have it. There was one part of the colony where the party commanding the sea might hold out indefinitely and that was the Eastern Shore, the peninsula jutting down from Maryland. This section, the "Kingdom of Accomac," displayed little more patriotic enthusiasm than Norfolk, and Dunmore, with his fleet and his few regulars, could have overpowered the resistance in the southern end of the peninsula, Northampton, and have secured a base of operations from which it would have been difficult to dislodge him. As long as the British fleet swept the Bay, the Virginians must have had to make a great detour through Maryland in order to reach him.
The Northampton Committee, realizing the peril of the Eastern Shore, feared and expected that Dunmore would descend upon it.<a href="#26" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 26
Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, xiv 250."> But, fortunately for Virginia, the governor preferred to gamble on the chance of being able to thwart the superior numbers of his enemy by some lucky blow. Possibly, too, he felt that withdrawal from Norfolk might be fatal to his prestige. At all events, he decided to hold his ground.
Great Bridge, where he hoped to check the provincials, was the most important strategic point near Norfolk. The South Branch of the Elizabeth River, running in a southeasterly direction, flows languidly through a marsh and was here spanned by a bridge, from which causeways stretched in both directions to firm ground. Two islands rose above the swamp at the ends of the bridge: on the one to the north Dunmore had built his fort; the other contained only a few shanties. The stockade was supplied with two four-pounders and several swivels and wall-pieces, and was garrisoned by runaway negroes officered by sergeants of regulars and Scotch Tories from Norfolk.<a href="#27" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 27
Miscellaneous Papers, 1775-1776."> Woodford, advancing from Suffolk about the first of December, reached Great Bridge and took position on the south side of the river. Immediately the cannon of the fort opened on the provincials, who replied with rifle fire. One Virginian was killed; the loss on the other side was unknown, but probably greater. Desultory skirmishing went on for several days along the banks of the river from Great Bridge towards Norfolk, and both parties attempted to seize and hold all the boats on their side; the provincials to secure a means of passing Great Bridge, the loyalists to prevent any such flank movement. Woodford, who had cannon coming up with the North Carolina reinforcement, was reluctant to force the passage of the stream in the face of the enemy, and threw up breastworks near a church some distance back from his end of the causeway. Seeing that the houses on the south island furnished excellent cover for riflemen in a contest with the fort, some slaves crossed the river in the night of December 3, 1775, and set fire to them. The following night Woodford retaliated for the burning of the houses by sending across the river a scouting party which fired a building, killed one or two negroes, and took several of them prisoners. The provincial officers were anxious to execute the slaves by way of example, but the commander decided to leave their fate to the convention.<a href="#28" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 28
Miscellaneous Papers, 1775-1776. Woodford's letter of December 5, 1776."> Two nights later, on December 6, Woodford sent another detachment across the river to attack the enemy's boat guards lower down stream. The riflemen surprised a mixed force of whites and blacks and routed it with a loss of five killed and several wounded and prisoners.<a href="#29" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 29
Woodford's letter of December 7, 1775."> Finally, the governor, when he found that the post at Great Bridge was seriously threatened, sent his regulars out from Norfolk to attack the colonial force. His fortifications back of the town were now pretty well completed and mounted about fifteen pieces of artillery. He had also made every effort to raise recruits: Joshua Whitehurst and Charles Henley, two prominent Tories, were dispatched through the country with an armed party, to order the militiamen into Norfolk and to lay requisitions of money and supplies upon people of means. Few men were obtained, though probably a good deal of plunder rewarded the raiders.<a href="#30" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 30
Miscellaneous Papers, 1775-1776. Titus Meanwell's letter of December 7, 1775.">
The British force at Great Bridge numbered about 500 men, but only the 200 regulars of the Fourteenth Regiment were trustworthy; the 300 negroes and loyalists served chiefly to swell the array. Woodford's command contained about 700 men; of whom 430 belonged to the Second Regiment and the rest were minute-men.<a href="#31" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 31
Woodford's letter of December 10, 1775."> A skirmish-line of provincials occupied earthworks thrown up along the edge of the swamp, about 150 yards from the bridge: the main force lay encamped near the church several hundred yards farther back.
