Great Bridge Museum Opens Amid Pandemic

Great Bridge Museum Building, looking across the Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal.

Friday, June 19, 2020, proved an interesting day in Virginia. The governor, two days prior, issued an executive order declaring June 19, “Juneteenth” a state holiday in honor of the end of slavery in the State of Texas when Federal troops landed at Galveston and issued and executive order freeing all slaves in that state in 1865.[1] While the State of Virginia and many local government employees were enjoying their new state holiday, a small group of community leaders and historical activists gathered to celebrate a pre-planned and long-awaited public opening of the Great Bridge Battlefield and Waterways Museum, a significant event in advancing the legacy of the American Revolution. Social distancing and other state guidelines implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic prevented a grandiose affair to mark this event, but the museum is now open and accepting visitors. (Please see the foundation website for updates on times, hours and events as Virginia and the nation address recovery from the COVID-19 Pandemic.)

Great Bridge, Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal, with the draw bridge raised, and the museum in background.

Located in the modern city of Chesapeake, Virginia, the museum occupies a portion of the original site of the Battle of Great Bridge and overlooks the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal, part of the Intracoastal Waterway. This makes the museum and battlefield park quite unique. Visitors may arrive by either Virginia State Highway, Route 168, Battlefield Boulevard, or on watercraft via the Intracoastal Waterway and dock in front of the museum. The Great Bridge Battlefield and Waterways History Foundation championed this preservation project that formally began with the chartering of the foundation on December 9, 1999, and preservation work progressed steadily since that time. The construction of the museum building began with the ground breaking in September 2017. The opening of the museum is just one more important step in the work of the foundation to preserve and make this site available to the public and preserve the history of the region. To date the public-private partnership to preserve this important site has experienced funding from many sources totaling over $7 million. The interpretive trail and outside displays, including an impressive obelisk monument funded by the Daughters of the American Revolution to honor the soldiers who served there, was erected in 2006 and opened to the public as a self-guiding interpretive trail in 2009. An accompanying nature and marsh overlook trail was recently upgraded to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards to allow all visitors access to view how the marshland may have looked to colonists in the 1770s.  The museum sits only a few yards from a massive four lane draw bridge that allows traffic on Battlefield Boulevard to cross the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal, providing an additional attraction for those unfamiliar with America’s Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. A short drive away is a set of locks operated by the United States Army Corps of Engineers that controls movement of watercraft of all sizes, from small pleasure craft and elegant yachts to massive barges and tugs, between two major coastal watersheds of the Carolina sounds and the Chesapeake Bay.[2]

Great Bridge was an important geographic location in colonial America and retains that relevance today. The battleground of Great Bridge occupies a relatively narrow strip of high ground between two watersheds thus providing the only land access from the port City of Norfolk to the Albemarle region of North Carolina during the Revolutionary era, making it a critical choke point for movement and commerce. Those unfamiliar with the topography of coastal and Tidewater Virginia may just view the region as a large swamp, but early community leaders in southeastern Virginia understood its importance and authorized and funded construction of an elevated causeway and bridge to span the low swampy ground in 1690s.[3] A small but vibrant community grew along the causeway and adjacent high ground that included warehouses for transshipment of raw materials to Norfolk and onward to Europe and the Caribbean colonies, as well as capacity to store finished products needed by the locals. As in most colonial villages, the community included several taverns; museum designers incorporated portions of one of these as one of the eight galleries to the museum. Museum galleries and exhibits follow a chronological and thematic flow.

The Colonial living exhibit in the museum gallery.

The importance of the location and colonial village life provide a theme of the first and second galleries. The first gallery addresses the location of the Village of Great Bridge, established in 1729 along the Great Road, on the geographic point between two major watersheds, the Chesapeake Bay and the North Carolina sounds. The second gallery is a reconstruction of a room of the Three Tun Tavern, a tavern known to exist on South Island in the 1770s.[4] Visitors listening carefully will hear the types of conversations common in a tavern of that era.

Reenactor, Tom Platek, waiting for service at Three Tun Tavern Bar.

Exiting the tavern, guests hear the words of Patrick Henry addressing the Second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775 at St. John’s Church in Richmond. The gallery addresses the road to conflict focusing on the furious fall of 1775. Events climax with Lord Dunmore sending all his regular forces to Great Bridge to destroy the Patriot units defending the breastwork interdicting the Great Road south into the provision-rich and Loyalist leaning Albemarle Region of North Carolina.

