Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IX: Transactions in Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and the general state of Public Affairs in the Colonies. - The History of the American Revolution, vol. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER IX: Transactions in Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and the general state of Public Affairs in the Colonies. - David Ramsay, The History of the American Revolution, vol. 1 
The History of the American Revolution, Foreword by Lester H. Cohen (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1990). Vol. 1.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Transactions in Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and the general state of Public Affairs in the Colonies.
It has already been mentioned, that the colonists from the rising of Congress in October 1774, and particularly after the Lexington battle, were attentive to the training their militia, and making the necessary preparations for their defence.
The effects of their arrangements, for this purpose, varied with circumstances.
Where there were no royal troops, and where ordinary prudence was observed, the public peace was undisturbed. In other cases, the intemperate zeal of governors, and the imprudent warmth of the people, anticipated the calamities of war before its proper time. Virginia, though there was not a single British soldier within its limits, was, by the indiscretion of its governor, lord Dunmore, involved, for several months, in difficulties, but little short of those to which the inhabitants of Massachusetts were  subjected.1775 His lordship was but illy fitted to be at the helm in this tempestuous season. His passions predominated over his understanding, and precipitated him into measures injurious both to the people whom he governed, and to the interest of his royal master. The Virginians from the earliest stages of the controversy, had been in the foremost line of opposition to the claims of Great-Britain, but at the same time treated lord Dunmore with the attention that was due to his station. In common with the other provinces they had taken effectual measures to prepare their militia for the purposes of defence.
Apr. 20While they were pursuing this object, his lordship engaged a party belonging to a royal vessel in James’ river, to convey some public powder from a magazine in Williamsburg on board their ship. The value or quantity of the powder was inconsiderable, but the circumstances attending its removal begat suspicions that lord Dunmore meant to deprive the inhabitants of the means of defence. They were therefore alarmed, and assembled with arms to demand its restitution. By the interposition of the mayor and corporation of Williamsburg, extremities were prevented. Reports were soon after spread that a second attempt to rob the magazine was intended. The inhabitants again took arms, and instituted nightly patroles, with a determined resolution to protect it. The governor was irritated at these commotions, and in the warmth of his temper threatened to set up the royal standard–franchise the negroes, and arm them against their masters. This irritated, but did not intimidate. Several public meetings were held in the different counties, in all of which the removal of the powder from the magazine, and the governor’s threats, were severely condemned. Some of the gentlemen of Hanover and the neighbouring counties assembled in arms, under the conduct of Mr. Patrick Henry, and marched towards Williamsburg, with an avowed design to obtain restitution of the powder, and to take measures for securing the public treasury. This ended in a negotiation, by which it was agreed that payment for the powder, by  the receiver general of the colony, should be accepted in lieu of restitution; and that upon the engagement of the inhabitants of Williamsburg to guard both the treasury and the magazine, the armed parties should return to their habitations.
The alarm of this affair induced lord Dunmore to send his lady and family on board the Fowey man of war in James’ river. About the same time his lordship, with the assistance of a detachment of marines, fortified his palace and surrounded it with artillery. He soon after issued a proclamation, in which Mr. Henry and his associates were charged with rebellious practices, and the present commotions were attributed to a desire in the people of changing the established form of government. Several meetings were held in the neighbouring counties, in which the conduct of Mr. Henry and of his associates was applauded, and resolutions were adopted, that at every risque he and they should be indemnified. About this time copies of some letters from governor Dunmore to the minister of the American department were made public. These in the opinion of the Virginians contained unfair and unjust representations of facts, and also of their temper and disposition. Many severe things were said on both sides, and fame as usual, magnified or misrepresented whatever was said or done. One distrust begat another. Every thing tended to produce a spirit of discontent, and the fever of the public mind daily increased.
In this state of disorder the governor convened the general assembly. The leading motive for this unexpected measure, was to procure their approbation and acceptance of the terms of the conciliatory motion agreed to in parliament, on the 20th of the preceding February. His lordship introduced this to their consideration, in a long and plausible speech. In a few days they presented their address in answer, in which, among other grounds of rejection they stated that, “the proposed plan only changed the form of oppression, without lessening its burthen;” but they referred the papers for a final determination, to Congress. For themselves they declared,
1775 We have exhausted every mode of application which our invention could suggest, as proper and promising. We have decently remonstrated with parliament. They have added new injuries to the old. We have wearied our king with supplications; he has not deigned to answer us. We have appealed to the native honour and justice of the British nation. Their efforts in our favour have been hitherto ineffectual.
