Battle of Gwynn’s Island: Lord Dunmore’s Last Stand in Virginia

Gwynn's Island, Virginia. Aerial photo by Bob Tanner, July 2001. Used with permission. (Bob Tanner)

With the Revolutionary War entering its second year in May of 1776, the focus of most Virginians was not on events to the north in Massachusetts, but rather, in Williamsburg and Norfolk.  On May 15, the 5th Virginia Convention in Williamsburg (comprised of delegates from all the counties) voted unanimously to support independence from Great Britain for Virginia and instructed Virginia’s delegates at the Continental Congress is Philadelphia to propose a resolution on independence before the entire Congress.

Meanwhile, the deposed British royal governor, John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore, sat threateningly amongst a ragtag fleet of ships off of Norfolk, a town which lay in ruins from a massive fire that was set on New Year’s Day by “rebel” troops.   Dunmore’s assorted force of British regulars (around 100), sailors from several British warships, loyal Tories and armed runaway slaves, had engaged Virginia’s “rebel” forces several times in 1775, the most bloody and significant occurring at Great Bridge in early December.  Dunmore suffered a decisive defeat at Great Bridge and was forced to abandon Norfolk, which was subsequently torched by the rebels.

Months had passed since then and although Dunmore had remained largely passive, his presence in southeastern Virginia remained a threat to the colony, so much so that nearly all of the troops raised in Virginia by “rebel” authorities remained in the colony to defend it.  The exceptions to this included a regiment of troops sent to South Carolina (the 8th Virginia) to help defend Charlestown in the spring of 1776, two companies of riflemen that marched to Boston in the summer of 1775, and, of course, Gen. George Washington, who went to Boston ahead of the riflemen to assume command of the continental army.  Washington was now in the process of preparing the defense of New York, the presumed next target of the British, and he eagerly awaited reinforcements from all of the colonies.  Yet, Dunmore’s continued presence in Virginia prevented its leaders from sending any troops north.  The threat from Dunmore, which even General Washington recognized, was still too great.  Washington expressed his concern about Dunmore at the end of 1775:

If, my Dear Sir, that Man is not crushed before Spring, he will become the most formidable Enemy America has – his strength will Increase as a Snow ball by Rolling; and faster, if some expedient cannot be hit upon to convince the Slaves and Servants of the Impotencey of His designs… I do not think that forcing his Lordship on Ship board is sufficient; nothing less than depriving him of life or liberty will secure peace to Virginia.1

Unable to pry Dunmore and his supporters from Norfolk harbor and Portsmouth, much less crush him as Washington advocated, Virginia’s leaders found themselves stuck waiting for Dunmore to make a move.  He did so in late May when he suddenly sailed down the Elizabeth River with his fleet.  The hope among most Virginians was that Dunmore and his flotilla of nearly 100 vessels would sail to New York or Nova Scotia, but his destination proved to be much closer, only thirty miles up the Chesapeake Bay at Gwynn’s Island.

Gwynn’s Island was a sparsely populated body of land just a few hundred yards off the coast of Gloucester County.2  A narrow channel less than 200 yards wide separated the island from the mainland at its closest point and the flat, roughly four square mile island rose just a few feet about sea level.

Although Gwynn’s Island was certainly not an ideal location to establish a new base of operations, the island offered safe ground free from rebel attack (or so Dunmore thought) on which his supporters and troops could recover from their long stay aboard their overcrowded, unhealthy ships.  Gwynn’s Island also possessed an abundant supply of livestock as well as plenty of fresh water (again, so Dunmore thought).  Most importantly, the island allowed Lord Dunmore to maintain the royal standard (and the illusion of royal authority in Virginia) while he awaited reinforcements and assistance from Great Britain.

