Prelude to Rebellion: Dunmore’s Raid on the Williamsburg Magazine

April in Virginia is regarded by many as the best month of the year. Sandwiched between the chilly bluster of March and the growing heat and humidity of May and June, April is characterized by warm but not hot days, cool but not cold nights, gentle breezes and gentle rains. There are, of course, exceptions. And the night of April 20/21, 1775 was one of them. Winds gusting to over 40 miles per hour shook the newly leafed trees. Clouds threatening rain scudded across the sky, intermittently plunging the land into almost total darkness as they blotted out the light from the silvery half moon.[1] Altogether, it was a night on which most people would choose to be at home in their beds and not tramping the roads through the countryside.

Most, but not all.

At about 4:00am on the morning of April 21, 1775 a body of men might have been observed moving along the road from Burwell’s Ferry on the James River toward Virginia’s capitol of Williamsburg. As they neared, an observer (had there been one) would have noted that they were about twenty in number. As they came even nearer he would have seen that they were led by a young man in the uniform of a Lieutenant of His Majesty’s Navy, that some wore the red faced white uniforms of His Majesty’s Marines,[2] while others wore common seaman’s garb[3] , and that all were armed.[4] Following closely behind were two men in a wagon.[5]

They came on with the steady, purposeful stride of men on a mission. For men on a mission is what they were. They had been ordered to remove from the Williamsburg Magazine the gunpowder that was stored there. They did not know why, nor did they care. They were merely doing their duty; just following orders. They did not know — nor could they have known — that in carrying out those orders they would set alight a fuse which would ignite a series of events that would culminate in the expulsion of Royal Authority and the elimination of any organized British influence in Virginia for the next five years.

************

Painting of Lord Dunmore by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1765 (Scottish National Portrait Gallery).
Painting of Lord Dunmore by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1765 (Scottish National Portrait Gallery).

Trouble had been brewing between the Colonists and the Royal Governor, John Murray, Fourth Earl Dunmore, for some time. In response to what the Colonists perceived as the increasingly coercive actions of Parliament and the growing restrictions being placed on their rights as Englishmen, resistance had been building for years. When Lord Dunmore arrived as Royal Governor for Virginia in 1771, he had been warmly welcomed. But tensions between Parliament and the people were already at a high level. They continued to increase during the next four years.

Dunmore was Scottish aristocrat. An Earl and a member of the House of Lords, he moved among the wealthiest and most powerful people of British society. But there were shadows.

In 1745 his father had supported Charles Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) in his attempt to wrest the British crown from King George II. At age 15, John had served as a page in the Prince’s court. When the uprising failed at the Battle of Culloden, English retribution had been swift and harsh. Dunmore’s father was arrested, tried, convicted of treason and sentenced to hang. It was only through the intervention of Dunmore’s uncle, John Murray, 2nd Earl Dunmore, who was held in high regard by the King, that William Murray was pardoned on condition that he remain “… a Prisoner during his Life in such Place or Places as We, Our Heirs and Successors should be pleased from Time to Time … to direct.”[6] Thus, almost miraculously, the Dunmore titles were preserved to be passed on to young John, albeit accompanied by a cloud of suspicion that never entirely dissipated.

Although he rubbed elbows with the mighty and influential in British society and government, he was never really one of the important personages in that circle. Keenly aware of his relatively low status among the movers and shakers of his time, he spent much of his life attempting to improve the family fortune and his position in British society.

His chance came in 1770 when he was appointed to the Governorship of New York. He was making some progress toward his goal of acquiring vast tracts of land in New York when, in 1771, he learned that he had been replaced as Governor of New York and was to assume the Governorship of Virginia (which he viewed as a consolation prize).

Convivial, fun loving, and personally courageous, he was also characterized by contemporaries as arrogant, impetuous, egocentric, combative, highly sensitive to perceived slights or disrespect, possessed of a capable but not formidable intellect, and lacking in judgment, self control, diplomatic dexterity and finesse.[7] After two weeks of interacting with Dunmore at Pittsburgh during Dunmore’s 1774 expedition against the Shawnee, Augustine Prevost[8] wrote this concise characterization of him:

His L[ordshi]p in a private character is by no means a bad man. On the contrary, he is a jolly, hearty companion, hospitable and polite at his own table, but as G[overno]r or the com[mande]r of a military expedition [he is] the most unfit, the most trifling and most uncalculated person living.[9]

This, then, was the man into whose hands the King and Parliament had entrusted British interest and influence in Virginia, its wealthiest and most populous colony in America.[10]

Dunmore found himself increasingly in conflict with the growing aspirations of the people and the independent spirit of Virginia’s Colonial leaders. Accustomed to and expecting unquestioning obedience, he grew frustrated and angry when those Colonial leaders were so bold (and in Dunmore’s view, disrespectful) as to as to act in opposition to his wishes. His response to rising colonial concerns and to the growing militancy of the Virginia General Assembly was to twice dissolve that body, thereby effectively shutting down civil government in Virginia.

