Monday, July 3, 2017

Lord Dunmore's Navy in Hampton Roads, 1775-1776, Part IV: One Last Grasp for the Old Dominion

By Matthew Krogh
Contributing Writer

Editor's Note:  Independence Day is a perfect time to remind ourselves about the type of government Americans declared their independence from 241 years ago.  To this end we release the fourth and final installment in a series about Virginia's last royal governor, John Murray, Fourth Earl of Dunmore, who attempted to retain power during the early months of the Revolutionary War from a base of operations in Hampton Roads.   

This postcard dating from the Jamestown Exposition of 1907 depicts the arrival of Lord Dunmore aboard a British warship, probably the 24-gun HMS Fowey, off Yorktown on the morning of June 8, 1775, seen anchored near HMS Magdalen. Although most sources mention Dunmore’s flight as being aboard Fowey, Magdalen’s journal entry for that day, as recorded in Volume 1 of Naval Documents of the American Revolution, holds that “at 5 AM the Earl of Dunmore and his familey came on board, at 7 weigh’d and came to Sail [then] at 11 Anchord abreast of York Town [and] Saluted his Lordship on his Coming on board and Leaving the Vessel with 13 Guns.”  The schooner’s 13-gun salute to the governor, who had just fled his palace in Williamsburg with his family the night before, marked the end of his control over the colony, but it signaled the beginning of Dunmore’s navy, a ramshackle assortment of nearly 200 vessels, from which he waged an almost 14-month campaign to retake the colony. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division) 
In January 1776, 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 retain, 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, 1776, 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, Col. Robert Howe of the North Carolina militia and his men attempted to destroy Dunmore’s original headquarters – Gosport, the naval supply center 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, Maj. Gen. 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 merchant 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 black volunteer troops, marines, 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.

Although Thomas Jefferson is most remembered for drafting the Declaration of Independence for the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in July, 1776, he also drew this “Map of Action at Gwin’s Island” shortly afterward. (Thomas Jefferson Papers, Series 1: general Correspondence, 1651 to 1827. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division)
At Gwynn’s Island, Dunmore and his men suffered additional privations and it was reported that he had “400 half starved motley soldiers.” After retrieving Governor Robert Eden of Maryland in June, the island became an even bigger target for American troops bent on the destruction of Dunmore’s Navy. On July 5, the day after America declared independence, Dunmore sent a flag of truce in order to exchange prisoners. Captain Andrew Hamond of HMS Roebuck wrote of the situation, stating, “I have been under the absolute necessity of giving to Lord Dunmore & his floating Town, consisting of a Fleet of upwards of 90 Sail, destitute of allmost every material to Navigate them, as well as seamen.” By July 8, militia under General Andrew Lewis opened fire on Dunmore’s hastily-built fort. The first shot fittingly passed through the hull of the ship Dunmore while another splintered a timber, wounding Lord Dunmore himself. “Good God that ever I should come to this!” Dunmore purportedly shouted. He could no longer bare the emotional and physical pain that Virginia had caused him.
Sir Andrew Hamond. (Wikimedia Commons)  
Despite Dunmore’s urging, Clinton concentrated British forces in New York and the Carolinas. This left the Old Dominion to the Americans until the British returned in force toward the end of the war under Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold and Gen. Charles Cornwallis. Cornwallis’ army finally entrenched itself at Yorktown, near the mouth of the York River, in autumn. The Royal Navy suffered a defeat at the hands of the French fleet in the Battle Off the Capes as they attempted to resupply British land forces, as they had done in 1776. This left Cornwallis no choice but to surrender to Gen. George Washington’s army in October, 1781. Had the British listened more attentively to Lord Dunmore in 1776 and maintained a firm grasp of the lower Chesapeake Bay, the war in Virginia might have turned out differently.

By the time Dunmore’s ships cleared the Capes, the American Revolution had begun in earnest. In the end, the Battle of Hampton in October, 1775, marked the failure of traditional British naval tactics for the first time in the American Revolution and a lack of understanding one’s enemy on the part of Lord Dunmore.  The Battle of Kemp’s Landing saw a resurgence of Dunmore’s fortunes but a continuance of poor leadership and unscrupulous decisions. Great Bridge saw Dunmore’s forces suffer another defeat, forcing him to seek safety with the Royal Navy. Similarly, the burning of Norfolk witnessed the failure of Dunmore’s governorship and the retreat to Gwynn’s Island beheld the final dissolution of his meager navy as it suffered from starvation and disease. Yet, Lord Dunmore’s navy had saved him from capture and rescued hundreds of loyalists and former slaves. Perhaps they even had done Virginia a favor by whisking away the pugnacious Scottish peer. When two runaway slaves deserted the British fleet and reported Dunmore’s departure, Purdie’s Virginia Gazette compared Lord Dunmore to another infamous historical figure. In doing so, the paper established a new low for gentlemanly conduct when it stated that Dunmore had “perpetuated crimes that would even have disgraced the noted pirate Black Beard.” Given the chance, Patriots probably would have mounted Dunmore’s head on a pike in Hampton as well.

Seen here in 2008, the site of Lord Dunmore's last stand in July 1776, Gwinn's Island, was originally granted to British Col. Hugh Gwinn in 1640.  Although mostly known as a long-time vacation destination, around 600 full-time residents still call the island home. Three miles long, two miles wide, and 2,000 acres in area, it still lies today at the mouth of the Piankatank River in Mathews County, Virginia. (Ben Fertig, Integration and Application Network, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science) 
Matthew Krogh is a reenactor with HM Sloop Otter

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