Saturday, July 28, 2012

Intern's Corner: July in the Revolution

Lord Dunmore and the Battle of Gwynn's Island
By Mark Relation, DLAR Intern

          When Independence was declared, the old British royal governors were expelled from office and replaced with new governments, but this does not mean that they happily accepted their fate.  John Murray, Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia, fled his capitol in Williamsburg in 1775 only to raise a small army of soldiers, sailors, Loyalists and slaves in an attempt to regain the control of the colony.  Proclaiming martial law throughout Virginia, Dunmore seized Norfolk harbor and proceeded to raid and destroy Patriots along the Elizabeth and James Rivers with a Royal Navy Warship.  These raids only strengthened Patriot resolve and most of lower Virginia took up arms against their former governor. 

          In response, Dunmore moved his command to Gwynn’s Island in the Chesapeake Bay near the mouth of the Piankatank River in May 1776.  Concerned that the British forces on the island would tie up troops that were desperately needed in other campaigns, Virginia, under pressure from Washington and the Continental Congress, dispatched Colonels William Daingerfield and Hugh Mercer to eliminate the British forces on the island.  Progress was slow in this endeavor, as the British had the advantage of the water barrier for their defense and the Patriots lacked sufficient cannon to assault the island.  Dunmore’s troops were also unable to move against the massing Patriot forces as they were plagued by rampant sickness that either killed severely weakened most of his men. 

          By July 8th, however, the stalemate was broken when General Andrew Lewis arrived with reinforcements and 14 artillery pieces, giving the Patriots a significant advantage in firepower and men.  When the British ships were moving about in the harbor on the morning of July 9th, Lewis began an artillery barrage, silencing the British guns, severely damaging the British ships, and even wounding Dunmore himself.  With his artillery completely outclassed and his men weakened by the rampant disease, Dunmore decided to evacuate, leaving only 30 escaped slave soldiers deemed too ill to move as the rest of the troops sailed for the British stronghold at New York. 

          The next day, under cover of heavy artillery support, the Patriot forces moved on Gwynn’s Island, not realizing that Dunmore had already left.  Expecting resistance, the Patriots were shocked at the scene of death and destruction that they found.  The British garrison had been hit so hard by smallpox that even the graves that covered the landscape were insufficient to house the bodies that lay among the remains of the British outpost.  The barracks had been destroyed by a fire, and the living that remained were hardly in better condition than the dead.  Bodies of all stages of decay, both dead and dying, lay in a scene of “misery, distress, and cruelty.” 

          After the capture of Gwynn’s Island, Dunmore posed no real threat to Virginia, his hopes of reconquest dead with the majority of his men.  He later dismissed most of his remaining forces and returned to Great Britain to reclaim his seat in the House of Lords in British Parliament.  In 1781 he was sent to raise a force of Loyalists in America to attempt an invasion of Virginia, but by the time he arrived, Cornwallis had already surrendered at Yorktown and the project was abandoned.  Dunmore was later appointed governor of the Bahamas in 1786, but irregularities in his financial accounts and a scandal involving the secret marriage of his daughter to a young son of George III led to his dismissal in 1796 and he died in retirement 13 years later. 

Blanco, Richard L., and Paul J. Sanborn. The American Revolution: 1775-1783 : An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1993. Print. p. 714-716, 1132-1135.

Reynolds, Joshua, Sir.  Portrait of John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore.  1765.

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