Sunday, November 6, 2022

A Desperate Virginia Royal Governor Plays the Slave Card

                                        Lord Dunmore in Highland regalia.

John Murray, Earl of DunmoreRoyal Governor of the Colony of Virginia was in deep trouble the fall of 1775.  Even though the main theater of the damnable armed rebellion against King and Parliament was far to the north around besieged Boston and along the frontier with Canada, angry Virginians had driven him out of his capital at Williamsburg and he had been forced to seek refuge the frigate HMS Fowey at Yorktown on June 8, 1775.  With British forces tied up elsewhere the Governor Dunmore had about 300 men—Royal Marines, sailors, and a small loyal Guard with which to harass the local rebels with raids to replenish his dwindling supplies.  He had also invited slaves to abandon their Patriot masters, which only enraged his opposition further.

Through it all the House of Burgesses had continued to meet and maintained the pretense of remaining loyal subjects of the King.  Finally, the raids on plantations along the JamesYork, and Potomac Rivers caused the legislators to declare that Dunmore had effectively resigned as Governor by abandoning his office. It was a complete refutation of his authority while attempting to retain a veneer of continued loyalty.  Enraged Dunmore determined to take drastic action.

Murray, the 4th Earl of Dunmore, was a nobleman born at Taymouth in Scotland in 1730.  Despite an idealistic youthful brush with Jacobinism—at age 15 he was page to Bonnie Prince Charlie—he was able to salvage a career because his uncle, the 2nd Earl remained a loyal Hanoverian.  The lad saw the error of his ways and joined the Army at age 20.  After inheriting his title and lands in 1756 he married very well to the daughter of the Earl of Galway.  The couple would cement their attachment to the Hanoverians when their eldest daughter married a younger son of King George III—even thought it was disallowed and officially annulled under a technicality of the Royal Marriages Act 1772.   

Dunmore rose from the House of Lords to the Privy Council and then to a plumb career as a colonial administrator.  In 1770 he was appointed Governor of the Province on New York.  Not long after he arrived to take up his duties the Royal Governor of Virginia, Norborne BerkeleyLord Botetourt died.  Virginia was then in political turmoil and threatened by Indian raids on its frontier.  The Crown thought it expeditious to quickly fill the vacancy with a man already in the New World.  Dunmore received the assignment and dutifully arrived in the Old Dominion in 1771 to take up his duties.  It was something of a promotion, as Virginia was the oldest, largest, and one of the most populous of all the colonies.

Lord Dunmore found little peace in the Governor's Palace at Williamsburg.

Once at his new post following a popular governor, Dunmore got off on a bad start by trying to assert control of the government without calling the House of Burgesses for more than a year.  He was finally forced to do so in March of 1773 to attempt to levy taxes to raise troops to deal with the rising crisis on the frontier where the Shawnee and Mingo were harassing and attacking settlers—Daniel Boone lost an adolescent son in the first such attack.  But the Burgesses, dominated by the Tidewater planters were more interested in the issues of taxation by the Crown and the growing crisis with the Mother Country.  They took advantage of gathering in Williamsburg to establish a Committee of Correspondence to keep in touch with those in Boston and elsewhere.

That caused the governor to delay the meeting House.  The Burgesses and other leaders then convened at the Raleigh Tavern to discuss what further actions to take.  Dunmore considered the meetings an illegal rump but did not take action against it.

Instead, Dunmore confronted the rising problems on the frontier, where retaliation by armed settlers, including the murder of the family of the formerly friendly Mingo leader Logan at brought the trans-Allegheny to open war.  The governor had long hoped to foster Virginia’s claims in the west, especially in the Ohio Valley despite the official policies of the Crown restricting western settlement.  In May he was forced to recall the legislature and ask for permission to conduct a campaign against Ohio Confederacy of the Shawnee, Mingo, and elements of the Cherokee.

