The Battle of Great Bridge
December 9, 1775
By Kyle Willyard
In early November, Dunmore raised the King's Standard and called for all loyal subjects to help suppress the rebellion. He established martial law, freeing slaves, and enlisting everybody capable of bearing arms. By the middle of November, Dunmore's forces numbered about three hundred men. Norfolk was fortified and cannon were mounted on the entrenchments. Hundreds of newly emancipated slaves were put to work on the fortifications to hold back patriots until work could be finished. A detachment was sent to build a stockade fort near the tiny village of Great Bridge, almost twenty miles from Norfolk. There the British could block the main road between Virginia and North Carolina.
Hastily constructed out of planks, rotting logs, and mounds of earth, "Fort Murray" became the focal point of the Revolution in Virginia during 1775. Although dubbed "hog pen" by the patriots, the little stockade did pose a formidable threat to Virginia's security. (Sanchez-Saavedra, p.7)
Late in November, the Committee of Safety ordered Colonel Woodford to take his regiment and five companies of the Culpeper battalion and secure Norfolk.
Slowed by the lack of tents and provisions, on Saturday December 2, Colonel Woodford with the 2nd Virginia Regiment and five companies of the Culpeper Minutemen (Buford, Jameson, Pickett, Chilton and Spencer) under Colonel Edward Stevens, who had marched from Hampton, arrived in the vicinity of the Great Bridge, which crossed the southern Branch of the Elizabeth River, some twelve miles southeast of Norfolk. There consisted a swamp which encompassed a considerable distance on either side of the bridge, except for two pieces of land that might "not improperly be called islands, being surrounded entirely by water and marsh, and joined to the main land by causeways." (Scribner and Tarter, Vol. V, p.10)
On the northern island Dunmore had established Fort Murray, and placed four-pounder cannon to cover the bridge and both causeways. The southern causeway ran the 150-yard length of the second "island" and contained several houses. And, from that point the road extended 400 yards past a dozen houses to where it forked in front of a church. Near here, Woodford made camp, "surrounded," wrote Lt. Col. Charles Scott, "with enemies; I do verily believe that nine tenths of the people are tories, who are the poorest, miserable wretches, I ever saw," and the country was so stripped of supplies that he did not "think there is as much provision within 10 miles round as would serve us one day." (Virginia Gazette)
The patriots made their camp almost within gunshot of the British post and threw up a breastwork. Having no cannon, they did not attack the British position.
The matter of entrenching was left to Adj. Gen. Thomas Bullitt, who, though a staff officer, had some practical experience in military engineering. At the southern end of the street he directed the throwing up of a breastwork in the form of a sagging M, this for effective crossfire, seven feet high, with mounting platforms and loopholes, and in length 150 feet. And on a firm, peninsula-like projection of land west of the hamlet he erected two earthworks for batteries when cannon should be made available. (Scribner and Tarter, Vol. V, p.6)
Over the next several days there was a constant exchange of arms fire. Some small skirmishes occurred and eventually the British burned five of seven houses on the southern causeway to give a better field of fire. (Scribner and Tarter, Vol. V, p.6)
Lt. Col. Scott wrote in a letter dated December 4, "We still keep up a pretty heavy fire, between us, from light to light. We have only lost two men; and about half an hour ago one of our people was shot through the arm, which broke the bone near the hand. last night was the first of my pulling off my clothes for 12 nights successively. We are surrounded with enemies. Believe me, my good friends, I never was so fatigued with duty in my whole life; but I set little value upon my health, when put in competition with my duty to my country, and the glorious cause we are engaged in.. A gun fired...I must stop." (Wingo, p.19)
Ammunition on Woodford's side was getting scarce. There was a shortage of blankets and shoes, so the men were forced to sleep and walk on damp ground in raw weather.
Col. Woodford wrote to Patrick Henry on the 7th. "The enemy are strongly fortified on the other side of the bridge, and a great number of the negroes and tories with them; my prisoners disagree as to the numbers. We are situated here in the mud and mire, exposed to every hardship that can be conceived, but the want of provisions, of which our stock is but small, the men suffering for shoes; and if ever soldiers deserved a second blanket in any service, they do in this; our stock of ammunition much reduced, no bullet molds that were good for any thing sent to run up our lead, till those sent the other day by Mr. Page." (Scribner and Tatter, Vol. V, p.77-78)
After several skirmishes and tired of the cold weather penetrating their ramshackle structure, Dunmore decided to attack Woodford's position. Against the more experienced judgement of his officers, Dunmore ordered Capt. Samuel Leslie to make preparations.
