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LIGHTING THE FUSE TO REBELLION (Lord Dunmore’s Raid on the Williamsburg Magazine)

In the early morning hours of April 21, 1775, fifteen half barrels of gunpowder were taken from the magazine in Williamsburg, Virginia by a party of British seamen and marines.[i] The theft of the powder outraged the populace not only of Williamsburg but of the entire colony of Virginia, galvanized Patriot fervor and set in motion a train of events that resulted in the end of any organized British presence in Virginia for the next five years.

The author of this action, John Murray, fourth Earl Dunmore and Royal Governor of Virginia was a Scottish aristocrat and Member of Parliament. Although he rubbed elbows with the mighty and influential in British society and government, he was never really accepted as a member of that circle. His father had supported “Bonnie Prince Charlie” in the Jacobite rising of 1745-46 and escaped execution only by the intervention of his influential uncle. Young John had served as a Page of Honor to the Prince during the rising. This history cast a permanent pall of suspicion over the Dunmore clan.

Additionally, the income generated by Dunmore’s Scottish holdings, while substantial, was nowhere near that required to support the lavish life style that would have enabled him to mix freely on a social level with the real movers and shakers of the time. Keenly aware of his relatively low status among the powerful and influential personages of his time, he spent much of his life attempting to improve the family fortune and its position in British society.[ii]

His chance came in 1770. Upon the death of Governor Henry Moore of New York, Dunmore’s powerful and influential brother-in-law, Granville Levinson Gower, 2nd Earl of Gower secured for him for the vacant post of Governor of New York. He arrived on 18 October,[iii] 1770, and was making some early progress toward his goal of improving the families fortunes by acquiring vast tracts of land in northern New York when, in February, 1771, he learned that he had been replaced as Governor of New York and was to assume the Governorship of Virginia.[iv]

Although the governorship of Virginia, the largest, most populous and wealthiest of the thirteen Colonies,[v] was regarded as a more prestigious position than the governorship of New York, Dunmore wanted to stay in New York. He marshalled what influence he had to get the appointment rescinded, but failed. On September 25, 1771, he reluctantly appeared in Virginia.[vi]

Convivial, fun loving, and personally courageous, Dunmore was also characterized by contemporaries as arrogant, impetuous, egocentric, highly sensitive to perceived slights or signs of disrespect, possessed of a capable but not formidable intellect, and deficient in judgment, self-control, diplomatic dexterity and finesse. After two weeks of interacting with Dunmore at Pittsburgh during Dunmore’s 1774 expedition against the Shawnee, Augustine Prevost,[vii] wrote this concise characterization of him:

“His L[ordshi]p in a private character is by no means a bad man. On the contrary, he is a jolly, hearty companion, hospitable and polite at his own table, but as G[overno]r or the com[mande]r of a military expedition [he is] the most unfit, the most trifling and most uncalculated person living.”[viii]

This, then, was the man to whom England had entrusted its interests in Virginia.

In Virginia, after a warm welcome, Dunmore found himself increasingly in conflict with the growing aspirations of the people and the independent spirit of Colonial leaders. Accustomed to and expecting unquestioning compliance, he quickly grew angry and frustrated with Colonial leaders who were so bold as to act in opposition to his bidding on several occasions. His response to the growing militancy of the Virginia General Assembly was to twice dissolve that body,[ix] thereby effectively shutting down civil government in Virginia.

In early April of 1775, Dunmore ordered John Miller, the Keeper of the Williamsburg Magazine, to deliver the keys to the magazine to him. This Miller did on or about April 10.[x]

Several days later, Miller reported to Mayor John Dixon and the Williamsburg Common Council that he had received information to the effect that agents of the Governor had been entering the Magazine by night and that they had removed the locks from some 342 new muskets that were stored within, thereby rendering them inoperable. Additionally he reported that there were credible reports that the Governor was planning to remove the colonies supply of gunpowder which was also stored in the Magazine. Lacking access to the Magazine (the keys were in Dunmore’s hands) the town authorities could not verify Miller’s information regarding the musket locks.[xi] They also could not verify the allegation that the Governor was planning to carry off the Colony’s stock of powder because any effort to do so, should it become known to the Dunmore, would undoubtedly be viewed by him as an outrageous affront and precipitate a confrontation for which they were not prepared.

