The Battle of Kemp’s Landing — Virginia’s First Land Battle in the Revolutionary War

November 15, 1775

The Battle of Kemp's Landing — also known as the Skirmish at Kempsville — was fought between Virginia Militia and Great Britain on November 15, 1775, at Kemp's Landing in Virginia. British forces, led by Lord Dunmore, won the battle, which is recognized as Virginia’s first land battle of American Revolutionary War.

John Murray, Earl of Dunmore

John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Battle of Kemp’s Landing Summary

The Battle of Kemp’s Landing was a skirmish that took place on November 15, 1775. The tensions between the Patriots and British forces led by Lord Dunmore were growing, and the Virginia Militia in Princess Anne County organized troops to counter Dunmore’s actions. Hearing rumors of the militia’s presence, Dunmore led approximately 150 men south toward Great Bridge. The inexperienced Patriots tried to ambush the British but failed, and were quickly routed by Dunmore and his men. Dunmore’s force included experienced British Regulars, Loyalist Militia, and members of the Ethiopian Regiment, which was made up of freed slaves. The British victory temporarily gave Dunmore control of Virginia and he declared Martial Law. However, the Patriot loss, plus the release of Dunmore’s Proclamation — promising freedom to escaped slaves of Patriot landowners — turned the tide against him — and the Crown — in Virginia.

Battle of Kemp’s Landing Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: The Battle of Kemp’s Landing is also known as the Skirmish of Kempsville.
  • Date Started: The Battle of Kemp’s Landing started on November 15, 1775.
  • Date Ended: It ended on November 15, 1775.
  • Location: The battle was fought at Kemp’s Landing, Virginia, near present-day Virginia Beach.
  • Theater: The battle took place in the Southern Theater of the American Revolutionary War.
  • Who Won: Great Britain won the Battle of Kemp’s Landing.

What happened at the Battle of Kemp’s Landing?

In the mid-1600s, George Kempe of England acquired land along the Elizabeth River in Virginia, where he developed a port to increase trade, including the import of goods such as tobacco, bricks, and lumber. Over time, a small community known as Kemp’s Landing was established and grew in the area.

Governors Ordered to Move Military Supplies

After the Massachusetts Powder Alarm of 1774, Lord Dartmouth, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, asked the colonial governors to move their military supplies to safe places. In Virginia, the colony’s gunpowder was kept in the magazine in Williamsburg. 

The American Revolutionary War Begins

Before Dunmore was able to move the gunpowder, the American Revolutionary War started on April 19, 1775, with the Battle of Lexington. By the end of the day, New England Militia forces had Boston surrounded and the Siege of Boston was underway. Despite the outbreak of war, neither Dunmore nor the people of Virginia knew what was happening in Massachusetts.

Doolittle Engraving, April 19, Battle of Lexington, Plate 1
This 1775 engraving by Amos Doolittle depicts the Battle of Lexington. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The Virginia Gunpowder Incident

Two days later, on the morning of April 21, Dunmore sent Royal Marines from the HMS Magdalen to remove the military supplies and take them back to another ship for safekeeping. The Marines carried out their orders but were spotted by some colonists, who raised the alarm. 

News spread quickly and militia companies were mustered and made their way to Williamsburg. Among the leaders of the militia forces was Patrick Henry. They assembled outside the Governor’s Palace, threatened Dunmore, and demanded the gunpowder to be taken back to the magazine.

At first, Dunmore insisted he had only removed the gunpowder to keep it from falling into the hands of slaves, in case of an uprising, but the next day he warned the members of the House of Burgesses that he or any other British officials were harmed he would take action. He threatened to “declare Freedom to the Slave, and reduce the City of Williamsburg to ashes.” Henry called for Dunmore to return the powder or to reimburse the colony £330.

Meanwhile, the news of the battles of April 19 reached Virginia on April April 28th. The next day, an exaggerated account of the battles was published in the Virginia Gazette, by John Dixon and William Hunter. 

On May 3, Dunmore issued a proclamation that ordered all militia units that were marching on Williamsburg to stop. The next day, Henry received a payment of £330 for the gunpowder, but the barrels of powder remained in Dunmore’s possession.

Patrick Henry, Founding Father, Illustration
Patrick Henry. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Rising Tensions in Virginia

Patriots in Virginia were not satisfied, and militia forces throughout Virginia started to assemble and train, preparing for hostilities to spread. The Patriots also worked to enforce the Continental Association by setting up Committees of Inspection, ensuring the trade boycott of British goods was maintained by all Americans — Patriots and Loyalists.

Dunmore responded by leaving Williamsburg on June 8. He went to Norfolk, where he started to build his own army. He chose Norfolk for his base of operations because there was significant Loyalist support and a small fleet of British ships. However, he did not occupy the city and remained on the ships in the harbor. While he remained there, Patriot resistance in Norfolk grew.

