Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Lord Dunmore's Navy in Hampton Roads, 1775-1776, Part II: The Road to Great Bridge

By Matthew Krogh
Contributing Writer

Editor's Note:  This is the second in a series about Virginia's last royal governor, John Murray, Fourth Earl of Dunmore, who tried to establish a base of operations in Hampton Roads in an attempt to retain power during the early months of the Revolutionary War.  

Reenactors portraying British forces peer out from the palisades of "Fort Murray," Lord Dunmore's redoubt south of Norfolk, Virginia, during recent commemorations of the Battle of Great Bridge. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington
Lord Dunmore’s defeat at Hampton in October 1775 gnawed not only at his honor, but his ego. Prior to the battle, he attempted to ensure media silence by raiding Norfolk. On September 30, he sent a party of marines and sailors to seize the printing press of the Norfolk Intelligencer. Dunmore had accused publisher John Holt of sedition “by the grossest misrepresentation of facts both public and private.” The British made off with a bookbinder and a journeyman and gave three cheers as they marched down to the wharf. This aggression angered the citizens of Norfolk, who sent Dunmore a letter calling his actions “illegal and riotous.” Dunmore responded in a letter to Norfolk saying that he only wished the “unhappy deluded Publick might no longer remain in the Dark concerning the present contest.” Certainly, if the Virginia press was the dark, then Dunmore was the light. Yet, his conciliatory agenda could not penetrate the ridicule and disdain the Virginia Gazette heaped upon Lord Dunmore after the loss at Hampton.

"Part of the Province of Virginia," a map thought to have been made in 1791, is oriented south side up and shows two key areas of Dunmore's campaign in the Norfolk area, particularly Kemp's Landing (center right) and Great Bridge (upper right). (Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)
Dunmore’s force now consisted of the Otter (20 guns and 170 men), Mercury (20 guns and 170 men), William (14 guns), Eilbeck (unarmed), four schooners, three sloops, and three pilot boats (four guns each). However, the British were not so cavalier in their raid in Princess Anne County on November 15. Dunmore’s ships landed over 100 men, who marched several miles to Kemp’s Landing and scattered the Princess Anne militia like chaff in the wind, raised the British colors (a naval jack), and seized supplies. Dunmore appeared in person this time and gave a rousing speech, entreating civilians to return their allegiance to the crown. Then in traditional English fashion, he held a celebratory ball, sure that he had cowed locals into submission.

Clearly, Lord Dunmore had not given up on Virginia. Yet, he was worried that locals no longer feared him. Therefore, he “determined to run all risques [sic] for their support” and issued a proclamation he had written aboard the HMS William on November 7. In it, he acknowledged a state of rebellion, declared martial law, and stated, “And I do hereby farther declare all indented [indentured] Servants, Negroes, or others (appertaining to Rebels) free, that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining his Majesty’s Troops.” Perhaps this was an olive branch from Dunmore to the rustics who chafed under the rule of Virginia’s gentry. However, most Virginians sensed an attack on their social hierarchy and therefore received Dunmore’s Proclamation with a mixture of anger and dread.
Reenactors (the 76th, 64th and 14th Regiments of Foote in this case) portraying British regulars under the command of Lord Dunmore confidently cross "Great Bridge" against Virginia and North Carolina militiamen. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington) 
The next day, November 16, Lord Dunmore returned to Norfolk to raise his colors and coerce more citizens into taking the oath of allegiance. Red cloth, the sign of loyalty to the crown, quickly became scarce in tory-populated Norfolk as many flocked to his banner.  Of course for some it was more a matter of convenience than ardor.  From here, Dunmore continued his psychological warfare. Using the stolen printing press, he printed his own gazette aboard the William on November 25. The first issue boasted that there were “3000 men determined to defend this part of the country against the inroads of the enemies to our King.” For the duration of November, Dunmore sent the Kingfisher up the James River to control river crossings. He also pulled all of his troops out of Portsmouth, instead concentrating them in Norfolk, preparing for a final coup de grâce.  He must have imagined that the victory would rival the Battle of Point Pleasant, near the Ohio River, where he had defeated Shawnee Indians under Chief Cornstalk in 1774. There he had forced the defeated Shawnee to sign a peace treaty conceding all of Kentucky and Virginia south of the Ohio River. Perhaps he had something similar in mind for the rebellious Virginians.

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