Episode 012

The Battle of Great Bridge & The Burning of Norfolk

The Southern Theater of the Revolutionary War had several interesting events taking place from the fall of 1775 until the first part of 1776. Today we'll talk about two of those events: The Battle of Great Bridge and the burning of Norfolk, VA

In our last episode we spent some time in Canada and South Carolina. I want to return to the Canadian campaign, but before I do, I want to spend some time in the south, not only because I live in the south so it’s near and dear to me, but because the later part of 1775 and early 1776 were interesting times in the quote-unquote “Southern Theatre” of the Revolutionary War.

Let’s start out our discussion today with a brief review of what’s been going on in Virginia.

Tensions in Virginia reached a head in April 1775 at roughly the same time that shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. The Patriots controlled most of the provincial assembly in the British Colony of Virginia and had begun recruiting troops in March of 1775. More troops meant a larger need for weapons and ammunition, so there was a constant struggle between the Loyalists and the Patriots for control of the colony’s military supplies.

John Murray, the 4th Earl of Dunmore was the current royal Governor of Virginia, and it was under his command that British marines removed gunpowder from storage in Williamsburg to a Royal Navy ship. Similar to the Powder Alarm in Massachusetts, this sparked a small militia uprising, and while the incident was resolved without violence, Dunmore fearing for his own safety, left Williamsburg in June of 1775 and placed his family on board a Royal Navy Ship. Soon a small British fleet had gathered in the waters surrounding Norfolk. Norfolk was a port town whose merchants had strong Loyalist ties and tendencies. Although there was Patriot support in the town, it’s typically felt that the presence of a British force right off shore helped keep them in check in regards to violence against the British.

The two sides went back and forth with small minor skirmishes and confrontations until October when Dunmore had finally be able to acquire enough military support to start an organized campaign against the local Patriot forces. General Thomas Gage, (the same Gage who we know from Boston) had sent a small detachment of the 14th Regiment of Foot to Virginia in response to Dunmore’s pleas. By October 12th the troops were raiding counties in Virginia searching for Patriot military supplies.

At the end of the month, a small British ship ran aground and was captured by Patriot forces during a skirmish near Hampton, VA. The British navy boats sent in response, were repulsed by Patriot forces in a brief gun battle that resulted in the killing and capture of several sailors.

Dunmore reacted by issuing a proclamation on November 7, 1775 that he humbly titled the “Dunmore’s Proclamation” or sometimes referred to as “Dunmore’s Emancipation Proclamation”. The Proclamation did 2 things: 1. It declared martial law in the colony of Virginia and 2. It promised freedom for slaves of American revolutionaries who left their owners and joined British forces.

In Virginia, whose economy at the time depended heavily on slavery and whose slave-owning elite depended heavily on said slaves to continue to bring in money for the businesses and lands, this was a hot button issue. Most of the slave owners in Virginia (and other slave owning colonies) were always on the alert for slave uprisings, and Dunmore, or more holistically the British, seemed to be arming and triggering an uprising.

Despite the worries and concerns of Virginia’s elite, Dunmore was able to recruit enough men to form the “Ethiopian Regiment” he was also able to recruit enough Virginia Loyalists to form what he called the Queen’s Own Loyal Virginia Regiment. These two local forces supplemented the two companies of the 14th Foot that were the otherwise sole military presence in the colony. Dunmore felt that his recruiting was so successful that he wrote on November 30, that he would soon be able to “reduce this colony to a proper sense of their duty”

The provincial assembly of Virginia had sent companies of militia to Hampton, VA under the command of Colonel William Woodford in October and further militia continued to arrive at Williamsburg after hearing the news of Dunmore’s Proclamation. By early December, Woodford had more than 700 men available to him and he took about 500 of those men and advanced towards Great Bridge. British forces had previously fortified on the north side of the bridge, so Woodford began entrenching his position on his side of the bridge. As he entrenched more and more militia companies arrived from surrounding counties and North Carolina. He entrenched, because he was worried about assaulting the British position without cannon and he had overestimated the strength of the British garrison, ie: he thought they had more troops than they really did. By December 8, with the influx of troops and militia Woodford’s strength had grown to nearly 900 men, with 700 men ready for duty.

