Thursday, September 28, 2017


(Rifles and Riflemen in the Revolution Part 7)

To non-military folks and even many servicemen from other branches, the term “warship” often brings up visions of a floating steel fortress like the old WWII-era Iowa-class battleship with belts of armor plate up to 20 inches thick and 16-inch guns capable of lobbing one-ton projectiles in excess of twenty miles. In 1775, the heart of the age of wooden ships, cannon and sail, warships, especially those small enough to ply rivers and inland waterways, were not nearly so formidable.
While the open conflict of the American Revolutionary War had erupted in New England in April of 1775, a shooting war did not actually occur in Virginia until October. John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, almost universally referred to as Lord Dunmore, had been the royal governor of the Colony of Virginia since 1771. He had instigated Dunmore’s War against the Shawnee, in large part to increase his own power base; he increased taxes to pay for the conflict and tried to govern the colony without any input from the Virginia General Assembly, eventually dissolving the House entirely in 1774.
As tensions mounted between Whigs and Tories, Dunmore sent a Royal Navy lieutenant and a contingent of Royal Marines to confiscate the powder stored in the Williamsburg, VA magazine, prompting the so-called Gunpowder Incident that resulted in a tense but bloodless confrontation with Patrick Henry and the local Hanover Militia. Threatening to declare martial law, Dunmore fled the Governor’s Palace with his family and eventually decided to govern from the safety of the Royal Navy’s 24-gun frigate HMS Fowey, anchored off Yorktown.
The largest and most populous of the 13 Colonies, Virginia enjoyed a profitable export trade from its tobacco and grain. Transportation was fairly quick and inexpensive due to Virginia’s extensive waterways, including the Chesapeake Bay estuary, which was navigable to ocean-going vessels for its entire 195-mile length, as well as its extensive system of tributaries, including four large navigable rivers. Since Britannia did indeed rule the waves, the Royal Navy could dominate Virginia’s coast and waterways virtually at will, able to blockade or intercept American trade and transport, and bombard or support land actions at all of the important major communities.
By the end of the summer, Dunmore’s private fleet had grown considerably and was based out of Hampton Roads. It included the Royal Navy’s 20-gun 6th rate ship HMS Mercury, as well as the 14-gun sloops-of-war HMS Otter and HMS Kingfisher. Dunmore also seized and armed three private merchant vessels, the Eilbeck, Unicorn and William. The Eilbeck was brand-new and pierced to accommodate 22 guns, putting it in the frigate class; the governor moved his headquarters aboard and renamed the vessel HMS Dunmore. Dunmore’s land forces of marines and Loyalist militia were bolstered by the transfer of some British Army regulars from the 14th Regiment of Foot, then stationed at St. Augustine.
After an overly ambitious plan involving one of Dunmore’s pre-war cronies raising and leading a contingent of Indian warriors down the Potomac failed miserably, Dunmore instead used his naval assets to interdict coastwise shipping and to mount a series of amphibious raids that successfully seized rebel caches of powder, small arms, and even cannon. In these actions, the tenders attached to the naval vessels, armed with swivel guns and a 3 or 4-pound cannon and carrying marines or soldiers with small arms, proved particularly useful. Dunmore’s most aggressive naval officer was Captain Mathew Squire in command of HMS Otter, who also became the senior naval officer present on September 9, 1775.

British Royal Navy ship-rigged sloop-of-war.

On 3 September 1775, particularly severe storms lashed the Chesapeake Bay, driving the HMS Mercury hard aground and washing Otter’s tender Liberty ashore near Hampton, VA. Local citizens and militia captured six British crewmen, looted the tender of six swivel guns and five muskets, and burned it to the waterline. Captain Squire was aboard the tender at the time. He had to jump overboard, hide in a swamp overnight, and make his way back to his sloop with the help of an escaped slave who had a canoe. The angry Squire demanded from the citizens of Hampton the return of his men and weapons; they cheekily agreed on the condition that Squire release the escaped slaves he was harboring and the merchant vessels he had detained. Squire responded by threatening to burn the town down.
On the night of October 25th, Squire led landing parties ashore to raid houses on the outskirts of Hampton. The following day, he attempted to take his ships up the Hampton River to bombard the town itself but found the mouth of the harbor blocked by old ships the Americans had sunk across the channel. This led to an hour’s worth of ineffectual long range fire exchanged between the local militia’s muskets and the ships’ swivel guns and cannon.
The Virginia Committee of Safety sent reinforcements from Williamsburg immediately. Colonel William Woodford of the 2nd Virginia Regiment rode with Captain Abraham Buford and his company of Culpepper Minutemen, armed entirely with rifles and described by the local newspaper as, “…all excellent marksmen, and fine, bold fellows.” On horses borrowed from the good people of Williamsburg, they galloped through the pitch black night in a pouring rain, covering thirty six miles of bad road to Hampton in less than twelve hours. The Culpepper Minutemen were sometimes derisively called “shirtmen” by the British since they wore the inevitable American frontiersmen hunting shirt along with leather breeches, moccasins, and coonskin caps with ringed tails dangling. They rode under the famous Culpepper banner, a white flag with a picture of a coiled rattlesnake and the motto: “Don’t Tread on Me—Liberty or Death!”
Under the cover of the same storm the Minutemen had ridden through, Captain Squire’s men were cutting through the timbers of the sunken blockships and clearing a path into Hampton harbor. The Culpepper Riflemen arrived in town just prior to dawn, not long before Captain Squire began his attack. Led by his flagship, the 45-man 14-gun Sloop-of-War Otter, supported by a schooner and tenders, the British unleashed their cannons upon the town, expecting the citizens and local militia to flee under the bombardment. Instead, Colonel Woodford placed his riflemen in waterfront houses and along the river banks behind fences, trees, and rocks. Their fire soon proved quite effective. On the other hand, Squire’s heaviest guns were 4-pounders, which did surprisingly little damage to the well-built red brick waterfront houses sheltering the Minutemen.

