The Battle of Great Bridge occurred on December 9, 1775, in Norfolk County, Virginia, just nine miles outside of Norfolk. British and Loyalist troops, led by Captain Samuel Leslie, attacked Virginia militia forces under the command of Colonel William Woodford at Great Bridge. The Americans fought off the attack and drove Leslie’s men from the field of battle. The retreat allowed the Americans to take control of Norfolk and led to the withdrawal of John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore, and the Royal Governor, along with British officials, from Virginia.
Prelude to the Battle of Great Bridge
Spring, 1774 — The Coercive Acts
The Coercive Acts were passed by Parliament to punish the city of Boston and the Massachusetts Bay Colony for rebellious behavior, especially the Boston Tea Party. King George III, Parliament, and General Thomas Gage all believed the acts would bring the colony in line and put an end to the seditious behavior of men like Samuel Adams and factions like the Sons of Liberty.
However, when news spread of how the Coercive Acts were damaging the economy of Boston, changing the government of Massachusetts, and expanding the Province of Quebec, many Americans rallied together to show their support for the people of Boston, and to protest the new laws.
General Thomas Gage played a key role in the development of the Coercive Acts. Painting by John Singleton Copley (Public Domain, Wikimedia).
June 1, 1774 — Dunmore Dissolves the House of Burgesses
The Virginia House of Burgesses issued a declaration that supported Boston, and voted to observe June 1 as a “day of fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer.” Lord Dunmore responded by dissolving the House of Burgesses
The members of the house remained firm in their support of Boston and met at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, which was the capital of the colony. They called for an election of delegates that would form a new provisional government called the Virginia Convention.
August 1774 — Virginia Convention is Established
The First Virginia Convention held its meeting in August 1774.
March 20, 1775 — Second Virginia Convention
The Second Virginia Convention was held at St. John’s Church in Richmond on March 20, 1775. It was during this meeting that Patrick Henry delivered his famous speech that included the phrase “Give me liberty, or give me death.” The delegates resolved to defend the colony and formed a committee to “prepare a plan for the embodying arming and disciplining such a number of men as may be sufficient for that purpose.” The delegates also chose Virginia’s representatives for the Second Continental Congress.
Patrick Henry delivers his famous speech in this illustration from Currier & Ives (Public Domain, Wikimedia).
April 21, 1775 — Virginia Gunpowder Incident
Even before word of the fighting at Lexington and Concord (April 19) reached Virginia, Lord Dunmore was making plans to secure the colony’s gunpowder, which was stored in the magazine in Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia. Dunmore and the other Royal Governors had received instructions from London to remove weapons and military supplies from the storehouses.
Dunmore was also concerned the Virginia Convention would have patriot militia seize the military stores. In order to keep that from happening, he ordered Royal Marines from the HMS Magdalen to remove the military stores. The marines were led by Lieutenant Henry Collins.
Early in the morning of April 21, before sunrise, the marines removed the weapons and gunpowder and placed them on board the Magdalen. However, they were spotted by some colonists and the alarm was raised. The news of Dunmore’s action spread quickly. Militia companies from the Piedmont area were mustered and made their way to Williamsburg. They assembled outside the Governor’s Palace, threatened Dunmore, and demanded the gunpowder to be taken back to the magazine.
The magazine in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Colonial representatives, led by Peyton Randolph, met with Dunmore in the Palace. He assured them he only removed the gunpowder to keep it from falling into the hands of slaves, in case they staged a revolt. This satisfied the crown, and it dispersed.
However, the next day Dunmore recalled the House of Burgesses and warned them that if he or any other British official was harmed that he would take action. He threatened to “declare Freedom to the Slave, and reduce the City of Williamsburg to ashes.”
Patrick Henry called for Dunmore to return the powder or to reimburse the colony 330 pounds. Henry was also heavily involved in calling on militia forces to march on Williamsburg.
News about the Battles of Lexington and Concord arrived in Virginia on April 28, 1775, which escalated the tension in Virginia.
May 3–4, 1775 — The Virginia Gunpowder Incident Resolved
On May 3, Dunmore issued a proclamation that ordered all militia units that were marching to Williamsburg, or planning to do so, to cease and desist. The following day, Patrick Henry received a payment of 330 pounds for the gunpowder, and the barrels remained in Dunmore’s possession.
June 8, 1775
Dunmore, fearing for his safety, left his home in Williamsburg and joined his family in refuge on the HMS Fowey in the York River. From there, Dunmore sailed to Hampton Roads and raided the town. Then he made his way to Norfolk, a Loyalist stronghold. Once he reached Norfolk, he sent word to General Gage in Boston and asked for reinforcements. Then Dunmore started to build his own army.
August 1775 — Third Virginia Convention
The Third Virginia Convention met and authorized the Committee of Safety to take control of the colony. It also instructed the committee to take the steps necessary to raise an army for the defense of the colony.
The Convention ordered Colonel William Woodford, the Commander of the Second Virginia Regiment, to mobilize his men and counter Dunmore’s raiding parties. Woodford’s force also included riflemen from the Culpeper Minutemen.
