Great Bridge, Virginia

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Great Bridge, Virginia

GREAT BRIDGE, VIRGINIA. 9 December 1775. In the late fall of 1775, Colonel William Woodford led a patriot force built around the riflemen of the Culpeper Minute Battalion towards Norfolk. Governor Dunmore's defenses began at Great Bridge about nine miles away. Here he had fortified one end of a long causeway the rebels would have to cross on their way to Norfolk; surrounded by tidal swamps and covering a defile, the British position was potentially strong and was made stronger by the removal of part of the causeway's planks. It was held by some three hundred Loyalist levies, some from Dunmore's Ethiopians (a regiment formed from freed slaves) and the others from his all-white Loyal Virginians.

Woodford had built a redoubt at the other end of the causeway, posted Lieutenant Edward Travis there with about ninety men, and encamped the rest of his force on a hill about four hundred yards to the rear. John Marshall, later chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was a lieutenant in Woodford's command, and his father, Major Thomas Marshall, was also there. A captured British officer later admitted that the senior Marshall's servant pretended to be a deserter and told them there were no more than three hundred "shirt-men" (militia riflemen) at the bridge. This stratagem tempted Dunmore into ordering an assault on the rebel breastworks in an effort (reminiscent of Gage's decision at Bunker Hill) to break the back of Patriot resistance by a show of force. About 3 a.m he reinforced the causeway with two hundred of his precious regular infantry, men drawn from the Fourteenth Foot. The British also quietly began replacing the planks. The exact number of Americans present as reveille sounded is not known, but it included a detachment of the Second Virginia Regiment (Continental) as well as the minutemen and some militia.

Responding to Governor Dunmore's orders, Captain Charles Fordyce led a frontal attack down the causeway with his 60 grenadiers and another 140 or so available regulars; Captain Samuel Leslie was to follow up with a reserve of 230 Loyalists. As Fordyce crossed the bridge his advance drew fire, alerting the American camp, and Woodford and Major Alexander Spotswood raced forward to reinforce the redoubt. The resulting struggle lasted about a half an hour, with the lead element of Fordyce's grenadiers under the command of a Lieutenant John Batut, bayonets fixed, making it to within a few yards of the redoubt before being decimated and driven back. As at Bunker Hill, the British regulars behaved with great courage and took appalling losses, but to no valid military purpose. Woodford said in his official report to President Edmund Pendleton of the Virginia Convention that the "victory was complete," and that the British withdrew into their fort. Two days later they abandoned the position and its six cannon and fell back to their ships.

The Virginians buried Captain Fordyce and twelve of his men. They also captured Lieutenant Batut and sixteen privates, all wounded. Captured weapons, including three officers' fusils, led the victors to assume (probably optimistically) that there were substantial additional British casualties. The only rebel casualty was one man slightly wounded in the hand.

This was the first real engagement between British soldiers and colonists in Virginia. Like Bunker Hill, it carried significance beyond its numbers or its tactical results, serving to boost American confidence not only in Virginia but also in North Carolina, whose Continentals under Robert Howe arrived almost immediately to reinforce Woodford. Dunmore's evacuation allowed the rebels to occupy Norfolk, which in turn prompted Dunmore's destruction of the town in January 1776.

SEE ALSO Howe, Robert; Murray, John; Norfolk, Virginia; Virginia, Military Operations in; Woodford, William.

                      revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.