Sunday, December 30, 2018

Episode 077: Dunmore Proclamation and the Southern War

When we last left Virginia in Episode 69, Royal Governor Dunmore had taken refuge aboard the HMS Fowey and was directing military raids against Virginia towns along the coast.  British marines and Virginia soldiers had fought a pitched battle at Hampton, forcing the marines to withdraw.  Dunmore and the British operated out of a secured shipyard in Norfolk, but otherwise had pretty much lost control of the entire colony.

Dunmore’s Proclamation

Unlike some other toppled royal governors, Dunmore was not content to sit aboard ship and await the arrival of British regulars.  As a former military officer, he would try anything in his power, using the resources he had available, to oppose the rebellion.

For months, Dunmore had threatened to raise an army of slaves to rise up against the rebel colonists, thus stoking fears of a slave rebellion.  Based only on rumor, many slaves began flocking to Norfolk to offer their services to Dunmore.

The Dunmore Proclamation
(from Digital History Reader)
Following the Battle of Hampton, on November 7, 1775, Lord Dunmore issued a public proclamation declaring martial law in the colony and calling on all loyal subjects to take up arms against the traitors.  More significantly, he called on the slaves of all rebels to join his new loyalist army.  In exchange for their service, they would be granted their freedom.

To be clear, this was not an attempt to abolish slavery.  The slaves of loyalists in Virginia were not eligible for this deal.  Gov. Dunmore was trying to confiscate the slaves from rebels and use them against the rebellion.  Even so, for many Tories, the proclamation made manifest the irony of colonists who complained about being enslaved and denied fundamental liberties, being confronted by people that the colonists themselves had enslaved and denied fundamental liberties.

For southern whites, attempting to foment a slave rebellion was the “nuclear option” of the time.  Once unleashed, no one knew  how far it could go, or how much destruction it could wreak.  Southern whites vented their outrage at the Governor for what they considered a horrific act of tyranny.  It heightened the ardor of many patriots and pushed many moderate southerners into the patriot camp.

Dunmore’s call was not particularly effective in recruiting an army of slaves.  Because Dunmore no longer controlled the colony, most slaves had no way of reaching him.  Any failed attempt to escape their masters risked terrible punishment.  As a result only about 800 slaves reached Norfolk to heed Dunmore’s call.  Many of these were women and children, meaning Dunmore’s regiment of slave soldiers only came to about 300.  British officers trained and drilled what became known as the “Ethiopian Regiment”

The Ethiopian Regiment, along with a single company of loyalists, mostly from around Norfolk, and two companies of British regulars and a few navy ships were the only military forces that Dunmore had available.  Gen. Gage and Gen. Howe were still hoarding almost all regulars in North America for the defense of Boston.

Battle of Kemp’s Landing

On November 13, about a week after issuing his proclamation, Dunmore moved his forces on a small village known as Kemp’s Landing, a few miles from Norfolk on the Elizabeth River.  His force included almost all of his regulars, along with about 20 loyalist militia, and a few freed slaves too.  Their goal was to investigate reports that North Carolina has sent patriot militia into Virginia.  Gov. Dunmore, a former British officer with considerable combat experience, personally led the mission.

Map of Kemp's Landing, 1775 (from Wikimedia)
The reports of North Carolina militia proved false, but 170 local Virginia militia turned out to ambush the expedition.  As Dunmore’s forces approached them, the inexperienced militia fired too early.  The British charged the militia, who fled in disorder.  One of the British soldiers, a former slave, captured the commander of the patriot militia, Joseph Hutchings, his former master.

After the British took control of the town, Dunmore read his proclamation publicly for the first time. About 100 local militia came forward and took an oath of loyalty to the crown.  They claimed they had been forced into supporting the patriot cause.  Over the next few days, more than 3000 men in the area took the oath of loyalty.  Actions like this gave hope to the British that most people remained loyal but were simply afraid to speak out.  If Dunmore could reestablish British control of the territory, the majority of colonists would greet them as liberators and help restore order.

It turned out though, that a great many people were simply willing to say whatever would help them with whichever side happened to be pointing a gun at them at the moment.  Still, Dunmore took advantage of his momentum to begin recruiting more loyalist militia and building up defenses around Norfolk.