Woodford's position, approachable only by a narrow causeway, offered in that day of short-range firearms the best possible advantage to the defenders and every disadvantage to the attackers, who had to advance in closed file and without opportunity to deploy. Nevertheless, the regulars received orders to cross the bridge and take the breastwork by storm.
On the morning of December 9, 1775, the colonial troops awoke to the discharge of cannon and musketry from the fort. A lull followed, and then were heard the voices of the British officers calling their men to arms. Presently the enemy's force, with the regulars in front and the loyalists and negroes in the rear, crossed the bridge to the south island. A picket stationed there by Woodford was soon driven in and the remaining houses set ablaze. Meantime the Virginians in the trenches were keeping up a brisk fire and some little confusion ensued among the Tories and negroes. Leaving them behind on the island, 120 regulars under command of Captain Fordyce advanced resolutely along the causeway leading to the earthworks. These were held by 100 riflemen, and the officer in charge ordered them to reserve their fire until the enemy came within fifty yards. At this range the provincials opened with deadly effect, sweeping the causeway almost from end to end. Fordyce, though wounded, continued to lead on his men until he went down struck by a dozen balls. The surviving British, unable to face the withering fire, fell back precipitately to the island, where they rallied and replied to the Americans with two field-pieces that had been hauled across the bridge from the fort. As soon as he saw the repulse of the regulars, Woodford brought up his main force to the entrenchments, and the British thereupon retreated over the bridge into the fort.
Woodford, with his habitual caution, awaited another attack, but the abandonment of the fort on the night after the engagement showed the completeness of his victory. Although the action had been a mere skirmish as regards the numbers engaged and the losses, it had important consequences. Nearly all the regulars had been killed or wounded, and the loyalists and negroes were demoralized. Of more consequence still, Dunmore himself was utterly dismayed by the catastrophe and abandoned all thought of further defending Norfolk.
The next day 200 North Carolinians arrived, bringing the patriot force up to nearly 900 men. On December 12, another detachment of North Carolina militia, led by Colonel Robert Howe, joined the Virginia army. On December 11, Woodford had issued a proclamation to the people of Norfolk and Princess Anne disclaiming any intention of molesting those who had taken the oath of allegiance to England, but at the same time he took care to send a force to Kempsville to seize all persons leaving Norfolk after the action at Great Bridge.<a href="#32" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 32
Woodford's letter of December 10, 1775."> A number of Tories and British deserters were arrested, among them a Scotch loyalist named Hamilton, who had served at the fort. By way of punishment, Woodford handcuffed him to a captive black.
The joint force, under Woodford and Howe, marched on Norfolk, something more than one thousand strong. It met with no sign of resistance and entered the town in the night of December 14, 1775.<a href="#33" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 33
Ibid., December 14,1775."> In passing through the dark streets the troops were fired on and three men were wounded, but Dunmore, with his remnant of regulars, his runaway slaves, and a number of Tories, had fled aboard the ships, which still lay in the harbor. More than a hundred prisoners, mostly loyalists and negroes, were the fruits of the occupation of Norfolk: some of them were sent to Williamsburg by a court of inquiry for trial before the convention then sitting. The American commanders offered protection to the townspeople on condition of immediate submission, and no depredations seem to have been committed by their soldiers. Nevertheless, the general feeling in Norfolk favored the royal cause, and the magistrates carried a copy of Woodford and Howe's proclamation to Dunmore on board his ship. Meanwhile Woodford made no effort to annoy the ships lying a little distance offshore, though the riflemen patrolled the harbor and captured a snow carrying salt to the fleet.<a href="#34" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 34
Woodford's letter of December 17, 1775.">
For some days the ships in the harbor and the troops along the shore were satisfied to watch each other quietly; the people, uncertain of the outcome, cautiously refrained from showing partisanship on either side. Woodford reported that they were thoroughly disaffected without having any inclination whatever to fight: only a few gentlemen received the provincial troops with any cordiality.<a href="#35" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 35
Ibid., December 16, 1775."> Meanwhile distress reigned in the fleet, whither a number of loyalists had hurried with their wives and children at the news of Woodford's approach. The warships, ill prepared in the best of times for passengers, at this juncture lacked everything to make life comfortable; and the women and children suffered greatly. Finally, the harassed loyalists petitioned the American commanders for leave to come on shore. The latter answered that the women and children might land on certain conditions, but that the men would be held as prisoners subject to the judgment of the convention in their cases. Few Tories were willing to accept such terms.