Leaving the third gallery, guests enter the causeway and find themselves in the middle of the firefight with musket balls whistling through the air. Visitors experience a nine-minute video and observe Patriots on their left and advancing British grenadiers of the 14th Regiment of Foot on their right. The British regulars advance, reform, then ultimately fall back under frontal and flanking fire. Upon departing the Battle Gallery, visitors encounter the immediate follow-on military actions resulting in the destruction of the City of Norfolk and the longer-term implications of the Great Bridge Patriot victory on Virginia as the war progressed.

The post-Revolutionary story continues with efforts to create a navigable water transit between the two major watersheds, again highlighting the unique geography of Great Bridge. The last two galleries outline the importance and management of waterborne traffic and the symbiotic relationship between water conservation and historic preservation. The first canal to bisect the region was the Dismal Swamp Canal that was completed in 1806 with a social history associated with the institution of slavery. With the advent of steam power, the larger and more capable Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal was completed in 1859 providing a more direct route between the watersheds, now part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.[5]

This modest museum links the tactical British military defeat at Great Bridge to the broader operational and strategic military situation faced by the crown leadership throughout the thirteen rebellious colonies. The Royal Governor of Virginia, John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, experienced some military success in suppressing local enthusiasm for rebellion against the Crown with his quick and easy victory over Patriot or Whig militia at Kemp’s Landing in mid-November 1775.[6] After building a small log stockade fort on the north side of the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River along the narrow a causeway, Governor Dunmore, reacting to evolving intelligence, made a fateful decision on the morning of December 9, 1775. He ordered his regular British Army elements to lead an attack south across a narrow bridge (The Great Bridge) and along a constricting causeway into the teeth of the Patriot or Whig defense. The carnage experienced during this attack left the 14th Regiment, already seriously under strength due to disease while serving in the Caribbean theater and the nucleus of Governor Dunmore’s military capability, bloodied beyond belief.[7] Nearly fifty percent of Dunmore’s regulars were killed, wounded or captured during the attack, while the Patriots suffered only one minor wound.[8] Struggling with the lack of military capacity, the action at Great Bridge marked the beginning of the end of British colonial rule in Virginia. Dunmore, with no capable ground forces, took refuge aboard British warships in Norfolk Harbor. When Dunmore’s “floating city” was denied access to provisions and water in town, he responded with force, which ultimately led to the complete destruction of the City of Norfolk by early 1776, altering the nature of the American Revolution in Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay.[9] The white Loyalists and liberated enslaved people that accompanied Dunmore suffered aboard these ships; Dunmore eventually led the flotilla to Gwynn’s Island at the mouth of the Rappahannock River in the Chesapeake Bay.[10] After additional human suffering there, and with no military reinforcements on the way, Dunmore departed Virginia during the summer of 1776. After Dunmore’s departure, the British would not significantly threaten Whig political control of Virginia until early 1781 with the arrival of one of America’s more interesting characters, Benedict Arnold, serving as a general officer in the British Army. The most significant threat to Whig control of Virginia involved Lord Charles Cornwallis’s arrival in May of 1781, after his failed attempts to pacify the Carolinas. Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown in October 1781 ended any further British threat to Virginia and contributed significantly to the end of hostilities negotiated in the Treaty of Paris. However, Great Bridge continued to serve as a key geographic location during the 1781 campaign as British forces maneuvered south of the James River.[11]

If the Franco-American victory at Yorktown was the “Omega” of the Revolutionary War in Virginia, then certainly the Battle of Great Bridge was the “Alpha.” Col. William Woodford described the events: “This was a second Bunker’s Hill affair, in miniature; with this difference, that we kept our post, and had only one man wounded in the hand.”[12] Great Bridge involved fewer than 2,000 combatants and perhaps only 500 actually engaged in skirmishes over the period of a week because of the narrow causeway and restrictive terrain. On the day of the British assault across the causeway, the lead elements determined the outcome within thirty minutes. The ramifications of the first victorious Patriot land battle in Virginia were momentous.

The Patriot victory eliminated the military threat by British Regulars under Lord Dunmore, emboldening the patriots in Virginia, North Carolina and throughout the thirteen rebellious colonies when they learned of the victory. Those with loyal tendencies moderated their support for the Dunmore’s Crown policies as he led the Loyalists and remnants of his military force aboard British warships and transports in a military retreat, because they could not control the ground or the population. Since Virginia’s ability to supply men and material to the Patriot cause was not substantially challenged until 1781, one must consider Great Bridge as a strategic Patriot victory despite the size of the engagement.