Battle of Great Bridge

Dunmore also moved a force to the south, at Great Bridge, a shipping point where trade goods from North Carolina moved into Virginia.  Norfolk is surrounded primarily by water and marshy swamp land.  The area known as Great Bridge, provided the best way for a land force to enter or leave the town.

Fearing a raid of North Carolina militia, Dunmore organized a defensive line there, with about 600 men and two cannon.  He began to build a larger fort dubbed Fort Murray (Gov. Dunmore’s actual name was John Murray) near the bridge. Again, he deployed most of his regulars, along with sailors from the HMS Otter.  The remainder of the forces were loyalist militia now flocking to his cause.

Virginia patriots had established their own regiments of colonial regulars to defend the colony. These were not Continental soldiers nor were they militia.  The were men who had enlisted to become professional soldiers for Virginia.  Col. William Woodford commanded the 2nd Virginia Regiment.  He moved his regiment south from Williamsburg to confront Dunmore near Norfolk, and put an end to the Governor’s attempts to recruit a loyalist army.  Woodford was an experienced veteran who had served under Washington during the French and Indian War.  He also commanded forces against Indians on the Virginia frontier while serving as a militia officer.

Great Bridge, VA (from Jrnl of Am Rev)
Woodford’s Regiment, along with patriot militia from both Virginia and North Carolina, totalled around 900 men.  On the morning of December 9, the loyalists took the initiative attempting to charge the patriot line.  Woodford’s forces maintained discipline and held fire until the loyalists were in range.  A fatal volley forced the loyalist line to stagger and fall back.  Most of the loyalist militia fled, while the British grenadier company stood and fought against overwhelming numbers.  As a result, the British regulars took most of the casualties that day.

The patriots followed up with a counter attack, but the British cannon held them at bay.  The patriots opted not to storm the fort, allowing the occupants to slip away that night, back to the defenses at Norfolk.  The patriots won the field, taking almost no casualties, while killing or wounding over 100 loyalists.

According to some accounts, one Patriot militiaman who showed particular bravery that day was a man named Billy Flora.  What makes Flora remarkable was that he was a free black man.  He had been born free and owned a farm in southern Virginia.  Virginia exempted free blacks from the obligation to bear arms, directed them to appear at musters without arms.  Despite this, Flora clearly had been an armed member of the militia for many years.

Evacuation of Norfolk

Following the loss at Great Bridge, Dunmore judged Norfolk to be indefensible.  He evacuated the soldiers and loyalist civilians from the city to the small fleet offshore.  Many loyalist civilians evacuated in their privately owned ships as well.

A few days later, Col. Woodford’s patriot soldiers occupied Norfolk.  For the next few weeks. The loyalists in ships faced off against the patriots in Norfolk.  As the loyalist fleet considered its options, a smallpox epidemic broke out killing most of the soldiers in the Ethiopia Regiment among others.  The fleet also needed food, and could not get to land to obtain any.

On December 17, British attempted to recapture the Snow, a ship that the patriots had captured, containing tons of salt.  The Navy tried to use bluster and threats to get the patriots to give up the ship, but they refused.  The British backed off without shots fired.

Burning Norfolk

The following week, on December 21, Capt. Henry Bellew arrived aboard the HMS Liverpool with 400 marines and a supply ships.  The reinforcements gave Dunmore the confidence to put the naval ships in a line of battle against Norfolk and threaten the city unless they provided food to the fleet.  The patriots refused, and the standoff continued for more than a week.  That must have been an enjoyable Christmas for everyone involved.  On December 30, Bellew renewed his threat to destroy the city and announced that women and children should evacuate the town.

Norfolk in Flames, 1776 (19th Cen. artist's sketch)
Finally on New Year’s Day, 1776, the fleet opened fire on Norfolk with over 100 cannons for over 24 hours.  The marines then went ashore and fought pitched hand to hand combat with the patriot forces still defending the town.  The marines put most of the houses along the waterfront to the torch, and also burned the Snow down to the water line.  Eventually, the patriots drove the marines back to their ships.  The next day, however, the patriots ended up burning most of the rest of the town, focusing on the homes of families who were known Tories.

