What early battles in Virginia strengthened the Patriot’s position?

Drawing by Lord Rawdon of 1775 Battle of Great Bridge, with permission from the William Clements Library.

Drawing by Lord Rawdon of 1775 Battle of Great Bridge, with permission from the William Clements Library.

In Virginia, there were a number of conflicts which consolidated the Patriots’ already strong hold on this important colony. In November 1775, John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore and Royal Governor of Virginia, recognized he was losing total control of America’s most populous colony. His earlier attempts to suppress the rebellion by dissolving the House of Burgesses had met with failure. The members of the House of Burgesses simply reconvened in another location and continued to conduct business. Although Dunmore had few British soldiers to maintain Royal control over Virginia, he was confident that the appearance of a few well-disciplined British troops would defeat the Patriot rabble. In order to increase his military manpower, he issued Dunmore’s Proclamation, a document which freed the slaves of rebellious masters if the slaves were willing to take up arms for King George III. In a colony where a number of the wealthiest and most powerful men owned slaves, Dunmore’s Proclamation was considered economic warfare. Dunmore placed these former slaves in a unit he called Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment. This unit was commanded by white British commissioned and noncommissioned officers. Dunmore also created a military unit composed of white Loyalists called the Queen’s Own Loyal Regiment.

In November 1775 Dunmore’s forces were successful in the Battle of Kemp’s Landing, a minor skirmish against the militia of Princess Anne County (today known as Virginia Beach). Confident after this skirmish that he could defeat the rebels as they gathered for an offensive south of Norfolk, Virginia, Dunmore ordered his forces against the Patriot position south of Norfolk at the Village of Great Bridge. On December 9, 1775, Dunmore’s forces were badly defeated in the Battle of Great Bridge. The British defeat forced Dunmore to evacuate Norfolk, Virginia’s largest commercial center and put the British in a defensive posture in Virginia.