Photo of the magazine at Williamsburg taken from the rear quarter (Norman Fuss).
Photo of the magazine at Williamsburg taken from the rear quarter (Norman Fuss).

“… about the middle of April …” (probably about April 9-10), at Dunmore’s request, Hugh Miller, the Keeper of the Magazine, had “…delivered up the keys to the Magazine to the Governor … .” According to Miller, there were in the Magazine at that time “ … twenty one barrels and a half of Powder, including the three unfitted [i.e. unfit for use, needing reconstitution], three hundred and forty two new Muskets, lately cleaned and in complete order, others that wanted but small repairs …” and a number of old guns and other articles “… almost useless …”[11]

Several days later, Miller reported to Mayor John Dixon and the Williamsburg Common Hall that he had received information to the effect that agents of the Governor had been entering the Magazine by night and had removed the locks from the 342 new muskets that were stored within, thereby rendering them inoperable. Additionally he reported that there were credible reports that the Governor was planning to remove the colonies supply of gunpowder that was also stored in the Magazine.[12]

This was alarming news. The Williamsburg Magazine was the central repository for the arms, ammunition and equipment needed for defense against Indian raids, slave revolts, riots and insurrections. If Miller’s information was true, Virginia would be rendered virtually defenseless.

Lacking access to the Magazine (the keys were in Dunmore’s hands) the town authorities could not verify Miller’s information regarding the musket locks. They also could not verify the allegation that “… the Governor was planning to carry off the stock of powder,” for any effort to do so, should it become known to the Governor, would undoubtedly be viewed by Dunmore as an outrageous affront and precipitate a confrontation for which they were not prepared.

They did what they could, which was to set a watch on the Magazine to observe who, if anyone, was going in and out during the hours of darkness. Beginning on Easter Sunday, April 16, citizen volunteers mounted watch on the magazine from sunset to sunrise.

Image of a schooner that is similar to HMS Magdalen (NJScuba.net).
Image of a schooner that is similar to HMS Magdalen (NJScuba.net).

The information that Dunmore planned to seize the Colony’s gunpowder was all too true. Days earlier he had ordered Lt. Henry Collins, commander of His Majesty’s Schooner Magdalen,[13] then moored in the James River off Burwell’s ferry, to organize a shore party to seize the gunpowder in the Magazine. Lieutenant Collins was to hold the party in readiness to act immediately upon notification from Dunmore that the coast was clear, in as much as Dunmore wished the removal to be done “privately.” [14] Dunmore also undertook to provide a small wagon from the Palace to transport the almost half ton of purloined powder.[15]

Through the nights of Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday the watchers watched. And saw nothing. Between 1:00 to 2:00 on the morning of April 21, perhaps out of extreme boredom, perhaps because of the blustery weather, perhaps a combination of both, the volunteers on watch that night left their stations.[16]

That was just what Dunmore had been waiting for. For while the volunteers had been watching the Magazine, Dunmore’s servants had been watching the watchers. When they departed that night, Dunmore was immediately informed.

Summoning his personal secretary and advisor, Navy Captain Edward Foy, Dunmore gave him the key to the magazine, instructed him to take one of the wagons in the Palace stables and notify Lt. Collins. This he did. With one of the servants as a driver, he set off for Burwell’s ferry.[17]

Captain Foy arrived at Burwell’s ferry around 2:30am. He alerted Lieutenant Collins who alerted the men designated for the landing party. It took perhaps 20 minutes to wake the men, arm and accouter them, inspect them and prepare them for the mission which they were about to undertake. At 3:00am, twenty armed men came ashore.[18] A handful of these men were marines — no more than six or seven[19] — who formed the core of the landing party. The rest were seamen. Among them, as the only men present with the training and knowledge to properly and safely handle large quantities of gunpowder, were the Magdalen’s gunner and gunner’s mate.[20]

