Williamsburg Becomes an Armed Camp, 1775

The War Years (1775-1783)

June 16, 2020
by Michael Cecere Also by this Author


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No one disputes that the fighting that erupted at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775 ignited a war between Great Britain and her thirteen American colonies. As we all know, the bloodshed of that day in Massachusetts initiated an eight year war that culminated with American independence. It is important to remember, however, that the certainty of a full blown war between the colonies and Great Britain was much less apparent to the people living in Virginia and the other colonies in the spring of 1775 than it is to us today. For Virginians, it was not so much the news of the bloodshed in Massachusetts that led to conflict with royal authority but rather a series of events that occurred in the Old Dominion itself, the first occurring just two days after the fighting at Lexington.

John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1765, detail. (Scottish National Gallery)

The shocking discovery on April 21 that the royal governor of Virginia, John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore, had removed a supply of gunpowder from the powder magazine in the center of Williamsburg, sparked an outcry of protest in Williamsburg and throughout Virginia a full week before anyone in the Old Dominion heard of Lexington and Concord. After much hand wringing and threats of violence to compel the governor to return the powder, the crisis was briefly de-fused in early May when a compromise to pay for the powder was struck. Tensions re-ignited a month later, however, when intruders (this time young residents of Williamsburg) broke into the powder magazine and set off spring loaded muskets that had been set, per Dunmore’s instructions, to prevent unauthorized entry into the powder magazine. Anger at the governor over the injuries caused by the booby trapped guns placed Dunmore in a precarious situation and it did not help that at about the same time this incident occurred, copies of Dunmore’s correspondence with Lord Dartmouth (the British minister in charge of colonial affairs) in which Dunmore urged Dartmouth to use a strong hand against Virginia, reached the Virginia gazettes. Tipped off to the impending publication of his damning correspondence, Dunmore fled the capital with his family, taking refuge on a British warship in the York River.

The House of Burgesses, which had been summoned to meet by Dunmore prior to his flight, pleaded with the governor to return to the capital so that the business of government could resume, but he refused. With a steady stream of reports from Massachusetts describing a full-blown siege outside of Boston, Virginians were alarmed to read in the gazettes in late June that British troops were also destined for Virginia.[1] The inhabitants of Williamsburg met at the courthouse on June 23 at the request of the city’s most prominent resident, Peyton Randolph, the esteemed speaker of Virginia’s House of Burgesses and twice-elected president of the Continental Congress, to discuss how they should respond to the danger that was now aimed at them. The meeting was described by one of the gazettes.

Last Friday there was a very full meeting of the inhabitants of this city at the courthouse, convened there by desire of our representative, the Hon. Peyton Randolph Esq. to consider of the expedience of stationing a number of men here for the publick safety, as well as to assist the citizens in their nightly watches, to guard against any surprise from our enemies; when it was unanimously agreed (until the General Convention meets, who no doubt will provide against every contingency) to invite down, from a number of counties, to the amount of 250 men, who are expected in a very few days. Meanwhile, until they arrive, the neighboring counties are kind enough to lend us their assistance, the James City volunteers having furnished us with a guard on Wednesday, a party of the New Kent volunteers did duty last night, and this day we expect another detachment from that county, as well as a number of the York volunteers.[2]

Prior to this development, the security of Williamsburg had rested largely in the hands of a single independent militia company of volunteers, formed a few months earlier after Patrick Henry’s famous “Liberty or Death” speech at the 2nd Virginia Convention in Richmond. The residents of Williamsburg now sought help and put out a call for additional troops, some of which had already arrived on their own from neighboring counties. Williamsburg was about to become an armed camp.

Lord Dunmore noticed the increased military activity in Williamsburg and interpreted it as proof of a deepening rebellion. In a letter to Lord Dartmouth just four days after the inhabitants of Williamsburg requested help, Dunmore described the “garrison atmosphere” of the city.