The assembly, among their first acts, appointed a committee to enquire into the causes of the late disturbances, and particularly to examine the state of the magazine. They found most of the remaining powder buried; the muskets deprived of their locks, and spring guns planted in the magazine. These discoveries irritated the people, and occasioned intemperate expressions of resentment.May 8 Lord Dunmore quitted the palace privately, and retired on board the Fowey man of war, which then lay near York-town. He left a message for the house of burgesses, acquainting them
that he thought it prudent to retire to a place of safety, having reason to believe that he was in constant danger of falling a sacrifice to popular fury; he nevertheless, hoped they would proceed in the great business before them; and he engaged to render the communication between him and the house as easy and as safe as possible. He assured them that he would attend as heretofore, to the duties of his office, and that he was well disposed to restore that harmony which had been unhappily interrupted.
This message produced a joint address from the council and house of burgesses, in which they represented his lordship’s fears to be groundless, and declared their willingness to concur in any measure he would propose for the security of himself and family; and concluded by entreating his return to the palace. Lord Dunmore in a reply, justified his apprehensions of danger from the threats which had been repeatedly thrown out. He charged the house of burgesses with countenancing the violent proceedings of the people, and with a design to usurp the executive power, and subvert the constitution. This produced a reply fraught with recrimination and defensive  arguments. Every incident afforded fresh room for altercation.1775 There was a continued intercourse by addresses, messages and answers, between the house of burgesses and the Fowey, but little of the public business was completed. His lordship was still acknowledged as the lawful governor of the province, but did not think proper to set his foot on shore, in the country over which his functions were to be exercised.
At length, when the necessary bills were ready for ratification, the council and burgesses jointly intreated the governor’s presence, to give his assent to them and finish the session. After several messages and answers, lord Dunmore peremptorily refused to meet the assembly at the capital, their usual place of deliberation; but said he would be ready to receive them on the next Monday, at his present residence on board the Fowey, for the purpose of giving his assent to such bills as he should approve of. Upon receiving this answer, the house of burgesses passed resolutions in which they declared, that the message requiring them to attend the governor on board a ship of war, was a high breach of their rights and privileges—that they had reason to fear a dangerous attack was meditated against the colony, and it was therefore their opinion, that they should prepare for the preservation of their rights and liberties. After strongly professing loyalty to the king, and amity to the Mother Country, they broke up their session.July 18 The royal government in Virginia, from that day ceased. Soon after, a convention of delegates was appointed, to supply the place of the assembly. As these had an unlimited confidence reposed in them, they became at once possessed of undefined discretionary powers, both legislative and executive. They exercised this authority for the security of their constituents. They raised and embodied an armed force, and took other measures for putting the colony in a state of defence. They published a justification of their conduct, and set forth the necessity of the measures they had adopted.1775 They concluded with professions of loyalty, and declared that though they were determined at every hazard, to maintain their rights and privileges,  it was also their fixed resolution to disband such forces as were raised for the defence of the colony, whenever their dangers were removed. The headstrong passions of lord Dunmore precipitated him into farther follies. With the aid of the loyalists, run away negroes, and some frigates that were on the station, he established a marine force. By degrees, he equipped and armed a number of vessels of different kinds and sizes, in one of which he constantly resided, except when he went on shore in a hostile manner. This force was calculated only for depredation, and never became equal to any essential service. Obnoxious persons were seized and taken on board. Negroes were carried off—plantations ravaged—and houses burnt. These proceedings occasioned the sending of some detachments of the new raised provincial forces to protect the coasts. This produced a predatory war, from which neither honour nor benefit could be acquired, and in which every necessary from on shore was purchased at the risque of blood.Oct. 25 The forces under his lordship attempted to burn Hampton; but the crews of the royal vessels employed in that business, though they had begun to cannonade it, were so annoyed by riflemen from on shore, that they were obliged to quit their station.Nov. 7 In a few days after this repulse, a proclamation was issued by the governor, dated on board the ship William, off Norfolk, declaring, that as the civil law was at present insufficient to punish treason and traitors, martial law should take place and be executed throughout the colony; and requiring all persons capable of bearing arms, to repair to his majesty’s standard, or to be considered as traitors. He also declared all indented servants, negroes and others, appertaining to rebels, who were able and willing to bear arms, and who joined his majesty’s forces, to be free.
