Patrick Henry’s March on Williamsburg, May 1775


July 23, 2020
by Michael Cecere Also by this Author


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It had been a very hectic week in Williamsburg for Peyton Randolph, the Speaker of Virginia’s House of Burgesses and the President of the Continental Congress. It had begun with a startling alarm in the pre-dawn hours of April 21, 1775. The commotion just outside his house roused the corpulent Speaker from his bed. Like many in Williamsburg, he rushed to the scene of the alarm, the gunpowder magazine, which for Randolph was within view of the front door across of his home. When he arrived he discovered that a party of British Marines had absconded with a wagon load of gunpowder from the powder magazine.

The crowd at the courthouse grew increasing agitated at what they viewed as the theft of their gunpowder and most looked to the Royal Governor, John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore, for blame. Lord Dunmore was in fact responsible for the seizure of the powder and had arranged for its removal to a British warship anchored in the James River. He now braced himself for a confrontation, but to his welcome surprise, Williamsburg’s leaders, led by Speaker Randolph, managed to defuse the crisis. They appeared at the governor’s palace to express their concern and returned to the courthouse with Dunmore’s flimsy excuse for taking the gunpowder (his desire to insure the security of the powder from a possible slave insurrection) which the assembled residents of Williamsburg grudgingly accepted.

Despite several reports over the next few days of what amounted to temper tantrums by Governor Dunmore (with rash threats to free the slaves and burn Williamsburg if he or his supporters were threatened) the tense situation in the capital remained manageable. When reports that a thousand militia had gathered in Fredericksburg to march on Williamsburg reached the capital at the end of the week, Speaker Randolph sent the messengers back to Fredericksburg with his plea for them to disperse. Randolph assured his fellow Virginians that the situation in Williamsburg was well in hand and that their arrival might only upset things. Out of respect to Speaker Randolph, the militia in Fredericksburg dispersed. Yet another crisis had been averted, but only for a moment.

Patrick Henry, the firebrand orator from Hanover County who just a month earlier at the 2nd Virginia Convention in Richmond had uttered the phrase that he is still remembered most for, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death,” was surprised and disappointed when he learned that the militia gathered in Fredericksburg had cancelled their march on the capital. Days earlier, Henry had confided to two friends, Richard Morris and George Dabney, that Dunmore’s seizure of the powder was a fortunate circumstance that would awaken and animate the public:

You may in vain talk to [the people] about the duties on tea, etc. These things will not affect them. They depend on principles, too abstracted for their apprehension and feeling. But tell them of the robbery of the magazine, and that the next step will be to disarm them, you bring the subject home to their bosoms, and they will be ready to fly to arms to defend themselves.1

The news from Fredericksburg suggested that the animated spirit Henry expected in the people had already waned, despite the shocking reports from the north of bloodshed in Massachusetts at Lexington and Concord.

Disappointed but determined, Henry delayed his journey to Philadelphia to attend the 2nd Continental Congress and instead, rode to Newcastle (a small town twenty miles northeast of Richmond along the Pamunkey River) to meet with the Hanover county committee and the independent militia company.2 Charles Dabney attended the meeting and recalled years later that the militia waited most of the day for the committee to decide what to do, “there being some disagreement among them.”3 In the late afternoon of May 2, Patrick Henry delivered a powerful address to the militia. According to Henry biographer William Wirt (who reconstructed the essence of the speech from eyewitness recollections), Henry

laid open the plan on which the British ministry had fallen to reduce the colonies to subjection, by robbing them of all the means of defending their rights: spread before their eyes in colours of vivid description, the fields of Lexington and Concord, still floating with the blood of their countrymen, gloriously shed in the general cause; showed them that the recent plunder of the magazine in Williamsburg, was nothing more than a part of the general system of subjugation;4

Henry presented those assembled with a stark choice exclaiming that

The moment was now come in which they were called upon to decide, whether they chose to live free, and hand down the noble inheritance to their children, or to become hewers of wood, and drawers of water to those lordlings, who were themselves the tools of a corrupt and tyrannical ministry—he painted the country in a state of subjugation, and drew such pictures of wretched debasement and abject vassalage, as filled their souls with horror and indignation.5

Henry saw God’s hand in the crisis and declared that

It was for them now to determine, whether they were worthy of this divine interference; whether they would accept the high boon now held out to them by heaven—that if they would, though it might lead them through a sea of blood, they were to remember that the same God whose power divided the Red Sea for the deliverance of Israel, still reigned in all his glory, unchanged and unchangeable—was still the enemy of the oppressor, and the friend of the oppressed.6