A constant guard is kept in Williamsburg relieved every day from the adjacent Counties, and that place is become a Garrison, the pretence of which is the Security of the Person of their Speaker, who because he has been Chairman of the Congress, it is reported, (in order to inflame), that Government is anxious to Seize him.[3]

By the first week of July, 170 militia volunteers from several counties outside of the area, clad in hunting shirts and armed with an assortment of firelocks (muskets, rifles, and fowlers mostly) had marched to Williamsburg to join the militia guarding the capital.[4] By mid-July, volunteers from the counties of Goochland, Louisa, Spotsylvania, Albemarle, King George, Stafford, and Williamsburg brought the number of militia on duty in Williamsburg to “the full complement of 250.”[5]

Alexander Purdie described the volunteers in his gazette as, “all hearty clever fellows, and ready to take a crack with any ministerial troops that may be sent to molest us.”[6] The officers assembled in Williamsburg chose Capt. Charles Scott of Cumberland County to command them. He was a veteran of the French and Indian War who, according to Purdie’s gazette, “served . . . in the Virginia regiment with great reputation, and is an excellent woodsman.”[7]

Never one to shy away from a fight, Lord Dunmore was also eager to take a crack at the “rebels,” but he lacked sufficient force to act. In late June, he sent his wife and children back to Britain aboard HMS Magdalen, but he remained aboard HMS Fowey anchored off of Yorktown, where he dutifully reported to Lord Dartmouth in England on the increasingly militant situation in the colony:

The People of Virginia manifest open Rebellion by every means in their power, and they declare at the Same time that they are his Majesty’s Most dutyfull Subjects . . . and that as designs have never been formed against my person, but that I may, whenever I please return to my usual Residence without the least danger; notwithstanding that my own Servants are prevented from passing with provisions which is thus cut off from me & denied to me, my people have been Carried off by the guard; while my house has been a third time rifled, and is now entirely in the possession of these lawless Ruffians.A great number of people, horse and Foot, from various parts of the country have flocked to Williamsburg, armed and accoutered, and wearing uniforms . . . They have made a Barrack of the Capital . . . and they have taken possession of the Park [adjoining the Governor’s Palace].[8]

The governor himself was nearly carried off in early July in a close encounter with a party of militia at his farmhouse (Porto Bello) on Queen’s Creek, just a few miles outside of Williamsburg.[9]

Captain Scott undoubtedly viewed the situation in Williamsburg much differently than Lord Dunmore, but he may have actually agreed with the Governor’s characterization of the militia in the capital as “lawless ruffians,” for Scott had a difficult time maintaining proper military discipline among the largely untrained and untried militia encamped in a wooded area just east of the capitol at Waller’s Grove.

Lt. George Gilmer of Albemarle County believed a large part of the problem was with Captain Scott himself and expressed this view to his friend, Thomas Jefferson, in a letter. Gilmer informed Jefferson that he respected Scott, “who’s goodness and merit is great,” but that Scott possessed a “fear to offend,” that resulted in the largely idle militia troops becoming, “rather disorderly.”[10]“We appear rather invited to feast than fight,”announced a frustrated Gilmer;“Anderson and Southall’s [taverns] entertain elegantly – the first in the best manner by far.”[11]

The surprising departure of Lord Dunmore and the British warships from the York River (they sailed to Norfolk on July 15) actually made Captain Scott’s task more difficult. With the threat to Williamsburg reduced, drill and guard duty in the capital grew mundane. Men who knew little of military discipline chafed at the repetition of drill and the inactivity of camp life and some fell into mischief. A council of officers finally adopted a set of regulations to instill greater discipline, but it had little effect:

Resolutions Adopted by the Officers at Williamsburg, July 18, 1775
Resolved, That any private who may refuse when commanded on duty, or . . . deserts his post, goes to sleep or absents himself without leave of his officer, shall be punished as follows:
For the first offence, he shall receive a reprimand from his own officer; for the second, that of the Commander-in-Chief before the whole battalion; and for the third, expulsion.
Resolved, That any person who shall fire a gun without leave from the Commanding Officer, shall be taken into custody by the Officer of the Guard and there kept two hours without victuals or drink.[12]

Not surprisingly, such light punishments had little effect on the troops, and the misconduct continued.