Through the last days of the year the hostile forces continued to do nothing but watch each other. The British ships still received supplies from the town by landing boats at a distillery and ropewalk on the outskirts and at other points. Howe recommended that these places which served as supply posts be destroyed, but nothing was done. Dunmore, on his part, had the effrontery to complain to the town authorities that his boat crews had met with ill-treatment. Strange as it may seem, a town meeting discussed this complaint at length, and a motion was made to allow boats to come ashore for provisions, but it was rejected. Dunmore can hardly have been so foolish as to suppose that the colonial commanders would allow him to receive supplies from Norfolk unopposed; it is probable that he merely sought an excuse for the action he had already determined on. At all events, early in the afternoon of January 1, 1776, the British ships, drawn up in a line before the town, opened fire on it with more than a hundred guns. Under cover of the cannonade, which lasted with little intermission throughout the afternoon and night, sailors landed and set fire to houses at several places. The riflemen posted along the water-front drove off the landing-parties, but not before the wooden buildings near the wharves were blazing. From time to time, in the confusion of the scene, boat crews came ashore, only to be driven back immediately to the water. The defenders suffered no greater loss from the bombardment than a few men wounded, but several of the wretched inhabitants, rushing out through the streets in the winter night to get beyond the range of the guns, were killed by cannon balls.<a href="#36" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 36
Miscellaneous Papers, 1776-1776. Robert Howe's letter of January 7, 1776.">
The fires, begun by balls or landing-parties, spread with great rapidity, because the provincial soldiers, instead of attempting to extinguish them, seized the opportunity to plunder and destroy on their own behalf, determined, as they said, "to make hay while the sun shines."<a href="#37" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 37
Legislative Petitions. Norfolk (B4328)."> Breaking into rum-shops and warehouses, many of them soon became drunk and went in gangs from house to house, smashing in doors, dragging out spoils, and then applying the torch. Household goods of every kind were sold in the streets for a song to anybody willing to buy. The destruction caused by the ships was confined to the waterfront, but the Virginia soldiers involved the whole place in the catastrophe. On January 2, 1776, when the firing had ceased, the riflemen continued the work of rapine without interference on the part of their officers - apparently even with their connivance. Only on the third day did Woodford put an end to the sack by forbidding the burning of houses under severe penalty, but by that time more than two thirds of Norfolk was in ashes. In February, 1776, the remainder was destroyed by order of the convention in order to deprive Dunmore of shelter.
