The Revolutionary War in Virginia

French cannon at Yorktown
French cannon at Yorktown
Source: National Park Service, Sidney King Painting

Governor Dunmore led the official British forces in Virginia at the start of the American Revolution. Local residents had appointed guards to watch the brick "magazine" in Williamsburg where the coloniy's muskets and gunpowder were stored, but on the very windy night of April 20, 1775 they abandoned their posts. Dunmore took advantage of the opportunity. He had 20 sailors and marines from the schooner Magdalen land at Burwell's Ferry, near the modern Kigsmill Resort. They walked four miles to Williamsburg, opened the locked gates of the magazine using keys provided by Lord Dunmore, and started to remove the half-barrels of gunpowder weighing 65 pounds each.

Local residents quickly discovered what was happening, but the sailors and marines had time to load 15 of the 18 half-barrels into a wagon and return safely to the Magdalen.

The governor claimed he was ensuring a slave insurrection could not use the gunpowder, but the colonists recognized he was disarming them. Patrick Henry led militia on an unauthorized march to the capital city; violence was avoided by a face-saving compromise when the royal Receiver General paid for the value of the gunpowder.1

the Magazine in Williamsburg stored gunpowder, which Lord Dunmore removed in April 1775
the Magazine in Williamsburg stored gunpowder, which Lord Dunmore removed in April 1775

Lord Dunmore fled the Governor's Palace and reached safety on the H.M.S. Fowey on June 8, 1775. He sought to spark civil war among the colonists, with the hope that the Loyalists would fight the rebels and allow him to reoccupy the Governor's Palace. He also sought to weaken the patriots by recruiting their enslaved men to flee to the British lines. There they would provide labor needed to construct fortifications, and their absence from Virginia plantations would reduce food and supplies needed by the Virginia militia that was fighting against him.2

Dunmore's strategy failed in part because the Loyalists were threatened seriously by rebels who lived nearby. Dunmore created a base of operations at Norfolk after he fled Williamsburg, but he destroyed the city on January 1 and sailed out to the Chesapeake Bay after he lost control of the Great Bridge crossing over the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River. His last base was at Gwynn's Island, which he abandoned after it was attacked in July 1776.

The British fleet sailed out of the Chesapeake Bay in August, 1776. For almost the next three years, there were no British forces in Virginia. During that time, there were not enough Loyalists concentrated in one place to create their own army, seize control of a part of Virginia, and create a parallel government to Virginia's revolutionary conventions and ultimately the new state government.

British troops returned during a raid in May, 1779 by Commodore George Collier and Major General Edward Mathew. They destroyed the Gosport Shipyard at Portsmouth, but the raid was followed by another British abandonment after just two weeks.

the British captured the Gosport Shipyard at Portsmouth and burned it in 1779
the British captured the Gosport Shipyard at Portsmouth and burned it in 1779
Source: Library of Congress, Part of the Province of Virginia (1791)

Major General Alexander Leslie arrived with over 2,000 troops in October, 1780, but that attack was just a diversion to disrupt supplies and support Lord Cornwallis's campaign in the Carolinas. Leslie left after only a month in the Hampton Roads area.

General Benedict Arnold returned at the end of December, 1780, followed by General William Phillips and finally Lord Cornwallis. Arnold established a base at Portsmouth, but as British troops marched across the state they stayed in one place only briefly. Loyalists who committed to support the invading army were exposed to retaliation as soon as the troops moved on.

On February 22, 1781, General Arnold held a public assembly in Princess Anne County to get 400 local residents to swear a new oath of allegiance to the British government. They were willing to drink and eat what Arnold supplied for the event, and willing to mouth the words in the required oath, but they were just going through the motions.