Lieutenant Gilmer and his fellow officers also demonstrated poor discipline (and judgment) in late July when they acted on their own initiative to seize funds that were still held by the crown’s revenue collector. When the 3rd Virginia Convention in Richmond, the de facto governing body for Virginia, learned of the militia’s unilateral action to seize the funds, it conveyed its strong disapproval and ordered the troops to desist in their actions. The chastised officers humbly responded with an appeal to the Convention to “lay down some certain line for our conduct, lest in our excessive zeal we should precipitate our Countrymen into unnecessary Calamities.”[13]

The Convention did far more than that. After weeks of debate, it totally reorganized the military structure of Virginia. For the first time since the French and Indian War, Virginia was to raise regiments of regular (full time) troops. The conflict with Lord Dunmore was about to significantly escalate and the presence of armed troops in Williamsburg was about to explode as a result.

With the collapse of royal authority in Virginia, the colony’s leaders looked to the 3rd Virginia Convention for governance. Two such assemblies had previously met, the first in August 1774 to select delegates to the First Continental Congress and the second in March 1775 to reaffirm those delegates and strengthen Virginia’s militia structure. The next convention was fortuitously scheduled to meet in Richmond in August 1775.

The primary focus of the 3rd Virginia Convention was a detailed plan to restructure Virginia’s military forces. The plan the delegates adopted in late August replaced the volunteer militia companies that the 2nd Virginia Convention had called for with a combination of regular (full time) soldiers and militia soldiers. Two regiments of regular troops, similar to the Virginia regiments raised in the French and Indian War, were authorized to serve for one year. Patrick Henry was selected to command the first regiment, which consisted of eight 68 man companies and totaled 544 men.[14] Col. William Woodford of Caroline County commanded the second regiment, which comprised 476 men in seven companies.[15] To raise this force, the Convention divided Virginia into sixteen districts and ordered each district (comprised of several counties) to recruit and send a company of regulars to Williamsburg as soon as possible.[16] The company of regulars from the eastern shore of Virginia remained there as a detached unit to help protect this isolated and vulnerable region of the colony.

The regular troops were not the only soldiers ordered to Williamsburg; hundreds of minutemen were ordered to march to the capital as well. They comprised a second tier of Virginia’s new military establishment. The Convention authorized sixteen battalions of minutemen. These men were drawn from the ranks of the militia and were “more strictly trained to proper discipline” than the ordinary militia.[17] Each district was ordered to raise a 500-man battalion of minutemen “from the age of sixteen to fifty, to be divided into ten companies of fifty men each.”[18] Like the regular troops, the minutemen were provided with proper arms as well as a hunting shirt and leggings.[19]

The last tier of Virginia’s new military establishment was the traditional county militia. The Convention decreed that “All male persons, hired servants, and apprentices, above the age of sixteen, and under fifty years . . . shall be enlisted into the militia . . . and formed into companies.”[20] The militia companies were ordered to hold private musters every two weeks, except in the winter.

The restructuring of Virginia’s military forces meant that the volunteer independent companies that had formed within the last year had reached the end of their tenure. They were created to fill a gap that existed with the expiration of the Militia Law of 1771 and now the volunteer companies were made obsolete by the 3rd Virginia Convention’s new military establishment. The Convention ordained that the volunteer companies should be disbanded as soon as the new minute battalions in the districts from where the volunteer companies were raised were fully recruited.[21] With enthusiasm to serve running high in Virginia, most of the regular and minute companies were raised quickly.

