"Otho Holland Williams in the American Revolution," John Beakes
The meeting will be held in the Westhampton Room, Heilman Center (dining hall--building 34 on the campus map), University of Richmond, at 6:30 p.m. with dinner available for purchase in the dining hall beginning at 5:30 p.m. It is not necessary that you purchase dinner in order to attend the meeting.
University of Richmond campus map:
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
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