Captain Johann Ewald, commanding Hessian forces, challenged one uncommitted Loyalist to raise troops locally in order to maintain control over the county. Ewald promised that the British would provide uniforms and weapons as needed. The Princess Anne resident replied to Ewald:3

I must first see if it is true that your people really intend to remain with us. You have already been in this area twice. General Leslie gave me the same assurances in the past autumn, and where is he now? In Carolina! Who knows where you will be this autumn? And should the French unite with the Americans, everything would certainly be lost to you here. What would we loyally disposed subjects have then? Nothing but misfortune from the Opposition Party, if you leave us again.

Ewald replied initially, frustrated that his Hessians were risking their lives to assist the Loyalists unwilling to risk anything:4

But you loyalists won’t do anything! You only want to be protected, to live in peace in your houses. We are supposed to break our bones for you, in place of yours, to accomplish your purpose. We attempt everything, and sacrifice our own blood for your assumed cause.

Later, Ewald recognized that Loyalists were wise to keep a low profile. He was surprised to discover that the response he heard was convincing, and provided a clear rationale for not overtly supporting the British cause. The Marquis de Lafayette articulated the same perspective in a letter to the Continental Congress, which was alarmed that Cornwallis was marching through North Carolina into Virginia without meeting formal resistance:5

You can be entirely calm with regard to the rapid marches of Lord Cornwallis. Let him march from St. Augustine to Boston. What he wins in his front, he loses in his rear. His army will bury itself without requiring us to fight with him.

That February, 1781 conversation included a prescient reply. In October of that year, a united force of French and American troops plus the French Navy trapped Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. His surrender brought most fighting to an end, though the Treaty of Paris ending the war and acknowledging American independence was not signed until 1783.

in 1781, Lafayette (yellow line) could only shadow the British (red line) as they chose to raid Richmond and destroy supplies throughout Virginia
in 1781, Lafayette (yellow line) could only shadow the British (red line) as they chose to raid Richmond and destroy supplies throughout Virginia
Source: Library of Congress, Campagne en Virginie du Major Général M'is de LaFayette : ou se trouvent les camps et marches, ainsy que ceux du Lieutenant Général Lord Cornwallis en 1781

British forces concentrated at Petersburg, then crossed the James River to Westover Plantation before marching to capture Richmond, then embark at Bermuda Hundred to sail to Portsmouth
British forces concentrated at Petersburg, then crossed the James River to Westover Plantation before marching to capture Richmond, then embark at Bermuda Hundred to sail to Portsmouth
Source: Library of Congress, Campagne en Virginie du Major Général M'is de LaFayette : ou se trouvent les camps et marches, ainsy que ceux du Lieutenant Général Lord Cornwallis en 1781

after an American victory at Cowpens, General Daniel Morgan and General Nathaniel Greene managed a strategic retreat across the Carolinas and crossed the Dan River before General Cornwallis
after an American victory at Cowpens, General Daniel Morgan and General Nathaniel Greene managed a strategic retreat across the Carolinas and crossed the Dan River before General Cornwallis
Source: Internet Archive, A School History of the United States, from the Discovery of America to the Year 1878 (p.196)

highway historical markers highlight Revolutionary War events in eastern Virginia
highway historical markers highlight Revolutionary War events in eastern Virginia

route of Comte de Rochambeau's army through Northern Virginia, 1781 and 1782
route of Comte de Rochambeau's army through Northern Virginia, 1781 and 1782
Source: Library of Congress, Côte de York-town à Boston: Marches de l'armée

Lord Cornwallis fortified Yorktown, with the expectation that reinforcements would arrive from New York before his base could be captured through a siege by French and America armies
Lord Cornwallis fortified Yorktown, with the expectation that reinforcements would arrive from New York before his base could be captured through a siege by French and America armies
Source: Library of Congress, Plan of Yorktown and Glucester [sic], Virginia, October 1781

Albemarle Barracks

Battle of Great Bridge

Battle of Gwynn's Island

Battle of Yorktown

Benedict Arnold and William Phillips in Virginia, 1780-1781

A Monument In Petersburg Honoring a British General Who Invaded Virginia in the Revolutionary War

The Chesapeake Bay: Avenue for Attack

Collier-Mathew Raid of 1779

Colonial Militia in Virginia

Leslie's Raid in 1780

Virginians in The Continental Army

Were the Virginia Slaves Loyalists or Revolutionaries in the Revolutionary War

Why the Conservative, Rich Gentry Rebelled Against the "System" in the American Revolution

Why Was Virginia a Military Target in 1781?