Remnants of the volunteer militia remained in Williamsburg until September, however, much to the misfortune of a less then patriotic resident of Williamsburg, Joshua Hardcastle. He had apparently uttered, “expressions highly degrading the good people who compose the several companies” encamped in Waller’s Grove and had “frequently spoke of the cause of America in a most disgraceful and menacing manner.”[22] Upon word of such talk, Hardcastle was located in the city by a party of militia volunteers and conducted to their encampment in the Grove where a trial was held. “After a candid, mature, and deliberate examination of the witness,” Hardcastle was found guilty. Tarring and feathering was threatened, but in the end, Hardcastle was forced only to ask his pardon of all the officers and soldiers assembled and promise to never commit such offenses again.[23]

The edge of Waller’s Grove, the location of a volunteer militia encampment at Williamsburg. (Michael Cecere)

About a week later, Major James Innes of Williamsburg led about 100 volunteers to Hampton when it appeared that HMS Otter intended to harm the town and its population. This was likely the last active service that the remaining volunteer militia troops performed, for not long after they departed for Hampton, Col. Patrick Henry, commander of the 1st Virginia Regiment and commander in chief of Virginia’s regular forces, arrived in Williamsburg to oversee the formation of a new camp behind the college to accommodate the hundreds of regular and minute troops who were to descend upon the capital. Colonel Henry’s arrival in Williamsburg marked the end of the volunteer companies, many of whose members had already joined either the regular companies or the minute companies being raised in their own communities. From here on out, Williamsburg and the rest of Virginia would be defended by a combination of full time regular troops and militia, both much better organized than the volunteer companies ever were.

Williamsburg’s inhabitants also contributed to their defense, forming two militia companies per the new arrangement of the 3rd Virginia Convention. The Williamsburg committee that was formed in late 1774 to enforce the resolutions of the 1st Continental Congress elected John Dixon, publisher of one of the weekly gazettes, city alderman and current mayor of the city, as colonel of this small force of two companies. Joseph Hornsby, a prosperous merchant in the city was chosen to serve as major. The committee elected one of its own, James Southall, owner of the Raleigh Tavern, and John Hatley Norton, son of wealthy merchant John Norton, to serve as company captains for each company. Benjamin Carter Waller and William Russell were selected as lieutenants and Joseph Kidd and George Reid were chosen to serve as ensigns.[24] A company of minutemen, raised from troops in Williamsburg and the surrounding counties and commanded by Capt. Robert Anderson of Williamsburg, was also formed.[25]

These men represented Williamsburg’s new military leadership, but they were not alone. Hundreds of enthusiastic regular troops and minutemen arrived in the fall to help defend Williamsburg from whatever threat might appear.

The task of actually organizing and regulating the steady stream of troops assembling in Williamsburg initially fell to Col. Thomas Bullit of Prince William County, the adjutant general of Virginia’s regular forces. Bullit, who joined Colonel Henry in Williamsburg in late September, laid out an encampment behind the Wren building at the College of William and Mary and moved to establish order and discipline among the new troops. Over the ensuing weeks, instructions on rations, arms, ammunition, latrines, guard duty, troop formations, drill, and so on were issued and often repeated by both Bullit and Henry in an effort to properly organize the new troops.[26]

Measures were almost immediately implemented to keep the soldiers out of town (and out of trouble). Frequent roll calls, guards about camp, and direct orders to stay out of town were issued regularly.[27] Courts martial to punish offenders were also held when needed.

One thing that significantly concerned Henry and especially the residents of Williamsburg was the proper conduct of the many hundreds of troops in the capital. In early October, Henry reminded his officers and men that they must, “preserve Decency and Good order in the Camp, and that Some irregularity now practiced be Reformed with as much haste as young Recruits will admit of.”[28] While not necessarily a draconian command to reform misbehavior, it demonstrated the anxiety that Henry and his fellow officers felt about the behavior of their young soldiers, many of whom had never been more than a few miles from their homes.

The steady arrival of additional troops soon filled the college camp behind the Wren building and forced Henry to establish another camp in town.[29] Its location is uncertain, but as a daily guard had been posted at the powder magazine, it is possible the new encampment was placed there. Then again, it may have been in Waller’s Grove, where the volunteer companies had camped to protect the eastern approach to the city.

