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
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.