On This Day...
December 9, 1775, Patriots gain control of Virginia. The Virginia and North Carolina militias defeat 800 slaves and 200 redcoats serving John Murray, earl of Dunmore and governor of Virginia, at Great Bridge outside Norfolk, ending British royal control of Virginia. The Tory survivors retreated first to Norfolk then to Dunmore's ship, the Otter, where the majority died of smallpox.
Governor Dunmore had removed to the Tory stronghold of Norfolk after Patriots drove him from the capitol, Williamsburg, in June 1775. On November 7, 1775, he offered emancipation to any slave of a Patriot master willing to join his forces. By November 30, Dunmore's ranks had swelled and he was convinced of his ability to regain control of the colony. George Washington feared Dunmore was correct and wrote to the Continental Congress from New England, warning them that they needed to see to it that Dunmore was "instantly crushed." When Dunmore's forces won a resounding victory at Kemp's Landing, it looked like Dunmore's troops, dubbed the "Ethiopian Regiment," would ensure continued British rule in Virginia, despite a backlash against him among slaveholders on both sides of the conflict who were angry over the precedent Dunmore's move might be setting.
Dunmore was determined to defend Great Bridge, building a stockade, dismantling the main bridge and defending the smaller bridges with cannon. Having taken these precautions, Dunmore then squandered his efforts by underestimating the strength of the Patriot militias. His decision to offer emancipation had incited at least 150 men from across the Carolinas to march north to help drive Dunmore from the state. By contrast, the overconfident Dunmore sent only a few sailors and sixty "townsmen" from Norfolk to meet them. They got within 15 feet of the Patriots before being shot dead. Within thirty minutes, 150 Loyalists fell. There was only one Patriot fatality. Three hundred of the 800 Black Loyalists survived their enlistment in the Ethiopian Regiment only to confront smallpox on the Otter.