Protecting Williamsburg was an important objective for Henry. By mid-October he had established new guard posts at Burwell’s Ferry on the James River and near the mouth of Queen’s Creek and the York River.[30] If Lord Dunmore dared to strike at Williamsburg, these guard posts would provide plenty of warning.

Whether the troops in Williamsburg were capable of offering much resistance to an attack, however, was a bit in doubt. Shortages of weapons, shot pouches, powder horns, and most importantly cartridges for the men significantly limited their capabilities. Henry expressed hope in mid-October that each solider could be provided with at least ten cartridges, but it was an enormous struggle to do so, especially with additional troops arriving daily.[31]

The inhabitants of Williamsburg were undoubtedly overwhelmed by the presence of so many armed troops on the outskirts of town and within the city and more than a few likely held mixed feelings about the situation. A young soldier in the Culpeper Minute Battalion captured the view of many in the capital when he noted the local population’s reaction to the arrival of his unit on October 20. “The people, hearing that we were from the backwoods, and seeing our savage-looking equipment seemed as much afraid of us as if we had been Indians.”[32]

The main street in Williamsburg. (Michael Cecere)

There were economic benefits, however, to having so many troops about the city. The soldiers needed all manner of small clothes, hats, shoes, and most particularly, hunting shirts—or at least the material to make hunting shirts. The also needed camp gear like kettles and pots, shovels, blankets and tents, not to mention all of the military equipment of soldiers including firearms, flints, pouches, canteens, etc. Williamsburg’s tradesmen and merchants scrambled to fulfill the needs of the troops as best they could.[33]

Providing for the troops ultimately fell to the newly formed Virginia Committee of Safety. Established by the 3rd Virginia Convention to serve as a governing body for the colony between sessions of the conventions or House of Burgesses (were that body ever to meet again), the Committee of Safety initially met in Richmond at the end of August and then in Hanovertown in mid-September. It then moved to Williamsburg, presiding there from late September until the 4th Virginia Convention met in early December. Sadly, it is not known where in Williamsburg the committee met.

Edmund Pendleton of Caroline County led the committee. He was joined by George Mason, John Page, Richard Bland, Thomas Ludwell Lee, Paul Carrington, Dudley Digges, William Cabell, Carter Braxton, James Mercer, and John Tabb. These eleven men essentially served as Virginia’s governing body until the 4th Virginia Convention met in early December and as such they authorized payment for the thousands of soldiers being raised in the colony as well as all of their clothing and equipment. As the governing body of the colony, the committee also exercised authority over Virginia’s military forces and issued instructions to Colonel Henry on a regular basis.

One such instruction was to send Woodford’s 2nd Virginia Regiment and the bulk of the Culpeper Minute Battalion then in Williamsburg across the James River to confront Lord Dunmore, who had made Norfolk his new base of operation. The departure of Woodford’s regiment and the minutemen meant that all of the remaining troops in the capital, specifically Henry’s regiment and some assorted militia units, could now be accommodated with proper winter quarters. The capitol building was unceremoniously converted into a barracks (the 4th Convention met in the Wren Building of the college across town in December), and a number of other buildings were appropriated for use as winter quarters for the troops.[34]

Although the winter of 1775 would prove to be quite active for the troops with Woodford at Great Bridge and Norfolk, this was not the case for the troops that remained in Williamsburg. This changed, however, after the 4th Virginia Convention voted to significantly enlarge Virginia’s military forces from two regiments of regulars to nine. The arrival of spring brought a much greater martial presence in the capital as the size of Virginia’s force of regular troops quadrupled in numbers. Williamsburg, and the rest of Virginia, were on a full-fledged war footing, and life in the Old Dominion would never be the same.


[1]“Extract of a Letter from Chatham,” Virginia Gazette, (Dixon and Hunter), June 24, 1775.

[2]Virginia Gazette, Supplement (Purdie), June 30, 1775.

[3]“Dunmore to Dartmouth, June 27, 1775,” Naval Documents of the American Revolution (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1964), 1: 764.