Alarmed, the Common Council did the only thing it could do — it organized a group of volunteers to stand watch over the Magazine.[xii]

The report that Dunmore planned to seize the Colony’s gunpowder was all too true. Days earlier Dunmore had summoned Lieutenant Henry Collins, commander of His Majesty’s armed Schooner Magdalen, then moored in the James River at Burwell’s ferry,[xiii] to the Palace and ordered him to organize a shore party for the purpose of seizing the gunpowder in the Magazine. Collins was directed to hold the party in readiness to act immediately upon notification that the coast was clear, in as much as Dunmore wished the removal to be done “privately.”[xiv] Dunmore also undertook to provide a wagon from the Palace to transport the roughly half ton of purloined powder.[xv]

The volunteers began watching the Magazine the night of Easter Sunday, April 15, 1775.[xvi] At the same time Dunmore’s servants must have begun watching the watchers.

April in Virginia is generally a pleasant month. The snow, ice and chill of winter are in the past. The hot humid days of summer are in the future. Mild days and balmy nights prevail. The duty of the volunteer watchers, while dull and boring, was probably not disagreeable. For five nights the volunteers watched but observed nothing more suspicious than a few stray dogs and cats.

On the night of April 20/21, the weather changed. Gale force winds[xvii] whipped through the streets of Williamsburg, blowing leaves and small twigs from the trees and scudding dark clouds across the sky, intermittently obscuring the light from the waning half-moon[xviii] and threatening, if not actually producing rain. For whatever reason — out of boredom, to escape the threatening weather or a combination of both — the volunteer watchers left their posts in the early morning hours of Friday, April 21.[xix]

This was the opportunity that Dunmore had awaited. Notified that the volunteer watchers had left their posts, he summoned his personal secretary and advisor, Navy Captain Edward Foy, gave him the keys to the magazine, and instructed him to take one of the wagons in the Palace stables to Lieutenant Collins and notify him to put the planned foray into effect. This Foy did. With one of Dunmores servants as a driver, he set out for Burwell’s ferry.[xx]

Captain Foy probably arrived at Burwell’s ferry about 2:30am. He alerted Lieutenant Collins who alerted the men designated for the landing party. It took perhaps 20 minutes to wake the men, arm and accouter them, inspect them and prepare them for the mission which they were about to undertake. At 3:00am, twenty armed men went ashore.[xxi]

The Magdalen was a small ship. Fore and aft rigged with an overall length of just over 60 feet and a beam of under 19 feet,[xxii] it mounted six 3 pounder guns and had a crew of 30 men.[xxiii] A handful of these men were marines — no more than six or seven.[xxiv] These men formed the core of the landing party. The rest of the party were seamen. Among them, as the only men present with the training and knowledge to properly and safely handle large quantities of gunpowder, would have been the Magdalen’s gunner and gunner’s mate.[xxv]

Led by the marines and followed by the Governor’s wagon, the party marched at a steady pace, covering the four to five miles between Burwell’s ferry and Williamsburg in about an hour and a half.[xxvi] As they approached the city, they advanced cautiously, conscious of Dunmore’s desire for “privacy.” Passing to the left of the Capitol Building, they went along South Street (now Francis Street) rather than Main Street (now Duke of Gloucester Street). South Street, which led to the rear of the Magazine, had fewer houses, fewer people and hence offered less chance of being discovered.[xxvii] At about 4:30am they arrived at the rear of the Magazine.[xxviii]

The Williamsburg Magazine was the central repository for the arms, ammunition and military equipment of the colony of Virginia. Built in 1715, it was a two-story octagon building with thick walls of fired brick. Arms, accouterments and other military items were stored on the second floor. Gunpowder was stored on the first floor in a room that was accessible only by a separate door in the rear of the building. During the French and Indian War a 10 foot high perimeter wall and guardhouse had been added to accommodate the influx of munitions occasioned by that conflict. The heavy oak gate through the perimeter wall and the doors to the magazine itself were secured by strong locks.[xxix]

To enter the magazine, the party had to move to the front gate, which faced Main Street. No sooner had they done so than an alarm was sounded. It is not known who sounded the alarm —perhaps some citizen suffering from insomnia, perhaps one or more of the volunteer watchers who had taken shelter in the Courthouse, or in Josiah Chowning’s tavern just across Main Street, where they could be out of the weather yet still keep an eye on the magazine. No matter who sounded the alarm, “privacy” was no longer possible.

Amid the growing din of rattling drums and cries of alarm,[xxx] Lieutenant Collins acted quickly. Ordering a file of marines to guard the wagon, he unlocked the front gate, entered the courtyard, led the rest of his party to the rear of the building and unlocked the door to the powder room.

