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The Gunpowder Incident

Early in the morning of April 21, 1775, colonists in Virginia’s capital city of Williamsburg awoke to find that under cover of night the royal governor, John Murray, 4th Earl Dunmore, ordered royal marines to remove the gunpowder stores from the public powder magazine in the center of the town. This event, which came to be known as the Gunpowder Incident, fanned the already burning flame of discontent and suspicion between Virginia’s last royal governor and patriot colonists. The Gunpowder Incident proved to be a milestone event in Virginia’s turn towards revolution and open rebellion against royal authority.

Patrick Henry before the Virginia House of Burgesses on May 30, 1765. Library of Congress

Even before he ordered the removal of the gunpowder, the governor had already soured relations with Virginia colonists. In 1774, he had dissolved the Virginia House of Burgesses after their declaration of support for “the city of Boston, in our sister colony of Massachusetts Bay” in response to the Intolerable Acts. Meeting secretly in Williamsburg’s Raleigh Tavern, Burgesses had convened the First Virginia Convention and signed documents of nonimportation. Meeting at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond on March 20, 1775, out of Dunmore’s earshot, Patrick Henry delivered his fiery “give me liberty, or give me death!” speech to the delegates of the Second Virginia Convention, which also selected representatives to attend the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia—an act in direct defiance of Dunmore’s instructions to not send delegates to Philadelphia.

Further, Dunmore became aware that under Henry’s direction, militias were mustering throughout the colony in “a posture of Defense” against royal authority. Earlier in April, colonists learned that Dunmore obtained the keys to Williamsburg’s powder magazine, and suspected he might act upon a circular letter from England ordering that royal governors remove arms and ammunition from public stores. On April 21, Dunmore ordered Lieutenant Henry Collins, onboard the H.M.S. Magdalen in the James River, to proceed into Williamsburg and seize the gunpowder from the magazine. 

In a letter to William Legge, 2nd Earl of Dartmouth, the secretary of state for the colonies, Dunmore reasoned that his actions stemmed from the colonists’ “dangerous measures…against the Government, which they have now entirely overturned, and particularly their having come to a resolution of raising a body of armed Men in all the counties, made me think it prudent to remove some Gunpowder which was in a Magazine in this place, where it lay exposed to any attempt that might be made to seize it, and I have reason to believe the people intended to take that step.” 

Around 3:00 or 4:00 a.m., Collins and his Marines successfully removed 15 half barrels of powder and carried it to the H.M.S. Magdalen but the action did not go unnoticed by the colonists, who beat drums of alarm to assemble the militia. Angry colonists soon mustered in the city center and in front of the Governor’s Palace, threatening the governor if he did not return the stolen powder. In the protest, Dunmore reported that the colonists had resolved “to seize upon, or massacre me, and every person found giving me assistance if I refused to deliver the Powder immediately into their custody.”

Cooler heads prevailed, and colonial leaders met with Dunmore inside the Governor’s Palace. According to Dunmore, their primary concern was that they were “apprehensive of Insurrection among their slaves (some reports having prevailed to this effect).”  By removing the gunpowder from the public magazine, colonists feared that Dunmore left them purposefully vulnerable to attack with little to no resources to fend off a rebellion. Historian Woody Holton has stated that “it is likely that by the 1760s almost every white person in the eastern countries (of Virginia) knew of a free person who had been killed by a slave.” Further, colonists feared that as rifts widened between patriots and the royal government, enslaved African Americans would take advantage of political and social instability, band together, and rebel. James Madison wrote in November 1774, “in one of our counties lately a few of those unhappy wretches met together & chose a leader who was to conduct them when the English Troops should arrive.” The implication in Madison’s letter was that enslaved men would rise together when British soldiers arrived to quell patriots. Further, current events seemed to confirm that British soldiers and other royal officials would encourage and aid these rebellions as a way of discouraging and quelling the rebellious would-be patriots. One Virginian living abroad wrote home of a pamphlet published in London in 1774. William Draper’s Thoughts of a Traveller Upon our American Disputes suggested “Proclame Freedom to their Negroes; then how long would they be a people? They would soon cry out for pardon, and render unto Caesar the Things which are Ceasar’s.” By early April 1775, the Virginia Gazette reported insurrections among enslaved men in Prince Edward County, Chesterfield County, and Norfolk.

In this escalating environment of insurrection and political upheaval, white Virginians feared that by removing the gunpowder from the magazine, Lord Dunmore imminently intended to arm enslaved African Americans against their patriot owners and render patriots incapable of defending themselves. Dunmore seized upon these anxieties and reported to Legge that when colonial leaders confronted him about the removal of the powder—public, not royal, property—he attempted to change the narrative, stating that “I thought proper in the defenceless (sic) state in which I find myself, to endeavor to soothe them, and answered verbally to the effect, that I had removed the powder lest the Negroes might have seized upon it, to a place of security, from whence, when I saw occasion I would at any time, deliver it to the people.” Dunmore had successfully played on the colonists’ anxieties of a slave rebellion to meet his own needs. Satisfied, the crowd dispersed. However, aware of the tensions that remained between colonists and royal officials such as himself, the next day Dunmore conveyed to the House of Burgesses that he was not above setting in motion their worst fear: if he—or any British official—was harmed, he would “declare Freedom to the Slaves, and reduce the City of Williamsburg to Ashes.”

Confrontations with the colonists further enraged Dunmore and pitted the governor against Patrick Henry. Henry, who was actively recruiting militias to march on Williamsburg, publically called for Dunmore to either return the powder or pay for its value, £330. As news of the gunpowder incident began to spread, so too did news of the battles at Lexington and Concord on April 19, which reached Virginia by April 28. As the situation in Williamsburg escalated, Dunmore reportedly said, “I have once fought for the Virginians, and by God I will let them see that I can fight against them.” Further, he doubled-down on his promise to free and arm enslaved men if militias did not stand down. One county militia voted to continue their march to Williamsburg “to demand satisfaction of Dunmore for the powder, and his threatening to fix his standard and call over the negroes.”

By May 3, Dunmore issued a formal cease and desist on all militias attempting to march on the city. On May 4 Henry accepted a payment of £330 for the powder, in an attempt to deescalate the situation and block Dunmore from following through on his threat, though the 15 barrels of powder were not returned. While peace and cooler heads temporarily returned to the capitol, militias continued to ready themselves in Williamsburg.

The damage had been done. In his letter to Legge on May 1, Dunmore lamented that that continued threats against his property and person had forced Lady Dunmore and their children out of the Governor’s Palace and to the safety of the H.M.S. Fowey, anchored in the York River with its guns and marines. Prophetically, Dunmore continued, “I shall remain here until I am forced out…as I cannot expect to make any effectual resistance in this place against the numbers that are said to be moving against me…I shall be forced…to arm all my own Negroes, & receive all others that will come to me, whom I shall declare free.” On June 8, Dunmore himself fled the Governor’s Palace for the Fowey, and from his floating flotilla of British warships commenced a raid on Hampton Roads. On November 7, Dunmore declared Virginia in an official state of rebellion, declared martial law, and finally made good on his threat to free—and arm—enslaved Virginians. His “Ethiopian Regiment” entrenched themselves at Great Bridge, where Virginia patriots brought the Revolution to Virginia.

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