The responsibility for the burning of Norfolk rests upon both Dunmore and the provincial troops. Although, according to the evidence, the riflemen wrought by far the greater share of the ruin, the governor began the work of destruction. The testimony, indeed, is very conflicting, but the statements of Woodford and Howe, who wished to absolve themselves from blame in a discreditable business, are probably more completely ex pane than those of the numerous witnesses who gave detailed accounts of the havoc made by the American soldiers. Furthermore, the mayor and council of Norfolk declared to the assembly, on November 16, 1776, that most of the destruction was the work of the troops.<a href="#38" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 38
Legislative Petitions. Norfolk (B4188)."> The commissioners appointed by the government in 1777 to investigate the matter substantiated this account with striking figures. They declared that Dunmore had burned 32 houses on November 30, 1775, and only 19 on January 1, 1776. The soldiers, on the other hand, had destroyed 863 houses, and 416 more had been destroyed by order of the convention.<a href="#39" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 39
Report of Commissioners. MS. in Virginia State Library.">
The bombardment of Norfolk was a crowning piece of stupidity. Dunmore could not have hoped to drive out an overwhelming and mobile force by a mere cannonade and he had no troops to use in following up this act of aggression. Under such circumstances, his firing on the town was a mere act of revenge for being driven out of the colony - the mean retaliation of a man unable in any other way to return fancied injuries. The full measure of his folly may be seen when it becomes evident, in the light of the commissioners' report, that he played into the hands of his enemies. Norfolk was the one place in Virginia where the king had supporters and where the royal governor had been given a warm reception; and, when he turned his guns against it, he insured the ruin of his own friends. An open seaport and difficult of access from the interior, it could have been kept from falling into British hands only by the constant presence of a large force, which the colonial government could not afford to maintain in an isolated position. Sooner or later a fleet with troops on board was bound to sail in and turn Norfolk once more into a busy port and a center of British influence. This the Williamsburg authorities saw clearly enough, but it is most unlikely that they would have ventured in cold blood on the odious course of destroying the town as a precautionary measure. That Norfolk, when the fleet at last ar rived, was a mere heap of ruins instead of a convenient base of operations on the Southern coast was due to Dunmore's ill-considered anger, which gave his astute opponents the chance to do their work and cast the odium on him. Dunmore was destined always to be outwitted. Howe expressed the sentiment of the provincial army a few days later in reporting that his men had burned the obnoxious distillery where the British landed. The destruction of Norfolk, he said, would be beneficial to the public. It was a place the enemy could seize at any time, inhabited by a population wholly given up to trade and without devotion to the American cause. If held by the British, it would have continued importing prohibited goods and thus would have neutralized the Continental Association in two colonies.<a href="#40" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 40
Robert Howe's letter of January 6, 1777."> There was general satisfaction that it was no more.
The relative position of the ships and the troops remained the same after the destruction of the town; the fleet rode at anchor and the riflemen skulked along the shore looking for shots. Occasional brushes between them and landing-parties of sailors relieved the tedium. On January 21, 1776, two of the men-of-war, the Liverpool and Otter, opened a heavy fire on the ruins to cover a party which set fire to a few buildings still standing near a wharf. A sharp skirmish followed between sailors and "shirtmen" in which both sides lost a number killed and wounded.<a href="#41" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 41
Virginia Gazette, January 6, 1776."> At last, on February 6, 1776, the provincials abandoned Norfolk, after sending away the poor people still living there, burning all the remaining houses and demolishing Dunmore's entrenchments. The troops were quartered at Kempsville, Great Bridge, and Suffolk, points more accessible than Norfolk and easier to provision.<a href="#42" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 42
Virginia Gazette, February 9, 1776."> Shortly afterwards the frigate Roebuck arrived with some troops and enabled Dunmore to take possession of the village of Portsmouth across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk.<a href="#43" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 43
Ibid., February 23, 1776."> From this place as a base he sent out along Chesapeake Bay tenders and ships, which took a number of American vessels as prizes and occasionally made raids on the plantations along the water. In spite of these successes, however, Dunmore's position was most precarious, as provisions were scarce and jail fever raged in the fleet. Nor did the tenders on their marauding expeditions always have it one way. In April, 1776, a tender captured a New England schooner in the Rappahannock, but was attacked in turn by sailboats manned by people of the neighborhood and escaped with difficulty after abandoning the prize.<a href="#44" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 44
Ibid., May 3, 1776."> Moreover, two of the ships, the Liverpool and Roebuck, suffered rough handling in an engagement with row-galleys in the upper Chesapeake.
