The Gunpowder Incident occurred on April 20, 1775 in Williamsburg, Virginia when the British Army under Lord Dunmore advanced to confiscate gunpowder stores. Just as in Lexington and Concord the colonial militia began to muster when they heard of Dunmore’s movements. Patrick Henry led his militia to confront the British. In the end the conflict was resolved peacefully when Dunmore paid 330 pound sterlings for the ammunition. After resolving the conflict Lord Dunmore removed himself from Virginia for fear of his life. He, like Thomas Gage in Boston, was alarmed to see how organized and quick the colonial militia had been.
The French and Indian War had, in a sense, united the colonies. The colonial militia had fought along side the British Army and successfully defeated the French and their Indian allies. After the war was over the colonies saw a rise in economic power while the motherland was burdened with a large amount of debt. In order to pay for these debts the British enacted a series of acts that would provide additional income and relieve the debt. The first of these acts was the Stamp Act of 1765.
The Stamp Act ignited a firestorm across all of the colonies and had many unintended consequences for Great Britain. It gave rise to many influential political figures such as: John Adams, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, James Otis, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, John Dickinson, and John Rutledge. The Sons of Liberty organized as did many other resistance groups. The Committee of Correspondence came into existence after the Stamp Act Congress adjourned and created a mechanism for communicating throughout the colonies. The rallying cry, “No Taxation Without Representation” became a slogan that would last until the Revolutionary War. The result was that the British repealed the Stamp Act.
However they tried again with the Townshend Acts and later with the Intolerable Acts. These acts would push the colonies closer to war with Britain and mobilize sophisticated militia organizations throughout. In Massachusetts the political leaders organized an alarm system and an elite branch of militia known as Minutemen. In Virginia militia organizations began to muster and seek out military supplies to equip them.
Conflict in Williamsburg
On the night of April 20, royal marines went to the Williamsburg powder magazine, loaded fifteen half barrels of powder into the governor’s wagon, and transported it to the eastern end of the Quarterpath Road to be loaded aboard the Magdalen in the James River. The act was discovered by townsfolk while underway, and they sounded an alarm. Local militia rallied to the scene, and riders spread word of the incident across the colony. Dunmore had as a precaution armed his servants with muskets, and it was only the calming words of Patriot leaders, including the Speaker of the House of Burgesses, Peyton Randolph, that prevented the assembling crowd from storming Dunmore’s mansion. The city council demanded the return of the powder, claiming it was the property of the colony and not the Crown. Dunmore demurred, stating that he was moving the powder as protection against its seizure during a rumored slave uprising, and would eventually return it. This seemed to satisfy the assembled crowd, and it dispersed peacefully.
Unrest however persisted in Williamsburg and spread throughout the countryside. After a second crowd was convinced to disperse by Patriot leaders, Dunmore reacted angrily, warning on April 22 that if attacked, he would “declare Freedom to the Slaves, and reduce the City of Williamsburg to Ashes.” He also told a Williamsburg alderman that he had “once fought for the Virginians” but “By God, I would let them see that I could fight against them.”
By April 29, militia mobilizing in the countryside had learned of the battles at Lexington and Concord. Nearly 700 men mustered at Fredericksburg, and decided to send a messenger to Williamsburg to assess the situation before marching on the capital. Peyton Randolph advised against violence, and George Washington, a longtime leader of the Virginia militia, concurred. In response to their advice, the Fredericksburg militia voted by a narrow margin not to march. However, militia from other parts of the colony did march to Williamsburg. The Hanover County militia, led by Patrick Henry, voted on May 2 to march on Williamsburg. Henry dispatched a small company to the home of Richard Corbin, who was the Deputy Collector of the Royal Revenue in Virginia, in a bid to force him to pay for the powder from Crown revenue in his possession; the remainder of the Hanover County militia, numbering about 150, marched toward Williamsburg, arriving about 15 miles away on May 3. That day Dunmore’s family escaped Williamsburg to Porto Bello, Lord Dunmore’s hunting lodge on the York River, and from there to the HMS Fowey, lying at anchor in the York River.
Corbin was not at home—he was in Williamsburg, meeting with Dunmore. Henry was advised by Carter Braxton, Corbin’s son-in-law and a Patriot member of the House of Burgesses, not to enter the city, while Braxton rode into the city and negotiated a payment. The next day, May 4, Henry received a bill of exchange for £330 signed by a wealthy plantation owner, as payment for the powder (he refused the offer of payment from Crown accounts). Henry then departed to take his place as a member of Virginia’s delegation to the Second Continental Congress, promising to deliver the money to “the Virginia Delegates at the General congress”. On May 6 Dunmore issued a proclamation charging Henry with extortion of the 330 pound sterlings, and forbidding the citizenry to assist Henry in any way. Henry was offered protection by several counties, and was escorted by several companies of militia to the Maryland border as he made his way to Philadelphia.
Fate of Lord Dunmore
Lord Dunmore’s reputation took a large hit as a result of the Gunpowder Incident. He had already been at odds with the Virginia House of Burgesses, but the incident placed a chasm between the two. He created a proposal to divide the colony. While the House was discussing the proposal, Dunmore and his family fled from his residence to the British ship, Fowley. He returned to Williamsburg one more time before the American Revolutionary War, but it was short-lived.
During the beginning months of the war Dunmore led small raids throughout Virginia. The British defeat at the Battle of Great Bridge in which Lord Dunmore lost approximately 100 men and the militia did not lose any. After the debacle at Great Bridge Lord Dunmore never returned to the Thirteen Colonies again. In 1787 he would become the Royal Governor of the Bahamas and serve there for nine years.