Among the circumstances which induced the rulers of Great-Britain to count on an easy conquest of America, the great number of slaves had a considerable weight. On the sea coast of five of the most southern provinces, the number of slaves exceeded that of freemen.1775 It was supposed that the proffer of freedom would detach them  from their master’s interest, and bind them by strong ties to support the royal standard. Perhaps, under favourable circumstances, these expectations would in some degree have been realised; but lord Dunmore’s indiscretion deprived his royal master of this resource. Six months had elapsed since his lordship first threatened its adoption. The negroes had in a great measure ceased to believe, and the inhabitants to fear. It excited less surprize, and produced less effect, than if it had been more immediate and unexpected. The country was now in a tolerable state of defence, and the force for protecting the negroes, in case they had closed with his lordship’s offer, was far short of what would have been necessary for their security. The injury done the royal cause by the bare proposal of the scheme, far outweighed any advantage that resulted from it. The colonists were struck with horror, and filled with detestation of a government which was exercised in loosening the bands of society, and destroying domestic security. The union and vigor which was given to their opposition, was great, while the additional force, acquired by his lordship, was inconsiderable. It nevertheless produced some effect in Norfolk and the adjoining country, where his lordship was joined by several hundreds, both whites and blacks. The governor having once more got footing on the main, amused himself with hopes of acquiring the glory of reducing one part of the province by means of the other. The provincials had now an object against which they might direct their arms. An expedition was therefore concerted against the force which had taken post at Norfolk. To protect his adherents lord Dunmore constructed a fort at the great bridge, on the Norfolk side, and furnished it with artillery. The provincials also fortified themselves near to the same place, with a narrow causeway in their front. In this state both parties continued quiet for some days.Dec. 9 The royalists commenced an attack. Captain Fordyce, at the head of about 60 British grenadiers, passed the causeway, and boldly marched up to the provincial entrenchments with fixed bayonets.1775 They were exposed without cover to the fire of the provincials  in front, and enfiladed by another part of their works. The brave captain and several of his men fell. The lieutenant, with others, were taken, and all who survived were wounded. The slaves in this engagement were more prejudicial to their British employers than to the provincials. Captain Fordyce was interred by the victors, with military honors. The English prisoners were treated with kindness, but the Americans who had joined the king’s standard, experienced the resentment of their countrymen.
The royal forces, on the ensuing night, evacuated their post at the great bridge, and lord Dunmore shortly after abandoned Norfolk, and retired with his people on board his ships. Many of the tories, a name which was given to those who adhered to the royal interest, sought the same asylum, for themselves and moveable effects. The provincials took possession of Norfolk, and the fleet, with its new incumberances, moved to a greater distance. The people on board, cut off from all peaceable intercourse with the shore, were distressed for provisions and necessaries of every kind. This occasioned sundry unimportant contests between the provincial forces and the armed ships and boats. At length, on the arrival of the Liverpool man of war from England, a flag was sent on shore to put the question, whether they would supply his majesty’s ships with provisions. An answer was returned in the negative. It was then determined to destroy the town.Jan. 1, 1776 This was carried into effect, and Norfolk was reduced to ashes. The whole loss was estimated at 300,000£. sterling. The provincials, to deprive the ships of every resource of supply, destroyed the houses and plantations that were near the water, and obliged the people to move their cattle, provisions, and effects, farther into the country. Lord Dunmore, with his fleet, continued for several months on the coast and in the rivers of Virginia. His unhappy followers suffered a complication of distresses. The scarcity of water and provisions, the closeness and filth of the small vessels, produced diseases which were fatal to many, especially to the negroes. Though his whole force was trifling when compared with  the resources of Virginia, yet the want of suitable armed vessels made its expulsion impracticable. The experience of that day evinced the inadequacy of land forces for the defence of a maritime country; and the extensive mischief which may be done, by even an inconsiderable marine, when unopposed in its own way. The want of a navy was both seen and felt. Some arrangements to procure one, were therefore made. Either the expectation of an attack from this quarter, or the sufferings of the crews on board, induced his lordship in the summer 1776 to burn the least valuable of his vessels, and to send the remainder, amounting to 30 or 40 sail, to Florida, Bermuda, and the West-Indies. The hopes which lord Dunmore had entertained of subduing Virginia by the cooperation of the negroes, terminated with this movement. The unhappy Africans who had engaged in it, are said to have almost universally perished.