Dunmore’s fleet arrived off Gwynn’s Island on May 26 and anchored in Hills Bay at the mouth of the Piankatank River.  A detachment from the 7th Virginia Regiment posted at Burton’s Point (overlooking Hill’s Bay) observed the ships and sent an express to Gloucester Courthouse, approximately twenty miles to the west.  The 7th Regiment, under the command of Col. William Daingerfield of Spotsylvania County, had mustered at Gloucester Courthouse in early April.  Half of the regiment (five of its ten companies) was then posted in Williamsburg to help defend the capital and the other half was posted throughout Gloucester County to guard against possible raids by Dunmore or the British navy. When the dispatch from Burton Point announcing Dunmore’s arrival reached the courthouse at 3:00 p.m., the ranking officer at headquarters was Capt. Thomas Posey.  Captain Posey, whose father John was a neighbor and friend of General Washington, had moved to the Virginia frontier as a young man and commanded a company of Botetourt County riflemen in the 7th Virginia.  Captain Posey immediately alerted Colonel Daingerfield (whose quarters were a few miles from town) of Dunmore’s arrival and then rushed to New Point Comfort to collect the rest of his company and march to Gwynn’s Island.3

While troops from the 7th Virginia Regiment and local militia converged on Gwynn’s Island, Governor Dunmore landed troops on the island’s north shore.  British marines from the H.M.S. Roebuck, Fowey and Otter spearheaded the landing.   Capt. Andrew Hamond, the commander of the Roebuck, noted that

At day break [of May 27] we landed & took possession of the Island, with our whole force, which with the Marines of the Squadron, did not amount to more than 200 effective men, so great had been the mortality among the Negroes while at [Norfolk].4

Dunmore’s small force spread quickly across the island.  Finding no opposition, the troops re-assembled on the narrow strip of land closest to the mainland.  Separated by a channel of water only 200 yards wide, Lord Dunmore believed that this spot was most vulnerable to rebel attack, so he ordered the construction of earthworks and established his main camp behind them.  The redoubt that protected the camp was dubbed Fort Hamond, after the captain of the Roebuck.

While Dunmore’s troops searched the island and established a fort and camp on the narrow strip of land, Captain Posey and his company arrived on the scene ahead of the rest of the 7th Regiment.  They joined detachments of local militia who were perplexed on what they should do.  Posey recorded in his diary that

 I found a number of the militia assembled, which appear’d to be in the utmost consternation, some running one way, and some another, under no kind of control or regularity.5

Colonel Daingerfield soon arrived with four more companies of his regiment (the other five companies in Williamsburg would arrive a few days later with reinforcements).   As the ranking officer on the scene, Daingerfield assumed command.  He ordered all of the troops closer to shore to prevent Dunmore’s troops from landing on the mainland.  Captain Posey observed:

The whole were put in motion, (though I must confess the militia were in very great motion before the orders were given).  However, these orders served to put them in something grator; for as soon as we came neare enough for the grape[shot], and cannon shot to whistle over our heads, numbers of the militia put themselves in much quicker motion, and never stopped…to look behind them until they had made the best of their way home.6

Captain Posey candidly admitted that it was not just the militia that was spooked by the enemy gun fire:

I cant say that our regulars deserved any great degree of credit for after two or three getting a little blood drawn, they began to skulk and fall flat upon there faces.7

Despite their apprehension, Colonel Daingerfield’s troops and most of the militia held their ground and endured enemy cannon fire and heavy rain into the evening.  As the hours passed, they grew more determined to face the enemy.  Posey recalled,

We began to grow very firm and only wish them to come into the bushes, where we are certain of beating them.8

Rather than attack the mainland, however, Lord Dunmore was content to stay on the island and harass the Virginians with the navy’s cannon.  Captain Hamond seemed to agree with this strategy, noting that

We have taken possession of this Island which is about three or four Miles in length and one in breadth.  Seperated from the Main ½ a mile, except on one place (which is that where Lord Dunmore has his Camp) this is not above the reach of [enemy] Musquet Shot, However this part is defended by the Guns from the Ships.9

