Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Gunpowder Incident

    While we concentrate on the situation in Boston and vicinity during the fateful month of April 1775, it might be informative to relate just what was going on in Virginia in the same month and just how volatile the situation was there for its Royal Governor, John Murray, the 4th Earl of Dunmore, and how the military aspirations of Patrick Henry who, like John Hancock, thought that the Revolution would give him the opportunity to win military glory were to be disappointed.

   On the night of 20-21 April 1775, a day after the battle of Lexington, Lord Dunmore, who could not have heard of the outbreak of war and who had a very restive and rebellious colony on his hands ( Dunmore had dissolved the Virginia Assembly three times between 1772 and 1774), ordered a detachment of marines from a British schooner at anchor in the James River to use his wagon to ferry fifteen half barrels of gunpowder, located in the Williamsburg Magazine, to their ship harbored in the river. Dunmore's attempt at secrecy was thwarted when several townsmen spotted the marines and sounded the alarm. A crowd soon gathered in front of Dunmore's mansion and demanded the return of the gunpowder. It was only the calming words of several leaders, to include Peyton Randolph, the Speaker of the House of Burgesses, that prevented the crowd from storming the mansion. The city council voted to demand the return of the gunpowder averring that it was the property of the colony and not of the Crown. Dunmore averted its return by telling the council and the crowd that the gunpowder had been removed to protect it from seizure from a rumored slave uprising. This mollified the crowd and it dispersed peacefully.

Williamsburg Magazine
    The news of the removal of gunpowder was spread by couriers and it inflamed Virginians.  Soon thousands of militiamen were making ready to march on Williamsburg and demand its restoration. On  Tuesday the 25th of April, the independent company of Fredericksburg notified their Colonel, George Washington, that, with his approval, they were prepared to start to march on the capital on Saturday. Other independent companies followed suit. On Saturday, 102 men, representing four companies of light horse, had assembled at Fredericksburg, and it was only after receiving assurances by letter from Peyton Randolph and heeding the the counsel of Washington that they decided  not to march on Williamsburg.

Patrick Henry
  When Patrick Henry, at home in Hanover County, heard of the "tame" response by the militia at Fredericksburg, he resolved to take matters in his own hands and that, among other things, " the revolution should  be set in actual motion in the colony."  He summoned his independent company of militia, along with the county council, to meet on May 2nd in New Castle, VA, some 60 miles northwest of Wiliamsburg. The assembly voted to put itself under Henry's command and to march to the capital to either recover the gunpowder or to take "sufficient reprisals on the King's property to replace it." By sunset of the following day the militia had reached a point about sixteen miles from Williamsburg. Word of Henry's march, with about 150 armed men, spread rapidly and reports were soon coming in that as many as five thousand men were responding to Henry's bold declaration. At first, Lord Dunmore reacted by sending his family to safety and stationing armed marines, from the British navy vessels harbored in the river, to defend the capital. On second thought, however, Dunmore decided to avert an armed attack and sent a messenger who reached Henry just after daybreak, and, after the militia had resumed their march, offered monetary compensation for the gunpowder that Dunmore had removed. Subsequently, Henry received a draft for L330 from a wealthy Virginia planter in payment for the gunpowder. Henry was treated as a hero in Virginia but Dunmore issued a proclamation declaring Henry an outlaw and forbidding citizens to assist him in any way. Henry was given armed protection as he journeyed to Philadelphia where he was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress.
  Henry's supporters used this incident as a means to have him appointed as Colonel of the first Virginia Regiment and Commander-in-Chief of all Virginia forces. However, the Virginia convention, not trusting Henry's military ability, made him subordinate in all military matters to the Convention and the Committee of Safety. It was, in fact, a paper command for Henry was subjected to all kinds of civilian direction and interference. Subsequently, Virginia never saw fit to give Henry command of any forces that might see battle, passing him over for other officers. The final straw came when Henry was passed over for a Brigadier General's commission in February 1776 and he felt he had no choice but to resign.
   Most of the senior Virginians, to include Washington, were very much aware of Henry's limitations as a military leader so it is not surprising that they gave him a commission without power or responsibility. Henry was a hero in Virginia; his fiery advocacy of liberty and his insistence on marching on Williamsburg to recover the gunpowder meant that politicians could not just openly refuse to give him a military command that most feared would result in disaster and the unnecessary death of soldiers. So, they chose this way.
  I doubt that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress could or would have handled Dr Joseph Warren in this way. He was just too powerful.

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