Tuesday, October 24, 2017

LORD DUNMORE | Oct. 24 – Attacks Norfolk, Stirs Up Fear

John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore
Knew what he was fighting for.
His threats made Patriots incensed.
(He knew less what he fought against.)
Clerihew by JT Marlin. Portrait attributed by
Google to Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792).
October 24, 2017 – This day in 1775, Virginia's last royal governor, John Murray (4th Earl of Dunmore), ordered six British Navy ships to sail up the James River, attack Patriot troops and destroy the town of Norfolk, Virginia.

This and related actions during his short term as Governor  contributed to the momentum of the American Revolution.

He helped create in Virginia a climate of fear of British rule, encouraged by Virginia Whigs (Patriots). This made them responsive to rebellions in New England.

Lord Dunmore was born in 1732, son of William Murray, the third Earl. He succeeded his father to the earldom in 1756 and took his place in the House of Lords in 1761-1774 and 1776-1790

As a reward for involvement in British politics, he was named British Governor of the Province of New York from 1770 to 1771. When the Governor of Virginia died, Dunmore was named to replace him. During 1774-1776, he became the last Royal Governor of Virginia.  He made a mighty contribution to the American rebel cause, although that might not have been so clear at the time.

Dunmore began his governorship well, from the perspective of both Virginians and the British Government. He successfully launched an attack on threatening Shawnee Indians. However, he was concerned about the independence of the Virginia militias and on April 20, 1775 he removed gunpowder from the colonial Virginia capital of Williamsburg, taking the powder to British ships anchored offshore. He also brought his family from the governor's Palace to the ships. 

Local Whig (Patriot) citizens were concerned that removing the gunpowder was not merely an attempt to reserve power to the King George, but removing their ability to respond to violence from their slaves, whom Dunmore saw as a possible ally.

Dunmore's reaction to this Whig criticism was to announce that any attack on the Governor's troops would force him to pursue the option of freeing his own slaves and arming them to fight against the rebels.

The Virginia planters, collectively owning about 180,000 slaves, were shocked. They began sympathizing with the New England Yankees, who had been calling for revolt. 

By June, Lord Dunmore retreated to the HMS Fowey, a British warship in the James River. (His family returned to Scotland.) He began to assemble a small fleet to strike back at the rebels and advertised that runaways that were able to make their way to his fleet would be welcomed. 

Those were fighting words. The rebels – the Whigs now increasingly joined by Tories – responded by increasing slave patrols and threatening extreme punishment for slaves that tried to escape to the HMS Fowey. Slaves that were caught were given lashes and worse.

As ordered, Captain Matthew Squire led the six British ships into Hampton Creek and began bombarding Norfolk with artillery and cannon fire, while a second contingent of British troops sailed ashore to begin engaging the Patriots.

The British Navy expected the Patriots and local militia to come charging out and engaging in open combat. They were surprised that the Patriots knew a thing or two about "secret war" – i.e., guerrilla warfare – from George Washington's tutelage years before under General Braddock in the French and Indian War. Lord Dunmore should also have known better because the Murray and Douglas families in Scotland perfected secret warfare against Edwards I-III.

The British came under fire from expert Patriot riflemen, and Virginia’s local militia leader, Colonel William Woodford, marched an additional 100 members to defend Norfolk. With reinforcements in place, the Patriots pushed the British back to their ships, where riflemen again picked off British troops on their decks. 

Seeing defeat ahead at the hands of the local militia, Captain Squire ordered a full retreat, during which two of the six British ships ran aground and were captured. The Patriots did not suffer a single fatality.

Dunmore's response was to declare martial law on November 14, 1775. He issued a proclamation that freed
all indented Servants, Negroes, or others … that are able and willing to bear Arms.
He made no distinction between Patriot or Loyalist property. George Washington, commander of Patriot forces, was deeply worried. He said that Dunmore must be crushed, or slave defections would become like a rolling "snow ball." (Washington to Reed, December 15, 1775, The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, Vol. 2, 553.)

Dunmore returned home to Scotland in 1776. The position of Royal Governor of Virginia was never filled again.

Other Posts on Related Topics: Lord Dunmore's Battles.

No comments:

Post a Comment