As the days passed and Dunmore’s hold on the island strengthened, Gen. Andrew Lewis in Williamsburg, the commander of Virginia’s continental troops, realized that without artillery of his own his troops were powerless to effectively challenge Dunmore.  He took measures to mount several cannon and carriages and transport them to the encampment opposite Gwynn’s Island, but the process took time.10  While the Virginians waited, they guarded the mainland from incursions by Dunmore’s forces (who sought provisions and forage) and occasionally fired at Dunmore’s camp and at several small vessels that had sailed into Milford Haven (the body of water that separated Gwynn’s Island from the mainland).  In one incident, the Virginians were able to seize a small sloop loaded with liquor that had run aground.11  The loss of this sloop did not particularly concern Lord Dunmore; he was confident that his position on Gwynn’s Island was secure.   Dunmore was more concerned about his fresh water supply, which was inadequate for the hundreds of people who were with him on the island.  The rampant illness and death (largely to smallpox and fever) that ravaged his troops, particularly his black soldiers, also was a concern for Dunmore.  A report in one Virginia newspaper claimed that, “there are not above 200 blacks now alive, 75 at least having died within six days after they left Norfolk, and that the number of whites on shore is very inconsiderable.”12

Lord Dunmore privately acknowledged his losses to Lord George Germain, his superior in London, in late June:

I am extreamly sorry to inform your Lordship that the Fever of which I informed you in my Letter No. 1, has proved a very Malignant one and has carried off an incredible Number of our People, especially the Blacks, had it not been for this horrid disorder, I am Satisfied I should have had two thousand Blacks, with whom I should have no doubt of penetrating into the heart of the Colony…There was not a ship in the fleet that did not throw one, two, or three or more dead overboard every night.13

Captain Hamond, the commander of the Roebuck, confirmed the significant toll smallpox and fever had inflicted on Dunmore’s force:

The Negro Troops, which had been inoculated before they left Norfolk, got thro’ the disorder with great success, but the Fever which had been so fatal to them there, followed them also to the Island; so that notwithstanding the Corps was recruited with Six or eight fresh Men every day, yet the mortality among them was so great, that they did not now amount to above 150 effective Men.  The detachment of the 14th Regt also became very weak, and the few Men of the New raised Corps [Queen’s Own Loyal Virginians] were all down with the small Pox: so that we were still under the necessity of keeping the Marines on Shore to do the Common duty.14

Frequent sightings of bodies afloat and washed ashore gave the Virginians facing Gwynn’s Island a clue of the enemy’s struggles and condition,15 as well as giving many rebels satisfaction and bolstering their morale.

Despite all of the suffering that Dunmore’s troops and supporters endured on Gwynn’s Island, they seemingly remained secure from attack, protected by the cannon of Fort Hamond, several British warships, and additional land batteries placed along the western shore of the island.  Unfortunately for Dunmore and his men, this sense of security was about to end.

The Attack

The morning of July 9, 1776 dawned hot and humid, a typical summer day in Virginia.  Six weeks had passed since Dunmore’s arrival at Gwynn’s Island and he and his supporters felt relatively secure, confident that the guns of the British navy and the artillery batteries erected along the southwestern shore of Gwynn’s Island could repulse any attempt of the rebels to land.

Unbeknownst to Dunmore, Gen. Andrew Lewis had arrived in the rebel camp the evening before from Williamsburg to break the stalemate.  A patriot battery of two eighteen-pound cannon, positioned directly across from Fort Hamond and within point blank range of Lord Dunmore’s ship (the Dunmore) was finally ready to commence fire.   Four nine-pound cannon formed another artillery battery a few hundred yards south of the eighteen-pounders.  They were in range of the Dunmore as well, but their main focus was on Fort Hamond, Dunmore’s encampment, and the three British tenders (service ships to larger warships) that were in Milford Haven to prevent the rebels from crossing to the island.

At some point in the morning (reports differ on the start of the bombardment) the eighteen-pound rebel cannon opened fire on the Dunmore, which was anchored close to the mainland.  The first shot reportedly crashed through the stern of the ship, slightly wounding Governor Dunmore with a large splinter in his leg.16  The other eighteen-pound gun quickly followed and also struck the Dunmore.  The four nine-pound cannon joined the bombardment, directing their fire upon the camp and earthworks.  Captain Hamond on the Roebuck reported that it was not long before the Dunmore realized it was overmatched.