Squire’s Raids and the Battle of Hampton

In August, a British ship, the Otter, sailed the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The ship, under the command of Captain Matthew Squire, carried out raids on plantations in the Norfolk area. During the raids, Squire’s men captured provisions and slaves. During one raid, he captured a schooner.

On September 2, Squire was near Hampton, carrying out a raid. The local Patriots boarded one of his ships, the Liberty, stole the guns, captured some of the crew, and then burned the ship. Squire asked them to return the guns and crewmen. The Patriots released the prisoners but refused to return the weapons.

Squire returned on October 26th. He tried to land troops, but the Patriots fired on his men from inside a house, forcing him to abandon the landing and fall back. The Battle of Hampton was the first battle of the American Revolutionary War to take place south of Massachusetts.

Battle of Hampton, 1775, Illustration
This illustration depicts the Battle of Hampton. Image Source: Facebook.

Dunmore Raids a Patriot Print Ship in Norfolk

Near the end of September, Dunmore sent troops into Norfolk and had them raid a print shop that was producing Patriot propaganda. The contingent of Grenadiers and Marines took the printing press and arrested the printers. Although a crowd gathered, including the local militia, no one tried to stop the British. Most likely, it was out of fear the ships in the harbor would open fire on the town. Afterward, many Loyalists moved out of Norfolk, fearing the growing Patriot movement.

Dunmore responded to the increase of Patriot sentiment by having people arrested for suspicion of treason and pressuring the citizens to pledge their loyalty to the Crown. The Patriots responded by blockading the city. The Committee of Safety required travelers to acquire a pass in order to leave the city or enter.

The Ethiopian Regiment and the Queen’s Own Loyal Regiment

Meanwhile, Dunmore recruited escaped slaves and promised them freedom in return for their military service. He organized them into the “Ethiopian Regiment” and had them conduct raids on the camps of Patriot militia forces. The members of the Ethiopian Regiment wore shirts with the motto “Liberty to Slaves” on the front. It is important to note that Dunmore apparently only accepted slaves from Patriot owners. The slaves of Loryalist owners were returned to their owners.

Cornelius Titus, Ethiopian Regiment, NPS
Cornelius Titus of the Ethiopian Regiment. Image Source: National Park Service.

Companies of Loyalist Militia were also organized into the “Queen’s Own Loyal Regiment.” 

General Thomas Gage also sent two companies from the 14th Regiment of Foot to Virginia to aid Dunmore. While the 14th Regiment marched to join Dunmore, the soldiers — British Regulars — conducted raids and captured supplies. They finally joined Dunmore in late October. When the 14th Regiment arrived, Dunmore finally had enough men, ships, and supplies to take action against the Virginia Militia forces that had assembled in support of the Patriot Cause.

Thomas Gage, Portrait, Copley
General Thomas Gage. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Dunmore’s Proclamation

On November 7, 1775, Dunmore issued another proclamation known as “Dunmore’s Proclamation.” In it, he declared Virginia was in a state of rebellion and placed the colony under martial law. He 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. At first, Dunmore did not release the Proclamation to the public, but when he did, it caused him to lose support from wealthy, Loyalist plantation owners. As a result, many of them joined the Patriot cause.

American and British Forces Assemble

On November 10, a Loyalist living in Norfolk wrote a letter, saying, “It is now certain that the provincials are on their march from Williamsburg for this place or Norfolk, it is uncertain which, tho it is generally believed they come with a professed Intention of destroying by fire both Towns…”

The Loyalist was correct. While Dunmore was assembling his army, the Virginia Committee of Safety organized an expedition to send to Norfolk to engage Dunmore. The forces were under the command of Colonel William Woodford, an officer in the Continental Army. However, Woodford and his men were unable to start their march until November 7 — the same day the proclamation was issued.

In order to control the James River, Dunmore sent some of his ships out to patrol the river, which delayed the march of Woodford and his men. Meanwhile, Virginia Militia forces gathered in Princess Anne County at Kemp’s Landing, southeast of Norfolk. Colonel Joseph Hutchings and Colonel Anthony Lawson, a prominent business owner, had roughly 170 men. However, Dunmore’s intelligence told him the militia was gathering at Great Bridge, north of Kemp’s Landing.

Dunmore Marches to Great Bridge

Responding to reports of the militia at Great Bridge, Dunmore led 150 of his men on a march south to engage the Virginia Militia. Dunmore’s force included grenadiers, marines, Loyalists, and members of the Ethiopian Regiment. Dunmore arrived at the Village of Great Bridge on November 14, but he found the militia was not there and gathered at Kemp’s Landing.

Dunmore Builds Fort Murray

The main road into Norfolk crossed over the 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 Virginia Militia captured Great Bridge, his supply lines that reached south into North North Carolina would be cut off.

In order to protect the 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.

Dunmore took a contingent of men and marched toward Kemp’s Landing.

