Throughout the Revolution, the Royal Navy pillaged, attacked, or blockaded Chesapeake Bay, brushing aside state navies and American ships. The Royal Navy consistently outnumbered the Continental Navy in number of ships, men, cannon, and munitions. Why then did the navy under Lord Dunmore suffer defeat when it struck Hampton during the first major skirmish in Virginia in October 1775? This is the story of the first amphibious campaign in the South during the American Revolution and the tale of the last royal governor of Virginia’s leadership on land and sea.
|John Murray, Fourth Earl of Dunmore, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, |
circa 1764. (Google Art Project)
Lord Dunmore precipitated the assault on Hampton Roads in an attempt to quell the growing rebellion in his midst. After four years as governor, a war against the Indians, and several diplomatic fiascos, belligerent patriots chased him from his York County home, Porto Bello, in June 1775. Taking refuge aboard HMS Fowey, Dunmore sailed down the James River to Hampton Roads. Just as Governor Josiah Martin of North Carolina had done the year before, Dunmore began operating from sea from behind England’s “wooden walls.” However, Dunmore had a trump card to play that had been unavailable to Governor Martin. Andrew Sprowle, a fellow Scotsman, owned the Gosport shipyard (present day Norfolk Naval Shipyard) in Portsmouth on the Elizabeth River, which could provide aid to Dunmore’s forces. Therefore, Lord Dunmore set up a de facto capital in the shipyard where, according to the Virginia Gazette, he issued “out his decrees, as Darius did of old.” The shipyard’s munitions, supplies and dry docks provided the governor with a significant advantage over Virginians who sought to banish his vessels from Hampton Roads. Control of this roadstead, the northernmost harbor in America that did not freeze in the winter, gave the Royal Navy a safe haven from which it would be able to plan operations in the North Atlantic.
From Gosport, Dunmore conducted governmental affairs and assembled ships and troops to fight the disgruntled colonials in the lower Chesapeake region. When the opportunity arose, he intended to attack Virginia’s forces and destroy them. Dunmore’s chance to fully engage the patriots came after a hurricane struck Hampton Roads in early September. The hurricane put HMS Mercury under Captain John MacCartney on its broadside in front of Norfolk, where an article in Pinkney’s Virginia Gazette urged Virginians to seize the opportunity and burn the ship, calling her “the terror of Norfolk and a refuge to our slaves.” A British ship’s tender (dinghy) named the Liberty also blew ashore during the storm, forcing the captain of the HMS Otter, Matthew Squire, and a runaway slave to leave the dingy in Hampton and make their way via canoe to the Otter. When colonials found the Liberty, they seized its supplies and burned it to the waterline in retaliation for British seizures of food, supplies, and livestock.
Conditions were right for confrontation, and a furious Captain Squire demanded restitution. Hampton’s town fathers responded that they would gladly return the captured goods if Squire returned all runaway slaves. Dunmore wrote of the situation, stating, “[T]heir Port is now blocked up and we have taken two of their Boats and shall not permit a Vessel to pass or repass till they return the Stores.” Meanwhile, Colonel William Woodford issued orders on October 24 for the 2nd Virginia Regiment to march from Williamsburg to stop the expected British attack. Captain Squire determined to thump the cheeky Americans and sailed up the Hampton River with six vessels on October 25.
Based upon Dunmore’s previous sorties in the Elizabeth River, this promised to be yet another feather in his cap. Throughout autumn, his shore parties had taken numerous cannon and munitions, captured soldiers, and pillaged settlements. He had met little resistance thus far and expected more of the same as his designs became more ambitions. On October 5, he wrote to Lord Dartmouth, secretary of state for the colonies, requesting the chance to act decisively. “My Lord do I see every hour His Majesty's Enemies puting [sic] themselves in the best posture of defence [sic] possible, without having it in my power to give them the least interruption, and I give your Lordship leave to judge if this is not to the greatest degree gauling [sic], when certain too that a very small force well applied now would not only effectually frustrate all their Schemes for the present, but soon reduce the whole of his Southern part of His Majesty's Continent to a proper State of Submission.”