Henry ended his speech with a pragmatic observation, reminding those assembled that

no time was to be lost—that their enemies in this colony were now few and weak; that it would be easy for [the militia], by a rapid and vigorous movement, to compel the restoration of the powder which had been carried off, or to make a reprisal on the king’s revenues in the hands of the receiver general, which would fairly balance the account. That the Hanover volunteers would thus have an opportunity of striking the first blow in this colony, in the great cause of American liberty, and would cover themselves with never-fading laurels.7

Swept up by Henry’s speech, those assembled voted to march on Williamsburg under Patrick Henry’s command. A party of sixteen men was detached to the residence of Richard Corbin in King and Queen County to demand compensation for the powder from the King’s receiver-general (tax collector).8 Ens. Parke Goodall commanded the detachment and was instructed to take Corbin prisoner if he refused to pay the 330 pounds demanded for the seized powder.9 Goodall and his men reached Corbin’s residence late in the evening of May 2 and, adhering to instructions to treat the receiver-general with the utmost respect and tenderness, surrounded the house and waited until morning to announce their presence.10

Discovered in the morning by Mrs. Corbin, Ensign Goodall was informed that the receiver-general and the funds in his care were in Williamsburg. Eager to rejoin Henry and the rest of the militia at Doncastle’s Ordinary in James City County and desirous to avoid offence to Mrs. Corbin, Ensign Goodall declined her invitation to search the house and marched off empty handed.11

The marker for Doncastle’s Ordinary, and the site today, sixteen miles north of Williamsburg. (Michael Cecere)

Patrick Henry and the rest of the Hanover militia, reinforced by volunteers from New Kent and King William counties, were encamped at Doncastle’s Ordinary, sixteen miles north of Williamsburg and waited for Ensign Goodall. Over 150 strong, they were described by one writer to Purdie’s Virginia Gazetteas “all men of property . . . well accoutered [with] a very martial appearance.”12

A day earlier Governor Dunmore, not yet aware of Henry’s march but very aware of great “commotions and insurrections” in the colony, sought the advice of his council concerning a proclamation he wished to deliver. Released on May 3 and printed in the gazettes soon after, Dunmore sought three objectives through his proclamation: justify the removal of the gunpowder, assert his desire “to restore peace and harmony to this distracted country,” and call on Virginians “to exert themselves in removing the discontents and suppressing the spirit of faction, which prevail among the people.”13 Overshadowed by newly arrived reports of Henry’s march on Williamsburg (which was clear evidence of the very spirit of faction Dunmore wished to suppress), the governor’s proclamation had virtually no effect whatsoever except to demonstrate Dunmore’s political impotency.

Fearful that Henry and his men would suddenly appear in the capital, Dunmore hastily prepared for battle. Capt. George Montague of the recently arrived warship Foweyrushed forty-three men armed with swords, cutlasses, and bayonets (but no muskets) to the palace and threatened to bombard Yorktown if they were confronted or harassed on their march to Williamsburg.14 They joined Dunmore’s tiny force of armed servants at the governor’s palace. The governor also placed cannon before his residence and swore to fire on the town should Henry’s troops dare enter.15

Henry, still at Doncastle’s Ordinary, dismissed several appeals from Williamsburg’s leaders to disband and turn back, but when Carter Braxton arrived in camp and proposed to ride to Williamsburg to convince his father-in-law, Richard Corbin, to issue payment for the powder, Henry agreed to remain at Doncastle’s and await the outcome of Braxton’s efforts. With the help of Thomas Nelson Sr., the respected president of the governor’s council, Braxton returned on May 4 with a bill of exchange for 330 pounds to pay for the gunpowder. Henry pledged to convey the money to the Virginia delegation in Congress who would use it to purchase gunpowder in Philadelphia for the colony.16

Satisfied with the gunpowder resolution but concerned that the public treasury in Williamsburg remained under threat from Dunmore, Henry wrote to the colonial treasurer, Robert Carter Nicholas, and offered to provide a guard to transport the funds to a more secure location. Nicholas, who disapproved of Patrick Henry and his actions, curtly rejected the offer as unnecessary. Unfazed by Nicholas’s response, Henry declared success and dismissed the troops under his command to their homes. He then struck out for Scotchtown (his home) to prepare for his journey to Philadelphia to attend the 2nd Continental Congress.

Although Governor Dunmore fled Williamsburg about a month later, Virginia did not see bloodshed until late October 1775, six months after the conflict at Lexington and Concord. Had Henry pushed the issue that day in early May and continued his march to the capital, the war may have arrived in the Old Dominion much earlier.


1William Wirt, Sketches in the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (Philadelphia: James Webster, 1817), 137.

