Assistant Education Coordinator
On New Year’s Day, 1776, Lord Dunmore’s fleet of frigates, sloops, schooners and the flag ship Dunmore, formerly the Eilbeck, began firing their heavy guns on Norfolk. Their goal was to disperse Patriot militia and to give cover to landing parties who will search for supplies for the Loyalists onboard and burn the wharves to keep the Rebels from using them.
The Virginia militia used the opportunity to begin setting fire to Loyalist homes. In the shelling and confusion, both Tory and Patriot homes began burning. After a few days, more than 1300 buildings were in ashes.
If Norfolk could so easily be assaulted by water, nearly all of Tidewater Virginia was vulnerable. The James, the York, the Elizabeth, the Rappahannock, the Potomac—all needed to be defended. Virginia needed a navy. Squadrons were formed for the protection of these precious waterways. In January 1776, the Virginia Convention decided to organize a squadron for the Potomac. Members of the Committee of Safety George Mason of Gunston Hall and John Dalton, an Alexandria merchant, were charged with that task.
A model of a row-galley used in the Chesapeake area
by both Virginia and Maryland navies, currently
on display in the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, MD.
By March, they were well into the task, and they wrote to the Maryland Council of Safety for assistance in protecting their shared waterway.
GENTLEMEN. Virginia, Fairfax County March 15th 1776.
Being employed by the Committee of Safety for this colony to fit out three armed cruisers, & two row gallies, for the protection of potomack River, we have, in consequence thereof, bought three sloops; the largest of which (called the American Congress) will mount 14 Carriage Guns, 6 & 4 pounders, & be man'ed with about ninety men. We are now raising the company of Marines, which will be compleated in a few days; she has most of her guns mounted, the shot are now casting, at a Furnace in the Neighbourhood, & if we had powder, she wou'd be very soon fit for action….As this equipment will be as beneficial to the inhabitants on the north side of potomack as to those on this side, we doubt not the disposition of your board to promote it, and under these circumstances, we take the liberty to apply to you for the loan of ten barrels of the powder lately imported for yr. province, in Capt. Conway's vessel now in the eastern Branch of potomack, which shall be replaced out of the first powder we receive from the northward, or else where: if ten bars. cant be spared, even five or six bars. wou'd be very serviceable, & might answer our purpose until the supply we expect from Philadelphia arrives. We beg the favour of an imediate answer, & hope that the urgency & importance of the Business will excuse the trouble we have taken the liberty to give you. We are with much Respect Gentn. your most obdt. Serts.
On March 19, the Maryland Council of Safety respond with 10 barrels of powder and a promise that they would “do everything in our Power to promote the general Welfare, and for that Purpose are now increasing our Marines.”
March 27, Lt. Thomas Boucher, of the Maryland schooner Defense, asked the Maryland Council of Safety for permission to resign his commission to assume command of the Potomac Fleet at the insistence of Col. Mason and Mr. Dalton “as it will be more beneficial to me.” His flagship would be the American Congress.
The 90-man crew of the Congress included
• John Boucher, commander
• Wm. Skinner, 1st Lt.
• John Thomas, 2nd Lt.
• Geo. Hunter, Doctor
• Rich. Richards, Gunner
• Robt. Cary, Boatswain
• John Allison, Capt. of Marines
A sloop, similar to the American Congress, the Scorpion,
and the Liberty. The sloops of the Virginia Navy were
probably converted merchant vessels.
Boucher’s Potomac Flotilla included 14 vessels of every description. Besides the American Congress, there were two other sloops Scorpion, and Liberty; row galleys; tenders; and an armed schooner also called Liberty. The schooner Liberty captured four British merchant-men in the Rappahannock, Oliver, Lark Susannah, and Speedwell. These were added to the Virginia Navy, armed and sent to the West Indies for supplies and powder.
In April, George Mason reported Virginia’s progress to his friend and neighbor General Washington in the field in command of the Continental Army.
VIRGINIA, GUNSTON HALL
April 2, 1776.