[The rebels] directed their Fire principally upon Lord Dunmore’s Ship…. The Dunmore returned the Fire, but seeing that her small Guns had no effect upon either of the Batterys, and that every shot from the Enemy struck the Ship she cut her Cable, and being Calm, [was] towed off out of reach of the Guns.17

Lord Dunmore provided a similar account of the start of the battle:

The Enemy brought down Ten Pieces of Ordnance, and on the 9th Instant began to play on my Ship from two Batteries; She was laid very near the Shore in order to prevent the Rebels from Landing on the Island.  We were so near one of their Batteries (which consisted of an Eighteen and a Twenty four Pounder) that they Struck the Ship every Shott.  I got our raw and weak Crew to fire a few Shott at them, but I soon perceived that our Six Pounders made no impression on their Batteries, our Boatswain being killed and several of the People Wounded, I found it impracticable to make them stand any longer to their Guns, we were therefore obliged to cut our Cable, tho’ there was not a breath of Air Stirring, but the little Tide there was drifted us from the Shore;18

Claims in the Virginia newspapers after the engagement that the Dunmore was damaged beyond repair were contradicted by Captain Hamond, who reported that despite the many hits upon the ship, it actually did not suffer significant damage.19   Whatever the case, the fire from the rebel batteries proved too hot for the ships anchored within range of the guns and they scrambled to tow them further away from the mainland.

While the patriot eighteen-pound cannon focused on the Dunmore, the four patriot nine-pound cannon concentrated their fire on Fort Hamond and Dunmore’s encampment.   Dunmore’s troops replied with cannon fire of their own, but the accuracy of the rebel nine-pounders quickly silenced Fort Hamond’s cannon and raked the encampment, throwing Dunmore’s troops into confusion.20  Capt. Thomas Posey witnessed the barrage and reported that

The fireing was kept up in a very regular manner from the whole of our works for near two hours; during which time [the enemy] received great damage …. Upon the enemies receiving this very unexpected [bombardment], they gave immediate orders to evacuate the Island. 21

The patriot fire came to an abrupt end when the commander of the two eighteen-pound cannon, Capt. Dohickey Arundel, unwisely experimented with a wooden mortar that exploded on its first shot, killing Arundel instantly.   This tragic episode was the one sour note to an otherwise immensely successful morning for the rebels.  With Dunmore’s fleet drawn off deeper into the bay and his troops withdrawn from Fort Hamond and their camp, the rebels had little to fire at by the afternoon.

Governor Dunmore and Captain Hamond agreed that the presence of rebel artillery made Gwynn’s Island untenable and they prepared to evacuate the island in the evening.   Under cover of darkness, the cannon, tents and other military stores were loaded onto ships.  Guards were posted along the shore to watch for a surprise rebel landing, but a shortage of boats prevented any such move by General Lewis.

During the evening of July 9, Lewis’s troops gathered a number of canoes and other small boats in anticipation of crossing Milford Haven and landing on Gwynn’s Island in the morning.   At dawn on July 10, the patriot batteries opened fire on the three British tenders that had remained in Milford Haven.  A rebel observer noted that

There were three tenders in the haven, which attempted to prevent our passage.  Their works were still manned as if they meant to dispute their ground, but as soon as our soldiers put off in a few canoes, they retreated precipitately to their ships [on the other side of the island].  The tenders fell into our hands, one they set on fire, but our people boarded it and extinguished the flames.22

With the tenders eliminated and enemy batteries abandoned, a detachment of troops from the 7th Regiment embarked on canoes to cross over to the island.  Captain Posey was one of the first to reach Gwynn’s Island and described the landing in his diary:

Crossed into the Island but no fighting ensued except a few shot.  By one o’clock the whole of the enemy had evacuated and embarked … I cannot help observing, that I never saw more distress in my life, than what I found among some of the poor deluded Negroes which they could not take time, or did not chuse to cary off with them, they being sick.  Those that I saw, some were dying, and many calling out for help; and throughout the whole Island we found them strew’d about, many of them torn to pieces by wild beasts – great numbers of the bodies having never been buried.23

British losses at Gwynn’s Island are difficult to ascertain.  Captain Posey estimated “that at least 4 or 500 negroes lost their lives,” during the six week occupation of the island.24   Posey added that another 150 [white] soldiers were also lost.  The vast majority of these deaths occurred prior to the attack as a result of illness.  Such losses significantly hampered the effectiveness of Dunmore’s force and explained his feeble response to the attack.