Dunmore had learned that the Patriots had acquired cannons, which was partially true. Some of the North Carolina men had brought cannon with them, but they did not have mountings or carriages. They essentially just brought the barrel. Dunmore, however, did not have this key fact, and concerned about the safety of his garrison, he decided an attack was necessary.

Dunmore’s plan was to send his Ethiopian companies to a spot downriver from the bridge to draw attention, then attack across the bridge with the remainder of his force and additional troops from Norfolk.

Dunmore’s intelligence told him that at best, the Patriots numbered around 400. He sent Captain Samuel Leslie on the night/early morning of December 8th and 9th down to Fort Murray. When Leslie arrived he learned that the Ethiopian detachmented intended to be the diversionary force was not in the fort. They had been sent on a routine deployment to another nearby river crossing. Dunmore had failed to send orders ahead to hold them back for this operation. Leslie decided he would proceed with the attack anyway, without the diversionary attack from the Ethiopian troops.

British Captain Charles Fordyce led a company of 60 grenadiers across the bridge, and as they crossed, they briefly skirmished with Patriot sentries. Fordyce’s men were joined by a company of navy gunners who had been brought along to operate field artillery for the attack, the rest of the attack force began to assemble itself on the British controlled side of the bridge.

The Patriot leadership in camp, heard the early morning skirmishing and thought it nothing more than an early morning salute. Shortly after reveille though, the threat became apparent. As the camp mobilized a company of about sixty men fortified themselves at the previously constructed earthworks. Fordyce and his men were beginning to advance on the position, and the Patriot defenses held their fire under Fordyce was within 50 yards, and then opened up on the British column. Fordyce and many of his front rank were killed in the initial barrage. The advance quickly dissolved under fire after roughly half of the grenadier force was killed, with many injured. As they retreated the company of navy gunners provided covering fire, but their guns were too small to do serious damage to the earthworks.

A British officer described the situation at the earthworks as follows:

“Figure yourself a strong breastwork built across a causeway, on which six men only could advance abreast; a large swamp almost surrounded them, at the back of which were two small breastworks to flank us in our attack on their intrenchments. Under these disadvantages it was impossible to succeed”

By this time, Colonel Woodford had fully organized the Patriot forces and they marched out to face the British. After some inconsequential long range musket fire, Woodford sent some of his rifle men (who had a longer effective range than the muskets) to distract and harass the navy gunners, which were the only British units that could engage the Patriots at this range.

The gunners, unable to successfully fire against Woodfords primary force, were forced to retreat back across the bridge. Captain Leslie foll owed suit and ordered all of his men to retreat back into Fort Murray. The entire “Battle of Great Bridge” as it’s become known, lasted around 25 minutes, with somewhere between 60-100 British killed, and one Patriot suffering a minor wound to his thumb.

After the battle, the British were allowed to remove their dead and wounded and they then snuck out of the area to return to Norfolk. The Patriot forces were reinforced by the arrival of North Carolina troops under the command of Colonel Robert Howe.
Dunmore blamed Leslie for the failure, for attacking without a diversion. Shortly after the battle Dunmore and his supporters took refuge on the ships of the Royal Navy.

Dunmore was still a danger to the Patriot forces in the area, even if he was in a ship. Washington knew Dunmore well, and in a letter to Charles Lee in late December warned of Dunmore’s danger, stating that

“if that Man is not crushed before Spring, he will become the most formidable Enemy America has..” and that “nothing less than depriving him of life or liberty will secure peace to Virginia”

On December 14th, with their number now around 1,200 men. Howe and Woodford moved into the almost deserted (from a military perspective) Norfolk. When Dunmore had taken his men to the ships anchored in the harbor he took most of the remaining Loyalist population with him.

Howe held a senior Continental Army commission and outranked Woodford, so he assumed command of the occupying forces. He adopted a harsh stance on Dunmore and the Royal Navy captains, denying the delivery of supplies to the overcrowded ships.