Led by the marines and followed by the Governor’s wagon, the party marched at a steady pace along the four mile road between Burwell’s ferry and Williamsburg. It took them a little more than an hour. As they approached the city, they advanced cautiously, conscious of Dunmore’s desire for “privacy.” Passing to the left of the Capitol Building, they went along South Street (now Francis Street) rather than Main Street (now Duke of Gloucester Street) because it had fewer houses, fewer people and hence offered less chance of being discovered.[21] Shortly after 4:00am they reached the rear of the Magazine.[22]

The Williamsburg Magazine was the central repository for the arms, ammunition and equipment for the colony. Built in 1715, it was a two-story octagon building with thick walls of fired brick. Arms, accouterments and other military equipment were stored on the second floor. Gunpowder was stored on the first floor in a room that was accessible only by a separate door in the rear of the building. During the course of the French and Indian War, a 10 foot high perimeter wall and guardhouse had been added to accommodate the influx of munitions occasioned by that conflict. The heavy oak gate through the perimeter wall and the doors to the magazine itself were secured by strong locks.[23]

To enter the magazine, the party had to move to the front gate. No sooner had they done so than an alarm was sounded. It is not known who sounded the alarm — perhaps some citizen suffering from insomnia, perhaps a watcher who had sheltered from the weather in the Courthouse just across Main Street. No matter who sounded the alarm, “privacy” was no longer possible.

Lieutenant Collins acted quickly. Detailing a couple of marines to guard the wagon, he unlocked the front gate, entered the courtyard, led the rest of his party to the rear of the building and unlocked the door to the powder room.

Photo of powder "half barrels" at the Tower of London. These barrels are the kind that were in the Williamsburg Magazine (Norman Fuss).
Photo of powder “half barrels” at the Tower of London. These barrels are the kind that were in the Williamsburg Magazine (Norman Fuss).

Entering first with the double shielded lantern that he used when working in the Magdalen’s powder room, the Gunner looked about. Stacked against one wall were eighteen half-barrels, each containing 50 pounds of gunpowder and weighing in total about 65 pounds each.[24] Off to one side were three other full half barrels and one more only partially full. He quickly recognized that the three half-barrels setting apart contained damaged powder waiting to be reconstituted, and that all the good powder was in the other eighteen half-barrels.

At an order from Lieutenant Collins, each of the men slung his musket, picked up a half-barrel of powder, hurried through the front gate and deposited it in the wagon.

There was not time for more — the alarm was spreading rapidly. Locking the door to the powder room and the gate behind him, Lieutenant Collins and his party set off the way they had come — at a far faster pace than they had employed on their approach.

By the time enough citizens had been roused from their beds to make a crowd of appreciable size, the raiding party was too far away to be overtaken. And no one present was prepared to confront an armed party of His Majesty’s Marines — even a small one

At about 6:00am the party arrived back at its starting point at Burrell’s Ferry.[25] The powder was transferred to the Magdalen. The wagon departed and the men returned on board, their mission accomplished.

They had no way of knowing of the attempt to seize colonist’s arms and ammunition that had taken place some 600 miles to the north at Lexington and Concord in the Colony of Massachusetts Bay less than 48 hours earlier, and of the violent and bloody reaction that it had precipitated. Nor had they any reason to anticipate the angry reactions and the disastrous chain of events that would follow from this night’s work. They had merely done their duty.

But in doing so, they had lit the fuse to a chain of events that culminated in the disastrous British defeat at the Battle of Great Bridge and the eradication of British authority in Virginia, leaving the wealthiest and most populous state of the fledgling United States free of any organized British presence for the next five years.

 

[1] The description of weather conditions at Williamsburg on the night of April 21, 1775 is based on the following:

Astronomical conditions U. S. Naval Observatory, Astronomical Applications Department, Sun and Moon Data for One Day, Williamsburg, VA (Longitude W76⁰ 43”, Latitude N37⁰ 17’), April 21, 1775 Eastern Standard Time, http://aa.usno.navy.mil/rstt/onedaytable?form=1&ID=AA&year=1775&month=4&day=21&state=VA&place=Williamsburg, (accessed January 7, 2015). “Phase of the Moon Waning Gibbous with 63% of the Moon’s visible disk illuminated.”

