The Gunpowder Incident

Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech and subsequent authorization of the expansion to the Virginia militia infuriated Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia. Dunmore was loathed by Virginians in the best of times, but his temperament just spurred patriots in Virginia to even greater lengths to stand in defiance to the Crown. Virginia patriots amassed arms, powder, ammunition and cannon quickly and in great quantities to outfit the new minute companies. One such cache of gunpowder was located in Williamsburg, Virginia’s capital.

As Israel Bissel was still racing south to bring the news of the Battles of Lexington and Concord to Philadelphia, Dunmore requested and received a detachment of Royal Marines whom he billeted in his mansion. On the night of 20 April 1775, the Royal Marines snuck into the Williamsburg magazine and removed the gunpowder. On their way back, they were spotted. Dispatch riders sped across the city and into the countryside informing everyone that Dunmore was disarming the militias. The Royal Marines loaded the powder onto barges on the James River. The crowd and assembling minutemen were too late to stop the powder from reaching the fleet, so they followed Royal Marines back to Dunmore’s mansion.

The crowd outside the mansion grew large and unruly. Dunmore resorted to arming his servants and prepared for an assault. Only the intercession Peyton Randolph, the Speaker of the House of Burgesses prevented the crowd and the minutemen from storming the estate. Dunmore met the Williamsburg City Council who demanded the return of the powder since it was paid for with colony funds. Dunmore’s seizure of it was used as another example of Crown interference in colonial business. Dunmore then justified seizing the powder to prevent it from falling into the hands of an imminent slave rebellion, but the patriots saw right through the feeble excuse. Cornered, Dunmore offered to pay £330 to Patrick Henry for the powder. Henry accepted, but only if the check was guaranteed by a plantation owner since he didn’t trust the Crown to actually pay. Dunmore agreed and the crowd dispersed.

But by then the damage was done, minute companies were streaming into Williamsburg from all over Virginia. On 22 April a crowd again assembled at Dunmore’s mansion. Virginians still didn’t know what had happened outside Boston, so patriot leaders dispersed the crowd. However afterwards, Dunmore scolded them. He threatened to declare the colony’s slaves free, arm them himself, and “reduce the City of Williamsburg to ashes.” He said, he “once fought for the Virginians” but “By God, I would let them see that I could fight against them.” He wouldn’t have long to wait.

On 29 April, the news of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, and the Siege of Boston had reached Virginia. Patriot leaders wanted to immediately expel the British and royal governor. At Fredericksburg, a thousand Virginia militia had assembled, but Randolph and longtime colonel of the Virginia militia George Washington counseled restraint. However, their prudence did not extend outside Fredericksburg. Henry assembled the militia of Hanover County and marched on Williamsburg. Dunmore forbade anyone from assisting Henry and specifically disallowed cashing the check because Henry “extorted the Crown”. But that wasn’t going to stop Henry. Dunmore fled with his administration and family to the HMS Fowey anchored in the York River. With Dunmore gone and Williamsburg in patriot hands, Patrick Henry departed for Philadelphia to attend the Second Continental Congress.

The Gunpowder Incident prematurely amassed Virginia militia in Williamsburg and the surrounding areas, and prevented Lord Dunmore from properly responding to the news of Lexington and Concord. It took six months for Dunmore to coordinate a response to the American rebels in Virginia, and Dunmore’s men were promptly defeated at the Battle of Great Bridge in December 1775. Because of Patrick Henry’s response to the Gunpowder Incident, no further British military operations occurred in Virginia until 1779. During the critical years from 1775 to 1779, Virginians could focus on supporting the American Revolution elsewhere in the Thirteen Colonies. Dunmore’s £330 deposit was one of the first direct financial contributions to the American Revolution.

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