Editor's Note: This is the third installment 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.
There, Dunmore constructed Fort Murray on a marshy promontory on the Elizabeth River but sallied forth with his soldiers and sailors to thrash the Americans massing on the other side of the bridge. The one sided defeat caused him to return his troops and supplies to Norfolk as he licked his wounds under the protection of the Royal Navy. Many loyalists packed up what they could aboard their own schooners and sailed to the British fleet for protection. Dunmore did not depart, however, and many wayward shots were fired at the Otter and other ships after Colonel Woodford and Colonel Robert Howe occupied Norfolk on December 14. The suffering increased as cold weather, starvation, and disease set in. Dunmore himself wrote, “It was a melancholy sight to see . . . whole families obliged to betake themselves on board of Ships.” With circumstances worsening, corpses were often dumped unceremoniously into the Elizabeth River by the British and several hundred men from the Ethiopian Regiment died.
Reenactors portraying sailors from HMS Otter join soldiers of the 14th Regiment of Foote defending against Virginia militiamen during the most recent Battle of Great Bridge reenactment, held in Chesapeake, Virginia. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)
On December 21 the Liverpool under Captain Henry Bellew arrived along with the store ship Maria and 400 marines changing the odds in Dunmore’s favor. Lord Dunmore, in a rash move, positioned the Liverpool, the Otter, the Kingfisher, and the Dunmore abreast of Norfolk’s waterfront. This formation triggered a mass exodus from Norfolk by its citizens as an attack appeared imminent. With this show of strength, Captain Bellew again requested supplies from the Virginians adding that he wished to avoid the “effusion of the blood of the innocent.” On December 30 Bellew and Howe exchanged heated pleasantries as Bellew demanded that American militia “avoid being seen” and implied that all women and children should leave Norfolk. On New Year’s Day 1776, 100 ships’ guns opened a terrific fire with shot and shell upon a mostly empty Norfolk continually for 25 hours. Torch bearing British marines soon followed and fought hand to hand combat with sentries onshore. Dunmore even managed to have the Snow burned during the general confusion of the attack. Although driven back, the marines managed to burn 19 houses along the waterfront. Conversely, American troops burned over 800 in the next few days in a drunken melee of savagery and vengeance against this tory bastion. When the flaming bacchanalia subsided, over one-third of Norfolk had been destroyed, although Colonel Howe stopped the depredations by January 3. The Liverpool and Otter traded fire with Virginians on shore on January 21 in a final attempt to burn the few remaining dwellings. Dunmore no longer need worry about holding Norfolk.
Lord Dunmore had made a strategic mistake by putting Norfolk to the torch amidst his own tempestuous attitude. He did this despite recruiting thousands of men from Norfolk to his standard. With triumph slipping through his fingers he sought to destroy what he could not have resulting in a pyrrhic victory. Indeed, firing on Norfolk was considered barbaric and ill advised by most Britons since it was the best staging area and supply center in the Chesapeake. On January 5 the Naval Committee wrote to the Virginia Convention saying “The Congress attentive to the safety and security of every part of the united Colonies, and observing the peculiar distresses that the Colony of Virginia is liable from a Marine enemy, have with all possible expedition fitted out a small fleet of Armed Vessels, which they have ordered in the first place to the Bay of Chesapeak, if the winds and weather permit.” Dunmore’s time was running out as colonial leaders moved resources to Hampton Roads.
With Norfolk destroyed, Colonel Howe’s men attempted to destroy Dunmore’s original headquarters – Gosport, the naval supply empire built by Andrew Sprowle. British marines tried to protect the buildings there but Patriot forces succeeded in burning the distillery, warehouses, and homes. The frigate Roebuck arrived in the Elizabeth River with additional troops in February. With Norfolk untenable, Dunmore relocated to Portsmouth a few days later where he continued his forays into the countryside and into the Chesapeake Bay. In March 1776, General Charles Lee arrived in Williamsburg to take command of Virginia’s forces and made it a priority to rid the Old Dominion of Lord Dunmore and his navy. He stationed detachments in a ring around Portsmouth, seized the properties of loyalists, and attempted to burn merchants vessels offshore at Norfolk. On May 20, Lee fought a repeat of the Battle of Hampton when he attacked Dunmore’s fleet from the safety of the ruins of the Norfolk wharf.Dispossessed of his will to continue in the present condition Dunmore set sail soon after with 100 vessels and several hundred former slaves, marines, troops, sailors, and loyalists, including Sprowle. They headed for Gwynn’s Island in the Chesapeake Bay where Dunmore hoped to establish a new beachhead for the British. He had not given up on Virginia yet.
Editor's note: Matthew Krogh is a reenactor with HM Sloop Otter