ENTRY

The Battle of Great Bridge

SUMMARY

The Battle of Great Bridge, fought on the morning of December 9, 1775, was the first major battle of the American Revolution (1775–1783) in Virginia and a significant victory for early Patriot military mobilization. Virginia’s Patriot government ordered a regiment of soldiers to cross from Williamsburg to the south side of the James River to attack and destroy the forces of the royal governor, John Murray, fourth earl of Dunmore, and secure Norfolk and Princess Anne counties. The armies converged in the village of Great Bridge in Norfolk County on the causeway and bridge crossing the Elizabeth River. Fearing reinforcements from North Carolina, Dunmore instructed his forces to attack the entrenched Patriot forces on the south end of causeway. Forced to attack six men abreast on the narrow bridge, the British 14th Regiment took devastating fire from the front and flank, and the attack collapsed. The surviving British forces retreated to warships in the Elizabeth River, with Dunmore having abandoned the strategic borough of Norfolk and the Patriots having been emboldened in their campaign to oust him from Virginia

By the autumn of 1775, armed conflict in Virginia between Patriot and British military forces seemed increasingly likely. The first shots of the Revolutionary War had been fired in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, on the morning of April 19, 1775. Relations with the Crown further deteriorated when Virginia’s governor Lord Dunmore had the gunpowder removed from the public magazine in Williamsburg the following day. By June, Dunmore had been driven out of Williamsburg to the safety of a British warship.

 In July, the Third Virginia Convention created the Virginia Committee of Safety to serve as the executive arm of the Patriot government and authorized the creation of a military force headed by two regiments of regulars. The first regiment was authorized at eight companies (each company had sixty-eight privates plus drummers and fifers, noncommissioned officers, and officers), and the second regiment at seven, with men enlisted for one year of service. These regulars were augmented by sixteen battalions of minutemen, which were envisioned as quickly deployable and were to be recruited from the sixteen military districts created by the convention, although recruitment lagged. At the lowest level of force deployment were local militias raised by county committees of safety from the population of men for whom militia service was mandatory.

The 1st Virginia Regiment was commanded by Colonel Patrick Henry, with Colonel William Woodford at the helm of the 2nd. Henry was named commander in chief, responsible for overseeing the staffing, training, and equipping of the Virginia forces, but operational authority rested with the Committee of Safety.

Kemp’s Landing

The newly authorized forces began to assemble at College Camp, on the grounds of the College of William and Mary, during October 1775. Dunmore had based his warships in Norfolk, a critical military and mercantile port that provided access to the hinterlands of Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay. Dunmore’s forces had been raiding throughout the area for several months, seizing weapons and interrogating local Patriot political and military leaders about the size and intentions of the rebel movement. On October 25, Woodford received orders from the Committee of Safety to lead a task force south across the James River to seize Norfolk and Princess Anne counties from the royal governor and eject him and his forces from the colony. Two days later, before Woodford could begin moving his troops, a British Navy landing party attempted an amphibious attack on Hampton, at the southern end of the Virginia Peninsula. Woodford and his detachment were redirected there to fight the Battle of Hampton, the war’s first fighting in the South, before returning to Williamsburg to comply with the instructions to cross the James River.

Woodford’s task force consisted of six of the seven companies of the 2nd Virginia Regiment and five companies of the Culpeper Minute Battalion. Because the British were actively patrolling the James to prevent the crossing, the first elements of Woodford’s force did not cross the river until November 8, and the last three companies did not join them until November 19.

Dunmore’s forces were on the move as Woodford’s were still crossing the James. On the evening of November 14, portions of the 14th Regiment of Foot, along with Loyalist militia, proceeded from Norfolk to Great Bridge to engage Patriot forces reported to be assembling there. The causeway and bridge at Great Bridge provided the only crossing of the southern branch of the Elizabeth River and the surrounding Great Dismal Swamp and was a critical transportation point linking Norfolk and North Carolina. Dunmore found no Patriot military there but ordered the construction of a log stockade on the north side of the bridge to control the crossing.

On November 15, Dunmore’s forces proceeded north on Kempsville Road to Kemp’s Landing at the headwaters of the eastern branch of the Elizabeth River, another critical crossing that allowed access to Norfolk from the east. There, the British troops faced off against the local Patriot militia in the Battle of Kemp’s Landing, which resulted in a victory for Dunmore’s forces, including the Ethiopian Regiment, which comprised African Americans who had liberated themselves from slavery.

Emboldened by his success over the newly organized militia, Dunmore released a proclamation that he had written a week earlier declaring martial law in the colony and offering to emancipate any enslaved person or indentured servant who escaped to British lines and agreed to fight for the king. Fear of the prospect of a free, armed African American population led many whites who had been undecided about the rebellion to commit to the Patriot cause. The defeat at Kemp’s Landing and the proclamation illustrated the danger of allowing Dunmore to retain power, hardening the resolve of dedicated Patriots.

