“This was a second Bunker’s Hill affair, in miniature; with this difference, that we kept our post, and had only one man wounded in the hand.”
– Colonel William Woodford
Virginia Gazette, 15 December 1775
Prelude to Great Bridge
While Colonel Patrick Henry of the 1st Virginia Regiment was technically the commander-in-chief of Virginia’s forces, correspondence between the President of Virginia’s Committee of Safety Edmund Pendleton and Colonel William Woodford of the 2d Virginia Regiment indicates that this was a political decision in recognition of Henry’s efforts prior to the outbreak of hostilities. Woodford on the other hand had served in the French and Indian War and had real military experience. For this reason, the Pendleton decided to keep Henry in Williamsburg, Virginia while dispatching the 2d Virginia Regiment to meet Governor Dunmore’s small “army” comprised of detachments of the 14th Regiment of Foot, Marines, runaway slaves who had been formed into the Ethiopian Regiment that had taken up post near Great Bridge, near of Norfolk in modern day Chesapeake VA.
Edmund Pendleton to William Woodford, 24 December 1775
The Field Officers to each Regiment will be named here and recommended to Congress in case our Army is taken into Continental pay, they will send Commissions — a General Officer will be chosen there I doubt not and sent Us; with that matter I hope we shall not intermeddle, lest it should be thought propriety requires our calling or rather recommending our present First Officer [Colonel Henry] to that station. Believe me Sir The unlucky step of calling that Gentleman from our Councils where he was useful, into the Field in an Important Station, the duties of which he must in the nature of things, be an entire stranger to, has give me many anxious and uneasy moment. In consequence of this mistaken step which can’t not be retracted or remedied, For he has done nothing worthy of degradation and must keep his Rank, we must be deprived of the Service of some able officers, whose Honor and former Ranks will not suffer them to Act under him, in this juncture when we so much need their Services, however I am told that [Hugh] Mercer, [William] Buckner, [William] Dangerfield and [George] Weedon will serve and are well thought of. I am also that Mr. [Charles Mynn] Thruston and Mr. Millikin ar Candidates for Regiments. The latter I believe will raise and have a German one. In the course of these reflections my greatest concern is on your Account, The pleasure I have enjoyed in Finding your Army conducted with wisdom and success, and your Conduct meet the General Approbation of the Convention and Countrey, make me more uneasy at a thought that the Countrey should be deprived of your Services or you made uneasy in it, by any untoward circumstances. I had seen your Letter to our friend Mr. [Joseph] Jones (now a member of the Committee of Safety) and besides that Colonel Henry had laid before the Committee your Letter to him and desired Our Opinion whether he was to command you or not. We never determined this ‘til Fryday evening, a Copy of the Resolution I inclose you. If this will not be agreable and prevent future disputes, I hope some happy medium will be suggested to effect the purpose and make you easy, for the Colony cannot part with you, while Troops are necessary to be continued.
The Committee of Safety was hard put to it to work our a formula that would give Henry the face-saving semblance of over-all command while leaving Woodford the actual commander. In the end the following resolution was adopted, a copy of which accompanied Pendleton’s letter to Woodford: “Resolved unanimously, that Colonel Woodford, although acting under a separate and detached command, ought to correspond with Colonel Henry, and make returns to him at proper times, of the state and conditions of the forces under his command; and also that he is subject to his orders, when the convention, or the committee of safety, is not sitting, but that while either of these bodies are sitting, he is to receive his orders from one of them.”
Because either the Convention or the Committee of Safety would always be sitting, Henry was effectively shelved.
When Woodford arrived at the Great Bridge on December 4, 1775, he “found the area for a considerable distance from each end of the bridge a swamp, except for two bits of land that might not improperly be called islands, being surrounded entirely by water and marsh, and joined to the mainland by causeways”. On the northern “island” stood the stockaded wooden fort (prejoratively called “the Hog Pen”) that Dunmore had caused to be erected, with two four-pound cannon so placed as to command the bridge and both causeways. The southern causeway, that nearer Woodford’s position, ran the 150 yard length of the second “island” and contained seven houses; and from that point the road extended 400 yards past a dozen houses to where it forked in front of a church, where the 2d Virginia Regiment pitched its camp and began entrenchments consisting of a breastwork in the form of a “sagging M” seven feet high, with mounting platforms and loopholes, and in length 150 feet. And on a firm, penninsula-like projection of land west of the town, they erected two earthworks for batteries when cannon should be made available. (Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence, Volume 5)
Captain Matthew Squire, HM Sloop Otter to Vice Admiral Samuel Graves, 2 December, 1775
We have now a small fort at the great Bridge, which the Rebels must pass to come to Norfolk, we have destroyed the Bridge, and for these ten days past, have kept a body of near nine hundred Rebels from passing. We have likewise entrenched the town of Norfolk, and I have great reason to suppose, & hope from their being such Cowards, and Cold weather coming on, that they will return to their respective homes, & we shall be quiet the remainder of the Winter.