Additionally, leaders surfaced at Great Bridge; at least four Patriot officers instrumental in the Great Bridge victory went on to become general officers serving throughout much the war. Three of these officers were present during the British assault and a fourth, bringing reinforcements from North Carolina, influenced Lord Dunmore’s decision to attack on the morning of December 9. Col. William Woodford served as the Patriot commander at Great Bridge, Lt. Col. Charles Scott was second in command, and Lt. Col. Edward Stevens commanded the Culpepper District Militia, often referred to as minutemen.[13] Col. Robert Howe arrived with the North Carolina reinforcements shortly after the engagement, and based on his seniority, assumed command of the combined North Carolina-Virginia force and continued in command through the destruction of the City of Norfolk, cementing Whig military dominance in the region. Each of these men would go on to contribute to the Patriot cause as the war progressed.

Woodford died while in serviceas a prisoner in the hands of the British after the Patriot surrender of Charleston, South Carolina.[14] Howe and Scott survived the war. Howe had a controversial military career, remained active in politics, and died in 1786 while serving in the North Carolina Legislature.[15] Scott remained active both politically and militarily, eventually serving as the Governor of Kentucky.[16] After Continental service, Stevens went on to command a brigade of Virginia militia at Yorktown, under Gov. Thomas Nelson.[17] Other Great Bridge notables include Lt. John Marshall who would become the Chief Justice of the United States[18] and Billy Flora, a free black man, who risked his life during the battle to slow the British advance across the bridge.[19] While the Battle of Great Bridge may appear as a footnote in the early history of the American Revolution, it had major consequences on the military, political, and economic events that followed. The psychological value was perhaps as important as the military significance—Virginia volunteers led by competent men defeated regulars of the British Army at the cost of one man wounded, leading many to alter their view of their future allegiance to Crown leadership and policy and the invincibility of the British regular soldier.

The Daughters of the American Revolution Monument, Great Bridge Battlefield, Highway 168, Battlefield Boulevard.

A visit to the Great Bridge Battlefield & Waterways Museum is not complete until guests follow the path west of the building and view the monument placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution for those who served at Great Bridge. A short walk from the monument is a life-sized recreation of the original causeway. Here visitors experience the importance of the narrow causeway critical to the outcome of the battle where the British received the first of multiple volleys of fire from the Patriots.

The Great Bridge Battlefield and Waterways History Foundation and the new museum now preserve and serve the entire southeastern Virginia region by highlighting the importance of events of 1775 and early 1776 that led to the complete removal of British colonial rule in the colony and soon-to-be State of Virginia. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation preserves the important colonial heritage of the Williamsburg region, while the associated Colonial National Historic Park and the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation highlight the importance of Jamestown and Yorktown, spanning the formative era of colonial British rule over thirteen original American Colonies that would form the new United States. Over the years, historians and preservationists paid little attention to the importance of the events south of the James River during this critical period of history. For all but a few, this Revolutionary War history of the south side of Virginia, largely occurring in the shadow of grander events, lost visibility among historians. The museum at Great Bridge will contribute significantly to the recognition of these important and far reaching events.

To learn more, visit this new museum which is currently open to the public Wednesday through Saturdays 10:00 A.M. until 4:00 P.M. It also opens from 1:00 P.M. to 4:00 P.M. on the second Sunday of the month. To learn of special events and the annual commemoration and reenactment of the battle (the first weekend of December) you are encouraged to visit the Foundation’s web site.

Jon W. Stull contributed to this article. Stull, a resident of Chesapeake for the past twenty-nine years, served a thirty-year career as a Marine, and after active duty decided to stay in Chesapeake, Virginia. Following his active duty, Jon continued to teach mid- to senior-grade officers at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk. Jon retired from full-time employment in 2013 and now is a docent assisting the Great Bridge Battlefield and Waterways History Foundation with their recently opened museum. He has presented the story of the Battle of Great Bridge and its significance to groups of all kinds from primary school to graduate-level students.

 

[1]Peter Dujardin, Salina Martin and Lisa Vernon Sparks, “Most local cities will close for Juneteenth,” Virginia Pilot, June 19, 2020, 1, Pulse 1 & 2. The significance of the legacy of slavery in the south has clear ties to the Battle of Great Bridge, amplifying the connections with this date. While Lord Dunmore relied on his regulars to lead the attack at Great Bridge there were members of the newly formed Ethiopian Regiment serving alongside them. These were former slaves, liberated from their masters who agreed to serve alongside the British troops to support restoration of British colonial rule in eventual exchange for their freedom. For more details see Charles W. Carey, Jr., Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment(Blacksburg, VA: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and University, 1995), 96. Over 400 former slaves may have served under Dunmore by December 1775, with hundreds at Great Bridge. Also see Patrick H. Hannum, “Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation: Information and Slavery,” Journal of the American Revolution, December 30, 2019, allthingsliberty.com/2019/12/lord-dunmores-proclamation-information-and-slavery/.

