Battle of Great Bridge

French engineers in 1781 mapped the location of Great Bridge, south of Norfolk
French engineers in 1781 mapped the location of Great Bridge, south of Norfolk
Source: Library of Congress, Plan des environs de Williamsburg, York, Hampton, et Portsmouth (1781)

At the time of the American Revolution, Great Bridge was the only place where people could cross the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River on foot.

the British controlled the waterways in 1775, so the only way for the Virginians to recapture Nortfolk was to march on foot past Great Bridge
the British controlled the waterways in 1775, so the only way for the Virginians to recapture Nortfolk was to march on foot past Great Bridge
Source: Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library, Plan of the peninsula of Chesopeak [sic] Bay (by John Hills, 1781)

Captain Johann Ewald, who commanded Hessian troops in the area in 1781, described its significance to control of the region:1

Great Bridge is an important position in Virginia, if Portsmouth is to be designated and maintained as a fortified post... The place lies on the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River, ten English miles from Portsmouth, where several small creeks fall in. These creeks, along with the two banks of the river, form an impenetrable marsh of fifteen to sixteen hundred paces. A single causeway passes over this swampland, and there is a wooden bridge in the middle which rests on trestles and piers. This long bridge, from which the village takes its name, is 223 paces in length.

The Elizabeth River as well as the small creeks rise in the great Dismal Swamp, an immense swampy woodland which extends from here into North Carolina. One can cross from here to North Carolina only at Great Bridge. Indeed, the inhabitants have made a passageway through this wilderness, with the help of fallen trees (called logs), for single tiavelers on foot. One can cross here with the aid of a compass, but if the year is not very dry, it is impassable.

Since the Northwest River also rises in the Dismal Swamp to the south, and flows into the Currituck Sound, it has only one crossing, a miserable wooden bridge called Northwest Landing Place. Thus, he who is master of the James and Elizabeth rivers and holds Portsmouth, Great Bridge, and the Northwest River crossing in his hands is the complete master of the entire part of Virginia called Princess Anne County, which lies between these two passes, Chesapeake Bay, and the James and Elizabeth rivers.

the roads connecting Norfolk with Suffolk and North Carolina passed through Great Bridge
the roads connecting Norfolk with Suffolk and North Carolina passed through Great Bridge
Source: Library of Congress, A Plan of the entrance of Chesapeak Bay, with James and York rivers (by William Faden, 1781)

On June 8, 1775, Lord Dunmore fled Williamsburg. He later occupied Norfolk and declared martial law on November 7, establishing a British base. Virginia Tories could rally to the king's standard and join the Queen's Own Loyal Regiment to fight against the rebellious "patriots." Dunmore also recruited enslaved men to join his Ethiopian Regiment.

The British built Fort Murray at the northern end of the bridge, with cannon. They removed the planks from the bridge to block a rebel advance into Norfolk 12 miles away.

After a skirmish at Kemp's Landing between the British and the Princess Anne County militia on November 15, the main body of British troops occupied Fort Murray. About 800-1,000 rebel soldiers, including the Second Virginia Regiment led by Gen. William Woodford, arrived at the south end of the causeway in early December 1775.

There were just 175 British regulars to oppose them, but the British grenadiers and the light infantry from the 14th Regiment were better trained and better equipped. In addition, the less-trained men in the Ethiopian Regiment and the Queen’s Own Loyal Regiment added firepower. The British force was formidable enough to block an American advance.

The British could have accepted a stalemate with troops behind barricades blocking either side from moving forward. The British supply line was more reliable, and the Americans might not be able to maintain their Second Virginia Regiment and other troops at the southern end for long. Instead, the British planned to overwhelm the Virginia troops by first launching a diversionary attack nearby, then charging across the bridge.

. A stockade Fort thrown up before the action by the Regulars. B. Entrenchments of the Rebels. C. A [illegible word] Causeway by which the Regulars were forc'd to advance to the attack. D. The Church occupied by the Rebels
A. A stockade Fort thrown up before the action by the Regulars. B. Entrenchments of the Rebels. C. A [illegible word] Causeway by which the Regulars were forc'd to advance to the attack. D. The Church occupied by the Rebels
Source: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan, A view of the Great Bridge near Norfolk in Virginia where the action happened between a detachment of the 14th Regt: & a body of the rebels. (by Francis Rawdon-Hastings, Marquess of Hastings)

Plans for the diversionary attack were dropped, and on the morning of December 9 the planks were replaced. Captain Charles Fordyce led a bold charge over the bridge and down the causeway to attack the rebels.

American sentries fired on the advancing British Grenadiers, marching six men abreast. One sentry was a free black man named William "Billy" Flora, credited with firing eight times and being the last sentry to retreat into the American fortifications. Supposedly he removed the last planks from the bridge, helping to disrupt the British attack. He later received a 100-acre bounty land warrant for his service throughout the Revolutionary War.

Woodford's men had not expected an attack, and initially thought the firing was a routine skirmish. They waited behind their fortifications until the British soldiers were within 50 yards, then began firing.

