The American Revolution began in Lexington on April 19, 1775, and the Lexington Alarm spread the news throughout the Northern Colonies. The second stop for the troops which marched on Lexington was in Concord. It was there that they hoped to raid Colonial arms and ammunition stockpiles. The stockpiles had been moved, and the troops found little that was of interest in their door-to-door search of the town.
The news of the Battle of Lexington had not reached Virginia by April 20th. However, an incident in that Colony took place on that day which propelled it toward joining the effort to win independence from Britain. After Patrick Henry’s fiery speech before the Second Virginia Convention on March 23rd, the Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, decided it was time to assure control of the Colony. In what is often referred to as “The Gunpowder Incident,” the Royal Governor of Virginia gave an order that would limit the Colonists’ access to gun power. The order was for British troops to remove the powder that was stored in Williamsburg and secret it away from the town.
Of course, there were no longer troops stationed in Virginia who could remove the powder. They had all been recalled to Massachusetts after the Powder Alarm in September, 1774. Chesapeake Bay was, however, home to several ships of the Royal Navy. The HMS Magdalen, captained by Henry Collins, was one of those ships. It was Captain Collins who received the order from Lord Dunmore to remove the gunpowder from Williamsburg. The attached image is a drawing of the powder house in Williamsburg.
Collins, and his troops, attempted to remove the gunpowder under the cloak of darkness. They successfully removed more than 15 barrels of powder until a local citizen took note of their actions and sounded the alarm. The system of express riders and militia sprang into action. They were prepared to storm Lord Dunmore’s residence until being dissuaded by notable residents such as Peyton Randolph.
Although the Colonial response to the incident had been postponed, the Common Council of the City of Williamsburg demanded return of the gun powder. The letter that was sent to Lord Dunmore read as follows:
We, his majesty’s dutiful and loyal subjects, the mayor; recorder, aldermen, and common council of the city of Williamsburg, in common hall assembled, humbly beg leave to represent to your excellency, that the inhabitants of this city, were this morning, exceedingly alarmed by a report that a large quantity of gunpowder was, in the preceding night, while they were sleeping in their beds, removed from the public magazine in this city, and conveyed, under an escort of marines, on board one of his majesty’s armed vessels lying at a ferry on James river.
We beg leave to represent to your excellency, that, as the magazine was erected at the public expense of this colony, and appropriated to the safe keeping of such munition as should be there lodged, from time to time, for the protection and security of the country, by arming thereout, such of the militia as might be necessary in cases of invasions and insurrections, they humbly conceive it to be the only proper repository to be resorted to in times of imminent danger.
We further beg leave to inform your excellency, that, from various reports at present prevailing in different parts of the country, we have too much reason to believe that some wicked and designing persons have instilled the most diabolical notions into the minds of our slaves; and that, therefore, the utmost attention to our internal security, is become the more necessary.
The circumstances of this city, my lord, we consider as peculiar and critical. The inhabitants, from the situation of the magazine in the midst of their city, have for a long tract of time, been exposed to all those dangers which have happened in many countries from explosions, and other accidents. They have, from time to time, thought it incumbent on them to guard the magazine. For their security they have, for some time past, judged it necessary to keep strong patrols on foot: in their present circumstances then, to have the chief and necessary means of their defence removed, cannot but be extremely alarming.
Considering ourselves as guardians of the city, we therefore humbly desire to be informed by your excellency, upon what motives, and for what particular purpose, the powder has been carried off in such a manner; and we earnestly entreat your excellency to order it to be immediately returned to the magazine.”
Lord Dunmore was unmoved by the Council’s arguments. He responded that the powder had been moved due to “an insurrection in a neighbouring county.” It had been moved at night to prevent alarming any of the inhabitants of Williamsburg. Dunmore claimed upon his word and honor that it could be returned within 30 minutes if necessary. He added that because the residents of Williamsburg had been prepared to take up arms in response to the powder’s relocation, it might not be a good idea for them to have access to the powder at all in the future.
The situation again escalated when troops from the Magdalen again landed on shore, and the local residents assumed the troops would completely empty the powder house. The townspeople were once again prepared to take up arms in order to prevent removal of more powder from the Williamsburg magazine. They were, however, again calmed by the assurances from notables amongst them. There was no one to calm Lord Dunmore, however. On April 22, he sent another message to one of the city’s magistrates that further threats would be responded to by burning the town and freeing all of the slaves. Although the good citizens did not violently respond to Lord Dunmore’s threats, more than 700 of them did take up arms and assemble in Fredericksburg when news of the Battle of Lexington reached them. Although assurances from Lord Dunmore did quell the Colonists for a brief period, he, and his family, fled from Williamsburg on June 8th. He began living on a ship in Chesapeake Bay but left Virginia once and for all in August, 1776. The Third Virginia Convention appointed members to a committee of safety which would operate a Colonial government in July, 1775.
This was not the first time that representatives of the Crown sought to control the Colonists by limiting their access to gunpowder. However, incidents such as the Powder Alarm will be discussed in future posts. Suffice it to say, we have always been a people who resisted efforts to take away our arms. We have also always assured the ability to defend our liberty.
As always, please reflect on What IS Right With America!
Susan C. Rempel, Ph.D.