The next day, Congress passed a resolution to seize anyone presenting a threat or danger to America’s liberties. Dunmore was singled out by Samuel Chase of Maryland, who stated, “I don’t think the Resolution goes far enough. Ld. Dunmore has been many Months committing Hostilities vs. Virginia, and has extended his Piracies [sic] to Maryland. I wish he had been seized, by the Colony months ago. Have they ships or men?” Virginian Richard Henry Lee wrote, “I wish Congress would advise Virginia and Maryland to raise a force by sea to destroy Lord Dunmore's power. He is fond of his bottle, and may be taken by land, but ought to be taken at all events.”
|This portion of a French map from 1781 shows the general locations of Hampton, officially established in 1610, and the remains of Fort George, which started construction in 1728 on the site of Fort Algernon, which had been established in 1609 to protect the approaches to Jamestown. (Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)|
|Reenactors representing Virginia militia members defending Hampton, Virginia, fire a volley at the invading British during commemorations held in October 2015. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)|
The next morning dawned brightly as sporadic gunfire erupted. By then Colonel Woodford had arrived with his riflemen. The landing party expected a frontal assault on its position and prepared to meet it with cold steel and hot lead. In previous engagements, Virginia forces had fled into the woods when faced with superior troops. Instead, Woodford’s riflemen took cover behind buildings and on wharves and began picking off targets. The outnumbered Virginians poured a steady fire on HMS Otter and the rest of the befuddled fleet. They pushed back the marines, and silenced the ships’ gun crews. The humiliating defeat was too much for Captain Squire and he ordered a full withdrawal by day’s end. In the chaos that ensued, two British transports ran aground. The rebels captured ten crewmen from Otter’s tender, the Hawk, and killed its coxswain. The Virginians suffered no deaths and Hampton was saved from Dunmore’s assault.
The skirmish in Hampton, however trivial, served as a harsh realization for the British who rarely expected such a lopsided loss. Strategically, Lord Dunmore failed to realize that he was attacking an entire town over a burned out jolly boat, and some sailcloth. Dunmore could easily have sent additional vessels and supplies from Gosport, thereby avoiding conflict. Moreover, these goods were worth far less than the devotion of the population, many of whom were still loyalists. Would all those loyalists remain sympathetic after Dunmore indiscriminately attacked their homes and hearths?
Tactically, the Royal Navy floundered at Hampton. Dunmore’s vessels struggled to navigate the Hampton River and Mill Creek, despite the fact that the royal governor actively recruited slaves and loyalists to serve as pilots through the waterways. Unlike the Elizabeth River, the Hampton River was also narrow enough to block with a few sunken vessels. This intelligence failure could easily have been averted had Captain Squire sent a ship’s tender to investigate prior to the attack. This roadblock led to the lack of a greater naval presence at the beginning of the skirmish. At that time, British ships remained at the river’s mouth, depriving advancing land forces of much needed artillery support.
Furthermore, the Royal Navy did not serve in the same support role as at the Battle of Bunker Hill, Massachusetts on June 17, 1775. At Hampton, the navy was the only force involved and its firepower was severely limited. For example, Kingfisher and Otter both had 14 cannons and their crews were wary of exposing themselves to the riflemen’s withering fire. The gun crews were also bested because their vessels had already sent marines ashore thereby nullifying the protection they could have provided as sharpshooters. This decision resulted in only a few wayward shots being fired at the town’s defenders. Squire also did not take note of the tides, which resulted in the loss of two vessels, along with their pilots and crews.
|From a pier in downtown Hampton, Virginia, a reenactor portraying a |
Virginia militiaman takes a shot at an approaching vessel representing
one of Lord Dunmore's ships during commemorations held in October
2015. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)
The Battle of Hampton marked the first time riflemen had been on hand to stop Dunmore’s continual marauding. Woodford’s riflemen, who had not yet seen action, put up strong resistance against the British marines and sailors who expected the colonists to flee or fight in the open, neither of which occurred. Captain Squire received a written message soon after the battle from Woodford’s riflemen. It read “The . . . soldiers of Hampton desire their compliments to captain Squire and his squadron, and wish to know how they approve the reception they met with . . .” Meanwhile, Pinkney’s Virginia Gazette claimed, “Lord Dunmore may now see he has not cowards to deal with.”