This Day in History: Patriots win the Battle of Great Bridge
On this day in 1775, American militia Colonel William Woodford reports his victory at the Battle of Great Bridge in Virginia. “This was a second Bunker’s Hill affair, in miniature,” Woodford wrote, “with this difference, that we kept our post, and had only one man wounded in the hand.”
Great Bridge would prove to be the first American land victory since the “shot heard round the world” at the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
Tensions had been high in Virginia for some time. You can imagine that a British effort to seize gunpowder just made things worse, yet that’s exactly what Royal Governor Lord Dunmore ordered during the spring of 1775.
Needless to say, an attempt to confiscate ammunition didn’t sit too well with American Patriots. Tensions escalated.
Making matters worse, British troops soon began raiding Virginia counties for military supplies. A few skirmishes followed, and Dunmore declared martial law. But Dunmore was having his own difficulties, too. By the fall of 1775, he’d been forced to abandon Williamsburg, fleeing to the protection of the Royal Navy in Norfolk. Once there, he protected himself further by blocking Great Bridge, which was the only land access to that city.
Unsurprisingly, Patriot forces responded by establishing their own position not too far away.
Dunmore was at a bit of a disadvantage by this juncture, although he didn’t seem to know it. His information about the American position was inaccurate: He thought the American strength was just a few hundred men, but the real number was probably closer to 1,000. Dunmore was also getting cocky, in part because he’d just won an easy victory against some poorly trained militia at Kemp’s Landing.
How hard could it be to repulse the Patriot position at Great Bridge? Dunmore decided to launch an attack that one British officer would later label as “absurd, ridiculous & unnecessary.” About 120 British regulars were dispatched to Great Bridge, along with a few hundred British sailors, Loyalists, and slaves. Early in the morning on December 9, the attack began.
The British made many of the same mistakes that they’d made at Bunker Hill several months earlier. After a short cannonade, rows of British soldiers began formally marching toward the Patriot militia. At Bunker Hill such a strategy had worked, largely because Americans didn’t have enough gunpowder to outlast the multiple waves of British soldiers who came towards them. But at Great Bridge, the formal style of British warfare finally failed.
Americans were disciplined, holding their fire until the British were just 50 yards away—then they unleashed a relentless barrage. The British were unprepared for the devastating assault that followed. As round after round of American fire came, a voice was heard from the British ranks: “For God’s sake, do not murder us!”
Patriots had won their first land victory—and they’d done it within the space of 30 minutes.
Following the battle, a general Convention in Virginia issued a proclamation: “[W]e shall all acquit ourselves like freemen, being compelled, by a disagreeable, but absolute necessity, of repelling force by force, to maintain our just rights and privileges; and we appeal to GOD, who is the sovereign disposer of all events, for the justice of our cause, trusting to his unerring wisdom to direct our councils, and give success to our arms.”
A Declaration of the General Convention of Virginia (Dec. 13, 1775) (reprinted on page 63, HERE)
Jon Kukla, Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty (2017)
Letter from Colonel William Woodford to Edmund Pendleton (Dec. 10, 1775) (reprinted on page 39, HERE)
Michael Kranish, Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War (2010)
Rick Atkinson, The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 (2019)
Theodore P. Savas & J. David Dameron, A Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution (2006)