 Re-enacting the Battle of Hampton, October 2015. (Photo credit: M.C. Farrington)

According to the Virginia Historical Society Collections, "At sunrise the enemy's fleet was seen standing in for the shore, and having at length reached a convenient position, they lay with springs on their cables, and commenced a furious cannonade. Double-headed and chain shot, and grape, flew in showers through all parts of the town; and as the position of the ships enabled them to enfilade, it was thought impossible to defend it, even for a few minutes. Nothing could exceed the cool and steady valor of the Virginians; and although, with very few exceptions, wholly
unacquainted with military service, they displayed the countenance and collection of veterans. Woodford's commands to his riflemen, previous to the cannonade, were simply to fire with coolness and decision, and observe the profoundest silence. The effects of this advice were soon visible; the riflemen answered the cannonade by a well-directed fire against every part of the line, and it soon appeared that no part of the ship was secure against their astonishing precision. In a short time the enemy appeared to be in some confusion; their cannonade gradually slackened, and a signal was given by the commander to slip their cables and retire. But even this was attended with the most imminent danger. No man could stand at the helm in safety; if the men went aloft to hand the sails, they were immediately singled out. In this condition two of the schooners drifted to the shore. The commander of one of these in vain called on his men to assist in keeping her off; they had all retired to the hold, and declared their utter refusal to expose themselves to inevitable destruction. In this exigency, deserted by his men, he jumped into the water and escaped to the opposite shore. The rest of the fleet had been fortunate enough to escape, although with some difficulty, and returned to Norfolk."
After a successful conventional land battle at Great Bridge, American forces had surrounded Norfolk, Loyalist support was rapidly evaporating, and Dunmore and his remaining ground troops and local supporters were forced to retreat aboard Royal Navy vessels. Norfolk was quickly occupied by Colonel Woodford’s Virginia troops and a North Carolina regiment and two companies of Maryland militia under Colonel Robert Howe, who was senior in rank.

Conditions on the over-loaded British ships soon became miserable as supplies of food and fresh water quickly ran out. Dunmore’s demands for supplies from Norfolk were denied and attempts to take them by force were less than fruitful. “The provincials had fired several times on the men of war’s men as they came ashore for water and other necessaries, and at last were so successful in this practice, that seldom a party escaped without one of their men being killed by a fire from some of their riflemen.” These riflemen even had the audacity to snipe at the crews of the Royal Navy warships when they came within range.
 Lord Dunmore was emboldened by reinforcements from England. In late December, the 28-gun Coventry-class frigate HMS Liverpool (with much heavier 9-pounder cannon) arrived along with a transport ship bearing a few hundred Royal Marines and stands of small arms to equip Dunmore’s militia. Backed by the fleet, Dunmore once more demanded supplies and was again refused. On December 31, 1775, he warned that he would bombard the town and that the women and children should evacuate.
On New Year’s Day 1776, Liverpool, Dunmore, Kingfisher and Otter lined up in the harbor and unleashed their total firepower of 90-plus guns in a cannonade that lasted for hours. Landing parties went ashore to seize supplies and set fire to the waterfront buildings the rebels had been using as sniper hides for their riflemen. An on-shore wind rapidly spread the flames past the waterfront area. Most of the Whig militiamen fought the British landing parties and fired at the ships in the harbor with small arms; some of them, however, took the opportunity to loot the local Loyalist-owned distillery. Now fueled by copious amounts of rum, these miscreants soon began to pillage and set fire to other Loyalist properties in Norfolk.
Nobody, apparently, fought the flames, and the wind soon spread the fires through the closely-packed wooden buildings of the town until they combined into a gigantic conflagration that roared completely out of control. The great fire raged for the better part of three days, consuming nearly 900 buildings; well over 80% of the entire town of Norfolk was burnt to the ground. The Tories blamed the Whigs and the Whigs blamed the Tories. Regardless the cause, a thriving seaport of some 6-8,000 residents had been essentially wiped out.  
The Americans burned the remnants a few days later to deny anything of value to the British and posted militia in all the small surrounding communities. Dunmore attempted to send shore parties to raid local plantations for supplies but these continued to be met or harassed by militia and small arms fire. The Scots Magazine reported, “Lord Dunmore had eighteen men killed, and about thirty or forty wounded, in the different landings and skirmishes.” The American troops suffered only a few wounded in the actual fighting in Norfolk, but “several” civilians were reported killed in the bombardment and the great fire that consumed the town.
Eventually, the over-loaded and supply-starved Loyalist ships offshore had to withdraw entirely. Dunmore retreated to Portsmouth to try to establish a new base of operations against the rebels there. Eventually the American militia would come after that camp as well, and Lord Dunmore would be forced to abandon Virginia entirely in August of 1776.