While these transactions were carrying on, another scheme, in which lord Dunmore was a party, in like manner miscarried. It was in contemplation to raise a considerable force at the back of the colonies, particularly in Virginia and the Carolinas. One Connelly, a native of Pennsylvania, was the framer of the design. He had gained the approbation of lord Dunmore, and had been sent by him to general Gage at Boston, and from him he received a commission to act as colonel commandant. It was intended that the British garrisons at Detroit, and some other remote posts, with their artillery and ammunition, should be subservient to this design. Connelly also hoped for the aid of the Canadians and Indians. He was authorised to grant commissions, and to have the supreme direction of the new forces. As soon as they were in readiness he was to penetrate through Virginia, and to meet lord Dunmore near Alexandria, on the river Potowmac. Connelly was taken up on suspicion, by one of the committees in Maryland, while on his way to the scene of action. The papers found in his possession betrayed the whole. Among these was a general sketch of the plan, and a letter from lord Dunmore to one of the Indian chiefs.1776 He was imprisoned,  and the papers published. So many fortunate escapes induced a belief among serious Americans, that their cause was favoured by heaven. The various projects which were devised and put in operation against them, pointed out the increasing necessity of union, while the havock made on their coasts—the proffer of freedom to their slaves, and the encouragement proposed to Indians for making war on their frontier inhabitants, quickened their resentment against Great-Britain.
North-Carolina was more fortunate than Virginia. The governors of both were perhaps equally zealous for the royal interest, and the people of both equally attached to the cause of America, but the former escaped with a smaller portion of public calamity. Several regulations were at this time adopted by most of the provinces. Councils of safety, committees, and conventions, were common substitutes for regular government. Similar plans for raising, arming and supporting troops, and for training the militia, were from north to south generally adopted. In like manner royal governors throughout the provinces, were exerting themselves in attaching the people to the schemes of Great-Britain. Governor Martin, of North-Carolina, was particularly zealous in this business. He fortified and armed his palace at Newbern, that it might answer the double purpose of a garrison and magazine. While he was thus employed, such commotions were excited among the people, that he thought it expedient to retire on board a sloop of war in Cape Fear river. The people on examining, found powder and various military stores which had been buried in his garden and yard. Governor Martin, though he had abandoned his usual place of residence, continued his exertions for reducing North-Carolina to obedience. He particularly addressed himself to the regulators and Highland emigrants. The former had acquired this name from their attempting to regulate the administration of justice in the remote settlements, in a summary manner subversive of the public peace.1776 They had suffered the consequences of opposing royal government, and from obvious principles of human nature, were disposed to  support the authority whose power to punish they had recently experienced. The Highland emigrants had been but a short time in America, and were yet more under the influence of European ideas than those which their new situation was calculated to inspire. Governor Martin sent commissions among these people for raising and commanding regiments; and he granted one to Mr. M’Donald to act as their general. He also sent them a proclamation commanding all persons, on their allegiance, to repair to the royal standard. This was erected by general M’Donald, about the middle of February. Upon the first intelligence of their assembling brigadier general Moore, with some provincial troops and militia, and some pieces of cannon, marched to oppose them. He took possession of Rock fish bridge and threw up some works. He had not been there many days when M’Donald approached, and sent a letter to Moore, enclosing the governor’s proclamation, and advising him and his party to join the king’s standard; and adding, that in case of refusal they must be treated as enemies. To this Moore replied, that he and his officers considered themselves as engaged in a cause the most glorious and honourable in the world, the defence of mankind; and in his turn offered, that if M’Donald’s party laid down their arms they should be received as friends, but, otherwise they must expect consequences similar to those which they threatened. Soon after this, general M’Donald with his adherents pushed on to join governor Martin, but colonels Lillington and Caswell, with about 1000 militia men, took possession of Moore’s creek bridge, which lay in their way, and raised a small breast work to secure themselves.
1776 Feb. 27On the next morning the Highland emigrants attacked the militia posted at the bridge, but M’Cleod, the second in command, and some more of their officers being killed at the first onset, they fled with precipitation. General M’Donald was taken prisoner, and the whole of his party broken and dispersed. This overthrow produced consequences very injurious to the British interest. A royal fleet and army was expected on the coast. A  junction formed between them and the Highland emigrants in the interior country, might have made a sensible impression on the province. From an eagerness to do something, the insurgents prematurely took arms, and being crushed before the arrival of proper support, their spirits were so entirely broken, that no future effort could be expected from them.