2Newcastle was a bustling colonial community and a crossing point over the Pamunkey River in Hanover County that has since completely disappeared.

3“Charles Dabney to William Wirt, Dec. 21, 1805,” Papers of Patrick Henry, Rockefeller Library Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Microfilm.

4Wirt, Sketches, 138.


6Ibid., 138-39.

7Ibid., 139.

8“Nathaniel Pope to William Wirt, June 23, 1806,” Papers of Patrick Henry.


10Wirt, Sketches, 140.

11Ibid., 140-41.

12Alexander Purdie, Virginia Gazette,Supplement, May 5, 1775, 2.

13Robert L. Scribner, ed., “Dunmore’s Proclamation, 3 May, 1775,” Revolutionary Virginia: Road to Independence (University Press of Virginia, 1977), 3: 80-81.

14John Pinkney,Virginia Gazette, May 4, 1775, 3.

15Scribner, Revolutionary Virginia, 3:9.

16Wirt, Sketches, 142.


    1. I have never heard such a thing and believe it can’t possibly be true. It was May 1775 so I doubt the French even knew Patrick Henry existed. Sure, maybe they were aware of his Stamp Act Resolves from ten years earlier, but I’ve never come across anything to suggest the French encouraged colonial resistance to British policies in the years leading up to independence. What is the source for such a story?

  • Mike, I found two things wrong with your account. First, not a single British marine was involved, only sailors. Second, Dunmore, much though he wanted to appear to be in control, had nothing to do with ordering the powder removed. That was done in London. In the fall, the ministry decided that if they took all the gunpowder away from American magazines at the same time in April, there could not be a war, because gunpowder contains one ingredient available ONLY in Europe. Retired RI elected Governor Stephen Hopkins learned of the plan and informed all the colonies in December, telling them to remove their powder beforehand. Many colonies did, but Virginia did not. Hence, power was taken from Pownalborough, Maine, Concord MA and Williamsburg almost at the same time.

    1. John;
      While there are surely others out there more knowledgeable in response capacity, I’ll rise to support Mike’s comment to assert that an alleged conspiracy among Royal Governors to simultaneously swipe powder from the various colonial magazines remains mythology.
      In early December 1774, soon after being appointed military governor of Massachusetts, Gen Gage received a letter from Lord Dartmouth written 17 Oct 1774:

      “Amongst other things which have occurred on the present occasion as likely to prevent the fatal consequence of having recourse to the sword, that of disarming the Inhabitants of the Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut and Rhode Island, has been suggested. Whether such a Measure was ever practicable, or whether it can be attempted in the present state of things you must be the best judge; but it certainly is a Measure of such a nature as ought not to be adopted without almost a certainty of success, and therefore I only throw it out for your consideration.”1

      Gage replied to Dartmouth on 15 Dec, 1774:
      “Your Lordship‘s Idea of disarming certain Provinces would doubtless be consistent with Prudence and Safety, but it neither is nor has been practicable without having Recourse to Force, and being Masters of the Country.”2

      We should note that this forced disarmament was only “suggested”, that it only pertained to Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, and that Gage rejected the suggestion as impractical. Further, it was not Dartmouth’s original suggestion, but Gage’s response that became public knowledge. In England, Gage’s response was read openly in Parliament and entered into the record.3 Meanwhile, Gage’s letter had been leaked to the Patriots. Several authors would argue that the most likely source of the leak was Gage’s wife, via contacts with her physician, Dr. Joseph Warren. Regardless, Gage’s letter was leaked to the Boston press and became public knowledge in America before it even arrived in England.4 The so-called warnings spread through the colonies were to the point that the British had considered trying to secure powder supplies in Massachusetts, so they might also consider trying it elsewhere.

      Meanwhile, two days after Dartmouth sent his letter off to Gage, King George III stepped in with a Royal Proclamation requiring a permit for exportation of arms and ammunition from Britain.5 The Proclamation required a Royal permit for export:
      “…And His Majesty judging it necessary to prohibit the Exportation of Gunpowder, or any sort of Arms or Ammunition, out of this Kingdom, doth therefore, with the advice of his Privy Council, hereby order, require, prohibit and command that no Person or Persons Whatsoever (except the Master General of the Ordnance for his Majesty‘s Service) do, at any time during the space of Six Months from the date of this Order in Council, presume to transport into any parts out of this Kingdom, or carry coastways any Gunpowder, or any sort of Arms or Ammunition, on board any Ship or Vessel, in order to transporting the same to any part beyond the Seas or carrying the same coastways, without Leave and Permission in that behalf, first obtained from his Majesty or his Privy Council, upon Pain of incurring and suffering the respective Forfeitures and Penalties inflicted by the aforementioned Act . . . .”