Because the British patrolled the waters around Hampton Roads, Woodford’s forces marched overland toward Great Bridge, a laborious journey. Woodford sent a light detachment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Scott that arrived around November 27 and occupied the south end of the Great Bridge causeway, where they were joined by North Carolina and Virginia militia. A small number of British regulars of the 14th Regiment and two Loyalist militia units—the Queen’s Own Loyal Virginia Regiment, which included Scots and white Loyalists, and the Ethiopian Regiment—manned the log stockade at the north end of the causeway, which Dunmore christened Fort Murray but the Patriots called the “hog pen” because it was on muddy ground.

Under the direction of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Bullitt, Virginia’s adjutant general, who also served as Woodford’s engineer, Patriot forces began digging a series of earthen fortifications at the south end of the causeway. They conducted patrols and raids to uncover vulnerabilities in British defenses. Colonel Woodford arrived on December 2 with the remainder of his forces and estimated that about 250 British regulars and Loyalist militia were defending the north end of the bridge. That number continued to grow over the next week, contributing to Woodford’s reluctance to attack, although skirmishes broke out between Patriot and Loyalist forces in the surrounding swamps.

Battle of Great Bridge

Dunmore took action to break the stalemate on December 8, ordering the available men of the 14th Regiment from Norfolk to Great Bridge under the command of Captain Samuel Leslie. Thomas Gage, the British commander in chief in North America, had ordered parts of the 14th Regiment to Virginia from St. Augustine in what was then known as East Florida, but this regiment only numbered 175 officers and men. Intelligence reports warned that 500 North Carolina Patriot troops were on their way to support the Virginians and were bringing cannon capable of battering down the walls of Fort Murray.

The British plan called for 120 of Leslie’s regulars to lead the assault, followed by militia. The attack force was led by Captain Charles Fordyce, with his impressive-looking Grenadier company in their bearskin mitre caps prominently in front. Troops from the Ethiopian Regiment were supposed to cross the Elizabeth River and conduct a diversionary attack in the Patriot rear, but they were sent on another mission, allowing the nearly 900 Patriot troops to focus their full attention on the estimated 600 British regulars and Loyalist militia to their front.

When the British attack began on the morning of December 9, Patriot commanders initially assumed that opposing sentries were exchanging fire, as they frequently did. As the volume of shots increased, the Patriots began to react, moving from their camp 400 yards forward to their trenches. Patriot adjutant Christopher Blackburn sounded the alarm: “To your posts.” Men rushed toward the causeway, where the morning fog and black powder smoke obscured their view. The Patriots’ preparations—they had removed the planking from the bridge deck, which the British troops had to replace—and alert sentries slowed the British advance. One sentry, William “Billy” Flora, a free Black resident of Portsmouth, stood his ground, reportedly loading and firing eight times before leaving his advanced post near the bridge.

With the causeway and bridge only wide enough for six men to walk abreast, the 120-man British assault emerged from the fog in twenty tightly formed six-man ranks—a perfect target for the entrenched Patriots. Twenty-five men of Captain Richard Kidder Meade’s company of the 2nd Virginia Regiment, with Lieutenant Edward Travis in command, waited behind protective earthworks in the middle of the causeway. An equal number of men from the Culpeper Minute Battalion occupied trenches on the attackers’ right flank. Although positioned more than 100 yards away, they were armed with rifles that had a range of 250 yards. The disciplined British soldiers advanced through a hail of lead, unable to maneuver to their left or right, and the causeway was soon littered with bodies. Additional Patriots hurried to the earthworks, increasing the volume of fire. Captain Fordyce advanced within about fifteen yards of the Patriot earthworks before he was killed. His body absorbed a dozen rounds; a soldier who arrived two days later could still see his blood on the ground.

As the British assault force fell back, the supporting Loyalist militia remained on the north side of the causeway, fearing to advance lest they meet the same fate. Lieutenant Colonel Edward Stevens, commanding the Culpeper Minute Battalion, formed a detachment and moved along the left side of the causeway, opening fire on the retreating British forces. British troops, along with their two cannon, retreated into Fort Murray. Bullitt encouraged Woodford to attack and drive the remaining troops from Fort Murray, but Woodford had received reports of possible reinforcements arriving in Norfolk. (A ship carrying Scottish Highlanders had entered Norfolk Harbor, but they were civilian immigrants, not soldiers.) In addition, Loyalists had damaged the bridge at Bachelor’s Mill, eight miles west of Great Bridge, stranding the wagons containing supplies for Woodford’s men. On the evening of December 9, the British abandoned Fort Murray and returned to Norfolk; the Patriots entered Fort Murray the following morning, and the Battle of Great Bridge was over.