Historians Eric Hinderaker and Peter C. Mancall in At the Edge of Empire assessed Dunmore’s complicated motives:

He recognized in the crisis on the Ohio an opportunity to press ahead with his efforts to open new western lands to occupation and settlement. He had consistently pursued this aim for several years, even when he acted in opposition to the Crown’s policy…. Yet he also perceived that the western campaign could be a way to lead a popular initiative that might distract Virginia’s populace from the escalating crisis taking shape in Boston and other northern ports. Instead of supporting the rebels, Dunmore hoped the denizens of Virginia would rally to his side. In his mind, war along the Ohio would help to make him a popular leader in the colony…. Further, Dunmore hoped to use the conflict to secure Virginia’s claim to the area around Pittsburgh. He could then work to remove the threat of Indians who opposed colonial expansion in the Ohio Valley and open central Kentucky…to colonial settlement. This bold initiative left Dunmore vulnerable to criticism from every side. If it failed, he might be removed from office and disgraced for his unauthorized actions. But if it succeeded, he might weather the storm…and emerge a successful leader in a time of dramatic upheaval

Dunmore personally took to the field at the head of a force of 1,700 men and struck west from Fort Pitt.  Another 800 men under Colonel Andrew Lewis left Camp Union, now Lewisburg, West Virginia, with the two forces to rendezvous at the mouth of the of the Kanawha on the Ohio.  Dunmore changed plans and announced his intention to attach the Shawnee villages along the Scioto River.  He sent word to Lewis, who had picked up more than 200 more frontier militiamen to cross the Ohio into the heart of the Shawnee territory.

Before he could cross, Lewis was surprised by warriors under Chief Cornstalk resulting in the daylong Battle of Point Pleasant.  Despite losing more than 75 dead and 145 wounded, Lewis was able to defeat and repel Cornstock who retreated across the river with the Virginians in close pursuit.  This proved to be the decisive battle of the campaign.

The Battle of Point Pleasant proved to be the decisive battle of Lord Dunmore's War.  The governor believed the defeat of the native tribes on the frontier would earn him praise and honor in his colony.  It did not.

Lewis and Dunmore’s forces entered Ohio and came within 8 miles of converging and trapping Shawnee towns at Pickaway Plains between them.  That forced the Shawnee leaders to negotiations resulting in the Treaty of Camp Charlotte on October 19, 1774 in which the largest of the hostile tribes agreed to give up hunting claims south of the Ohio and cease raiding settlements there.  The Mingo held out until a force under Major William Crawford attacked their village of Seekunk (Salt Lick Town), near present SteubenvilleOhio and destroyed it.  The Mingo, too, were forced to settle, although the bitter Logan refused to attend the peace council or put his mark to a treaty.

What became known as Lord Dunmores War was over.  The Governor marched home to Williamsburg expecting adulation and triumph.  Instead, he found his victory had solved none of his problems. 

Before leaving on his campaign Dunmore had dissolved the House after they voted to make June 1, 1774 a day of fasting and prayer.  In response the delegates convened on August 1 as the First Virginia Convention where they confirmed support of Massachusetts including a pledge of supplies, called for a congress of all the colonies, and banned trade with Britain.  They also set up elections to a Second Convention to convene the next year.

Lord Dunmore's chief political opponent, Patrick Henry, gave an impassioned speech at the Second Virginia Convention where he proclaimed something like "Give me liberty or Give Me Death."  His exact words were not recorded and the speech was recalled by a delegate decades later.

When the Second Convention met in Richmond at St. Johns Church in March of 1775 to elect delegates to the First Continental Congress.  Dunmore issued an edict against the election but failed to act to stop it. Firebrand leader Patrick Henry rose in the assembly to give some version of the Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death reconstructed by memory years after the event.  The Convention followed his call to arm the Militia and rally military opposition to the Governor.

Dunmore’s response was much the same as General Gage up in Massachusetts who set out to seize armories at Lexington and Concorde on April 19.  The very next day on April 20 the Governor gave the key to the Williamsburg armory to Lieutenant Henry Collins, commander of H.M.S. Magdalen, and ordered him to remove the powder. That night Royal Marines loaded fifteen half-barrels of powder into the governor’s personal wagon, transported it down the Quarterpath Road to the James River and the British warship.