By January 3, the fighting seemed to be over, then on the 5th, Patriots stormed the British occupied Gosport Shipyard.  The British gave up the shipyard, but only after most of it had burned to the ground.  Over the next few weeks, the patriots and the navy would trade a few shots, but there were no more pitched battles.  In February the HMS Roebuck arrived with more soldiers. But unable to retake the town, the fleet moved to nearby Portsmouth where they established a base and continued to send hit and run raids against coastal towns.  Dunmore did not attempt to hold any towns or recruit a new army.  Effectively, there was no more royal government control anywhere in Virginia.

South Carolina, Fort Johnson

Moving south, when we last left South Carolina, Royal Governor William Campbell, like Dunmore in Virginia, had taken refuge aboard the HMS Tamar in Charleston Harbor during the summer of 1775, leaving the patriots in control of Charleston and the coastal region of South Carolina.

In September, the patriot Council of Safety ordered a raid on Fort Johnson, also in Charleston Harbor.  Col. William Moultrie, who would later rise to the rank of major general in the Continental Army and serve as governor of South Carolina, led the assault.  Among the other officers supporting Moultrie were Capt. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, who would go on to serve as a delegate at the Constitutional Convention and become a US Supreme Court Justice, and Capt. Francis Marion, who would later gain military fame as the Swamp Fox.

The force staged a dawn raid on September 15, 1775, only to find that most of the small garrison had already abandoned the fort, and taken the cannons.  The patriots soon moved a few new cannons into the fort to defend against any possible attack by the British navy still in the harbor. 

Charleston Harbor

Following the capture of Fort Johnson, the patriots seized a ship carrying supplies to the British fleet in the harbor.  Governor Campbell then ordered the royal navy to blockade the harbor and soon captured a merchant vessel, the Polly.  The navy also fired on the patriots still occupying Fort Johnson, but did not attempt to retake the fort.  Throughout the fall, the Navy continued to attempt the seizure of merchant ships in the area, with some limited success.  Patriots began arming their own ships to harass the navy.  They also sank several wrecks in the harbor to limit the navy’s ability to navigate around the harbor.

In December, the HMS Scorpion captured a larger ship, the Hetty.  The British armed it and added it to their fleet.  They renamed the ship the HMS General Clinton in honor of British General Henry Clinton.  This increased the fleet size to six ships.

Fort Ninety-Six

South Carolina patriots were fighting a two front war at this point.  They were dealing with the British navy in Charleston Harbor, as well as loyalist forces inland.  The loyalists were active and openly opposing the patriots in the backcountry, including the area around Fort Ninety-Six. Back in Episode 69, I explained how loyalists had seized the fort in July.  Over the next few weeks and months, it became a loyalist center of power.

Many of the loyalists had good relations with the Cherokee and would camp on Cherokee lands.  In late October, in an attempt to curry favor with the Cherokee and encourage them to remain neutral, the patriots sent them 1000 pounds of gunpowder, and lead for making shot.  Loyalists learned of the delivery and assumed the patriots were attempting to arm the Cherokee and encourage the tribes to massacre the loyalists.  They captured the wagons along with a squad of patriot rangers trying to protect them.  They took the prisoners and wagons back to Fort Ninety-Six.

The capture of the wagons convinced the patriot leadership that they needed to do something decisive about the loyalists in the interior.  Just after the loyalist seizure of the powder wagons in October, Major Andrew Williamson sent a team of rangers to recapture the lost ammunition.  The patriots moved on Fort Ninety-Six, but faced a superior force of loyalists. They had to withdraw.  On November 19, Williamson returned with a much larger force about 600 rangers, only to find Ninety-Six unoccupied by the enemy.  He did, however, soon receive word that the loyalists had assembled a force of around 1500 soldiers and that the force was on its way to confront his brigade.  Williamson decided to face the larger force of loyalists in battle.  He had his men set up a fortified camp in a field near town.

As it turned out the loyalists under the command of Patrick Cunningham arrived with over 2000 men and occupied the town of Ninety-six.  Although the patriots were outgunned, they had chosen the high ground and had time to dig defensive entrenchments.  They also mounted two swivel guns which discouraged a direct enemy assault on their position..

For two days, the two sides mostly took potshots at each other from their entrenched positions. At one point the loyalists attempted to set fire to the field and storm the patriot lines, but were quickly pushed back. The battle might have become a siege, but for the fact that neither side had good access to a water source, and both sides were running out of gunpowder after two days of firing.  Neither side expected any reinforcements that might tip the balance.