Leslie had been told by an informant, reported to be a spy for Woodford, that only about three hundred of the "shirtmen" were encamped across the Great Bridge and that the British could easily push them aside.
On Friday, December 8, Colonel Edward Stevens and the Culpeper men made a probing attack against the British positions. They were quickly repulsed, but there is no record of casualties on either side. (Kearns, p.23)
Leslie moved his command out of Norfolk that same night and arrived undetected at the fort the next morning around 3:30. With him was all of the 14 Regiment of Foot that Dunmore had available including the grenadier and light company, which amounted to 121 rank and file, and 32 officers, sergeants and drummers. Capt. Matthew Squire had also sent a detachment of gunners to man two cannon. Add to this about sixty tory volunteers and those troops already in Fort Murray, for a combined force of about 672 men. (Scribner and Tarter, Vol. V, p.7)
From prisoners, Capt. Richard Kidder Meade was to learn that the governor had "taught his troops to believe that we should not stand more than one fire" and had suggested that any man would probably be scalped if falling into the hands of wild western riflemen, the "most hardy warlike People in America," commented Lieutenant Dallymple, "in frequent War with their Neighbours the Indians." (Scribner and Tarter, Vol. V, p.8)
Leslie believed that sending out his grenadiers first would unnerve the unseasoned recruits of Col. Woodford, and they would retreat as the Virginians had in previous skirmishes at Kemp's Landing.
At dawn on the ninth, Lt. Batut moved out of the fort with the light troops and began replacing planks that had been removed from the bridge. After crossing the northern causeway and running into the rebel pickets, they set fire to the remaining buildings. Capt. Squire's gunners wheeled the two cannon to the bridge, where a natural bend in the road allowed the cannon to rake the rebel breastworks without endangering the attacking force.
While the British forces were replacing planking, reveille was beating in the rebel camp. As it was customary to exchange a few shots with the enemy at dawn, Woodford and Maj. Alexander Spotswood, supposed the noise only to be the usual "morning salute." Before a messenger from the breastworks could reach them, they heard Christopher Blackburn shout "boys, stand to your arms!" Quickly equipping themselves, the two officers scampered out of their tent and saw that the enemy was attacking. Rallying forty riflemen, Woodford "pressed down to the breastwork" and Spotswood ran for his alarm post. (Scribner and Tarter, Vol. V, p.8)
In the breastwork, Lt. Edward Travis was in command of some 61 men. He could see Batut's advance guard coming through the dense smoke from the burning buildings. Behind it followed the van and the grenadier company commanded by Capt. Charles Fordice, a tall, homely, "very genteel" man than whom "a completer Officer never lived." Behind Fordice came Leslie with over 300 tories and former slaves who halted behind the cannon waiting to pour into the rebel gaps once the grenadiers had broken through. (Scribner and Tarter, Vol. V, p.8)
The narrowness of the causeway allowed the British to march only six abreast. (Wingo, p. 20) They marched across the causeway in perfect parade array, to the beating of two drums. They alternated the firing of volleys by platoons and paused only to reload, a matter of only fifteen seconds to these well seasoned troops. Travis had ordered his men to reload and hold their fire until the enemy was within fifty yards. The "bullets whistled on every side." Lt. Batut was hit in the leg. Fordice fell from a knee wound, only to rise and brush it off as if nothing had happened. He swept off his hat, waved it high above his head, and shouted, "The day is our own!" Woodfords riflemen were now coming into the entrenchment. Burntt told them to "keep an eye" on Fordice. (Scribner and Tarter, Vol. V, p.8-9)
The British attacked again, not expecting the breastwork to be manned by the additional riflemen. Within fifteen feet of the defense work Fordice went down, his lifeless body riddled by no less than fourteen bullets. Twelve grenadiers fell dead in the volley, nineteen were wounded. Two or three reached the breastwork only to fall against it. With their commander dead, the regulars broke, dragging the bodies of their dead and wounded back to the bridge. The Virginians began pouring out of the entrenchment. The wounded British, probably remembering Dunmore's words cried out "For God's sake, do not murder us!" Much to their surprise, all of the wounded within reach were carried back to camp and given the best possible care. (Scribner and Tarter, Vol. V, p.9)
John Marshall of the Culpeper Battalion told of the fight. "Between daybreak and sunrise," Captain Fordice, leading his grenadiers six abreast, swept across the causeway upon the American breastworks. The shots of the sentinels roused the little camp and "the bravest. ..rushed to the works," firing at will to meet the British onset. The gallant Fordice "fell dead within a few steps of the breastwork.. Every grenadier was killed or wounded; while the Americans did not lose a single man." (Beveridge, p.77)
Bullitt urged for a countercharge, Woodford refused insisting that it was too hazardous.