Within 30 minutes half of the unprotected attackers, including Captain Fordyce in the front, were killed. One American described the carnage:2

I then saw the horrors of war in perfection, worse than can be imagin'd; 10 or 12 bullets thro' many; limbs broke in 2 or 3 places; brains turned out. Good God, what a sight

The Americans then advanced on the flank of the fort, which made the British cannon ineffective. After spiking their cannon, the British abandoned Fort Murray and retreated to Norfolk. Just one American was wounded, while 60-100 British were killed, wounded, or captured.

The first significant battle in Virginia between the rebels and the British army ended up as an American victory. The loss of Great Bridge made Dunmore consider Norfolk to be indefensible, and he moved his troops and Loyalist friends onto ships in the Elizabeth River. The ship cannons were used on January 1 to destroy Norfolk, making it useless for the Virginians.3

Lord Dunmore had Fort Murray constructed at Great Bridge in 1775, to control access to Norfolk
Lord Dunmore had Fort Murray constructed at Great Bridge in 1775, to control access to Norfolk
Source: Library of Congress, Part of the Province of Virginia (1791)

The Virginians also considered the town to be indefensible. They completed the destruction by burning structures that survived the cannonade, preventing the British from using Norfolk again as a bas, then abandoned the area. Portsmouth rather than Norfolk became the site for future British occupations in 1779-81.

When Benedict Arnold occupied Portsmouth in 1781, he wanted to control access to the cattle, crops, and other resources in Princess Anne County. He sent Col. John Simcoe and the Queen's Rangers back to Great Bridge, after learning that some of his foragers had been attacked there. The British constructed another star fort to control the passage across the South Branch of the Elizabeth River. For labor, they used 300 formerly enslaved people who had fled from Virginia masters to freedom within the British lines. About 100 men from the 80th Regiment occupied the fort after it was built.4

During construction, Virginia militia fired at the workers and the guards. The British made a dummy, dressed it in a uniform, and posted it as a "sentinel" guarding the approach to the incomplete fort. The rebels fired on the dummy, but the next day it was shown to a Virginia officer who came under a flag of truce. After a discussion about the waste of life from killing sentinels when no attack was planned, the militia stopped that harassment.

Col. Simcoe described the fort's strengths and weaknesses after the war:5

Like other field works it could not hold out a moment against mortars: it was calculated to keep the Carolina militia out of Princess Ann, and every hour that this could be done was of great importance: the hopes of plunder and the certainty of their escaping, would have deluged the country with this banditti.

There is now a museum and historic signage in the city of Chesapeake at the site of the Great Bridge. Each year, the British attack is reenacted. As described in a 2022 news story:6

Every year in Great Bridge, the British invariably — albeit gallantly — are defeated. They never learn.

Benedict Arnold and William Phillips in Virginia, 1780-1781

The Revolutionary War in Virginia

Links

in 1775, travelers coming from the west by land to Norfolk had to cross Great Bridge
in 1775, travelers coming from the west by land to Norfolk had to cross Great Bridge
Source: University of Michigan, William L. Clements Library, Part of the modern counties of Princess Anne, Norfolk, and Nansemond, Virginia

References

1. Captain Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War: A Hessian's Journal, Joseph P. Tustin (editor), Yale University Press, 1979, pp.277-278, https://archive.org/details/EwaldsDIARYOFTHEAMERICANWAR (last checked July 6, 2019)
2. Kate Egner Gruber, "The Battle of Great Bridge," American Battlefield Trust, October 23, 2020, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/battle-great-bridge; "William Flora," American Battlefield Trust, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/william-flora (last checked December 9, 2022)
3. Kate Egner Gruber, "The Battle of Great Bridge," American Battlefield Trust, October 23, 2020, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/battle-great-bridge; "The Battle of Great Bridge," American Revolutionary War 1775 to 1783, https://revolutionarywar.us/year-1775/battle-great-bridge/ (last checked December 9, 2022)
4. Captain Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War: A Hessian's Journal, Joseph P. Tustin (editor), Yale University Press, 1979, p.278, https://archive.org/details/EwaldsDIARYOFTHEAMERICANWAR (last checked July 6, 2019)
5. John Graves Simcoe, Simcoe's Military Journal, Bartlett & Welford (New York), 1844, pp.171-173, p.184 https://archive.org/details/simcoesmilitary00simcgoog/page/n5 (last checked July 6, 2019)
6. "Every year in Great Bridge, the British invariably - albeit gallantly - are defeated. They never learn," The Virginian-Pilot, December 8, 2022, https://www.pilotonline.com/history/vp-cl-a-battle-never-won-at-great-bridge-1211-20221208-v3g4dtq6src7thdcxnwaht3x3u-story.html (last checked December 9, 2022)

Col. John Simcoe returned to fortify Great Bridge in 1781 when Benedict Arnold occupied Portsmouth
Col. John Simcoe returned to fortify Great Bridge in 1781 when Benedict Arnold occupied Portsmouth
Source: Library of Congress, Plan of the post at Great Bridge, on the south branch of the Elizabeth River, Virginia, establish'd the 5th February 1781 (by James Stratton, 1788)


The Military in Virginia
Virginia Places