On November 21, the third day of fighting, the two sides agreed to a cease fire.  The patriots would destroy their fort and turn over their swivel guns.  Both sides would be permitted to leave the area and not attack the other as they left.  They would also not allow any relief forces or reinforcements to attack the other side.  Finally, each side would also return any prisoners captured during the fighting.

For a battle involving nearly 3000 soldiers, casualties were remarkably light.  The patriots suffered only one killed and 12 wounded.  The loyalists, mostly because of their one assault attempt, suffered 52 killed and 20 wounded.

The Snow Campaign

Despite the treaty signed at Fort Ninety-Six, which supposedly bound other supporters on each side, Col. Richard Richardson of the patriot rangers decided not to respect the treaty.  He moved to attack loyalist camps inside Cherokee territory.  It became known as the “snow campaign” as they marched through heavy snow during late November and December.

Richard Richardson
(from Wikimedia)
Captain Cunningham, the loyalist officer who had signed the treaty at Ninety-six, had disbanded most of his regiment under that treaty.  Richardson dispatched 1300 patriots to capture Cunningham and his men.  Surprised and outgunned the loyalists scattered in a skirmish that came to be known as the Great Cane Break.  Cunningham escaped on horseback.  Most of his men fled into the woods, many also escaping. The patriots captured loyalist Thomas Fletchall and shipped him back to Charlestown under guard.

Having captured or scattered the remainder of loyalist troops in the area, the patriots marched back to Charlestown through more than two feet of snow.  With one of their top leaders captured and troops scattered, the loyalists were out of the fight for the rest of the winter.

By the end of the year, loyalists in the backcountry were scattered and demoralized.  The small British fleet in Charleston Harbor was short on supplies and living miserably aboard ships in the cold Winter weather.  Finally, in early January 1776 Campbell ended the blockade and moved the fleet down to Georgia.  From there he eventually sailed to Jamaica, where he began preparations to return in the spring for a new offensive.  With that, the patriots effectively took control of South Carolina.

- - -

Next Episode 78: Advance on Quebec

Previous Episode 76: Arnold's March Toward Quebec

Click here to donate
American Revolution Podcast is distributed 100% free of charge. If you can chip in to help defray my costs, I'd appreciate whatever you can give.  Make a one time donation through my PayPal account.
Mike Troy

Click here to see my Patreon Page
You can support the American Revolution Podcast as a Patreon subscriber.  This is an option for people who want to make monthly pledges.  Patreon support will give you access to Podcast extras and help make the podcast a sustainable project.  Thanks again!

Visit for a list of all episodes.

Visit for free downloads of all podcast episodes.

Further Reading


Dunmore’s Proclamation:

Hannum, Patrick H. “Recognizing the Skirmish at Kemp’s Landing” Journal of the Am. Rev., Dec. 17, 2018

Battle of Great Bridge:

Battle of Great Bridge:

Fuss, Norman "Billy Flora at the Battle of Great Bridge" Journal of the American Revolution 2014:

Battle of Great Bridge & the Burning of Norfolk, American Military History Podcast:

Krogh, Matthew Lord Dunmore's Navy in Hampton Roads, 1775-1776, Part II: The Road to Great Bridge, 2017:

Krogh, Matthew Lord Dunmore's Navy in Hampton Roads, 1775-1776, Part III: From Great Bridge to Gwynn's Island, 2017:

William Moultrie:

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney:

Francis Marion:

Dunkerly, Robert "Chaos in the Backcountry: Battle of Ninety Six" Jour. of the Am. Rev. 2013:

Battle of Ninety-Six:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Drayton, John Memoirs of the American Revolution: from its commencement to the year 1776, inclusive, as relating to the state of South-Carolina, and occasionally refering [sic] to the states of North-Carolina and Georgia, Charleston: A. E. Millen, 1821.

Eckenrode, H. J. The Revolution in Virginia, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1916.

McCrady, Edward The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1775-1780, New York: MacMillan Co. 1901.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)

Gilbert, Alan Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence, Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2012 (book recommendation of the week).

Phillips, Kevin 1775: A Good Year for Revolution,  New York: Penguin Books, 2012.

Russell, David Lee The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies, Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishing, 2000.

No comments:

Post a Comment