Colonel William Woodford to the Virginia Convention, 4 December 1775
I arrived at this place the Day before Yesterday, & found the Enemy Posted on the Opposite side of the Bridge in a Stockade Fort, with two four pounders, some swivells & Wall Pieces, with which they keep up a constant Fire, have done no other damage than Kill’d Corporal Davis with a cannon Ball, the Man that was Killed on Lt. Colo. Scotts first arrival here, & Yesterday Wounded one of the Minute Men in the Wrist, from all Accts from the other side we have killed many of them…their Numbers in the Fort are said to be 250, Chiefly Blacks; commanded by Serjts. of the Regulars, that act as Officers, & the Scotch Tories of Norfolk.
We keep a Capt. and 42 Men as a Guard upon some Boats we have secured down the River about 6 Miles, the Enemy keep a Guard of about the same Number on the Opposite side to secure three other Boats they have. Between these parties there is a constant Fire, we have been lucky enough to recieve no damage, our Officers & Men say they can discover Many fall from the Fire of our Riffles, who I have directed only to Fire when they have a good chance.
My Intelligence inform’d me this Boat Guard of the Enemy might be Attacked to advantage by a Party crossing A Mile below (where a sufficient Boat lay concealed in a cove). I Yesterday detach’d Capt Taliaferro with 60 Men to lay concealed in that Neighbourhood, & cross in the Night with proper guides to conduct him to the back of the Enemy Post, if they find a ready passage, & are well conducted, I have the greatest expectations that they will cutt them off between two Fires. The Officers have discretionary Orders, as to returning, or maintaining this post on the other side. If they find the situation & other circumstances favourable, I shall immediately reinforce them.
We have raised a strong Breast work upon the lower part of the Streat joining the Causway, from which Centrys are Posted at some Old Rubbish not far from the Bridge (which is mostly destoy’d) some blacks got over last Night & set fire to the House nighest the Bridge, five Houses (some of them Valuable) were consumed, one of the Centinals Shott one of them down. The great light this Occasion’d would have exposed our Men too much, to attempt saving any of the Houses, they have likewise destroy’d all the Buildings on the other side, & I am inform’d have done the same to many of our Friends in the Country.
The last Accts from Norfolk say their Fortifications were not then Finished. They were busily Imploy’d & preparing a Number of Cannon, which it’s supposed are Mounted by this time. I am happy to find that steps I have ventured to take are agreeable to the Wishes of your Honorable Body. The Enemy’s Fort, I think, might have been taken, but not without the loss of many of our Men, their Situation is very advantageous, & no way to Attack them, but by exposing most of the Troops to their Fire upon a large open Marsh….
Colo. Robert Howe [of North Carolina]…informs me [by express] that I might expect 400 to 500 Men with some Cannon & Ammunition at this place tonight, & that they had 900 men at different places in Motion to Join us…. We are now making the Necessary preparations to raise Batterys for these Cannon upon the most Advantageous ground to play upon their Fort, & sent a large detachment at the same time to intercept their Retreat….
Our small Stock of Ammunition will be soon expended, & I must request another Supply, an Additional Blanket to each Soldier would be very Necessary, if to be had. The Men are tolerably well at present, but the dampness of the Ground, without straw (which is not to be had) must soon lay many of them up, & Houses that are tolerable safe from the Enemy Cannon, can only be procurred for a few.
Colonel William Woodford to Edmund Pendleton, 5 December 1775
After my letter of Yesterday, I received an Acct. from Capt. Taliaferro that the Boat intended for him to cross in could not be got off ’till day light, & he desired my further Instructions. I had sent Capt. Nicholas with 42 Men to reinforce Taliaferro & on Receipt of his letter, order’d Lt. Colo. Stevens to take the Command of the Whole. They crossed about Midd Night, & got to the Enemys Centinals without being discover’d. One of them Challenged & not being Answer’d, Fired at our party, the fire was returned by our Men, & an over Eagerness at first, & rather a backwardness afterwards, occation’d some confusion, & prevented the Colonel’s. plan from being so well executed as he intended, however, he Fired their Fortification & House, in which one Negro perished, Killed one dead upon the Spott, & took two others Prisoners. This party (consisting of 26 Blacks & 9 Whites) escaped under cover of the Night.
