Even though the Battle of Great Bridge was one of the earliest, shortest and least known battles of the American Revolution, it was also one of the most important according to historian Norman Fuss.
“As a result of the Patriot victory at Great Bridge on December 9, 1775, there was no significant British pressure in Virginia for five years until Benedict Arnold’s raid,” said Fuss at the January 20, 2016 meeting of the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond. “The battle was a major early turning point in the war because it left Virginia as the wealthiest state in America with the possible exception of Massachusetts. Throughout the rest of the war thousands of troops and tons supplies flowed from Virginia and the states to the south to supply Washington’s army.”
Leading up to the Battle of Great Bridge were the tensions between the Virginia colony and its royal governor John Murray, fourth Earl of Dunmore. In 1774 Lord Dunmore dissolved the Virginia House of Burgesses after they supported the residents of Boston whose port was closed by the British shortly after the Boston Tea Party. The Virginia legislators responded to Lord Dunmore’s suspension of the colonial legislature by forming their own provisional government, which included the Second Virginia Convention that met in March 1775 at St. John’s Church where Patrick Henry gave his famous “give me liberty or give me death” speech.
On April 21, 1775 Lord Dunmore authorized 20 British Marines to slip into Williamsburg and seize the gunpowder from the colonial magazine. The outrage among Virginians to these actions caused Lord Dunmore to fear for his safety so on June 8, 1775 he fled Williamsburg to board a British ship in the York River. From there he led a British fleet on several raids along Virginia’s major waterways to get supplies and to free slaves located on plantations whose owners were hostile to him.
Lord Dunmore asked the British government for more British troops, and received the 14th Regiment of Foot from St. Augustine, FL. With his larger number of troops Lord Dunmore moved his base of operations to Norfolk, and encouraged Loyalists and escaped slaves to join the British army. Thanks to his larger military force, Lord Dunmore’s raids on the Tidewater area became more ambitious and resulted in the capture of all Patriot artillery located in the Tidewater area.
“On November 7, 1775 Dunmore wrote his infamous or famous proclamation, depending on your point-of-view,” said Fuss. “He declared martial law in Virginia and promised freedom to any escaped slave who was willing to join the British army.”
Lord Dunmore placed the escaped slaves in a military unit known as Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment. Most of these troops were poorly trained and poorly equipped by the British, and many of them died from contagious diseases such as smallpox.
Shortly after hearing rumors of a Patriot force located 12 miles to the south of Norfolk at Great Bridge, Lord Dunmore sailed his forces down the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River to Great Bridge on November 14, 1775 but found nothing. He then detached some of his troops to construct a palisade fort on the north end of Great Bridge.
Lord Dunmore proceeded with the rest of his troops in search of Patriot militia located at Kemp’s Landing in Princess Anne County (modern-day Virginia Beach). He marched his troops approximately 10 miles to this site where his soldiers “utterly routed” the Patriots, according to Fuss.
In response to Lord Dunmore’s raids and his new base of operations in Norfolk, Virginia’s Committee on Safety sent the 2nd Virginia Regiment under the command of Colonel William Woodford to confront Lord Dunmore near Norfolk. Woodford was an experienced officer who had served in the French and Indian War.
“Fortunately for Dunmore the land route to Norfolk from the south was covered by the Great Dismal Swamp, which was much larger and more dismal than it is today,” joked Fuss.” Access through the Dismal Swamp was basically limited to the Great Road Causeway which was the main road connecting Norfolk and North Carolina. Today the old causeway is called Battlefield Boulevard. The modern road doesn’t follow the old causeway completely but it’s pretty close.”
Great Bridge was the key bridge on this causeway. It was approximately 18 feet wide by 150 feet long.
When Patriot troops reached the Great Bridge area, they built a fort on the south end of the bridge. Thus, the British had a fort just to the north of Great Bridge and the Patriots had one just to the south. For several days the two sides skirmished with each other in what became a stalemate. The Patriots were content to wait for reinforcements to arrive from North Carolina under the command of Colonel Robert Howe.
“Dunmore had three choices,” said Fuss. “He could retreat, he could wait and hope to defeat the larger Patriot force which would include artillery, or he could attack the existing Patriot force on the south end of Great Bridge. He elected to attack, which was desperate and risky but had a chance.”
On the morning of December 9, 1775 Patriot sentries heard the sounds of planks being added to Great Bridge. The sentries raced back to their fort and alerted the Patriot main guard under the command of Lieutenant Edward Travis. The last Patriot sentry to retreat was Billy Flora, a free black man who removed a plank before he retreated in an effort to slow down the British advance.
British grenadiers under the command of Captain Charles Fordyce marched across the bridge, six abreast, and charged the Patriot fort with fixed bayonets. When the British came within easy firing range, the Patriots unleashed a deadly volley which wounded Fordyce and killed and wounded other British soldiers. The wounded Fordyce and his troops continued their charge until the Patriots unleashed another volley, which killed Fordyce and halted the British advance.
The British retreated back to their fort on the north end of Great Bridge. In less than five minutes the Battle of Great Bridge was essentially over with 66 British soldiers lying dead or wounded. All of the casualties were from Dunmore’s 14th Regiment of Foot, his most professional military force. The Patriots suffered only one casualty, a soldier named Thomas Nash who got slightly wounded in a hand. According to Fuss, the battle was an “absolute disaster for the British.”
The next day Robert Howe arrived with his Patriot reinforcements from North Carolina. Lord Dunmore’s troops marched back to Norfolk and boarded British ships, which set off panic among many of Norfolk’s Loyalists who also decided to board the ships. Shortly afterward the Patriots marched into Norfolk and occupied it.
As the British navy ran low on supplies, they asked the Patriot troops occupying Norfolk for permission to re-supply their ships with food and water. The Patriots refused. On January 1, 1776 the British fleet responded by shelling Norfolk, which burned much of the City. Then the British sailed away to Gwynn’s Island at the mouth of the Rappahannock River.
Prior to abandoning Norfolk the Patriot army burned much of the remainder of the City which hadn’t already been damaged by the British shelling. The Patriots wanted to punish Norfolk for its Loyalist leaning, and to keep the British from coming back and using the City once again as a British base of operations.
Lord Dunmore’s fleet stayed at Gwynn’s Island until August 1776 and then sailed to New York City. He returned to Great Britain later that year. In 1809 Lord Dunmore died at his British estate and according to Fuss, he died “a bitter old man”.
Norman Fuss is an avocational historian and living history interpreter who focuses on the American Revolution period. He conducts guided tours for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and acts as a volunteer consultant for the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, which will open to the public later this year. He has also published over two dozen articles on a variety of topics related to the American Revolution. After retiring from a career as a chemical engineer and a management consultant, he moved to Williamsburg and serves as a subject matter expert for Colonial Williamsburg’s Electronic Field Trips.
Prior to Fuss’ presentation the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond discussed the following topics:
1. President Bill Welsch reminded the membership to pay 2016 dues. He also reminded the membership of the upcoming ARRT-Richmond field trip on April 2 to several sites related to Benedict Arnold’s 1781 raid on the Richmond area.
2. Book Award Committee Chairman Mark Lender announced that the ARRT-Richmond Book Award Committee is accepting recommendations from the membership of any books which people wish to nominate as a candidate for the 2016 Book Award.
3. Treasurer Art Ritter reported that the ARRT-Richmond treasury has increased by slightly over 50% during the past two years. Ritter said the primary reason is the larger membership from two years ago.