Declaration of Martial Law in Virginia
Issued on November 7, 1775; excerpted from Annals of America, 1968
"I do require every person capable of bearing arms to resort to His Majesty's standard, or be looked upon as traitors to His Majesty's crown and government…. "
In March 1775, radical patriot Patrick Henry (1736–1799) stood up in front of the Virginia House of Burgesses (its lawmaking body) and made a passionate speech in support of his call for military preparations against the British. He ended his speech with the famous cry, "Give me liberty, or give me death." Virginia's House met illegally because the short-tempered royal governor of Virginia, John Murray (1732–1809), known as Lord Dunmore, had dissolved the legislature in 1773 and 1774 for the openly anti-British sentiments expressed by some of its members. It was still dissolved in 1775 when Henry gave his speech.
After Henry's speech, events in Virginia moved swiftly to armed conflict. As the Massachusetts patriots had done at Concord, Henry and others in Virginia had been stockpiling gunpowder in Williamsburg, Virginia. On May 2, 1775, just as he was about to leave for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to attend the Second Continental Congress, Henry learned that Dunmore had seized the stockpile at Williamsburg. Henry and a group of militia men marched on Williamsburg and provoked an armed confrontation with Dunmore. Dunmore was defiant, shouting that "by the living God if an insult is offered to me or to those who have obeyed my orders, I will declare freedom to the slaves and lay the town in ashes!" But Dunmore backed down, and on May 4 he paid for the gunpowder he had seized.
Dunmore was forced to flee for safety to a British warship anchored off the coast of Virginia. From there, he carried out military maneuvers against the colonists, finally ordering the destruction of Hampton, Virginia, in October 1775. Upset by his failure to destroy Hampton, on November 7, Governor Dunmore declared martial (pronounced MAR-shul) law in Virginia. Martial law is temporary rule by military authorities, imposed in time of war or when regular rule ceases to function. Declaring martial law is a very extreme step, and it was shocking to the citizens of Virginia. Even more shocking was that Dunmore made good on his earlier threat and offered freedom to any slave who deserted his master to bear arms for the British cause.
Things to remember while reading an excerpt from Lord Dunmore's Declaration of Martial Law in Virginia:
- Lord Dunmore was the most assertive of all the colonial governors. He governed a colony with more patriots than any other except Massachusetts. Dunmore did more than any other colonial governor to try to put down the revolutionaries.
- Virginia had far more slaves than patriots. In fact, more than one-third of the population of Virginia was slaves. That is why Virginians were so shocked by Dunmore's offer to free the slaves. For the entire duration of the Revolutionary War, southern slave owners lived in fear of an uprising by armed runaway slaves.
Excerpt from Declaration of Martial Law in Virginia
And to the end that peace and good order may the sooner be restored, I do require every person capable of bearing arms to resort to His Majesty's standard, or be looked upon as traitors to His Majesty's crown and government, and thereby become liable to the penalty the law inflects upon such offenses; such as forfeiture of life, confiscation of lands, etc.
And I do hereby further declare all indentured servants, Negroes, or others …free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesty's troops as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing his colony to a proper sense of their duty to His Majesty's crown and dignity. (Annals of America, p. 361)
What happened next …
By December 1775, about three hundred runaway slaves had joined Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment, as his military unit was called (Ethiopian is an outdated term for black Africans). By the following summer, at least eight hundred slaves had joined Dunmore. Rebel Virginia lawmakers responded by ordering the death penalty to "all Negro or other Slaves, conspiring to rebel."
The British joined Lord Dunmore in offering freedom to slaves who served them. While Dunmore's men were armed and fought in battles, the British used the runaway slaves for the least desirable kind of work. This work included digging pit toilets, washing clothes in huge, steaming kettles of water, and tending to the livestock. These slaves were underfed and underclothed, and when a smallpox epidemic broke out among the British Army in Virginia in 1781, the blacks were badly affected and large numbers died. The British left their bodies strewn about the countryside, hoping to spread the disease to local rebels.
Did you know …
- As the war dragged on, some runaway slaves were betrayed by British soldiers, who sent them off to be sold in the West Indies (a group of islands between North and South America). The British finally put an end to recruiting slaves for King George III's (1738–1820) army. Still, at the end of the war, the British had to deal with several thousand pro-British former slaves, who could not stay in America, where they were special objects of hatred for siding with the British. Some two to three thousand former slaves were taken to Nova Scotia, in British-owned Canada. Some former slaves were taken to British army headquarters in New York City (the British stayed in New York for about eighteen months after the surrender at Yorktown). Before the British decided what to do with them, many former slaves were seized by their former owners and re-enslaved.
- Many slaves who might have gone over to the British side were prevented by living too far from British posts. They would have had to cross through a lot of American-held territory before they could get to the British. Others were prevented by the fact that they had children living on with other masters, and they would not leave without their children.
Where to Learn More
"Africans in America." America's journey through slavery presented in four parts by PBS and WGBH. Part two: Revolution: 1750–1805. With narratives, a resource bank (list of documents, essays, etc.), and a teacher's guide. [Online] http://web-cr05.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/title.html (accessed on March 25, 2000).
Annals of America. New York: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1968.
Nardo, Don, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Braving the New World: 1619–1784: From the Arrival of the Enslaved Africans to the End of the American Revolution (Milestones in Black American History). New York: Chelsea House, 1995.