Patrick Henry used the Gunpowder Incident to rally the Militia and marched on the capital on May 3, pitching camp just outside of town.  The governor evacuated his family to the safety of his hunting lodge, Porto Bello, in nearby York County and defiantly issued an order proclaiming “a certain Patrick Henry... and a Number of deluded Followers” had organized “an Independent Company... and put themselves in a Posture of War.”

He threatened, but did not impose, martial law likely because he had no means to enforce it.  He was soon driven from Williamsburg to Porto Bello.  Wounded in the leg during the pursuit, Dunmore and his family escaped to the safety of the Fowey on June 8.

Over the summer the Virginians would convene the Third Convention in July which created a Committee of Safety to take over governance in Dunmore’s absence of, divided Virginia into 16 military districts, and resolved to raise regular regiments for the Continental Army.

Lord Dunmore's Proclamation offering freedom to slaves willing to bear arms against their rebellious masters.  

The situation continued with Dunmore unable to conduct any operations except the harassing raids.  Desperate to break the impasse, on November 7, 1775 he drafted Lord Dunmores Proclamation, also known as Lord Dunmores Offer of Emancipation.  In it he finally officially declared martial law, declared the rebels traitors to the Crown—a hanging offense—and formally offered freedom to “all indentured servants, Negroes, or that are able and willing to bear arms...”

The Proclamation was published one week later on November 14.  The Virginians, who lived in terror of slave uprisings, were both outraged and horrified.  A predictable effect was that not only the slaves of Patriots abandoned their masters, but so did those of previously loyal Planters, driving many into the arms of the rebels.  The Militia and local planters quickly organized slave patrols to intercept any attempted escapees.

The Virginia Gazette published the proclamation in full but also virulently denounced it, as did other newspapers.  It also advised slaves—futile because few could read—to “Be not then...tempted by the proclamation to ruin yourselves,” because Dunmore would simply seize them and sell them in the West Indies at his own profit.

                                              The uniform of Dunmore's ill fated Ethiopian Regiment of emancipated slaves.

This charge was untrue Dunmore who had only 300 men at his disposal really did want to arm them.  Many escapees were recaptured.  Others returned when offered an amnesty for doing so.  But enough reached the British—between 800 and 2,000—that he was able to arm a force he called Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment which fought and was badly defeated in the Battle of Great Bridge in early December 1775.  After that the force was decimated by smallpox.

In 1776 Dunmore had to abandon Virginia entirely, sailing away with just 300 of the slaves to whom he had promised freedom.  Most of the rest who had not died were returned to servitude, often after vicious floggings.  A few managed to escape in the confusion of the times and make their way mostly to Pennsylvania where they blended into the local free Black population.

To add insult to injury, Dunmore’s bitter enemy Patrick Henry was elected first revolutionary governor of Virginia.  The Lord returned to London where he was hailed a hero.  He resumed his seat in the House of Lords and drew his full salary as Royal Governor until 1783, when Britain recognized American independence.  From 1787 to 1796 he served as Royal Governor of the Bahamas.  He then lived in comfortable retirement in Scotland until his death in 1809.

Although his Proclamation has been described by some British and some American Black history scholars as a reflection of rising anti-slavery sentiment in Britain.  Clearly, it was simply a measure of military necessity.  But it did presage further British amnesties, most importantly General Sir Henry Clintons 1779 Philipsburg Proclamation, which freed slaves owned by Patriots throughout the rebel states, even if they did not enlist in the British Army.  That created a wave of runaways, estimated to include 100,000 escapes or escape attempts and led to the creation of several regiments of new freemen.

By the end of the war, many were re-enslaved but the British brought 3,000 of them along with White Tories to Nova Scotia.  All in all, more slaves were emancipated by the British during the American Revolution that at any time until the Civil War.

At least credit Dunmore for starting that.  

No comments:

Post a Comment