However, one offensive move on the part of the Virginians was to be made. Lt. Col. Edward Stevens, of the Culpeper Minutemen, without a single loss, led a dash of 100 men, chiefly riflemen, to the battery entrenchments on the eastern peninsula. Leslie's position was now compromised and the sharpshooters began picking tories and blacks off the bridge. The captain therefore withdrew his men and cannon into the fort, where his nephew, Lt. Peter Leslie, died in his arms.
The entire battle lasted only about half an hour, but that was long enough to produce a scene of slaughter- a "vast effusion of blood, so dreadful that it beggars description, a scene, when the dead and wounded were bro't off," said Capt. Meade, that "was too much; I then saw the horrors of war in perfection, worse than can be imagin'd; 10 and 12 bullets thro' many; limbs broke in 2 or 3 places; brains turning out. Good God, what a sight!" (Scribner and Tarter, Vol. V, p.9)
Supported by "the enthusiasm of the troops," Bullitt was all for pursuing the demoralized enemy into the fort and there completing the destruction. But Woodford, keeping with his instructions "to risk the success of your arms as little as possible," refused. He sent forward a flag of truce and procured a ceasefire while the remaining dead and wounded were removed. (Scribner and Tarter, Vol. V, p.9)
Only a single Virginian was slightly wounded, while Woodford would hear that the enemy losses totaled 102. By Dunmore's own account, which he limited to the regulars, there were 17 killed and 49 wounded, nearly 40% of those who had charged the breastwork. (Scribner and Tarter, Vol. V, p.9)
At 7:00 P.M. Leslie spiked the guns and pulled the remainder of his command out the fort. They stole away that night using confiscated wagons and carts.
A party of the Culpeper Minutemen were then sent to Kemp's Landing to round up tories and scout for information.
When news of the battle at Great Bridge raced along the coast, the loyalist became panicked. Those who had rallied to the King's standard only a month ago, now suddenly had second thoughts. Corporal William Wallace of the Culpeper battalion sneered that "all the D-n Torys down this way are glad to get a bucks tail to put in their hats now that they may pass for Friends to the Shirt men." Dunmore was forced to evacuate Norfolk, his last toehold on the colony. He took his troops and many tory supporters aboard ship. Dunmore would spend the remainder of his term as governor aboard a ship on the Chesapeake. (Sanchez-Saavedra, p.11)
The victory at Great Bridge emboldened the Virginia Convention to issue a counter-proclamation to Dunmore's emancipation decree. The convention offered full pardons to the Royal Ethiopians if they threw down their arms and turned themselves in to Woodford.
Great Bridge was the first decisive battle fought in the South. Volunteer soldiers and militia had withstood a cannon supported attack by some of the finest professional soldiers in the world and virtually annihilated them. It is also one battle in the American Revolution where the rifleman played a very important role. Dunmore's casualties would undoubtedly have been much less had Woodford's entrenchment not contained the number of riflemen that it did. The grenadiers might have even been able to have taken it, except for the deadly accurate fire and number of casualties on the second attack.. It became impossible after the battle for Dunmore to get any support from either those still loyal to the crown or slaves that he sought to turn against the colony. The victory also secured the passage between the colonies of North Carolina and Virginia.