Atmospheric weather conditions A Log for His Majesty’s Ship Fowey, from Decr 6th, 1774 to Decr 6th 1775 by James Kellie, Master: (PRO ADM 52/1749 in Virginia Colonial Records Project Microfilm Reel M945, Rockefeller Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, VA), entry for Thursday, 20th April, 1775: “Fresh Gales & cloudy.” (NOTE: The day on board ship begins and ends at 12:00 noon. The entry for April 20 covers from 12:00 noon, April 20 to 12:00 noon April 21, land time.) On April 20/21, 1775 HMS Fowey was moored in the James River near Newport News, about 15 miles from Williamsburg.

[2] Purdie, Virginia Gazette Supplement (April 21, 1775), 3. “This morning, between 3 and 4 o’clock, all the gunpowder in the magazine, to the amount, as we hear, of about 20 barrels, was carried off in his Excellency the Governor’s wagon, escorted by a detachment of marines from the armed schooner Magdalen, now lying at Burwell’s ferry, and lodged on board that vessel.”

[3] Dunmore mentions only seamen in his report to Lord Dartmouth; Dunmore to Dartmouth (No. 26), Williamsburg 1st May 1775 (PRO CO 5/1353) in William Bell Clark, Naval Documents of the American Revolution (Washington, U.S. Navy Department, 1964) 1:259-61. (hereafter cited as Clark, NDAR.) “I accordingly requested of Lieut. [Henry] Collins commanding His Majesty’s armed Schooner the Magdalen, to convey the powder on board the Foway [sic!] Man of War now on this station, which that Officer, with a party of his Seamen Diligently executed”

[4] A Journal of the proceedings of His Majesty’s Schooner Magdalen under my Command Commencing 17th April 1775 & ending the 8th Septr 1775 by Henry Collins. (PRO ADM 51/3894 in Virginia Colonial Records Project Microfilm Reel M942, Rockefeller Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, VA) (hereafter cited as Journal, HMS Magdalen), entry for Thursday, 20th April, 1775, “At 3 AM landed 20 men Armed to take some Gunpowder out of the Magazine at Williamsburg.”

[5] Dunmore provided the wagon used to transport the almost half ton of gunpowder from the Magazine to the Magdalen; Purdie, Virginia Gazette Supplement (April 21, 1775), 3, op. cit. The two men in the wagon would have been Captain Edward Foy and a servant driver.

[6] Newcastle to William Murray, 30 November, 1747, Dunmore Papers, Earl Greg Swem Library, College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, VA box 2, folder 71.

[7] For brief biographies of Dunmore see: H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) 39: 955-6; Mark M. Boatner III, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, (New York: David McKay, 1974) 340-1; ______, Encyclopedia Virginia, (the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the Library of Virginia); and Sidney Lee (ed.), Dictionary of National Biography, (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1894) 39: 388. For fuller treatments of Dunmore, see James Corbett David, Dunmore’s New World, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013); John E. Selby & Edward M. Riley, Dunmore, (Williamsburg: Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1977), and James A. Hagemann, Lord Dunmore: Last Royal Governor of Virginia, 1771-1776, (Hampton: Wayfarer, 1974).

[8] Augustine Prevost was the son of Major General Augustine Prevost who, as commander of British forces in East Florida, played an important role in the capture of Savannah in 1778 and its successful defense in 1779. The younger Prevost served in his father’s regiment, attaining the rank of Major before leaving British service at the end of the Revolution. Nicholas B. Wainwright, “Turmoil in Pittsburgh: Diary of Augustine Prevost,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography; 85 (Philadelphia: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1961), 111-119. (hereafter cited as Wainwright, Turmoil in Pittsburgh).

[9] Wainwright, Turmoil in Pittsburgh, 143.

[10] Estimated population in 1775: Virginia = 400,000. Massachusetts (the next most populous colony) = 358,000. Evarts B. Greene, American Population Before the Federal Census of 1790 (1981; repr. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1997), 7. Value of exports in 1763: Virginia = £1,040,000. Pennsylvania (the next colony in value of exports) = £705,500. John Mitchell or Arthur Young, American Husbandry. Containing an account of the soil, climate, production and agriculture of the British colonies in North-America and the West-Indies; with observations on the advantages and disadvantages of settling in them, compared with Great Britain and Ireland. (London: J. Bew, 1775), 1: 124-5, 256-7.