We have just received the welcome news of your having, with-so much address and success, dislodged the Ministerial Troops and taken possession of the town of Boston. I congratulate you most heartily upon this glorious and important event—an event which will render General Washington's name immortal in the annals of America, endear his memory to the latest posterity, and entitle him to those thanks which Heaven appointed as the reward of public virtue….
…Large ventures have been lately made for military stores; for which purpose we are now loading a ship for Europe, with tobacco at Alexandria. Her cargo is all on float, and I hope to have her under sailing in a few days. Notwithstanding the natural plenty of provisions in this colony, I am very apprehensive of a great scarcity of beef and pork among our troops this summer, occasioned by the people's not expecting a market until the slaughter season was past: I find it extremely difficult to lay in a stock for about three hundred men, in the Marine department of this river.
Ill health, and a certain listlessness inseparable from it, have prevented my writing to you so often as I would otherwise have done ; but I trust to your friendship to excuse it….I have, in conjunction with Mr. Dalton, the charge of providing and equipping armed vessels for the protection of this river. The thing is new to me, but I must endeavor to improve by experience. I am much obliged to the Board for joining Mr. Dalton with me. He is a steady, diligent man, and without such assistance I could not have undertaken it…..
We have twenty barrels of powder, and about a ton of shot ready—more is making; swivels we have not yet been able to procure, but she may make a tolerable ship without, until they can be furnished. We have got some small-arms, and are taking every method to increase them, and hope to be fully supplied in about a week more. Her company of marines is raised and have been for some time exercised to the use of the great guns. Her complement of marines and seamen is to be ninety-six men.
We are exerting ourselves to the utmost and hope to have her on her station in less than a fortnight, and that the other vessels will quickly follow her, and be able to protect the inhabitants of this river from the piratical attempts of all the enemy's cutters, tenders, and small craft….
Dear Sir Your affecte. & obdt. Servt.
In May, Capt. James Barron on the Liberty, not the sloop, not the schooner, but the brig, and his brother Capt. Richard Barron in the Patriot captured the transport ship Oxford, and its cargo of 217 Scotch Highlanders who were at the time trying to make their way to join Lord Dunmore’s troops.
Later that summer, Dunmore, his fleet, his troops, and his Loyalist followers had proceeded to Gwynn’s Island in the Chesapeake to use it as a base of operations as they continued to raid up the rivers of the Commonwealth.The Virginia Gazette reported:
Williamsburg, August 2, 1776
Since our last, we have certain advice that Lord Dunmore, with his motley band of pirates and renegadoes, have burnt the elegant brick house of William Brent, Esq; at the mouth of Aquia creek, in Stafford county, as also two other houses lower down Potowmack river, the property of widow ladies, with several ferry boats; that on Tuesday se'nnight he relanded on St George's island, but was beat off by 1200 Marylanders; that he had burnt eight of his vessels, and was seen standing down the bay the Thursday after with all his fleet.
A week later, after smallpox and Patriot raids had decimated his combined forces, Dunmore and his fleet weighed anchor.
John Page reported to the North Carolina Council of Safety
Lord Dunmore with his Fleet in 2 divisions has just left our capes, one of which steered to the Southward and the other with a fair Wind to the Northward.
Lord Dunmore never returned to Virginia.
With Dunmore gone and seemingly no one else in the British command realizing the importance of Virginia’s rivers to the nascent United States, the Virginia Navy could turn to making a bit of profit for sailors and the war effort. Many vessels were given permission to leave off defense and search for ammunition by capturing British supply ships entering the Chesapeake.
They captured a cargo of pineapples; a cargo of limes; a cargo of gifts for British officers from their friends at home; a cargo of guns, swivel guns, rifles, and ammunition; a cargo of salt from Bermuda; and a cargo of ladies of the evening from Liverpool being shipped for the pleasure of Loyalist troops in New York.
During the American Revolution
• Eleven of the thirteen states had a state navy.
• Only New Jersey and Delaware had no navy.
• Virginia’s navy was the largest of the state navies.
• Massachusetts had the most blue-water vessels.
• New Hampshire had only one ship in its navy.
• Connecticut had the Turtle, the only submarine.
Coming soon to this blog space—the continued history of Virginia’s Navy and the British attack on Mount Vernon.