The events at Gwynn’s Island exasperated Lord Dunmore.  His men were weak from disease and demoralized by defeat, and there was little hope of assistance from Britain.  Discouraged and frustrated by the lack of British support, Dunmore made preparations to leave Virginia and join Gen. William Howe’s large invasion force off of New York.  Ships were sent up the Chesapeake to the Potomac River to obtain badly needed fresh water.  They sailed as far as Stafford County, where they skirmished with a party of local militia and burned the plantation of William Brent before they filled their water casks and returned to Dunmore’s fleet.

By early August Dunmore was ready to depart. Half of his force sailed to New York, the other half to St. Augustine, Florida.25  British authority in Virginia had finally vanished.

Dunmore’s departure was a significant development that ushered in three years of relative peace in eastern and central Virginia.  Perhaps more importantly, it allowed Virginia authorities to send thousands of troops north to reinforce General Washington’s continental army in New York.  These troops would play a crucial role in the battles to come, namely, Harlem Heights, White Plains, Trenton and Princeton in the fall and winter of 1776-77 as well at Brandywine, Germantown, Saratoga, and Monmouth in 1777 and 1778.   Had they not been available to General Washington, it is possible that the battles at Trenton and Princeton, as well as those that followed, could have ended quite differently.  It is for this reason that the events at Gwynn’s Island are so significant.

 

1 “George Washington to Richard Henry Lee, December 26, 1775,” in Philander Chase and Beverly Runge, The Papers of George Washington, Vol. 2, (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1986), 611.

2 Today Gwynn’s Island is part of Mathews County, which split from Gloucester after the American Revolution.

3 Thomas Posey’s Revolutionary War  Journal,  May 27, 1776, Thomas Posey Papers, Indiana Historical Society Library, Indianapolis, IN (hereafter called Posey’s Journal).

4 “Narrative of Captain Andrew Snape Hamond,” in William J. Morgan, ed., Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Vol. 5 (Washington, D.C., 1970), 322.

5 Posey’s Journal, May 27, 1776.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 “Captain Hamond to Commodore Parker, June 10, 1781,” in Morgan, Naval Document, 5:460.

10 “General Andrew Lewis to General Charles Lee, June 12, 1776,” in The Lee Papers, Vol. 1, (Collections of the New York Historical Society, 1871), 63.

11 “General Lewis to General Lee, June 12, 1776,” Lee Papers, 1:64.

12 Dixon and Hunter, Virginia Gazette, June 15, 1776.

13 “Lord Dunmore to Lord Germain, June 26, 1776,” in Morgan, ed., Naval Documents, 5:756.

14 “Narrative of Captain Andrew Snape Hamond, June 10, 1781,” in Morgan, ed., Naval Documents, 5:840.

15 “General Lewis to General Lee, June 12, 1776,” Lee Papers, 2:64.

16 Purdie, Virginia Gazette, July 12, 1776.

17 “Narrative of Captain Snape Hamond, July 9, 1776,” in Morgan, ed., Naval Documents, 5:1078.

18 “Lord Dunmore to Lord George Germain, July 31, 1776,” in Morgan, ed., Naval Documents, 5:1312.

19 “Narrative of Captain Snape Hamond, July 9, 1776,” in Morgan, ed., Naval Documents, 5:1078.

20  “Extract of a letter from Williamsburg, July 13, printed in the Pennsylvania Packet, July 22, 1776,” in Morgan, ed., Naval Documents, 5:1068.

21 Posey Journal, July 9, 1776.

22 “Extract of a letter from Williamsburg, July 13, printed in the Pennsylvania Packet, July 22, 1776,” in Morgan, ed., Naval Documents, 5:1068.

23 Posey Journal, July 10, 1777.

24 Ibid.

25 John Selby, The Revolution in Virginia: 1775-1783 (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1988), 126.

 

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1 Comment

  • Excellent article, Mike. I had not been aware of this engagement. I also had not been aware of the existence, even for a short time, of a “wooden mortar.” I hope some ordnance expert will provide an article on this unlikely piece.

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