“I will make the shores of James River an example of terror”: The nature of war in 1781 Virginia

British forces under the command of William Phillips (with Benedict Arnold) occupied Williamsburg from April 20 to April 22, 1781.  By many accounts, they were treated well, even warmly, by many of the inhabitants, much to the chagrin of more committed patriots.   As a result, a number of citizens were arrested and charged with “disaffection to the interests of their country,” prompting this remarkable statement from Phillips, written on April 29 to the Marquis de la Fayette.  It is all the more notable because Phillips was well-known and respected by many Virginia leaders, including Thomas Jefferson, as a reasonable, even moderate, officer, from the time Phillips spent as a prisoner of war in Charlottesville as part of Burgoyne’s “convention army.”  Clearly tensions on both sides were reaching a peak, given that the Revolution in Virginia was hanging increasingly in the balance.

When I was at Williamsburg, and at Petersburg, I gave several inhabitants and country people protections for their persons and properties.  I did this without asking, or even considering, whether these people were either friends or foes, actuated by no other motive than that of pure humanity. I understand, from almost undoubted authority, that several of these persons have been taken up by their malicious neighbours, and sent to your quarters, where preparations are making for their being ill treated; a report which I sincerely hope may be without foundation. I repeat to you, sir, that my protections were given generally from a wish that, in the destruction of public stories, as little damage as possible might be done to private property, and to the persons of individuals. …I am obliged to declare to you, sir, that if any persons, under the description I have given, receive ill treatment, I shall be under the necessity of sending to Petersburg, and giving that chastisement to the illiberal persecutor of innocent people, which their conduct shall deserve. And I further declare to you, sir, should any person be put to death, under the pretence of their being spies of, or friends to, the British government, I will make the shores of James River an example of terror to the rest of Virginia.

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“We are in confusion beyond parallel”: Nation-building in Revolutionary Virginia

Edmund Randolph's signature on a piece of Virginia currency issued in 1775.On June 21, 1776, Edmund Randolph was caught in a whirlwind in Williamsburg.  A member of the 5th Virginia Convention, he had already voted for the resolution for independence from Great Britain and adopted the Virginia Declaration of Rights.  But then the hard work had to begin.  Randolph was at the center of building a new nation, with everything that tends to entail, from political infighting to fighting a war to constructing a whole new government.  And meanwhile, the remains of the old nation–of everything that Lord Dunmore and his family had left behind, including slaves, when they fled Williamsburg a year before–had to be dealt with.  It’s no wonder that the 22-year-old saw “confusion beyond parallel” in the opening months of the American Revolution, on this date 237 years ago.
We are in confusion beyond parallel: no government is in existence but such as is vested in the hands of the Convention. This august body yesterday elected delegates for Congress, and rejected Colonels Harrison and Braxton. It was first determined we should have only five. The fortunate candidates were Wythe, Nelson, Jefferson, R. H. Lee, and T. L. Lee. We are engaged in forming a plan of government. God knows when it will be finished. It is generally thought that the contest will be between President Nelson and Mr. Henry, who shall be governor. Hunter’s gun manufactory has turned out twenty or thirty excessively fine guns, upon which the Convention made a contract with him for all the guns he can make in the course of a twelvemonth, at the price of 6 each. I know not what to add, except that Lord Dunmore’s estate is ordered by Convention to be sold.

SOURCE: Edmund Randolph to George Baylor, 21 June 1776, printed in Moncure Daniel Conway, Omitted Chapters of History Disclosed In the Life And Papers of Edmund Randolph (1888), 29.

“The only part in which this Colony is vulnerable”: James Madison, Slaves, and the Coming of the Revolution in Virginia

On this date in June 1775, 24-year-old James Madison gave voice to the great fear of many free Virginians: that the pernicious institution of slavery would some day, in some way, be their undoing.  That day seemed, at least to Madison in far off Orange County, to be at hand with the collapse of the royal government in Williamsburg and rumors that the governor, Lord Dunmore, was intent on arming the slaves against their masters.  Enslaved men and women, after all, made up more than a third of the population across the colony, and were a distinct majority in some places, like the Tidewater.  The fear of slaves with guns was the subtext of the “Gunpowder Incident” in Williamsburg in April, when sailors under Dunmore’s command seized 15 half-barrels of powder from the local magazine.  The town rose up against him claiming that they needed the powder to defend themselves against rumored slave insurrections, while Dunmore countered–at least publicly–with the same claim, that he needed to secure the powder to keep it from falling into the hands of slaves.  In the immediate aftermath of the face-off between the governor and the town, Dunmore fed the flames of fear by threatening to “declare Freedom to the Slaves, and reduce the City of Williamsburg to Ashes” if even a hint of powder was fired at him or his officers.

