An interview with Lin Olsen, Executive Director, Great Bridge Battlefield and Waterways History Foundation
Question: Why is preserving the Great Bridge Battlefield important?
We have been blessed with one of the most important pieces of our American heritage and the beginning of our great nation. It is our responsibility to share the legacy of this crucial battle and the waterways history that surrounds it for future generations. The Battle of Great Bridge represents a turning point in the Revolutionary War in Virginia and the southern colonies.
Lord Dunmore, John Murray, Royal Governor of Virginia, requested and received a reinforcement of regular British troops to help quell the American rebellion in Virginia. On December 9, 1775, he ordered an attack on the Rebel, Patriot or Whig forces assembled on the south side of a narrow causeway and bridge that provided access to the Albemarle region of North Carolina. He ordered the attack because he was aware North Carolina troops under Colonel Robert Howe were en route to reinforce the militia and Virginia state troops of the 2nd Virginia Regiment at Great Bridge, under command of Col. William Woodford. Dunmore believed his regulars with loyalist militia support could dislodge the rebels before they were reinforced. Dunmore was wrong, his attacking regulars suffered significant casualties. The loss of the regulars of the 14th Regiment of Foot at Great Bridge demoralized Dunmore and his supporters leading to the abandonment of Norfolk to the rebel Whig forces. The loss necessitated the British abandon the State of Virginia to the Whigs allowing Virginia to devote significant resources to the rebels or Whigs throughout much of the American Revolution.
Great Bridge was much more than a small battle, it changed the course of the American Revolution in the southern colonies. The site of the Great Bridge battle is near the banks of the Chesapeake and Albemarle Canal, opened in 1859, and now part of the Intracoastal Waterway. The original colonial era causeway was excavated by archeologists when the current draw bridge was constructed over the canal in 1990’s. This excavation uncovered original timbers and material used in building the colonial era causeway providing insight into the location and orientation of the physical site of the battle, opening the window for preservation and historical interpretation.
Question: Where is Great Bridge Battlefield located?
The battlefield and park are located along the banks of the Chesapeake and Albemarle Canal, along Battlefield Boulevard, Virginia Route 168, in the City of Chesapeake, Virginia. During the revolutionary era the City of Chesapeake was known as South Norfolk County and borders the State of North Carolina in southeastern Virginia. Vacationers to the Outer Banks of North Carolina pass near the Great Bridge Battlefield when traveling from the north because most use the Route 168 bypass.
Question: What is the mission of the Great Bridge Battlefield & Waterways History Foundation?
It is the mission of the Great Bridge Battlefield & Waterways History Foundation to establish and support the Great Bridge Battlefield and Waterways Park and Museum/Visitor Center in partnership with public and private agencies, in order to preserve, promote and present to the nation the historic, educational, and economic significance of the Battle of Great Bridge, the Albermale & Chesapeake Canal and the Dismal Swamp Canal. On December 9, 1999, the 224th anniversary of the battle, a dedicated group of citizens formed The Great Bridge Battlefield & Waterways History Foundation. The Foundation’s Strategic Plan was adopted on April 24, 2003.
Question: Who are some of the key partners and supporters of the foundation?
Key partners include: The City of Chesapeake, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, Virginia Department of Transportation and many other leaders throughout Virginia and beyond.
Question: What has the foundation accomplished to date?
The foundation has championed the funding and served as the nucleus to coordinate efforts to make this project a reality. This includes our leadership for the design of our building, research for our museum, research room and so many details associated with coordinating a total community effort. Open to the public is our historic park trail. This trail tells the story of the Battle of Great Bridge, the history of our Waterways and Village of Great Bridge at the time of the battle. The park includes a boat dock along the canal, made possible by the Virginia Port Authority, making the historic trail and future visitor center available to the 10,000 boaters who use the canal each year. In the Spring of 2007, The Daughters of the American Revolution were instrumental in placing a large stone monument on the Historic Park Site to commemorate the Patriot soldiers that fought for freedom from British rule. This monument is the centerpiece of the historic trail. Most recently the ground-breaking ceremony for the museum/visitor center took place on September 22, 2017. For the last twenty-three years reenactors have staged a reenactment of the Battle of Great Bridge for the community. This year’s reenactment, a two-day event takes place the weekend of the December 2-3, 2017, at Battlefield Park South.
Question: What can you tell us about the museum/visitor center?
The museum/visitor center is a Georgian style building. In phase I of our building project we will host a museum for all ages to enjoy, a research room allowing guests to dive further into learning about the Village of Great Bridge, now known as Chesapeake. Our gift shop will feature specialty items from all over the Commonwealth of Virginia and beyond. As you enter the facility you will walk into a large orientation space offering folks a place to gather, host receptions and use for other community functions. During phase II of construction we will add a 100-seat theatre for lectures, movies, recitals and other events. Phase II construction will also include a meeting/class room and catering kitchen.
Question: What are some future foundation initiatives that JAR readers may be interested in hearing about?
We are currently finalizing a station on our interpretative trail that will honor those who fought under Lord Dunmore’s orders, remained loyal to the King, and were wounded or died during the Battle of Great Bridge. This project is relatively unique because it will recognize the British troops of the 14th Regiment who led the attack at Great Bridge and showed great courage and suffered significant losses including their commander Captain Fordyce.
Question: How can JAR readers help the foundation?
What the Great Bridge Battlefield & Waterways History Foundation is doing here goes beyond our local community and state. This is truly an effort to highlight the beginning of our great nation. To date, we have raised the necessary funds for development of the park and for phase I of our building; this involved funding in excess of $6 million. We are currently raising funds for both phase II and museum exhibits. JAR readers in Great Britain may be interested in the foundation’s effort to honor the men of the 14th Regiment who served and died at Great Bridge. I would encourage everyone to learn about the battlefield, stop by and visit the historic trail, contribute relevant research, loan or donate relevant artifacts for the museum, or do what they can by visiting our website at: wwwgbbattlefield.org or to call the office at: 757-482-4480. The Great Bridge Battlefield & Waterways History Foundation is a 501c3 organization, a nonprofit organization that has been approved by the Internal Revenue Service to be tax-exempt.