While the war raged only in Massachusetts, each province conducted as under the expectation of being next attacked. Georgia, though a majority of its inhabitants were at first against the measures, yet about the middle of this year, joined the other colonies. Having not concurred in the petitions from Congress to the king, they petitioned by themselves, and stated their rights and grievances, in firm and decided language. They also adopted the continental association, and sent on their deputies to Congress.
In South-Carolina there was an eagerness to be prepared for defence, which was not surpassed in any of the provinces. Regiments were raised—forts were built—the militia trained, and every necessary preparation made for that purpose. Lord William Campbell, the royal governor, endeavoured to form a party for the support of government, and was in some degree successful. Distrusting his personal safety on shore, about the middle of September, he took up his residence on board an armed vessel, then in the harbour.
The royal government still existed in name and form; but the real power which the people obeyed, was exercised by a provincial congress, a council of safety, and subordinate committees. To conciliate the friendship of the Indians, the popular leaders sent a small supply of powder into their country. They who were opposed to Congress embodied, and robbed the waggons which were employed in its transportation. To inflame the minds of their adherents, they propagated a report that the powder was intended to be given to the Indians, for the purpose of massacring the friends of royal government. The inhabitants took arms, some to support royal government, but others to support the American measures.1776 The royalists  acted feebly and were easily overpowered. They were disheartened by the superior numbers that opposed them. They every where gave way and were obliged either to fly or feign submission. Solicitations had been made about this time for royal forces to awe the southern provinces, but without effect till the proper season was over. One scheme for this purpose was frustrated by a singular device. Private intelligence had been received of an express being sent from Sir James Wright, governor of Georgia, to general Gage. By him the necessity of ordering a part of the royal army to the southward was fully stated. The express was waylaid, and compelled by two gentle men to deliver his letters. One to general Gage was kept back, and another one forwarded in its room. The seal and hand writing were so exactly imitated that the deception was not suspected. The forged letter was received and acted upon. It stated such a degree of peace and tranquility as induced an opinion that there was no necessity of sending royal troops to the southward. While these states were thus left to themselves, they had time and opportunity to prepare for extremities, and in the mean time the friends of royal government were severally crushed. A series of disasters followed the royal cause in the year 1775. General Gage’s army was cooped up in Boston, and rendered useless. In the southern states, where a small force would have made an impression, the royal governors were unsupported. Much was done to irritate the colonists and to cement their union, but very little, either in the way of conquest or concession, to subdue their spirits or conciliate their affections.
In this year the people of America generally took their side. Every art was made use of by the popular leaders to attach the inhabitants to their royal cause; nor were the votaries of the royal interest inactive. But little impression was made by the latter, except among the uninformed. The great mass of the wealth, learning, and influence, in all the southern colonies, and in most of the northern, was in favour of the American cause. Some aged persons were exceptions to the contrary.1776 Attached to ancient habits, and enjoying the fruits of their industry,  they were slow in approving new measures subversive of the former, and endangering the latter. A few who had basked in the sunshine of court favour, were restrained by honour, principle and interest, from forsaking the fountain of their enjoyments. Some feared the power of Britain, and others doubted the perseverance of America; but a great majority resolved to hazard every thing in preference to a tame submission. In the beginning of the year, the colonists were farmers, merchants and mechanics; but in its close they had assumed the profession of soldiers. So sudden a transformation of so numerous, and so dispersed a people, is without a parallel.
This year was also remarkable for the general termination of royal government. This was effected without any violence to its executive officers. The new system was not so much forcibly imposed or designedly adopted, as introduced through necessity, and the imperceptible agency of a common danger, operating uniformly on the mind of the public. The royal governors, for the most part, voluntarily abdicated their governments, and retired on board ships of war. They assigned for reason, that they apprehended personal danger, but this, in every instance, was unfounded. Perhaps these representatives of royalty thought, that as they were constitutionally necessary to the administration of justice, the horrors of anarchy would deter the people from prosecuting their opposition. If they acted from this principle, they were mistaken. Their withdrawing from the exercise of their official duties, both furnished an apology, and induced a necessity, for organising a system of government independent of royal authority. By encouraging opposition to the popular measures, they involved their friends in great distress. The unsuccessful insurrections which they fomented, being improperly timed, and unsupported, were easily overthrown, and actually strengthened the popular government, which they meant to destroy.