Enslaved men and women, too, heard the whispers and appeared at the Governor’s Palace, only to be turned away with the news that Dunmore and his family had fled to a warship anchored off Yorktown.  As if to punctuate the matter, two Norfolk slaves were executed for participating in a conspiracy to raise an insurrection there.  Dunmore would eventually fulfill his promise, with his famous proclamation issued in November.  But for the time being, both free and enslaved Virginians would grow increasingly aware of “the only part in which this Colony is vulnerable.”

“It is imagined our Governor has been tampering with the Slaves & that he has it in contemplation to make great Use of them in case of a civil war in this province. To say the truth, that is the only part in which this Colony is vulnerable; & if we should be subdued, we shall fall like Achilles by the hand of one that knows that secret. But we have a good cause & great Courage which are a great support.”

“Let the Gentlemen Look To It”: The Tea Act and “the Vulgar” in Virginia

ImageOn this date in 1774, a doctor returning from a public meeting in the Northern Neck of Virginia had this report for his friend, Landon Carter. While the question of class consciousness, or even awareness, in revolutionary America has been vastly overstated by some historians, this snippet of political life suggests the divided interests between “the vulgar” and “depraved” on the one hand and “the Gentlemen” on the other, and makes clear that the revolutionary experience was far from a common one.

“The meeting at Farnham last Saturday, I believe, was a very usefull one—Many People who came there with an opinion, too comon among the vulgar, that the Law affecting Tea alone, did not concern them, because they used none of it—had yr prejudices removed—indeed many of the more depraved have said, let the Gentlemen look to it.”

[Source: Landon Carter Papers, University of Virginia]

Grave Truths: A Williamsburg That Is “For Ever England”

We know there are graveyards large and small throughout Williamsburg, Virginia, that date from the revolutionary era.  There are formal cemeteries, like that surrounding Bruton Parish Church, and much more intimate family graves, tucked discretely behind colonial houses.  They represent the final resting places of the well-known (a signer of the U.S. Constitution, children of U.S. presidents and their wives, etc.) and the forgotten (have you ever heard of Edward Nott or the “Hammer Man of Williamsburg”?).

But their markers represent only a fraction of revolutionary Williamsburg’s grave truths.  Historical evidence tells us that Bruton Parish churchyard, for example, is littered with the unmarked remains of once-prominent figures, such as printer Alexander Purdie, alongside numerous infants who never even received a name, much less a gravestone (think of Williamsburg’s own foundlings when you visit “Threads of Feeling“).  We also know from other sources that Mary Stith asked to buried behind her house on Duke of Gloucester Street and members of the Anderson family, her neighbors, were interred behind theirs, but no traces of either plots remain today.  But, as James Shirley so memorably put it almost 400 years ago, death is “the Leveller,” and “in the dust be equal made” both free and enslaved, famous and infamous, so drivers today unknowingly pass the large ravine next to the Virginia DMV on Capitol Landing Road, where the bodies of executed criminals were cast after meeting their unseemly ends on the nearby gallows.

Archaeology has given us an important layer of information about the final resting place of those who gave, in Lincoln’s words, “the last full measure of devotion” to the American cause.  Behind the Governor’s Palace, in as peaceful and picturesque a spot as one can imagine, at least 156 soldiers of the United States lie under a carefully kept lawn, casualties of the last battles of the Revolutionary War–their devotion marked by a tablet on the adjacent wall. On the other side of town, their allies, more than 130 French soldiers, are buried in a marked plot in a small grove tucked away behind Providence Hall Lodge, within sight of the tennis courts.  Their contribution is commemorated in annual ceremonies open to the public.

But where are the British and loyalist graves?  History tells us that they are certainly here somewhere.  They, just as their American and French opponents, died by the dozens in Williamsburg, from battle and smallpox, during the time the British army controlled the city in the spring and summer of 1781.

Take the case of Charles Jones, a young man who represents the American Revolution as the civil war it really was.  Hardly your stereotypical British officer, caricatured in American literature and theater since the war as an effete, bewigged gentleman of privilege who had not set foot in, or given a second thought to, America before 1775.  Jones was, in fact, as American as Thomas Jefferson.  Born in Weston, Massachusetts, which remains little more than a hamlet along the Boston Post Road, a long day’s ride west of the city, he was a first-year student at Harvard when the war began.  The same college that produced arch-patriots such as Samuel and John Adams was also the alma mater of a number of loyalists, such as this privileged son of a former member of the Massachusetts legislature, who took a rather different course when he left Harvard to join a loyalist unit in 1778 or so, when he was 19 years old, and just about to graduate. By the middle of 1781, Charles had risen to the rank of Cornet in the cavalry of John Graves Simcoe’s famous Queen’s American Rangers. On June 26, he was killed in a skirmish with the Marquis de la Fayette‘s forces at Spencer’s Ordinary, not six miles from Williamsburg.  According to Simcoe’s journal, his body was retrieved by his comrades and “buried at Williamsburg the next day, with military honours.” But where?*

Rupert Brooke, a remarkable member of that exceptional cohort of English poets who attempted to capture the meaning and experience of World War I, wrote:

“If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.”