September 18, 1775, the Committee of Safety held its first meeting in Hanover Town, a small village on the Pamunkey River.
The Ethiopian Regiment, Queen’s Own Loyal Regiment, and Additional Reinforcements
Dunmore openly recruited escaped slaves and promised them freedom in return for their military services. These recruits were organized into the “Ethiopian Regiment” and were tasked with raiding the camps of patriot militia forces. The members of the Regiment wore shirts with the motto “Liberty to Slaves” on them.
There were companies of loyalist militia that joined Dunmore’s army. They were organized into the “Queen’s Own Loyal Regiment.” Gage also responded by sending two companies from the 14th Regiment of Foot to aid Dunmore.
Around October 12, though the end of the month, Dunmore had these troops conduct raids in an effort to capture American supplies.
October 26 — Battle of Hampton
Near the end of the month, a British ship ran aground during a raid near Hampton. A small skirmish ensued and the Americans captured the ship. Dunmore sent reinforcements, but they were turned back by the Americans. Several British troops were killed and captured. This outraged Dunmore and led him to issue a proclamation that the colony was in open rebellion.
November 7, 1775 — Dunmore’s Proclamation
Dunmore issued a proclamation on November 7, 1775. He said Virginia was in a state of rebellion and he placed the colony under martial law. Dunmore took complete control of the military and accused anyone who refused to bear arms in defense of the Crown of being a traitor. Further, he made good on his threat to arm slaves. The proclamation offered freedom to any slaves that agreed to fight on behalf of the Crown, which caused him to lose support with wealthy plantation owners. As a result, many of them joined the Patriot cause.
John Murray, Earl of Dunmore and Royal Governor of Virginia by Joshua Reynolds (Public Domain, Wikimedia).
November 13–14, 1775
Dunmore was told the Americans were at the Village of Great Bridge, so he moved his land forces there on November 13.
When he arrived on November 14, he found the Americans were not there. He discovered the militia from Princess Anne County were actually gathering at Kemp’s Landing and planned to join the other American forces at Great Bridge later on.
Dunmore Builds Fort Murray
The main road into Norfolk crossed over Great Bridge, which spanned the Elizabeth River. The bridge was surrounded by the Great Dismal Swamp and was only accessible from the north and south by narrow causeways. The bridge itself was quite narrow, only 100-150 feet wide. It was extremely important because it was the only main road that connected Norfolk to North Carolina.
Dunmore knew that if the Americans captured Great Bridge, his supply lines that reached south into North North Carolina would be cut.
In order to protect Great Bridge, Dunmore sent members of the 14th Foot there with orders to build a fort on the north side of the river. The fortification was known as Fort Murray and was armed with two cannons and some small swivel guns. The troops also removed the planks from the bridge to make the crossing more difficult. The men of the 14th were reinforced with troops from the Ethiopian Regiment and the Queen’s Own Regiment.
November 15, 1775 — Battle of Kemp’s Landing
Dunmore took 150 troops and marched to Kemp’s Landing, on the eastern branch of the Elizabeth River. When he arrived, there were around 170 American militia waiting to ambush him, but they were discovered when one of them fired too soon. Dunmore’s forces attacked and ran the Americans off into the woods. Dunmore marched from Kemp’s Landing into Norfolk and took control of the city. He and his men were greeted by cheers from the Loyalists living in Norfolk.
Late November, 1775 — Dunmore Establishes Base of Operations at Hampton Roads
Despite the addition of reinforcements, Dunmore’s army was still small. However, he had several British ships at his disposal, and he used them to his advantage. He established a base at Hampton Roads, which allowed the ships to sail up and down the rivers and conduct raids on plantations owned by Patriots. During the raids, his men would free slaves and many of them enlisted in the Ethiopian Regiment. As his army grew, Dunmore started using land forces to raid American positions, which allowed him to capture supplies.
December 2, 1775
After Dunmore’s Proclamation, the Virginia Committee of Safety ordered the militia to march to Norfolk. The Patriot forces, under the command of Woodford, arrived on December 2. Woodford had the 2nd Virginia Regiment and riflemen from the Culpeper Minutemen.
Woodford set up camp across the river from Fort Murray and had his men build a semi-circular breastwork on the south side of the bridge. Additional breastworks were built that would allow the Americans to fire on the bridge. Reinforcements came into his camp from surrounding counties and North Carolina.
December 6, 1775
Dunmore wrote a letter to Lord Dartmouth and told him the “rebels” had set up defenses at Great Bridge and that he had ordered his men to build a fort to defend the crossing. He said, “I immediately ordered a fort to be erected there and put an officer with 25 of the 14th Regiment to garrison it, with about as many volunteers, and about 50 Negroes, whom I now arm and discipline as fast as they come in; the fort has been besieged by between seven or eight hundred of the rebels for these eight days past, without hitherto doing us the least damage, except wounding one or two men very slightly.”
December 7, 1775
Starting on December 7, skirmishes broke out for two days in the surrounding swamps. Dunmore decided to mount an offensive and try to push Woodmore and the Second Virginia Regiment back.