The patriot government now prepared to make another effort to rid the country of Dunmore. On March 29, 1776, Charles Lee, major-general in the Continental service, arrived at Williamsburg to take command of all the forces in Virginia, Continental and local. He immediately began to organize his troops and attempted to raise a cavalry force, which was especially needed. When the organization was sufficiently complete, he advanced to Norfolk, and on May 20, 1776, fought a skirmish from the shore with the ships. A few days later, Dunmore, after dismantling some new entrenchments he had raised, sailed away with his whole following.<a href="#45" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 45
Ibid., May 24, 1776."> Charles Lee had meanwhile gone to Portsmouth, where he busied himself in crushing disaffection. Washington's eccentric second in command excited as much amusement by his long green trousers, called "sherry-values," and his litter of dogs<a href="#46" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 46
Lower Norfolk County Antiquary, i, 99."> - habitual sharers of his bedroom - as his supposed military talents and experience aroused admiration. One of his first acts on reaching Portsmouth was to urge the Committee of Safety to deport the inhabitants of Princess Anne in order to break communications between the countryside and Dunmore's fleet. The committee thereupon decreed that all people living within a line drawn from Great Bridge to Kempsville and thence to the ocean should remove into the interior, as well as all the people within the two counties who had repaired to Dunmore's standard. Dissatisfied with this measure, which was not carried out in all its harshness, Lee ventured to demolish the houses of several well-known loyalists in Portsmouth by way of salutary example, as he reported to Edmund Pendleton in a letter of May 4, 1776:
As I consider it my duty to make a report of every transaction that is not merely and purely military to the Committee I hope They will excuse my not having done it before, but as They were yesterday so employed in the busyness of the Princess Anne Petition, I thought it might be troublesome to enter upon the subject.
As I found that the Inhabitants of Portsmouth had universally taken the oaths to Ld Dunmore, and as the Town was, I believe justly, reputed the great channel through which his Lordship received the most exact and minute intelligence of all our actions and designs I thought it incumbent on me and agreeable to the spirit of your instructions to remove the People without exception, for even the Women and Children had learnd the art and practic'd with address the Office of Spies, - a considerable quantity of valuable articles were found in the houses of Mes'rs Sprowl, Goodrich and Jemmison as molasses salt and other things were wanted by the Public - I have order'd the Officer commanding the Party to make out an inventory of these articles which are to be laid before your Board.
As the Town of Portsmouth will afford so convenient shelter and quarters to the Enemy on the supposition They make this part of the world their object, it wou'd (strictly speaking) be perhaps right and politick to destroy it totally - but I thought it a matter of too serious concern for me to execute without the injunction or sanction of the Committee - the houses indeed of some of the most notorious Traitors I ventur'd to demolish with the view of intimidating the neighborhood from trifling any longer or flying in the face of your ordinances - for unless I have been grossly misinformd these People have been Encouraged from no examples having been made, into a most barefaced open intercourse with the Enemy - Sprowls Goodrich's Jemmisons and Spaddens houses have on this principle been demolishd - the last Gentleman (Spadden) is now a Prisoner at Suffolk accused and I am told convicted of having been on board Ld Dunmore's fleet, since his acquittal by the Committee of Norfolk.