[11] “The Complete Report of the Commotion Committee appointed to inspect the contents of the Public Magazine” presented 13 June 1775 in H. R. McIlwaine & J. P. Kennedy, eds., Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia: 1619-1776 (Richmond: The Virginia State Library, 1905-1915), 13:223-4.

[12] John Burk, The History of Virginia from its Settlement to the Present Day (Petersburg: Dunnavant, 1805), 2: 409 (hereafter cited as Burk, History of Virginia).

[13] HMS Magdalen was a small schooner measuring just over 60 feet long and about 19 feet wide. She mounted six light 3 pounder carriage guns and had a crew of about 30. For specifications of HMS Magdalen see David Lyon, The Sailing Navy List, All The Ships of the Royal Navy, Built, Purchased and Captured, 1688-1860 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1993), 212. For the number of guns and crew see: Disposition of the Squadron under Vice Admiral Samuel Graves, List of the North American Squadron on the 1st January 1775, Graves Conduct, I, 40, 41, MassHS Transcript in Clark, NDAR 1:47 and Disposition of the [British] Fleet on the 30th of June 1775. Graves Conduct, I, 132, MassHS Transcript in Clark, NDAR 1: 785. For the size of the Magdalen’s guns see Journal, HMS Magdalen, entry for Thursday, 15th June 1775, “… lost overboard in getting the stores out of the Vessel 1, 3 pound and swivel grape Shot occasion by the lanyard of the Bow giving way at 2 PM”

[14] Dunmore to Dartmouth (No. 26) Williamsburg 1st May 1775 in Clark, NDAR, 1:259. Op. cit. “I accordingly requested of Lieut. [Henry] Collins of His Majesty’s armed Schooner Magdalen, to convey the powder on board the Foway [sic!] Man of War now on this station … it was intended to be done privately …”

[15] Purdie, Virginia Gazette Supplement, April 21, 1775, 3. Op. cit.

[16] Burk, History of Virginia, 2: 410-11.

[17] Dunmore needed to send a messenger to HMS Magdalen with notification that the way was clear. He also needed to supply a wagon to transport the powder. The most efficient and secure way to accomplish both would have been to send the messenger with the wagon. The messenger would have been someone highly trusted by Dunmore. The most trusted member of his “family” was (Navy) Captain Edward Foy, Dunmore’s long time private secretary and personal advisor. Foy, as a gentleman and a Captain in His Majesty’s Navy would almost certainly not have driven the wagon himself.

[18] Journal, HMS Magdalen, entry for Thursday, 20th April, 1775, “At 3 AM landed 20 men Armed to take some Gunpowder out of the Magazine at Williamsburg.”

[19] The number of marines on board Royal Navy ships in the 18th century was roughly equal to the number of guns. Personal correspondence, The National Museum, Royal Navy, 12/17/2014. At six guns, HMS Magdeline would have had about a half-dozen marines on board. The rest of the “… 20 men Armed…” would have been seamen.

[20] Every Royal Navy ship had a Gunner and one or more Gunner’s Mates in its crew. Trained, examined and accountable to the Board of Ordnance, they were responsible for insuring that the ship’s armaments, especially its store of gunpowder, were kept in safe and sound condition. The National Museum of the Royal Navy, <http://www.royalnavalmuseum.org/info_sheets_nav_rankings.htm> (accessed January 21, 2015). Common prudence would have dictated that these men be included in the party sent to remove the gunpowder from the Williamsburg Magazine.

[21] Plan de la Citie et environs du Williamsburg en Virginie, America au 11 Mai 1786. On display in the Rockefeller Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, VA.

[22] This scenario is speculative, but appears to make the most sense from a logistical and tactical point of view.

[23] John F. Lowe, The Magazine Historical Report, Block 12, Building 9, Lot 00, Originally Entitled: “Manual for the Public Magazine” (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1990), 4-7.

[24] Military barrels for gunpowder were made of ¾ inch thick oak, hooped with heavy (3/16 inch thick) copper bands. A half-barrel for gunpowder measured 13 ½ inches diameter by 20 inches high and weighed approximately 15 pounds. Total weight for a full half-barrel of gunpowder was about 65 pounds, not difficult for a man to carry for short to intermediate distances. Cooper’s Shop, Colonial Williamsburg, Private conversation, January 5, 2015 (information confirmed during a 2013 visit by the cooper to The Historic Dockyard, Chatham, UK).