Aftermath

About half of the 120-man British assault force was killed, wounded, or captured, a catastrophe for any eighteenth-century army. The heavy losses demoralized the remaining members of the 14th Regiment, shattered the Loyalist militia’s will to fight, and shocked the Loyalists in Norfolk. The Loyalist militia also suffered casualties, but only fragmentary records document these losses. Woodford reported that two members of the Ethiopian Regiment were wounded and captured. If these men survived, they would certainly have been returned to slavery. The Patriots suffered only one casualty, a man wounded in the finger, possibly Thomas Nash, a young militia officer from Norfolk County. Woodford ordered Captain Fordyce buried with full military honors in recognition of his bravery and that of his men.

Woodford advanced first to Kemp’s Landing and then to Norfolk on December 14, driving the British and Loyalists onto ships in Norfolk Harbor. The victory strengthened many Patriots’ determination. Writing to Theodorick Bland Jr. several days after the battle, Captain Meade reported that it was “worse than can be imagin’d; 10 and 12 bullets thro’ many; limbs broke in 2 or 3 places; brains turning out. Good God, what a sight! What will satisfy the governor? You know my feelings; and my determination really is now fixed. I’ll see this present matter at an end, or die.” Meade continued to fight for the revolutionary cause, ultimately serving General George Washington as an aide-de-camp.

The next phase of the campaign to rid Virginia of Dunmore and British colonial rule was about to unfold. Within two months, Norfolk, the eighth-largest city in British North America, would be destroyed.

MAP
TIMELINE
March 1775
As the crisis between the colonies and Great Britain grows more serious, Governor John Murray, fourth earl of Dunmore, is unable to prevent the second of the Revolutionary Conventions from electing delegates to the Second Continental Congress and from voting to put the colony in a posture of defense.
April 21, 1775
Governor John Murray, earl of Dunmore, dispatches a company of marines to seize the colony's munitions from the public magazine in Williamsburg.
Early June 1775
Governor John Murray, fourth earl of Dunmore, flees Williamsburg and tries to gather Loyalist supporters in Hampton Roads, which will only bring a small force of British regulars.
July-August 1775

The Third Virginia Convention creates the Virginia Committee of Safety to serve as the executive arm of the Patriot government and authorizes the creation and staffing of a military force.

October 1775

Newly recruited Patriot forces begin to assemble at College Camp, on the grounds of the College of William and Mary; by late October, troops are organized into regimental-sized forces capable of countering British and Loyalist military control.

October 25, 1775

Colonel William Woodford is ordered to cross south of the James River and liberate Norfolk and Princess Anne counties from British colonial rule and defeat the forces of Lord Dunmore.

October 26-27, 1775

British naval forces attempt an amphibious attack on the port of Hampton and are repulsed by Virginia forces; the first British and Loyalist blood of the Revolution is drawn in Virginia.

November 8, 1775

Patriot forces under Colonel William Woodford begin to cross the James River, which is being patrolled by British warships.

November 15, 1775

In a failed Patriot ambush attempt, an engagement at Kemp’s Landing results in about fourteen Patriot casualties, the first Virginia Patriot blood shed in the Revolutionary War.

November 15, 1775

Governor John Murray, fourth earl of Dunmore, publicly issues a proclamation dated November 7 that declares martial law and promises freedom to all enslaved people and indentured servants willing to fight for the British.

November 19, 1775

Patriot forces under Colonel William Woodford complete the crossing of the James River.

November 27, 1775

Lieutenant Colonel Charles Scott arrives at the south end of the Great Bridge and begins to prepare a defense and obtain intelligence on British and Loyalist forces at the north end of the bridge.

December 2-8, 1775

Patriot forces conduct raids to gather intelligence on British and Loyalist forces at the north end of the Great Bridge.

December 8, 1775

Governor John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, orders an attack on the Patriot forces at the south end of the Great Bridge before reinforcements can arrive from North Carolina.

December 9, 1775

British regular and Loyalist forces are repulsed in a bloody assault on Patriot forces at Great Bridge, ending the first battle of the American Revolution in Virginia.

FURTHER READING
  • Cecere, Michael, March to Independence: The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies,
    1775–1776.Yardley, Pa.: Westholme, 2021.
  • Selby, John E. The Revolution in Virginia, 1775–1783. Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg
    Foundation, 1988.
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Hannum, Patrick H.. The Battle of Great Bridge. (2023, November 27). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/the-battle-of-great-bridge.
MLA Citation:
Hannum, Patrick H.. "The Battle of Great Bridge" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (27 Nov. 2023). Web. 23 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2024, June 13
Feedback
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.