As We had undoubted intelligence that Dunmore's Fleet and Army were amply and constantly supplied with provisions and refreshments of every kind from that tract of Country lying between the Southern and Eastern Branches, as well as from Tanners Creek, and that the positive ordinance levell'd by the Convention against this species of treason was totally contemn'd and disregarded and as it is a notorious truth that from an habitual commission of any criminal act be it ever so heinous, He who commits it at length persuades himself that there is no crime in it at all - These Worthies not only every day more constantly and openly carried on this dangerous and pernicious commerce but even (as it is said) justified it in their conversation. I say, Sir, considering these circumstances, it appear'd to me absolutely necessary as it did to the other Officers and the Committee of Gentlemen from Suffolk to take some vigorous step on the spot which might intimidate the whole knot of these miscreants from this pernicious commerce - a Mr. Hopkins infamous for his principles and conduct and who has a son now a soldier in Ld Dunmores Army was fortunately the Man detected - He was seiz'd in his return from the Fleet, where He had been with a supply of provisions-He at first prevaricated and perjured himself very handsomely, but at length, not indeed untill He was impeachd by his Companion, confess'd - the sentiments of the Committee and of the other officers concurring with my own We determined after having secur'd the furniture to set his house on fire in his presence - this step was not perhaps consistent with the regular mode prescrib'd of proceeding - but there are occasions when the necessity will excuse a deviation from the regular mode of proceeding - and this I hope will appear to the Committee to be one of these occasions when irregularity is excusable - I must, here, Gentlemen, beg leave to repeat my assurances that if ever in my military capacity I shou'd fall into any measure which is more properly within the Province of the Civil, it must entirely proceed from mistaken inadvertency, never from design - and that when this happens, so far from being offended at the admonitions, or even reprimands of the Committee that I shall think myself obliged to them.<a href="#47" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 47
Miscellaneous Papers, 1775-1776.">
The effects of this patriotic arson are not known, but Dunmore had ended his career in Virginia, and Toryism, never very strong as a force, was now completely crushed. The governor found an opportunity to make a final blunder before vanishing from the scene. Sailing out of Norfolk Harbor, with ships crowded with runaway and stolen negroes and wretched refugees, he cast anchor at Gwynn's Island off the Gloucester shore. On this island - sufficiently large for prolonged occupation -Dunmore landed his disease-stricken crews and threw up fortifications, forgetful of the fact that his ships lay within easy cannon-range of the mainland. The appearance of Dunmore's sails was the signal for a muster in strength of the local militia. It lacked the means for immediate attack, but James Barron, captain in the Virginia navy, dealt Dunmore a heavy blow by capturing a transport filled with Highlander troops bound up the Bay for Gwynn's Island. This was the prelude to the end. By the beginning of July a large number of militiamen had gathered opposite the island, commanded by Andrew Lewis, an officer of great experience in Indian warfare and of much natural military talent. On July 9, 1776, Lewis opened a cannonade on the fleet lying off the island and on the entrenchments. The ships suffered severely from the fire and were soon forced to slip cables and hurriedly put out, leaving behind most of the effects that had been landed.<a href="#48" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 48
Virginia Gazette, July 12, 1776."> Want of boats alone prevented the Virginians from pushing over to the island and taking many prisoners. Next morning, when they had gathered enough boats to visit the island, they were horrorstricken to find it literally covered with the dead and dying, the victims of smallpox and jail fever. The dirty, crowded ships had become floating lazarettos.
Exiled from Gwynn's Island, Dunmore tried to land on St. George's Island in Maryland, but was beaten off by militia. He plundered and burned several plantation houses along the Potomac and again attacked St. George's Island, with no better luck. Despairing of finding a refuge in the Chesapeake, he stood down the Bay with all his fleet and sailed out of the Capes and American history. So intense was the dislike Dunmore inspired that he remained for several generations under the calumny of legend. Although he enjoyed considerable popularity before 1775 and entertained at the "Palace" in Williamsburg, where the local gentry loved to meet his charming wife and swains to worship his young daughters, he had by 1776 become an enemy to society, the instigator of slave insurrection and the robber and plunderer. As usual in such cases, his sufficiently numerous errors and sins did not satisfy. Tradition made him out the secret betrayer of the colony in the Indian war of 1774, who incited the savage to lay waste the frontier in order to weaken resistance to the imperial authority. And in this guise of anarchist and assassin the last English governor has come down almost to our own times.