Norfolk's Worst Nightmare
By Louis L. Guy, Jr.
"The fate of America . . . depends on [Dunmore] being obliged to evacuate Norfolk this winter [1775-76]."
-- George Washington
"Delenda est Norfolk." [Norfolk must be destroyed.]
-- Thomas Jefferson
"Thus was destroyed the most populous and flourishing town in Virginia."
-- John Marshall
In late 1775 Virginia was by far the largest of Great Britain's American colonies, and the Borough of Norfolk, ninety-three years old, was by far the largest community in Virginia. During the first three days of the New Year, four fifths of Norfolk was burned to the ground. A month later, all the remaining structures were leveled, excepting only the scorched walls of the Borough Church. How did this happen, and why?
A city by its nature is diverse, and a seaport city is more cosmopolitan than other cities. Rarely has this been recognized as a virtue in Virginia, which commonly prides itself on homogeneity and uniformity of beliefs. In the months leading up to the American Revolution, the Borough of Norfolk was torn by opposing viewpoints. Many citizens supported the rebels. The Norfolk newspaper, the Virginia Gazette / Norfolk Intelligencer, strongly opposed Royal Governor Dunmore and the attempts to levy British taxes on Virginians. Many others, including a number of Scottish merchants, strongly supported the Governor and the Crown. The two sides, calling themselves patriots or loyalists, each saw the others as traitors. In a pattern to be repeated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Norfolk was "caught in the middle". This eighteenth century nightmare was the worst!
Lord Dunmore was a Scot himself, and one of his good friends was Andrew Sprowle, who had a prosperous shipyard at Gosport across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk. In 1775 Dunmore received little support from the Virginia House of Burgesses or even the Governor's Council, but the Royal Navy had a presence of several armed vessels which put troops at his disposal. Norfolk and Portsmouth were especially vulnerable to the power of warships, but the capitol at Williamsburg was several miles from the closest navigable waterway.
In the spring, there had been rumors of slave plots throughout the James River basin, and two slaves in Norfolk were convicted of a conspiracy and sentenced to death. When Dunmore removed the colony's gunpowder from its storage at Williamsburg, the citizens throughout the colony were greatly alarmed. In June Dunmore abandoned the Governor's Palace and moved his family on board HMS FOWEY, which then anchored in the Elizabeth River with other British warships. Some slaves in southeastern Virginia sought sanctuary on these ships but they were turned away. In July, representatives of the Norfolk Borough Council expressed thanks to the Capt. Macartney of HMS MERCURY.
Two weeks later, in a letter to the Borough protesting rough treatment of Andrew Sprowle in Norfolk, Captain Macartney threatened to "place His Majesty's Ship abreast the town … and use the most coercive measures in my power to suppress all unlawful combinations." Norfolk's Mayor Loyall responded to the captain that "notwithstanding the Utterly defenseless State of the town, … this Borough will never Tamely Submit to the Invasion [by] Military Force." A second heated exchange with the Borough Council took place when Dunmore's forces seized the "presses, tipes, paper, ink, [and] two of the printers" from the Virginia Gazette / Norfolk Intelligencer.
In October the British forces raided into the neighboring communities, north of Norfolk and up the Eastern and Southern Branches of the Elizabeth River, capturing or destroying the rebels' arms and putting the militia to flight. To restrain Dunmore's activities, the patriot government in Williamsburg ordered troops under Col. William Woodford to Norfolk. Their written instructions acknowledged that citizens in Norfolk and Portsmouth, "exposed to the vengeance of the Navy", might be afraid to declare their real sentiments. Therefore, the Virginia troops were ordered to leave unmolested all who were peaceable, and to "prevent the wanton destruction of any person's property whatever."
Lord Dunmore issued his famous "Emancipation Proclamation" in November, as part of a declaration of martial law. In it he offered freedom to slaves, but only to those slaves "belonging to the rebels". About 300 runaway slaves were enlisted in his "Etheopean Corps", and a comparable number of white loyalists into the "Queens Own Loyal Virginians" regiment. "Liberty to Slaves" was embroidered on the uniforms of the African Americans, in direct contrast to "Liberty or Death" on the uniforms of the rebel Culpeper Minutemen.
The Battle of Great Bridge, on December 9, 1775, was Virginia's Bunker Hill and Dunmore's biggest mistake. The Governor's contempt for American soldiers led him to order his regulars to storm the works of the Virginians with fixed bayonets. Although the Virginians lost not a single man, every British grenadier was said to have been killed or wounded. Dunmore's forces retreated to Norfolk, taking refuge on board the warships. Four days later, reinforced by a North Carolina regiment under Col. Robert Howe, the patriot troops entered Norfolk triumphantly. Colonels Howe and Woodford sent ahead a letter to the Borough, ordering the inhabitants not to "resist our entrance, or omit to inform us of the intention of any other person to oppose us". The message strongly resembled the threat from British Captain Macartney four months earlier.
The British warships LIVERPOOL, OTTER, KING'S FISHER, DUNMORE, and WILLIAM rode at anchor before the town, ready to fire. By now most of the homes in Norfolk were vacant, and the patriot troops amused themselves by firing into British vessels from buildings along the shore. Unable to obtain provisions from within the town, on New Years Day Lord Dunmore landed troops under cover of a bombardment and set fire to houses near the river. The fighting and burning lasted through the night, but after the British withdrew the patriots continued to burn and loot across the town to the cry "Keep up the Jigg." When a resident complained to Howe about rebel properties being burned, the colonel told the witness to stop bothering him. Nineteen year old John Marshall, present as a member of the Culpeper Minutemen, reported that the soldiers saw the flames spread from house to house "with great composure". This fire consumed about four fifths of the town. A Virginia commission determined later that 51 houses had been destroyed by Dunmore's forces and another 863 by the patriot troops. Col. Howe pressed the Virginia Convention for orders to burn the remaining 416 structures, arguing that otherwise Norfolk might be held as a permanent post by the British. Burning it down, hopefully, might cause the British warships to abandon Virginia and move the seat of war elsewhere. The government in Williamsburg gave Howe their approval in early February and his troops completed the total destruction of Norfolk immediately.
Reinforced by the arrival of the 44 gun HMS ROEBUCK, with one hundred Royal marines, Dunmore shifted his base to Portsmouth and then up the Chesapeake Bay to Gwynn's Island. Before his fleet finally sailed for New York, he left almost 500 graves behind him, due mostly to smallpox and other diseases. His African American troops were disarmed and dispersed, with some returning to their former masters and others reportedly sold in the West Indies. As Dunmore departed Virginia, in Philadelphia the Continental Congress proclaimed the Declaration of Independence. In justifying this drastic action, Thomas Jefferson wrote that King George "has ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, & destroyed the lives of our people."
Meanwhile, in the ruins of the Norfolk Courthouse, the Borough Council met on Charter Day, June 24, 1776, elected a new Mayor, and began the rebuilding process.
"Its [Norfolk's] destruction was one of those ill-judged measures, of which the consequences are felt long after the motives are forgotten."
-- John Marshall, 1805
"Nothing, NOTHING, ever had to happen the way it happened, when it happened."
-- David McCullough, 1998
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