The first man to enter would have been the Magdalen’ gunner. Holding aloft the double shielded lantern that he used when working in the Magdalen’s powder room, he surveyed the scene. Stacked against one wall were eighteen half-barrels, each containing 50 pounds of gunpowder and weighing in total about 65 pounds each.[xxxi] To one side were another three full half-barrels and one partially full. He quickly recognized that the half-barrels set aside contained damaged powder waiting to be reconstituted, and that all the good powder was in the other eighteen half-barrels.[xxxii] At an order from Lieutenant Collins, each of the men slug his musket, picked up a half-barrel of powder, hurried out the powder room door, through the front gate and deposited it in the wagon.

There was no time for more — the alarm was spreading rapidly. Locking the door to the powder room and the gate behind him, Lieutenant Collins and his party set off the way it had come — at a far faster pace than they had employed on their approach.

By the time enough citizens had been roused from their beds to make a crowd of appreciable size, the raiding party was too far away to be overtaken. And no one present was prepared to confront a party of His Majesty’s Marines — even a small one.

At 6:00am the party returned to the Magdalen, took the fifteen half barrels of powder on board, and settled down to await developments.[xxxiii] They had succeeded in securing most of the usable powder in the Williamsburg Magazine, but had failed to do so “privately” as Governor Dunmore had wanted.

The furor and uproar resulting from the seizure of the gunpowder far exceeded Dunmore’s expectations.[xxxiv] Independent companies from as far away as Fredericksburg began marching toward Williamsburg, resolved to secure return of the powder.[xxxv] Although Dunmore attempted to quell the unrest, he was unsuccessful. By June he had sent his family home and retreated on board the 24 gun frigate HMS Fowey[xxxvi] riding in the York River near Yorktown. In an impetuous and ill conceived attempt to strengthen his control[xxxvii] he had lit the fuse to a chain of events that culminated in the disastrous British defeat at the Battle of Great Bridge and the eradication of British authority in Virginia, leaving the largest, wealthiest and most populous state of the fledgling United States free of any organized British presence for the next five years.

[i] Purdie, Virginia Gazette Supplement, April 21, 1775, 3. “This morning, between 3 and 4 o’clock, all the gunpowder in the magazine, to the amount, as we hear, of about 20 barrels, was carried off in his Excellency the Governor’s wagon, escorted be a detachment of marines from the armed schooner Magdalen, now lying at Burwell’s ferry, and lodged on board that vessel.”

[ii] For brief biographies of Dunmore see: H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004) 39: 955-6; Mark M. Boatner III, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, (New York, David McKay, 1974) 340-1; ______, Encyclopedia Virginia, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the Library of Virginia; and Sidney Lee (ed.), Dictionary of National Biography, (London, Smith, Elder & Co., 1894) 39: 388. For fuller treatments of Dunmore, see James Corbett David, Dunmore’s New World, (Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 2013), (Hereafter cited as David, Dunmore’s New World.); John E. Selby & Edward M. Riley, Dunmore, (Williamsburg, Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1977); and James A. Hagemann, Lord Dunmore: Last Royal Governor of Virginia, 1771-1776, (Hampton, Wayfarer, 1974).

[iii] David, Dunmore’s New World, 30.

[iv] David, Dunmore’s New World, 38n60, citing Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy, 28 January – 1 February, 1771, 2; Massachusetts Gazette, 18 March, 1771, 3; and Providence Gazette, 9-16 March, 1771, 42[sic!].

[v] Estimated population in 1775: Virginia = 400,000. Massachusetts (the next most populous colony) = 358,000. Evarts B. Greene, American Population Before the Federal Census of 1790 (1981; repr. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1997), 7. Value of exports in 1763: Virginia = £1,040,000. Pennsylvania (the next colony in value of exports) = £705,500. John Mitchell or Arthur Young, American Husbandry. Containing an account of the soil, climate, production and agriculture of the British colonies in North-America and the West-Indies; with observations on the advantages and disadvantages of settling in them, compared with Great Britain and Ireland. (London: J. Bew, 1775), 1:124-5, 256-7.

[vi] David, Dunmore’s New World, 38-43.

[vii] Augustine Prevost (b. 29 August 1744 Geneva – d. 17 January 1821 Greenville, NY) was the son of Major General Augustine Prevost who, as commander of British forces in East Florida, played an important role in the capture of Savannah in 1778 and its successful defense in 1779. The younger Prevost served in his father’s regiment, attaining the rank of Major before retiring from British service to manage his wife's family estate in New York. He died as a citizen of the United States. Jacques Augustin Galiffe, Eugène Ritter, Louis Dufour-Vernes, Notices généalogiques sur les familles-genevoises (1833) 277.

[viii] Nicholas B. Wainwright, “Turmoil in Pittsburgh: Diary of Augustine Prevost,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography; 85 (Philadelphia, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1961) 143.