[4]Virginia Gazette, (Purdie), July 7, 1775.

[5]Virginia Gazette (Purdie), July 14, 1775.



[8]“Dunmore to Dartmouth, July 12, 1775,” Naval Documents, 1: 873.


[10]“George Gilmer to Thomas Jefferson in Papers, Military and Political, 1775-1778 of George Gilmer, M.D. of Pen Park, Albemarle Co., VA,” Miscellaneous Papers 1672-1865 Now First Printed from the Manuscripts in the Virginia Historical Society (Richmond, VA: The Society, 1937), 101.


[12]“Resolutions Adopted by the Officers at Williamsburg, July 18, 1775,” Miscellaneous Papers 1672-1865, 92-93.

[13]“To the President and Gentlemen of the Convention,” ibid., 109.

[14]William W. Henings, The Statutes at Large Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia, Vol. 9, (Richmond: J. & G. Cochran, 1821), 9.

[15]Ibid., 10.

[16]Ibid., 10, 16.

[17]Ibid., 16.

[18]Ibid., 16-17.

[19]Ibid., 20.

[20]Ibid., 27-28.

[21]Virginia Gazette (Purdie), August 25, 1775.

[22]Virginia Gazette (Pinkney), September 7, 1775.


[24]Virginia Gazette (Purdie), August 25, 1775.

[25]Virginia Gazette (Pinkney), September 7, 1775.

[26]Brent Tarter, ed.,”The Orderly Book of the 2nd Virginia Regiment,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography Vol. 85 No. 2 (April 1977), 159-163.

[27]Ibid., September 28, 1775, 161.

[28]Ibid., October, 8, 1775, 164.

[29]Ibid., October, 20, 1775, 169.

[30]Ibid., October 12, 1775, 167.

[31]Tarter, ed.,”The Orderly Book of the 2nd Virginia Regiment,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography,

Vol. 85, No. 2, October 13, 1775, 167.

[32]Reverend Philip Slaughter, A History of St. Mark’s Parish: Culpeper County Virginia, (1877), 107.

[33]Virginia Gazette (Pinckney), October 12, 1775. For a thorough accounting of many of the transactions that occurred to supply the troops in Williamsburg, see Gregory Sandor, Journal of the Public Store at Williamsburg, 1775-1776 (Gregory Sandor, 2015).

[34]Robert Scribner and Brent Tarter, eds., “Virginia Committee of Safety, November 8, 1775,” Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence,Vol. 4 (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1978), 344.



  • Mike Cecere’s account of Williamsburg early in the war is excellent, with one exception: it can now be shown that Dunmore had NOTHING to do with the Powder Magazine event in April; it had all been orchestrated from London, and the same sort of operations were carried out that same week in many of the colonies in an effort to deprive any Rebels of having access to gunpowder. Of course, when confronted afterwards, Dunmore felt he had to stand up as being in charge, and he admitted to the powder incident, claiming he was scared of a slave insurrection, but that was a lie.

  • Another excellent and insightful article on Williamsburg by Mr. Cecere. Thank you!

    My wish is that you would write a comprehensive history of Williamsburg (and its citizens) prior, during, and after the Revolution.

  • Thanks for the comments guys. Just want to make a correction to the article that I just discovered yesterday. Some of the volunteer militia camped in Waller’s Grove were apparently still there in October because I found a reference to them in the October 12, 1775 entry in the 2nd Virginia Orderly book. Here’s the actual passage. “The Aurchord [orchard] men are to be divided into small squads under proper officers to learn the Exercise [either the 1764 drill or the Woods exercise, both were mentioned], the most Expert men to join the Grand Squad.” So this passage makes clear that at least some of the volunteer militia were still encamped in the orchard or grove on the east end of Williamsburg. And that’s the thing about history, one is always finding something new to the story. The spelling of orchard as Aurchord caused me to pass completely over the reference, but when I came across it again on a different project I finally made the connection. Oh well, live and learn and revise and correct. Cheers.

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