      At the time of issuance there was no official policy to deny approval for permits for export to any destination “out of this Kingdom”, though it was likely understood to be targeted at New England; and could be further used against any British colonial territory. Factually, and legally, it was not a blanket ban on exportation of arms and ammunition to all colonies. The act was set to last just six months. At the time of its scheduled expiration (ironically 19 April, 1775) it was renewed for another six months, and was continually renewed every six months until the 1783 treaty of Paris rendered it moot in regard to an independent America. This was not a secret proclamation; it was conspicuously posted throughout Britain. Like Dr. Strangelove’s assertion that there’s no point in having a doomsday device if you don’t tell everyone you have it, there is no efficacy to a secret export permit requirement.

      A discovery of primary source documents that confirm a conspiracy of British Governors in America, fomented by members of the Privy Council, to confiscate all colonial gunpowder on or about 20 April 1775 would be a nine-point-two historical earthquake. Anyone having that primary evidence should immediately stop suppressing evidence and come clean!

      1. Letter from Lord Dartmouth to Gen. Gage (Oct. 17, 1774), in 2 THE CORRESPONDENCE OF GENERAL THOMAS GAGE WITH THE SECRETARIES OF STATE, AND WITH THE WAR OFFICE AND THE TREASURY: 1763–1775, at 175 (Clarence Edwin Carter ed., Archon Books 1969) (1933).
      2. Letter from Gen. Gage to Lord Dartmouth (Dec. 15, 1774), in 1 THE CORRESPONDENCE OF GENERAL THOMAS GAGE WITH THE SECRETARIES OF STATE, AND WITH THE WAR OFFICE AND THE TREASURY: 1763–1775, at 386 (Clarence Edwin Carter ed., Archon Books 1969) (1931).
      3. 18 WILLIAM COBBETT, THE PARLIAMENTARY HISTORY OF ENGLAND, FROM THE EARLIEST PERIOD TO THE YEAR 1803, at 106 (London, T.C. Hansard, Peterborough-Court, Fleet-Street 1813).
      4. MERCY OTIS WARREN, HISTORY OF THE RISE, PROGRESS AND TERMINATION OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION , Volume 1 Page 159 of the original manuscript (Lester H. Cohen ed., Liberty Fund 1994) (1805).
      5. 5 Acts Privy Council 401, in Brief of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, Inc., as Amicus Curiae in Support of Respondent at 13–14 n.31, Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 128 S. Ct. 2783 (2008) (No. 07-290) [hereinafter Brief in Support of Respondent], available at RespondentAm CuNSSFound.pdf. The proclamation was based on the powers specified in 29 Geo. 2, c. 16 (Eng.).

  • Hello John.
    While I confess that I can’t be absolutely certain that British marines were involved in the raid, I offer Alexander Purdie’s Virginia Gazette’s report that they participated, published in his April 21, 1775 supplement (page 3), as evidence as well as the scholarship of Norm Fuss who wrote a fantastic account of the raid for JAR on April 2, 2015 entitled “Prelude to Rebellion: Dunmore’s Raid on the Williamsburg Magazine.” What is your evidence that they did not participate?
    I also disagree with your comment that, “Dunmore had nothing to do with ordering the powder removed.”
    I assume you mean he had nothing to do with coming up with the idea, and I would actually agree that he was likely following instructions, but I don’t think one can argue that he had nothing to do with ordering the powder removed. He took possession of the keys to the magazine in mid-April and got them to the British raiding party to be used on April 21. Dunmore also writes candidly to Lord Dartmouth about the raid, explaining how he justified the removal of the powder to a delegation who had demanded its return. There is also plenty of evidence of Dunmore’s involvement in the investigation the House of Burgesses conducted (See Journals of the House of Burgesses 1773-76) So I think there is plenty of evidence to indict Dunmore with direct involvement with the removal of the powder. Was he just following orders? Probably, but he nevertheless was significantly involved.

    So I respectfully stand by my comments in the article.

  • Hello Again John,
    I just re-read my opening paragraph and in fairness I do see that I only identify British marines in the raiding party (which leaves the impression that sailors weren’t involved and this is certainly something I did not intend to do). I should have said a party of British sailors and marines. I’m not surprised a maritime man like yourself caught that, it was sloppy of me. I do, however, stand by the statement that British marines were with the sailors (few as they might have been) because that is what was reported in the Virginia gazettes. I understand that just like now, newspapers then got stories wrong, but absent any evidence that marines were most definitely not there, I’m comfortable saying they were.

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