Howe and Woodford were constantly concerned about the possibility of a British attack and asked for more troops, but as they examined their situation they realized that the troops on the Royal Navy ship could easily navigate around the town, deploy their forces and isolate the garrison. They recommended to the Virginia assembly that the town be abandoned and rendered useless to their enemy.

On December 21 the Royal Navy ship Liverpool arrived, accompanied by a store ship loaded with supplies and munitions. Dunmore positioned four ships, the Dunmore, the Liverpool, the Otter, and the Kingfisher in a threatening line along the town’s waterfront, setting off an exodus of people and possessions from the town. On Christmas Eve, Liverpool‍‍ ’​‍s captain, Henry Bellew, sent what amounted to an ultimatum into the town, stating that he preferred to purchase provisions instead of taking them by force. Howe rejected the ultimatum, and prepared for a bombardment. On December 30, Bellew demanded that the Patriot forces cease parading and changing the guard on the waterfront because he found it offensive, and suggested that it would “not be imprudent” for women and children to leave the town. Howe refused to withdraw his men, telling Bellew “I am too much an Officer … to recede from any point which I conceive to be my duty.”

On New Year’s Day 1776, Howe’s guards paraded as they had before. Between 3:00 and 4:00 pm, the four ships of the British fleet opened fire on the town. Mounting more than 100 guns, they shelled the town well into the evening hours. Landing parties were sent ashore, some to retrieve provisions, others to set fire to buildings that Patriot snipers had been using as posts from which to fire on the fleet. Although the British movements were not particularly well coordinated, they succeeded in setting most of the waterfront ablaze.[

The Patriot militia resisted the landing parties, but did little to stop the flames, which were spread by advantageous winds. Some Loyalist properties were targeted for burning and looting by the Patriot shortly after the bombardment began, including a local distillery.[ Although the British ended their operations that day, the fires continued to r age; the next morning Colonel Howe reported that “the whole town will I doubt not be consum’d in a day or two.” The burning and looting by the occupying Patriot continued for three days. By the time order was restored, much of Norfolk had been destroyed.

In a letter to the Virginia Provincial Assembly, Howe wrote of the events on that day…

“Between three and four o’clock, a severe cannonade began from all the shipping, under cover of which they landed small parties, and set fire to the houses on the wharves. The wind favoured their design and we believe the flames will become general.

In the confusion which they supposed would ensue, they frequently attempted to land; but this, by the bravery of our officers and men, we have hitherto prevented, with only a few men wounded on our side, and we persuade ourselves, with a good deal of loss on theirs. Their efforts and our opposition, still continue. We have stationed ourselves in such a manner as will, we believe, render everything but burning the houses ineffectual. We wait with impatience your further orders”

Damage to the town by the Patriot forces significantly exceeded that done by the British, destroying 863 buildings valued at £120,000 (an estimated £14.4 million in modern pound sterling). In comparison, the British bombardment destroyed only 19 properties worth £3,000 (£360,000); this was in addition to £2,000 (£240,000) in damages done by Lord Dunmore during the British occupation of Norfolk.

Colonel Howe’s report to the Virginia Convention omitted the role of the Patriot forces in the burning, and repeated the recommendation that the town be destroyed. A newspaper account published by Lord Rawdon prompted some questions in Patriot circles about the event, but many assumed that British forces were responsible for most of the damage, and no inquiries were made in the immediate aftermath. The convention approved Howe’s plan, and by February 6 the remaining 416 structures had been destroyed. It was not until 1777 that the full extent of Patriot participation in the burning was acknowledged.

Patriot forces withdrew from the ruins of the town after completing its destruction, and took up posts in other nearby towns. They were further organized in March, when General Charles Lee arrived to take command of the Continental Army’s Southern Department. He mobilized the militia to evict Dunmore from a camp he had established near Portsmouth; Dunmore finally abandoned Virginia for good in August 1776.

Like This Episode?

What are your thoughts? Discuss below...

  • Pamela Earnest

    Thanks for the information. I live in the Norfolk area & have always been curious how the events took place during the burning of Norfolk during the Revolutionary War.

Free Updates by Email

Get show updates and notes directly in your email inbox!