The Virginia Gunpowder Incident of 1775

April 21, 1775–May 4, 1775

The Virginia Gunpowder Incident took place from April 21, 1775, to May 4, 1775, during the American Revolutionary War. The affair started when the Governor of Virginia had gunpowder removed from the storehouse in Williamsburg. It set off a chain of events that included the Governor forming his own army, which led to the outbreak of war in Virginia.

John Murray, Earl of Dunmore

John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore, was Governor of Virginia and ordered British Marines to remove barrels of gunpowder from the storage facility in Williamsburg, which set off the American Revolutionary War in the Southern Colonies. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Summary of the Virginia Gunpowder Incident

The Virginia Gunpowder Incident, also known as the Virginia Gunpowder Affair, started early in the morning of April 21, 1775, in Williamsburg, Virginia. 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. 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.” Patrick Henry called for Dunmore to return the powder or to reimburse the colony £330. On May 3, Dunmore issued a proclamation that ordered all militia units that were marching on Williamsburg to stop. The next day, Patrick Henry received a payment of £330 for the gunpowder, but the barrels of powder remained in Dunmore’s possession.

Patrick Henry, Liberty Speech

This illustration depicts Patrick Henry delivering his “Give Me Liberty, Or Give Me Death” speech to the Virginia Convention. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: The incident is also called the Virginia Gunpowder Affair or the Virginia Gunpowder Alarm.
  • Date Started: The incident started on April 21, 1775.
  • Date Ended: The incident ended on May 4, 1775.
  • Location: The incident took place in Williamsburg, Virginia.
  • Who Won: There was no winner. British military forces successfully removed military supplies from the magazine in Williamsburg, and Patrick Henry received 330 pounds as payment for the supplies.
  • Military Campaign: The incident is considered to be part of the Southern Theater of the American Revolutionary War.

Key Participants

Key Events of the Incident

  • British sailors took 15 half barrels of gunpowder out of the magazine and loaded them onto a wagon.
  • As they returned to the ships in the James River, some of the residents of Williamsburg saw them and raised the alarm.
  • Militia went to the scene and riders were sent to the neighboring towns and villages.
  • A crowd gathered at Dunmore’s home.
  • Peyton Randolph, the Speaker of the House of Burgesses, calmed the crowd and kept them from storming Dunmore’s home.
  • The members of the city council demanded to have the gunpowder returned, and argued it belonged to the city and not the colony, so Dunmore had no right to remove it.
  • Dunmore said he had it removed because he had heard rumors of an insurrection by the enslaved African-Americans and he wanted to make sure the powder was safe.
  • The crowd dispersed, but a second crowd gathered on April 22.
  • Dunmore threatened them and said he would “declare Freedom to the Slaves and reduce the City of Williamsburg to Ashes.”
  • Over the course of the next week, Patriot militia forces learned that fighting had started in Massachusetts with the Battle of Lexington and the Battle of Concord and that the Siege of Boston was underway.
  • Around 700 militia gathered at Fredericksburg. They sent a messenger to Williamsburg and asked for instructions. Both Peyton Randolph and George Washington advised them to avoid any violence.
  • In Hanover County, a militia force gathered, which was led by Patrick Henry.
  • On May 3, Henry and some of the men marched to the home of Richard Corbin, the Deputy Collector of the Royal Revenue in Virginia, to force him to pay for the powder. The rest of Henry’s men went on to Williamsburg.
  • When Henry arrived, he learned that Corbin was in Williamsburg with Dunmore. Henry spoke with Carter Braxton, Corbin’s son-in-law. Braxton was a Patriot and a member of the House of Burgesses. He told Henry he would ride to Williamsburg to see if he could negotiate payment, and asked Henry to not march into Williamsburg with the militia.
  • Braxton’s negotiations were successful and the next day, May 4, Henry received payment of 330 pounds for the powder.
  • Henry left the militia and joined the Virginia delegation that was headed to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

Interesting Facts

  • Before the Gunpowder Incident, there were multiple rumors of slave insurrections in Virginia, in the counties of Prince Edward, Chesterfield, Northumberland, Norfolk, Williamsburg, and Surrey.
  • For roughly a week before the powder was removed, residents of Williamsburg guarded the magazine at night because of rumors Dunmore planned to remove the supplies. However, on the night of the 20th, no one was on guard.
  • The British Marines were led by Lieutenant Henry Collins. He was captain of the schooner Magdalen.
  • Collins had about 20 men with him.
  • Collins and his men put the gunpowder on the ship Fowey, a 20-gun man-of-war.
  • Some sources will say the Virginia Gunpowder Incident was on April 20. However, the powder was apparently removed early in the morning of the 21st.
  • Peyton Randolph was a member of the House of Burgesses and had served as the First President of the First Continental Congress.