[2]Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, US Army Corps of Engineers, Norfolk District, www.nao.usace.army.mil/AIWW.aspx.

[3]Elizabeth Hanbury and Jim Hodges, “The Battle of Great Bridge,” img1.wsimg.com/blobby/go/b482bd96-6b30-4a18-b54f-bb0765292fec/downloads/1ch6e9oh0_954980.pdf?ver=1592496392641.

[4]The museum’s interpretation of the tavern includes a cage bar, modeled after those found in Williamsburg; exhibits include remnants of colonial pottery found during the exaction of the new canal bridge in 2003. Three Ton Tavern at the Great Bridge was located opposite a home listed for sale in 1769. See Virginia Gazette(Purdie & Dixon), March 23, 1769, 3.

[5]For more information on the canals seeAlexander Crosby Brown, Juniper Waterway, A History of the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1981).

[6]Patrick H. Hannum, “Recognizing the Skirmish at Kemps Landing,” Journal of the American Revolution, December 17, 2018, allthingsliberty.com/2018/12/recognizing-the-skirmish-at-kemps-landing/.

[7]Dunmore to Dartmouth, December 13, 1775, Documents of the American Revolution, 1770-1773, ed. K. G. Davies (Dublin: Irish University Press, 1972-1981), 12: 60.

[8]William Woodford to the President of the Virginia Revolutionary Convention, December 9, 1775, Revolutionary Government, Papers of the Fourth Virginia Convention, Record Group 2, Accession 30003, Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA, edu.lva.virginia.gov/docs/hires/GreatBridgeLetter.pdfor edu.lva.virginia.gov/docs/WoodfordLetter.pdf.

[9]Patrick H. Hannum, “Norfolk, Virginia Sacked by North Carolina and Virginia Troops,” Journal of the American Revolution, November 6, 2017, allthingsliberty.com/2017/11/norfolk-virginia-sacked-north-carolina-virginia-troops/.

[10]Michael Cecere, “The Battle of Gwynn’s Island: Lord Dunmore’s Last Stand,” Journal of the American Revolution, May 26, 2016, allthingsliberty.com/2016/05/battle-of-gwynns-island-lord-dunmores-last-stand-in-virginia/.

[11]John Graves Simcoe, Simcoe’s Military Journal(New York: Bartlett & Welford, 1844), 172-4, 181-3 & 186-7; Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War, A Hessian Journal, New Haven,ed. and trans. Joseph P. Tustin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 276-80, 287-8.

[12]William Woodford to Edmund Pendleton, December 10, 1775, Naval Documents of the American Revolution, William B. Clark, ed. (Washington, DC, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968), 3: 39-40,

www.history.navy.mil/research/publications/publications-by-subject/naval-documents-of-the-american-revolution.html.

[13]E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra, A Guide to Virginia Military Organizations in the American Revolution 1774-1787(Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1978), 16.

[14]Woodford’s units fought well at both Brandywine and Monmouth; he suffered a wound at Brandywine, was captured at Charleston, died on a British prison ship in New York and is reportedly interred in New York at Trinity Church. American Battlefield Trust, William Woodford, www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/william-woodford.

[15]Charles E. Bennett and Donald R Lennon, A Quest for Glory: Major General Robert Howe and the American Revolution(Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

[16]Although Charles Scott was second in command at Great Bridge, a biography published by the Kentucky Historical Society fails to mention this event, underscoring the forgotten nature of Great Bridge. Pattie, A. Burnley, “Biographical Sketch of General, Afterword Governor, Charles Scott,” Register of Kentucky State Historical Societyvol. 1 no. 3 (1903): 7-18, www.jstor.org./stable/23366088.

[17]Edward Stevens served for two years in Continental service before returning to Virginia serving the state militia, was wounded at Guilford Courthouse, and served at Yorktown. Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army During the War of the Revolution(Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1892), 519.

[18]Marshall is the longest serving Chief Justice in the history of the court (1801-1835). United States Supreme Court, About the Court, Chief Justices, www.supremecourt.gov/about/members_text.aspx.

[19]Norman Fuss, “Billy Flora at the Battle of Great Bridge,” Journal of the American Revolution, October 14, 2014, allthingsliberty.com/2014/10/billy-flora-at-the-battle-of-great-bridge/.

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