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This Day in History: The British lose a foothold in the South as Norfolk burns

On this day in 1775, a stand-off comes to a head in Norfolk, Virginia. American Patriots had been in control of the town for weeks; they’d been refusing to give a nearby British fleet any access to supplies or provisions.

The British weren’t going to let that situation stand, of course. Reinforcements soon arrived in the form of HMS Liverpool. Its captain, Henry Bellew, sent the American commander in the city a veiled threat. He wanted fresh provisions! He claimed no desire to “shed the blood of the innocent and helpless”; however, if his men “should break loose in the uncontrollable pursuit of fresh and wholesome nourishment, the result must be obvious to every one.”

The Virginia Convention had the task of responding to this particular demand. If Bellew can show “that he is come to Virginia on a friendly errand, this Convention will take every opportunity of paying proper respect to a gentlemen in his station,” the Convention responded. Otherwise, “he must excuse the inhabitants of Virginia if they totally decline contributing towards their own destruction.”

Bellew was irate! He became even more upset as he viewed the daily Patriot patrols along the shore. On December 30, he demanded that these patrols be stopped.

Once again, the Americans refused to comply. “I am too much of an officer . . . to recede myself,” American commander Colonel Robert Howe replied, “from any point which I conceive to be my duty.”

On January 1, the British responded. The fleet’s guns opened fire on Norfolk, and landing parties were sent ashore.

“Under cover of their guns,” one newspaper would report, “the regulars landed and set fire to the town in several places near the water, though our men strove all in their power to prevent them. The houses being chiefly of wood, took fire immediately, and the fire spread with amazing rapidity.”

Norfolk had been a largely Loyalist town, and the Patriots weren’t too interested in saving the homes of Loyalists. To the contrary, while they worked to repulse the British, they also helped to raze the town.

For days, the town burned and was looted. Even after the initial round of fires and looting, the Virginia Convention gave Howe permission to finish destroying the town. The few buildings standing could not be left for British use.

Interestingly, most Americans assumed that the British were completely responsible for the destruction of Norfolk. “[I]n the course of five weeks,” a newspaper reported, “has a town which contained upwards of six thousand inhabitants, many of them in affluent circumstances . . . been reduced to ashes, and become desolate.” The paper blamed the “wicked and cruel machinations” of the British.

In reality, both sides contributed to the destruction—but the British bore the brunt of the loss.

“The destruction of Norfolk was an incredible strategic mistake on Lord Dunmore’s part,” one historian summarizes. “In taking his anger out on the city of Norfolk, he had eliminated the best loyalist port and community in the whole of the colonies. . . . The British had probably destroyed their best staging area for future operations against the Americans at the strategic center of the Thirteen Colonies.”

The British had lost their foothold in Virginia—at least for now.

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