Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Sword is Drawn: George Mason and the Virginia Navy Part 1

By Frank Barker 
Assistant Education Coordinator 

In April 19, 1775, British troops in Massachusetts marched from Boston to Concord to seize powder and weapons stored by Patriot militia. They skirmished with Minutemen along the way at Lexington. A revolution began.

The Magazine at Williamsburg as it stands today.
A day later, ordered by Virginia royal governor John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, Lt. Henry Colins and 15 marines marched from the armed schooner Magdalen and seized the gunpowder from the public magazine in Williamsburg. Lord Dunmore had no prior knowledge of the events in Massachusetts; he was acting entirely on his own.

As word of Dunmore’s actions spread throughout Williamsburg, Virginians complained to Dunmore that they would not have means to protect themselves from a rumored slave revolt. Dunmore insists he seized the powder to protect it from revolting slaves. It could be returned quickly if needed. Meanwhile, the powder is off-loaded from Magdalen to HMS Fowey in Norfolk.

Two days later, Lord Dunmore confided to Dr. William Pasteur, a palace guest, that if the townspeople revolt, he would “declare Freedom to the slaves and reduce the City of Williamsburg to ashes.” Dunmore’s threat was quickly relayed throughout Virginia. People had heard rumors for months that Dunmore would free the slaves and turn them against Virginia.

On April 28, dispatches finally reached Williamsburg and the first accounts of the Battles in Massachusetts went public. The Virginia Gazette announced, “The sword is now drawn, and God knows when it will be sheathed.”

Lord Dunmore in Scottish dress.
Dunmore, hearing Patrick Henry was marching on Williamsburg with the Hanover militia to demand payment for Virginia’s seized powder, sent Lady Dunmore and their children to the Fowey, now in the York River. By June 8, Dunmore also left Williamsburg for the safety of the Fowey. He would never return to Williamsburg and the Governor’s Palace. He began to put together a small flotilla of well-armed ships off Norfolk. Dunmore’s command began to conduct raids along the river plantations. This attracts the attention of plantation slaves. In the coming months, hundreds of them joined Dunmore’s cause.

A Norfolk resident wrote: “Dunmore sails up and down the river and where he finds a defenseless place, he lands, plunders the plantation and carries off the negroes.” The Gazette is filled with advertisements for runaway slaves.

King George declared America in a state of “open avowed rebellion” on August 23, 1775. That summer Dunmore sailed a fleet up the Elizabeth River towards Norfolk. Three of them were warships
         20 gun Mercury
         16 gun sloop Kingfisher
         14 gun sloop Otter

A merchant ship, the William, had been taken by Dunmore to serve as his flagship—he was bringing it to the shipyard at Gosport to be fitted out more to his liking. In Gosport he found a newly built ship that was more to his liking, so he seized it for his use. The ship’s name was the Eilbeck.

He immediately very modestly rechristened her the Dunmore.

On November 14, 1775, Lord Dunmore issued a proclamation:

“I do require every Person capable of bearing Arms, to resort to His MAJESTY'S STANDARD, or be looked upon as Traitors to His MAJESTY'S Crown and Government, and thereby become liable to the Penalty the Law inflicts upon such Offenses; such as forfeiture of Life, confiscation of Lands, &. &. And I do hereby further declare all indented Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining His MAJESTY'S Troops as soon as may be.” It was the first emancipation proclamation in America. Needless to say it did not sit well with the slave-owning population of Virginia.

Hundreds of escaped slaves joined Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment. A few were lost in the Battle of Great Bridge north of Norfolk in December of ’75. Several of the surviving members of the regiment were captured and the Virginians made an example of them, selling 32 into slavery in the Caribbean.

Following that defeat, Dunmore loaded his troops, many Virginia Loyalists, and the former slaves onto British ships. In the confined quarters of the ships, a smallpox epidemic quickly spread. Some 500 of the 800 members of the Ethiopian Regiment died. Dunmore purportedly left smallpox ravaged bodies at various landing points, using biological warfare against Virginians.

 The Virginia Convention passed a resolution decreeing death to “all Negro or other Slaves, conspiring to rebel or make insurrection.”

On December 26, 1775, General George Washington wrote to Charles Lee about Dunmore: “If that Man is not crushed before Spring, he will become the most formidable Enemy America has...nothing less than depriving him of life or liberty will secure peace to Virginia.”

Also in December, the Virginia Convention authorized the Committee of Safety…
"To provide from time to time such and so many armed vessels as they may judge necessary for the protection of the several rivers of this colony, in the best manner the circumstances of the country will admit."

George Mason is on that Committee of Safety.

Next week: Pirates & Renegadoes: George Mason and the Virginia Navy Part II

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