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Gwynn Island, Virginia

Gwynn Island, Virginia

GWYNN ISLAND, VIRGINIA. Chesapeake Bay, 8-10 July 1776. Dunmore's last stand. After setting fire to Norfolk on 1 January, the British spent the next several months operating in the lower Chesapeake Bay, largely obstructing shipping and harassing Patriots living near the shore. On 27 May the royal governor established a base on Gwynn Island at the mouth of the Piankatank River, just south of the mouth of the Rappahannock. The island of twenty-three hundred acres was reasonably safe, lying about five hundred yards from the mainland, and provided a sheltered anchorage for his little provincial fleet. Supported by several small Royal Navy warships, a handful of regulars and some five hundred Tory troops—black and white—Dunmore hoped to maintain a foothold in his province and establish a base from which to raid the neighboring plantations. Local militia mobilized on the mainland and began watching from a distance, but Dunmore's forces sat immobilized by disease, including an outbreak of smallpox.

On 8 July, Brigadier General Andrew Lewis arrived with a brigade of Virginia troops to eliminate this last vestige of royal authority. At 8 a.m. of the 9th, Lewis opened fire at a range of five hundred yards from two batteries. One armed with two eighteen-pound guns put five shots into the governor's flagship, the Dunmore, wounding its namesake. A second battery of lighter guns then bombarded the enemy fleet, camp, and fortifications for an hour. Most of the governor's vessels slipped their cables and tried to escape; some ran aground and were burned by their crews. The guns that did fire back were quickly silenced. When no sign of surrender came from the island, the rebel guns resumed their cannonade at noon. The next morning after boats had been found, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander McClanahan crossed with two hundred men and found evidence of the smallpox outbreak that explained why there had been so little resistance. Graves dotted the island, and the dead and dying were scattered about in various directions. The rest had fled with Dunmore.

British losses included three vessels captured and several more destroyed. It is not known how many personnel were killed or wounded in the attack, but the Americans made no claims, indicating that they could not have been heavy. The only Patriot casualty was Captain Dohickey Arundell, the artillery commander, who was killed "by the bursting of a mortar of his own invention" (Virginia Gazette [Purdy], 19 July 1776).

SEE ALSO Lewis, Andrew; Norfolk, Virginia; Virginia, Military Operations in.

                        revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.

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