Winning the Illinois Country in the American Revolution

Blandford Church in Petersburg - burial site of Major General William Phillips, who captured the city in 1781
Blandford Church in Petersburg - burial site of Major General William Phillips, who captured the city in 1781

Links

Cornwallis's surrender in 1781 was negotiated in the Moore House outside the town of Yorktown by subordinates - Cornwallis and Washington did not meet there in person to sign terms of capitulation
Cornwallis's surrender in 1781 was negotiated in the Moore House outside the town of Yorktown by subordinates - Cornwallis and Washington did not meet there in person to sign terms of capitulation
Source: Historical collections of Virginia, The Moore House, Yorktown (p.530)

the Moore House in Yorktown was damaged during the Civil War
the Moore House in Yorktown was damaged during the Civil War
Source: The Photographic History of the Civil War, The Scene of Yorktown's Only Surrender (p.268)

References

1. Mary Miley Theobald, "The Monstrous Absurdity," Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Summer 2006, https://www.history.org/foundation/journal/Summer06/plots.cfm; Norman Fuss, "Prelude To Rebellion: Dunmore’s Raid On The Williamsburg Magazine," Journal of the American Revolution, April 2, 2015, https://allthingsliberty.com/2015/04/prelude-to-rebellion-dunmores-raid-on-the-williamsburg-magazine-april-21-1775/ (last checked June 4, 2019)
2. "Summary of Dunmore's Proclamation," Colonial Williamsburg, https://www.history.org/history/teaching/tchaadun.cfm (last checked June 4, 2019)
3. Captain Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War: A Hessian's Journal, Joseph P. Tustin (editor), Yale University Press, 1979, pp.286-287, https://archive.org/details/EwaldsDIARYOFTHEAMERICANWAR (last checked December 18, 2018)
4. Captain Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War: A Hessian's Journal, Joseph P. Tustin (editor), Yale University Press, 1979, p.295, https://archive.org/details/EwaldsDIARYOFTHEAMERICANWAR (last checked December 18, 2018)
5. Captain Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War: A Hessian's Journal, Joseph P. Tustin (editor), Yale University Press, 1979, p.302, https://archive.org/details/EwaldsDIARYOFTHEAMERICANWAR (last checked December 18, 2018)

Yorktown Victory Monument
Yorktown
Victory Monument
Yorktown Grace Church
Yorktown
Grace Church
Yorktown fascine (1781 sand bag)
Yorktown fascine
(1781 sand bag)
Yorktown Fox cannon
Yorktown
"Fox" cannon

National Park Service visitor center - Yorktown Battlefield
NPS visitor center
(Yorktown Battlefield)
Thomas Nelson house (Yorktown)
Thomas Nelson
house (Yorktown)
Nelson House 1781 cannonball (fake...)
Nelson House
1781 cannonball (fake...)
Yorktown mural (Read Street)
Yorktown mural
(Read Street)

(click on images for larger versions)

Corwallis entered Virginia after crossing South Carolina and North Carolina, before choosing Yorktown as the deepwater port where he would be resupplied by ships of the Royal Navy sailing from New York
Cornwallis entered Virginia after crossing South Carolina and North Carolina, before choosing Yorktown as the deepwater port where he would be resupplied by ships of the Royal Navy sailing from New York
Source: Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, Campaigns of 1781 (Plate 160h, digitized by University of Richmond)

Peter Francisco, an unusually strong and courageous man, became an American hero for his fighting against the British
Peter Francisco, an unusually strong and courageous man, became an American hero for his fighting against the British
Source: Library of Congress, Peter Francisco's gallant action with nine of Tarleton's cavalry in sight of a troop of four hundred men


Military in Virginia
Virginia Places