[25] Journal, HMS Magdalen, entry for Thursday, 20th April 1775 “At 6 the people returned with 15 half Barrs …”

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5 Comments

  • Enjoyable read about an event I knew nothing of. Not until the end of the piece did I connect the dots between this event and those at Lexington and Concord.

  • The names of the sailors and Marines on the Magdalen are available in the ship’s muster book for September 1774 through September 1777, which is in the British National Archives in Kew, catalogued as ADM 36/8478. Ship’s muster books list the name and rank of each person on board, and the dates that they were on board; they were prepared every few months. These fascinating ledgers can often put names to the otherwise anonymous individuals involved in events. In this case, we could learn the number of Marines on board and their names, as well as names of the ship’s gunners; the muster books would not, however, indicate which men were involved in seizing the gunpowder.

  • Here’s an interesting sequel to the raid, how both Dunmore and local patriots played the “slave card” in leveling blame. It’s from my “Founders” book:

    Aroused and infuriated, local patriots jumped from their beds and reached for their guns. By dawn a crowd of armed men was vowing “to repair to the palace, to demand from the Governor a restoration” of the city’s powder. But the moderate leader Peyton Randolph was in town, and he counseled them to adopt a less hostile tone. That afternoon, the Municipal Common Hall (the city’s governing body) sent a delegation to ask the Governor to return the powder. This was no time to leave them without any means of defense, they argued: “[W]e have too much reason to believe that some wicked and designing persons have instilled the most diabolical notions in the minds of our slaves, and that, therefore, the utmost attention to our internal security is become the more necessary.”

    If patriots could play the “slave card,” so could the Governor: he had removed the powder “to a place of security … lest the Negroes might have seized upon it,” he said, for he had heard of “an insurrection in a neighboring county.” Two days later, upon learning that patriots from surrounding counties might march on Williamsburg, Dunmore suddenly decided to play a conflicting and much stronger slave card: if any harm should come from a patriot attack, he pronounced, he would “declare Freedom to the Slaves, and reduce the City of Williamsburg to Ashes.”

    Seven months later, as we know, Dunmore made good on the first part of that pledge.

  • In South Carolina the Patriots also cited the threat of slave insurrection for their actions in drilling militia and raising new provincial regiments. Privately, however, the same revolutionary leaders were telling each other and others that there was no reason to believe there was any greater threat than usual of slave insurrection at the time (May and June 1775). Henry Laurens , the president of the Provincial Congress and Council of Safety at the time actually noted that they needed to make sure that they didn’t go overboard too quickly with their military preparations or else it would become obvious that the regiments they were raising ostensibly to defend against insurrection were actually intended to be used to defend against the British and control Loyalists.

    Only after a British ship headed for Boston took one of the most skilled black harbor pilots in the city to Boston, where it was believed Gage was planning an invasion of the southern provinces, did the Patriots begin to show alarm about the threat those harbor pilots could pose. Without them, it would be incredibly tricky for British ships to get over the bar and into the harbor, which would be necessary to get within firing range of the city. (The failure of the June 1776 attack on Sullivan’s Island shows just how treacherous those waters were, as the attack failed in part because several British ships were grounded on an uncharted shoal). This led to the Thomas Jeremiah affair, a free black man who had been arrested with a number of others in June on the vague suspicion of inciting insurrection. There was very little evidence to support the case and most were released. After the threat posed by black harbor pilots became clear in early July, the Patriots brought charges again against Jeremiah, who had openly declared his intent to help guide British ships into the harbor. After this the southern provinces also imposed strict rules on who could operate as harbor and river pilots, what kind of permission they’d need, where they could operate, etc.

    Some historians have argued that South Carolina’s preparations and involvement in the war initiated in response to threats of slave insurrection and British aid to the slaves. This shows the problems with studying history only or primarily through a single analytic lens. The Patriots certainly used accusations of British support for slave insurrection as propaganda to build support, but private letters and the timing of their response to threats posed by slaves and free blacks shows that it was mostly the other way around. There was always concern about slaves in a colony where whites were vastly outnumbered, but on this occasion, in 1775, they were actually most concerned about the threat of destruction from the British war ships that lay just beyond the bar, and the support the slaves (and Loyalists, and Indians) might give to the British to allow them to attack the city.

  • Gentlemen,

    Thank you for your insightful comments, and for adding to my knowledge of this critical event and its ramifications.

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