Dunmore planned to send the Ethiopian Regiment to create a diversion downriver and then send the main force over the bridge to attack the Patriot camp.
On December 8, he ordered his forces, under the command of Captain Samuel Leslie, to march from Norfolk to Great Bridge.
December 9, 1775 — The Battle of Great Bridge
On December 9, around 3:00 in the morning, Leslie arrived at Fort Murray. He found out there was a mixup in the orders given to the Ethiopian Regiment and it was not in position. Leslie made the decision to move ahead with the attack.
This map shows the location of Fort Murray (Public Domain, Library of Congress).
Leslie let his men rest for a while and then sent them out to put the planks on the bridge so the attack on the Patriot camp could be carried out.
The British moved cannons into place and opened fire on the breastworks that Woodford’s men had built.
The Americans did not form ranks right away, but when they spotted a column of the British moving in their direction they mobilized. The British advance forces were made up of Light Infantry and Grenadiers of the 14th Foot. They were led by Captain Charles Fordyce and Lieutenant John Batut. The reserves were under the command of Leslie.
The British fired on the Americans as they advanced, but the Americans waited until the British were close to fire their first shots. Once the Americans started shooting back, both Fordyce and Batut were shot, and the British fell back.
Despite his wounds, Fordyce rallied his men and led a second charge on the American positions. Although some of the British were able to advance to the breastwork, many were shot down. Fordyce was shot 14 times and died.
The British fell back and the Americans advanced on them and started firing on the reserves. Leslie and his men retreated to Fort Murray.
Woodford organized the rest of the Patriot forces and marched them out to face the British. The two sides exchanged fire from long range. Woodford sent the Culpeper Riflemen to a position where they could fire on the British troops that were manning the cannons at the bridge. The British spiked the cannons and retreated to the fort.
A truce was called, so the British could have time to remove their dead and wounded from the fort. Captain Leslie’s nephew had been killed in the battle. When the British were done retrieving the bodies, Leslie went outside the fort and bowed to the Americans to show his gratitude for letting them collect their dead and wounded. That night, the British left the fort and retreated to Norfolk.
More reinforcements arrived from North Carolina, under the command of Colonel Robert Howe. On December 13, Woodford began the march to Norfolk.
Woodford wrote a letter that was published in the Virginia Gazette on December 15. He wrote, “This was a second Bunker’s Hill affair, in miniature; with this difference, that we kept our post, and had only one man wounded in the hand.”
Dunmore blamed the failure on Leslie for not using the Ethiopian Regiment as a diversion, according to the original plan.
Dunmore and the Loyalists left Norfolk and boarded the British ships in the harbor. This allowed Woodford and his men to march into Norfolk and take over the city.
The Patriots blocked the delivery of provisions to the British ships. Dunmore and Commodore Henry Pellow retaliated and bombarded Norfolk on January 1, 1776. They also sent landing parties to set fire to buildings. Significant damage was done to Norfolk, and the Patriots finished the job by destroying what was left, because they did not want the British to be able to use it as a base. By the end of the day, Norfolk had been destroyed.
Dunmore went to Gwynn’s Island near the mouth of the Rappahannock River. He stayed there until February 1776. He used it as a base to send forces out and conduct raids. General Charles Lee eventually pushed him out of Portsmouth and back onto the British ships.
Dunmore was forced to leave Virginia in August 1776. He sailed to New York and never returned.
Significance of the Battle of Great Bridge
The American victory at the Battle of Great Bridge forced Lord Dunmore and the British government to leave Virginia. This allowed the Virginia Convention to take control of the colony.
With the British gone, Virginia was able to provide valuable resources to the Continental Army, including troops, military supplies, and food.
British forces did not return to Virginia again until May 1779, when they launched a naval raid on Hampton Roads.
African Americans Face Each Other in Battle
William Flora was a free African American. He fought for the Virginia Militia in the Battle of Great Bridge.
The Ethiopian Regiment also fought in the battle. Two members, James Anderson and another simply known as Caesar, were wounded and captured.
According to the American Battlefield Trust, it was the first time African Americans faced each other in battle during the American Revolutionary War.
Facts About the Battle of Great Bridge
- It was the first major battle of the American Revolutionary War fought in Virginia.
- It was the first major battle to occur after the Battle of Bunker Hill.
- The British and Loyalist troops were led by Captain Samuel Leslie.
- The Virginia militia forces were led by Colonel William Woodford.
- The British forces suffered somewhere between 62 and 102 killed, wounded, or captured.
- One American soldier was wounded. None were killed or captured.
- The battle resulted in an American victory.
Visit the Great Bridge Battlefield
In 1775, Great Bridge was located roughly 12 miles south of Norfolk, in Norfolk County. Today, Great Bridge is inside the corporate limits of Chesapeake, Virginia.
You can visit the site of the first major battle of the American Revolutionary War fought in Virginia at The Great Bridge Battlefield & Waterways Historic Park. The park is located in Chesapeake, Virginia.