This Country between this & Suffolk is so exposed to several Water Courses, that there will be an Absolute Necessity to Establish two or three posts upon the Road, as the Inhabitants are all Tories & when the Fort over the Bridge is reduced, a strong party must guard this Important pass. All these reasons induce me to advice what I recommended Yesterday, some 4 lb Shott with 3 or 4 of the best Mounted Cannon of that size.
The want of…Shoes begins to be severly felt by some, & will shortly be so by the Whole, unless a Speedy supply arrives…. The bearer brings you one of the Balls taken out of the Cartridges found upon the Negro Prisoners. As they are extreemly well made & no doubt by some of the Non comd. Officers of the Regulars…. This Horrid preparation was made for the Flesh of our Countrymen, the others are prepared in the same Manner…. I have never suff’d a Soldier of mine to do a thing of this kind.
Colonel William Woodford to the Virginia Convention, 6 December 1775
The Fort over the Bridge was reinforced last Night with about 90 Men, & they seem very Busy at Work. No news of the Carolina Cannon yet. By the Firing at our Boat guard I expect the Enemy have taken post there again, when well inform’d of their Situation & Numbers, I shall endeavour to surprise them again.
Colonel William Woodford to Colonel Patrick Henry, 7 December 1775
The enemy are strongly fortified on the other side of the bridge, and a great number of negroes and tories with them; my prisoners disagree as to the numbers. We are situated here in 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 moulds that were good for any thing sent to run up our lead, till those sent the other day by Mr. Page. If these necessaries and better arms had been furnished in time for this detachment, they might have prevented much trouble and great expense to this colony. Most of those arms I received the other day from Williamsburg, are rather to be considered as lumber, than fit to be put in men’s hands, in the face of any enemy. With much repair, some of them will do; with those, and what I have taken from the enemy, I hope to be better armed in a few days.
Colonel Woodford to the Virginia Convention, 7 December 1775
I have the pleasure to inform you that my detachment last Night under the Command of Lieut. Colo. Scott beat up the Quarters of the Enemys other party, who I inform’d you had again taken post opposite our Boat Guard. They Killed one White Man & three Negros, took three of the Latter Prisoners, two of Which are Wounded (one Mortally) with six muskets & 3 Bayonetts. The Colo. unluckily fell in with a Cart coming from Norfolk, guarded by four Men, some distance from the Enemy’s post, who Fired upon our party & Alarm’d them, otherways there is no doubt most of their Men would have fallen into our Hands. Their Number 70. Col. Scott’s party 150, who all escaped unhurt, one Man only was grazed by a Ball in the Thumb.
The Battle of Great Bridge
Colonel William Woodford to the Virginia Convention Great Bridge, 9 December 1775
The Enemy were reinforced about three Oclock this Morning with (as they tell me) every Soldier of the 14th Regt. at Norfolk, amounting to 200 Commanded by Capt. Leslie, & this Morning after Revelle Beating crossed the Bridge by laying down some plank, & made an Attempt to Force our breast Work, the prisoners say the Whole Numbers amounted to 500 with Volunteers & Blacks, with two pieces of Cannon but none Marched up but his Majestys Soldiers, who behaved like English Men. We have found their Dead, Capt. Fordice & 12 privates, and have Lieut. Batut Wounded in the Leg & 17 privates prisoners all Wounded. They carried their Cannon back under Cover of the Guns of the Fort, & a Number of their Dead. I should Suppose…their Loss must be upwards of 50. Some powder & Catridges were taken…. There has been no Firing since [a flag of truce allowed the British to collect their dead and wounded]. We are now under Arms expecting another Attack.
Letter from a Midshipman on Board HM Sloop Otter, 9 December, 1775
Our troops, with about sixty Townsmen from Norfolk, and a detachment of Sailors from the ships, among whom I had the honour to march, set out from Norfolk to attack once more the Rebels at the great bridge, who had been lodged there some time, and had erected a breast-work opposite to our fort on their side of the river. We arrived at the Fort half an hour after three in the morning, and, after refreshing ourselves, prepared to attack the Rebels in their entrenchment.
We marched up to their works with the intrepidity of lions. But, alas! We retreated with much fewer brave fellows than we took out. Their fire was so heavy, that, had we not retreated as we did, we should every one have been cut off. Figure to yourself a strong breast-work built across a causeway, on which six men only could advance a-breast; a large swamp almost surrounding them, at the back of which were two small breast-works to flank us in our attack on their intrenchments. Under these disadvantages it was impossible to succeed; yet our men were so enraged, that all the intreaties, and…threats of their Officers could [not convince] them to retreat; which at last they did…We had sixty killed, wounded, and taken prisoner.