[ix] Mark M. Boatner III, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (New York, David McKay, 1974) 341.

[x] The Complete Report of the Commotion Committee appointed to Inspect the Contents of the Public Magazine. 5 June 1775. In H. R. McIlwaine & J. P. Kennedy, eds., Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia: 1619-1776 (Richmond, The Virginia State Library, 1905-1915) 13:223. (Hereafter cited as McIlwaine, JHB). “… about the middle of April last, the said Miller delivered up the Keys of the Magazine to the Governor …”

[xi] John Burk, The History of Virginia From Its First Settlement to the Present Day (4 vols., Petersburg, Va." 1805), II: 409n. (Hereafter cited as Burk, History of Virginia).

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] The site of Burwell’s Ferry is located on the grounds of the Kingsmill Golf Club in the gated community of Kingsmill, VA. The distance from the Kingsmill Golf Club to the Capitol in Colonial Williamsburg is between four and five miles by road, depending on the route taken. Mapquest, accessed 07/17/2016.

[xiv] Dunmore to Dartmouth (No. 26) Willimasburg 1st May 1775 in William Bell Clark, ed., Naval Documents of the American Revolution (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1964) 1:259. (Hereafter cited as Clark, NDAR). “I accordingly requested of Lieut. [Henry] Collins of His Majesty’s armed Schooner Magdalen, to convey the powder on board the Foway [sic!] Man of War now on this station … it was intended to be done privately …”

[xv] Virginia Gazette (Purdie), Supplement, April 21, 1775, 3. Op. cit.

[xvi] Burk, History of Virginia, op. cit.

[xvii] James Kellie, A Log for His Majesty’s Ship Fowey, from Decr 6th, 1774 to Decr 6th 1775 by James Kellie, Master: (PRO ADM 52/1749 in Virginia Colonial Records Project Microfilm Reel M945, Rockefeller Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, VA.) “Thursday, April 20, 1775 Fresh Gales & cloudy: …” HMS Fowey was moored in the James River near Newport News, about 15 miles from Williamsburg. (NOTE: Unlike on land, the day on board ship begins and ends at 12:00 noon. The entry for April 20 covers from 12:00 noon, April 20 to 12:00 noon April 21, land time. (“GALE: a cold air … a gale or blast from the sea.” Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (London, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, 1818); “Gale … howling wind … a wind ranging in speed from 32 to 63 miles per hour.” Victoria Neufeldt, ed, Webster’s New World Dictionary of American English, 3rd. Ed. (New York, Webster’s New World, 1988).

[xviii] U. S. Naval Observatory, Astronomical Applications Department, Sun and Moon Data for One Day, Williamsburg, VA (Longitude W76⁰ 43”, Latitude N37⁰ 17’), April 21, 1775 Eastern Standard Time,, (accessed January 7, 2015). “Phase of the Moon on April 21, 1775: Waning Gibbous with 63% of the Moon's visible disk illuminated.”

[xix] Burk, History of Virginia, II:409n.

[xx] Dunmore would have chosen for his messenger someone whom he trusted entirely. The most trusted member of his “family” was (Artillery) Captain Edward Foy, Dunmore’s long time private secretary and personal advisor. Foy, as a gentleman and an officer would almost certainly not have driven the wagon himself.

[xxi] A Journal of the proceedings of His Majesty’s Schooner Magdalen under my Command Commencing 17th April 1775 & ending the 8th Septr 1775 by Henry Collins. (PRO ADM 51/3894 in Virginia Colonial Records Project Microfilm Reel M942, Rockefeller Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, VA.) (Hereafter cited as Journal, HMS Magdalen). Entry for Thursday, 20th April, 1775 “At 3 AM landed 20 men Armed to take some Gunpowder out of the Magazine at Williamsburg.”

[xxii] David Lyon, The Sailing Navy List; All The Ships of the Royal Navy Built, Purchased and Captured – 1688-1860 (London, Conway Maritime Press, 1993) 212. (Hereafter cited as Lyon, The Sailing Navy List.)