So somewhere in Williamsburg, like in so many plots along the Battle Road north of Boston, there is a place that is “for ever England.”  That unknown “rich earth” conceals the remains of those men who gave their lives in the belief that the old British Empire was a better guarantor of freedom than the new American nation.  Perhaps one day we will find that earth, but until then, perhaps every Union flag that flies in the city can serve as a reminder of a time when to breathe in Williamsburg was to breathe English air, and also of the men who fought to keep it that way.

*There are legends that the British buried their dead under what is now Palace Green, but that is highly unlikely as the Palace Green probably did not exist during the American Revolution as it appears today, a verdant lawn–it was then Palace Street, a broad, tree-lined thoroughfare.

“With more zeal and earnest then ever I had at any time for any thing in my Life”: William Anne Keppel and the Depths of Dignity

The pursuit of patronage in any age is never a pretty picture.  Whether today or 200 years ago, it is, at its worst, an undignified scrum for lucre and scraps of influence.  It was hardly different in the 18th century, when even (or especially?) peers of the realm were reduced to grovelling with officers of the crown for jobs for their friends. This letter from William Anne Keppel (1702-1754), Earl of Albemarle and the Governor of Virginia, to Thomas Pelham-Holles (1693-1768), Duke of Newcastle, written on this date in 1742, reveals the occasional depths of that desperation. John Carter (c1695-1742), the Secretary of Virginia, was indeed on his deathbed, but such news often erupted in unbecoming battles over the spoils the not-yet-so dearly departed was about to leave behind. But it was rarely about the money; more often it was about influence, or at least the perception of influence, which can be as important. On the other hand, failure could signal that one’s access to the halls of power was slipping away.  One wonders, however, just what was going on between him and Dick Shelby to generate such a plea.

“By a letter I received this Evening from Lt Governour Gooch I am informed that Mr Carter ye Secretary to ye Colony grows worse every Day & that they have no hopes left of his Life. – Lett me then once more entreat you with more zeal and earnest then ever I had at any time for any thing in my Life to remember my early application to your Grace for my friend Adair who for many reasons greatly deserves from me this mark of friendship, and don’t (after ye flattering hopes I have fed myself with for these last years) Lett me be beat by Dick Shelby.  Pardon me Dear Duke of Newcastle for being so anxious, & pray consider that making a friend happy is making oneself so too.”

In the end, Newcastle settled on Albemarle’s choice, William Adair.  But that was hardly enough for Albemarle for he was back at his fulsome best the next year, pledging his support for Peyton Randolph for the position of Virginia’s attorney general while begging Newcastle to “Forgive me for God sake ” for some unknown slight to Henry Pelham, Newcastle’s brother and the Prime Minister. Clearly, Albemarle had an unfortunate tendency to affront people in high places, although he hung on to his post as Virginia’s governor until his death in 1754.

[See VCRP SR 07569 for precise citation for letter]

NPG D7195; William Anne Keppel, 2nd Earl of Albemarle by and sold by John Faber Jr, after  J. Fournier

“Are not the Gentery Lords and the common people vassals”?: Abigail Adams Takes Stock of the Virginians (1776)

In the year of American independence, as representatives of the colonies in Philadelphia were still considering whether they could–or even should–become united, people elsewhere were wondering the same thing.  One thing we tend to forget these days is just how different and disconnected each American colony had been from each other from the very beginning.  They were separated by religion, ethnicity, political history, and, it should not be gainsaid, political economics.  In March 1776, the venerable Abigail Adams wondered:

What sort of Defence Virginia can make against our common Enemy? Whether it is so situated as to make an able Defence? Are not the Gentery Lords and the common people vassals, are they not like the uncivilized Natives Brittain represents us to be? I hope their Riffel Men who have shewen themselves very savage and even Blood thirsty; are not a specimen of the Generality of the people.

She was happy to give them credit for producing someone such as George Washington, already an icon of patriotic virtue (and Abigail had not yet met him), but something about the Virginians troubled her more: their commitment to freedom.

I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be Eaquelly Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs. Of this I am certain that it is not founded upon that generous and christian principal of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us.

The representatives in Congress were able to set aside their qualms, even if the presence of slavery in Virginia engendered regional distrust for decades to come–and charges of hypocrisy to this day.