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Friday, January 10, 2014

THE BATTLE OF GREAT BRIDGE ~ VIRGINIA

It’s an amazing story of the Revolutionary War that many people may not know about.
The Battle of Great Bridge was the first major land battle of the war to take place in Virginia. The patriot rout of the British on December 9, 1775 at this strategic location, twelve miles south of Norfolk, would force the English to retreat and end English rule of the largest colony in America.
 
Artist's rendering of Great Bridge
Great Bridge was a seemingly insignificant structure crossing the South Branch of the Elizabeth River. It strategically connected the northern and southern portions of The Great Road, a primary route and supply line from North Carolina to Norfolk. It was used to transport livestock, farm produce, and various products needed to maintain British ships into Tidewater Virginia. The Village of Great Bridge, on the southern shore of the Elizabeth River, was gradually built up with wharves and warehouses. This transportation corridor, through a swampy area, was little more than a dirt trail in some places. In the 1690’s, major improvements were made to enhance travel. Causeways (a raised road or path that goes across wet ground or water) and bridges were constructed to improve the Great Road, to provide an easier land passage to the north.

In April of 1775, John Murray, fourth Earl of Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, took 20 kegs of gunpowder stored in the Public Magazine in Williamsburg infuriating the populace. Fearing for his life, he and his family evacuated the capitol and took refuge aboard a British warship in the James River. Loyalists in Portsmouth furnished housing for his men. In August the Third Virginia Convention resolved to raise an army for the defense of the colony. Colonel William Woodford was appointed to lead the Second Virginia regiment.

Norfolk was largely a Loyalist area, so Dunmore was able to keep a small British fleet in this port town. Over the next few months there were skirmishes when Dunmore’s men would come ashore, seize property, and threaten towns in the Hampton Roads area. General Thomas Gage offered Dunmore support by sending the 14th Regiment of Foot to Virginia. In November Dunmore issued a Proclamation declaring martial law and offering freedom to Whig held slaves in Virginia willing to serve in the British Army, and many slaves enlisted to gain their freedom.

Dunmore’s troops headed toward Great Bridge when he learned that Patriots from North Carolina were posting themselves there. Upon their arrival at the north end of the bridge, he
Artist's rendering of Ft. Murray
ordered the construction of a stockade. The garrison, named
Fort Murray, was primarily built by former slaves, who became known as The Ethiopian Regiment. In an initial skirmish at Kemp’s Landing, about ten miles from the bridge, the British outnumbered and routed the militia and sent them scattering. With this initial victory Dunmore, was confident of victory at the bridge. He was unaware that Col. Woodford and a large number of regulars from many Virginia counties, and a contingent from North Carolina, were rallying near the bridge. Patriots constructed a temporary fortification, or breastwork, on the south side of the causeway. Minor skirmishes occurred daily with continual canon fire.

Captain Charles Fordyce, commanding Dunmore’s 14th Regiment of Foot grenadier unit, as well as sailors from the British ships at Norfolk, other Loyalists and the Ethiopian Regiment traveled overnight from Norfolk toward the bridge. Dunmore’s forces numbered around 670 men. One of the slaves from the Patriot forces went over to the British side claiming to be a deserter and told the British forces there were only about 300 troops on the Patriot side. Unbeknownst to the British, the Patriot forces numbered around 900 men.

Great Bridge and causeway
Confident of another success, the British replaced some of the missing planks on the bridge, rolled their canon out of the fort and began hammering the Patriot’s breastwork. Because the narrow causeway and bridge could only fit six men across, the British were not able to attack in their usual fashion. Patriots fired back at the British and began retreating. The last Patriot to retreat was a freed black man, Billy Flora, who bravely removed some of the planks to make it difficult for the British to cross the bridge and causeway. As the British approached the breastworks, the Patriots fired heavily killing Fordyce and many other soldiers. The British retreated and were hit by more Patriot regulars from a flank position and were ultimately chased back to the fort.

One hundred and two British soldiers were killed or wounded at the Battle of Great Bridge. The Americans, protected behind their breastwork, suffered not a single death and only one minor finger injury. During the fight Patriots left the breastwork to retrieve wounded British soldiers to care for them. After the battle, British Capt. Leslie, who lost a son there, thanked the Patriots for their compassion and returned to Norfolk. With no more access to vitally needed materials, Dunmore’s forces retreated to the British ships in the harbor.

These events helped to persuade some of the previously uncommitted locals to now favor the Patriot cause. Less than a week later the Fourth Virginia Convention condemned Dunmore and made a public declaration for independence.

Lacking the needed provisions, Dunmore’s naval forces began bombarding Norfolk and burned the Loyalist stronghold. The Patriot forces finished burning Norfolk, leaving only St. Paul’s Church standing. Dunmore retreated to Gynne’s Island and never returned to Virginia. The British left Virginia alone for the next three years while the war raged on elsewhere.

Virginia DAR Memorial to
The Battle of Great Bridge
The area of Great Bridge is now part of Chesapeake, Virginia, and a new bridge stands not far from where the original was located. “The Great Bridge Battlefield and Waterways History Foundation was formed to promote the development of a battlefield park and visitor center.” A monument was placed at the park by the Virginia Daughters of the American Revolution. To learn more about The Battle of Great Bridge: http://www.gbbattlefield.org/



2 comments:

  1. Quite interesting. I had not heard of this battle. BTW, in paragraph 7, I think you meant "flank" position. :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are right! I made the correction. I must have been thinking about getting those planks put back in the bridge. Thanks for stopping by.

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