The Battle of Kemp’s Landing

The Virginia Militia took positions along the road and prepared to ambush Dunmore and his men. Unfortunately for the Patriots, many of the men were inexperienced and some spent their time drinking. When the British marched into sight, some of the Patriots fired too soon, giving away their location and alerting the British to the ambush. 

The British Regulars who were part of the column responded quickly, with force and accuracy. The Virginia Militia fled from the area. The casualties from the battle were significant for the Patriots, with 18 captured and seven killed. Among the casualties, five were killed in battle, while two drowned while crossing a creek. Both Colonel Hutchings and Colonel Lawson were captured by the British.

The British forces suffered minimal casualties, with only one soldier sustaining a minor injury.

The Aftermath of the Battle of Kemp’s Landing

The next day, Dunmore raised the British flag at Kempsville, signaling the British victory. The move convinced many people in the area to swear their allegiance to the Crown and they wore a piece of red cloth on their chest to indicate their loyalty. On November 15, Dunmore’s Proclamation became public knowledge and he instituted martial law in Virginia.

Significance of the Battle of Kemp’s Landing

The Battle of Kemp’s Landing is important to United States history because it was the first land battle of the American Revolutionary War to take place in Virginia. The outcome of the battle — a British victory — and Dunmore’s Proclamation, intensified the Patriot movement in Virginia.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Battle of Kemps’ Landing

Who won the Battle of Kemp’s Landing?

Lord Dunmore and the British forces won the Battle of Kemp’s Landing. Dunmore’s forces included British Regulars, Loyalist Militia, and members of the Ethiopian Regiment.

What is the history of Kemp’s Landing?

In the mid-1600s, George Kempe, an Englishman, acquired land along the Elizabeth River in Virginia and established a port at Kemp’s Landing. The purpose of the port was to facilitate trade, including the import of goods such as tobacco, bricks, and lumber. Over time, a small community developed in the area, which became known as Kemp’s Landing, or Kempsville.

Where was the first land battle of the American Revolution fought in Virginia?

The first land battle of the American Revolution in Virginia was fought at Kemp’s Landing.

What was the Ethiopian Regiment at the Battle of Kemp’s Landing?

The Ethiopian Regiment at the Battle of Kemp’s Landing refers to a group of slaves who had responded to Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation offering freedom to Patriot slaves in exchange for their service in the British Army. These former slaves, who joined the British forces, formed the Ethiopian Regiment. They fought alongside the British troops during the Battle of Kemp’s Landing.

The Battle of Kemp’s Landing — Contemporary Account

This account of the Battle of Kemp’s Landing was published in Purdie’s Virginia Gazette, a Patriot newspaper, on November 17, 1775. The article closes with an update on the Invasion of Canada, which was taking place simultaneously.

WILLIAMSBURG, November 17. Col. Henry received an express yesterday morning with the following intelligence, viz. that Lord Dunmore, having received advice that about 200 of the Princess Anne militia were on their march to join the troops defined for the protection of the lower parts of the country, marched from Norfolk last Tuesday, about 10 o’clock P. M. to intercept them; who, not having the least intelligence of his Lordship’s approach, were obliged to engage under every disadvantage, both as to the enemy’s superiority in point of numbers, and the situation of the ground, being hemmed in by a fence.

Our people fought a considerable time, and it is thought they did great execution; but were at last overpowered and forced to retreat, with the loss of Mr. John Ackiss in the minute service, killed on the spot, and Col. Joseph Hutchings, and one Mr. Williams, wounded, who were taken prisoner, with seven others.

The publick, no doubt, will be exceedingly incensed on finding that Lord Dunmore has taken into his service the very scum of the country to assist him in his diabolical schemes against the good people of this government, all well attached to his majesty, but mortal enemies to his infamous ministry and their subordinate tools; but it is to be hoped his sphere of mischief will foon be circumscribed within narrow bounds, as Col. Woodford, with about 800 as brave troops as the world can produce, are now on their march to Norfolk, and, should his Lordship incline to give them battle, we have not the smallest doubt will give a very satisfactory account of him.

By a letter from Philadelphia, we learn that it was expected St. John’s would soon fall into our hands, after the taking of Chamblee. Col. Arnold, with the troops gone against Quebec, was got within about 90 miles of it when the last accounts came from him, and expected to be there by the 2oth of October, and was in hopes the fall of St. John’s would leave General Schuyler at liberty to detach 1500 men to his assistance.

Timeline of the Battle of Kemp’s Landing

This list shows the main battles and events that took place before and after the Battle of Kemp’s Landing, and how it fits into the chronological order of the Southern Theater and the early days of the American Revolutionary War in 1775.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Battle of Kemp’s Landing — Virginia’s First Land Battle in the Revolutionary War
  • Date November 15, 1775
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Kemp’s Landing, Virginia, Lord Dunmore, Virginia Gunpowder Incident, Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 22, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update May 28, 2024