Major Alexander Spotswood, Purdie’s Virginia Gazette, 15 December 1775
We were alarmed this morning by the firing of some guns just after reveille beating, which as the enemy had paid us this compliment several times before, we at first concluded to be nothing but a morning salute; but, in a short time after, I heard adjutant Blackburn call out, “Boys, stand to your arms.” Col. Woodford and myself immediately got equipped, and ran out. The colonel pressed down to the breastwork, in our front; and my alarm post being 250 yards in another quarter, I ran to it as fast as I could, and by the time I had made all ready for engaging, a very heavy fire ensued at the breastwork, in which were not more than 60 men. It continued for about half an hour, when the king’s troops gave way, after sustaining considerable loss, and behaving like true-born Englishmen. They marched up to our intrenchments with fixed bayonets; our young troops received them with firmness, and behaved as well as it was possible for soldiers to do. Capt. Fordyce, of the grenadiers, led the van with his company, and lieutenant Batut commanded the advance party. The former got killed within a few yards of the breastwork, with 12 privates. The lieutenant, with 16 soldiers, were taken prisoner, all wounded. Several others were carried into the fort, under cover of their cannon; and from the blood on the bridge, they must have lost one half of their detachment. It would appear that providence was on our side, for, during the whole engagement, we lost not a man, and only one was slightly wounded, in the hand….
Colonel William Woodford to the Virginia Convention, 10 December 1775
I must apologize for the hurry in which I wrote you Yesterday; since which nothing of moment has happened, but the abandoning of the Fort by the Enemy; We have taken Possession of it this morning.
From the vast effusion of blood on the bridge & in the Fort, from the Accounts of the Centries who saw many bodies carried out of the Fort to be interd, & other circumstances I conceive their loss to be much greater than I thought it yesterday, & the victory to be complete…. I have dispatched scouting Parties, & from their intelligence I shall regulate my future operations.
I am just informed by Lieut Batut that a Servant of Majr. Marshall who was in the party with Colo. Scott & deserted informed Lord Dunmore that not more than 300 Shirtmen were here; that imprudent Man caught at the bait & dispatched Capt. Leslie with all the Regulars who arrived at the Fort about 4 in the morng.
Colonel William Woodford to Edmund Pendleton, 10 December 1775
A servant belonging to major [Thomas] Marshal, who deserted the other night from col. Charles Scott’s party, has completely taken his lordship in. Lieutenant Batut, [of Britain’s 14th Regiment], who is wounded, and at present my prisoner, informs, that this fellow told them not more than 300 shirtmen were here; and that [Dunmore took] the bait, dispatching capt. Leslie with all the regulars (about 200) who arrived at the bridge about 3 o’clock in the morning, joined [by] about 300 black and white slaves, laid planks upon the bridge, and crossed just after our reveille had beat…capt. Fordyce of the grenadiers led the [attack] with his company, who, for coolness and bravery, deserved a better fate, as well as the brave fellows who fell with him, who behaved like heroes. They marched up to our breastwork with fixed bayonets, and perhaps a hotter fire never happened, or a greater carnage, for the number of troops. None of the blacks etc. in the rear, with capt. Leslie, advanced farther than the bridge. This was a second Bunker’s Hill affair, in miniature; with this difference, that we kept our post, and had only one man wounded in the hand.
Following the Battle of Great Bridge, Woodford’s letters were reprinted in Purdie’s Virginia Gazette on 15 December 1775 stating that they had captured: “35 stands of arms and accoutrements, 3 officers [fusils], powder, ball and cartridges, with sundry other things, have likewise fallen into our hands.”, as well as Dixon and Hunter’s Virginia Gazette on 16 December 1775: “I must apologize for the hurry in which I wrote you yesterday, since which nothing of a moment has happened but the abandoning of the fort by the enemy. We have taken possession of it this morning, and found therein the stores mentioned in the enclosed list, to wit, 7 guns 4 of them sorry, 1 bayonet…Enclosed is an inventory of the arms, &c. taken yesterday, to wit, 2 silver mounted [fusils] with bayonets, 1 steel do. without bayonet, 24 well fixed muskets with bayonets, 6 muskets without bayonets, 28 cartridge boxes with pouches; 3 silver mounted cartridge boxes…26 bayonet belts…The arms I shall retain for the use of the army.”