Quotes About the Virginia Gunpowder Incident

On April 27, Peyton Randolph wrote a letter on behalf of the City of Williamsburg and said:

” In compliance with your request we give you a candid Relation of the Disturbance which happened last Week in this City about the removal of the Powder from the Public Magazine. Early on Friday morning [April 21] the Inhabitants were universally and much alarmed at the Report that the Powder had been removed the preceding Night under an Escort of Marines and carried on board an Armed Vessel at Burwell’s Ferry. The Common Hall assembled and presented the address which we presume you have seen with the Governors Answer. The Inhabitants were so much exasperated that they flew to their Arms; This incensed the Governor a good deal and from every thing we can learn was the principal Reason why his Answer was not more explicit and favourable. His Excellency has repeatedly assured several Respectable Gentlemen that his only motive in Removing the Powder was to secure it, as there had been an alarm from the County of Surry which at first seem’d too well founded, tho it afterwards proved Groundless; besides what he has said in his Public Answer, he has given private assurances to Several Gentlemen, that the Powder shall be Return’d to the Magazine, tho he has not condescended to fix the Day for its Return. So far as we can Judge from a Comparison of all Circumstances, The Governor considers his Honor as at Stake…”

Dunmore defended his action to William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth and Secretary of State for the Colonies, in a letter he wrote on May 1, where he accused the people of Williamsburg of planning to take the supplies:

“…their having come to a resolution of raising a body of armed men in all the counties, made me think it prudent to remove some gunpowder which was in a magazine in this place where it lay exposed to any attempt that might be made to seize it, and I had reason to believe the people intended to take that step.”

Dunmore was criticized in the newspapers in South Carolina and Virginia.

On June 6, the South Carolina Gazette wrote:

“The monstrous absurdity that the Governor can deprive the people of the necessary means of defense at a time when the colony is actually threatened with an insurrection of their slaves …has worked up the passions of the people there almost to a frenzy.”

On June 16, 1775, the editor of the Virginia Gazette, Alexander Purdie, criticized Dunmore and wrote:

“The people could not conceive how disarming them would discourage their negroes from rising, should they be so disposed; nor could they divine how he could procure the powder, upon any emergency, from a vessel whose station for one hour was uncertain. The magazine had never yet been attempted by the negroes; and, had this been apprehended, they thought it might easily have been secured by a guard. Upon the whole, they looked upon the Governour’s answer as evasive and insulting; and the people were, with difficulty, kept within the bounds of moderation.”

Significance of the Virginia Gunpowder Incident

  • The Virginia Gunpowder Incident was important because the threat of the militia forces marching on Williamsburg scared Dunmore. He left the city on June 8 and went to Norfolk, where he started to build his own army.
  • He recruited escaped slaves and promised them freedom in return for their military services. 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.
  • There were also companies of Loyalist militia that joined Dunmore’s army. They were 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.
  • Dunmore tried to regain control of Virginia, but the Patriot forces continued to resist. 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, which caused him to lose support from wealthy plantation owners. As a result, many of them joined the Patriot cause.

Flight of Lord Dunmore from Williamsburg

This illustration depicts Lord Dunmore and other passengers in a rowboat as they row to the man-of-war ship “Fowey.” Image Source: Library of Congress.

Timeline of the Virginia Gunpowder Incident

This list shows the main battles and events that took place before and after the Virginia Gunpowder Incident, 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

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title The Virginia Gunpowder Incident of 1775
  • Date April 21, 1775–May 4, 1775
  • Author
  • Keywords Virginia Gunpowder Incident, Southern Theater, American Revolutionary War, War for Independence
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 15, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update May 16, 2024