[xxiii] For the number of guns and crew see: Disposition of the Squadron under Vice Admiral Samuel Graves, List of the North American Squadron on the 1st January 1775, Graves Conduct, I: 40-1, MassHS Transcript in Clark, NDAR 1:47

“Ship &c Guns Men Commanders Station

Magdalen Schr 6 30 Lt Henry Collins at Philadelphia”

Disposition of the [British] Fleet on the 30th of June 1775. Graves Conduct, I:132, MassHS Transcript in Clark, NDAR 1:785

“Names Guns Commanders Complement Station

Magdalen 6 Liuett Collins 30 At Virginia, ordered into the Delaware”

For the size of the Magdalen’s guns see: Journal, HMS Magdalen, Thursday, June 15, 1775 “… lost overboard in getting the stores out of the Vessel 1, 3 pound and swivel grape Shot occasion[d] by the lanyard of the Bow giving way at 2 PM”

[xxiv] The number of marines on board Royal Navy ships in the 18th century was roughly equal to the number of guns that the ship carried [Personal correspondence, The National Museum, Royal Navy, 12/17/2014]. At six guns, HMS Magdeline would have had about half-dozen marines on board. The rest of the raiding party of “… 20 men Armed…” would have been seamen.

[xxv] Every Royal Navy ship had a Gunner and one or more Gunner’s Mates in its crew. Trained, examined and accountable to the Board of Ordnance, they were responsible for insuring that the ship’s armaments, especially its store of gunpowder, were kept in safe and sound condition. The National Museum of the Royal Navy, (accessed January 21, 2015). Common prudence would have dictated that these men be included in the party sent to remove the gunpowder from the Williamsburg Magazine.

[xxvi] At a steady “quick march” pace of 120 steps (of two feet per step) per minute, the party would have covered four miles in about 1.4 hours and five miles in about 1.8 hours.

[xxvii] Plan de la Citie et environs du Williamsburg en Virginie, America au 11 Mai 1786. On display in the Rockefeller Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, VA.

[xxviii] This route is speculative, but appears to make the most sense from a logistical and tactical point of view.

[xxix] John F. Lowe, The Magazine Historical Report, Block 12, Building 9, Lot 00, Originally Entitled: “Manual for the Public Magazine” (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1990) 4-7. (Hereafter cited as Lowe, The Magazine.)

[xxx] Dunmore to Dartmouth (No. 26) Willimasburg 1st May 1775 in Clark, NDAR 1:259. “Mr. Collins and his party were observed, and notice was immediately given to the Inhabitants of this Place: Drums were then sent through the city.”

[xxxi] Cooper’s Shop, Colonial Williamsburg, Private conversation, January 5, 2015 (information confirmed during a 2013 visit by the cooper to The Historic Dockyard, Chatham, UK). Military barrels for gunpowder were made of ¾ inch thick oak, hooped with heavy (3/16 inch thick) copper bands. A half-barrel for gunpowder measured 13 ½ inches diameter by 20 inches high and weighed approximately 15 pounds, empty. Total weight for a full half-barrel of gunpowder, therefor, was about 65 pounds, not difficult for a man to carry for short to intermediate distances.

[xxxii] The Complete Report of the Commotion Committee appointed to inspect the contents of the Public Magazine” presented 13 June 1775 in McIlwaine, JHB 13:223-4. “It appears to your Committee from the deposition of Frederick Miller, keeper of the Magazine, … that, about the middle of April last, … there [were] twenty one barrels and a half of Powder, including three unfitted [in the Magazine].”

[xxxiii] Journal, HMS Magdalen, Entry for Thursday, 20th April, 1775 “At 6 the people returned with 15 half Barrs …”

[xxxiv] Journal, HMS Magdalen, Entry for Friday, April 21, 1775, “Mod and fair Weathr at 1 pm had intelligence that the Inhabitants at Williamsburg were under Arms and threatned[sic] to attack the Schooner got in readiness - loaded with Round & Grape and put the Vessel in a State of Defense.”

[xxxv] Lowe, The Magazine, 47-51.

[xxxvi] Lyon, The Sailing Navy List, 87.

[xxxvii] The timing of Dunmore’s raid on the Magazine at Williamsburg — less than 48 hours after the battle of Lexington/Concord — has fueled speculation there was some form of secret instructions to the Governors of the several colonies authorizing/ordering them to stage such raids. Diligent search of primary source documents in England and in America has yielded no evidence to support such a “conspiracy theory.” The closest things found are a resolution of October, 1774 by Parliament prohibiting the export of arms and ammunition to the colonies for six months (“Order of the King, in Council, prohibiting the exportation of Gunpowder, or any sort of Arms or Ammunition from Great Britain,” Peter Force, American Archives, S4-V1-p0881) and a circular letter from Lord Dartmouth to the Governors of the Colonies instructing them to use their utmost endeavors to enforce that resolution (“Circular Letter from the Earl of Dartmouth to the Governors of the Colonies.” Ibid, S4-V1-p0881.) Therefore, it appears to this writer that the two most aggressive colonial governors, Gage in Massachusetts and Dunmore in Virginia, independently decided to push the limits of their authority, and that they coincidentally did so at the same time and with similar consequences.

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