This Day in History: The Gunpowder Incident nearly incites rebellion in Virginia
On this day in 1775, Patrick Henry prepares to face off against Virginia’s Royal Governor. The Gunpowder Incident was afoot! Naturally, the conflict was created by guns, ammunition . . . and a British attempt to confiscate them.
How unsurprising that our ancestors wrote the 2nd Amendment, with incidents such as these inspiring them.
King George III had been limiting the inflow of guns and ammunition into the American colonies for months. His Governors were to “take the most Effectual Measures for Arresting, detaining and securing any Gunpowder or any sort of Arms or Ammunition,” unless a royal license could be produced.
It was basically an 18th-century version of gun control, wasn’t it? The American colonists were furious!
You already know that the shots at Lexington and Concord were sparked by British General Thomas Gage’s attempt to seize ammunition stores. But you may not know what was happening in Williamsburg that same week. Colonists there were patrolling their own town. They’d heard a rumor that the Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, was preparing to seize their gunpowder.
The rumor was true! Patrick Henry had just delivered his “Liberty or Death” speech, and Dunmore was worried. “[T]heir having come to a resolution,” he would write, “of raising a body of armed men . . . made me think it prudent to remove some gunpowder which was in a magazine . . . .”
Dunmore secretly brought in 20 marines and sailors under the command of Lt. Henry Collins. When the citizens of Williamsburg began to relax their patrols, Collins would take advantage of the opportunity.
He didn’t have to wait long. On the night of April 20-21, the guards who were watching the magazine left early. At about 3 a.m., Collins and his men quietly seized about 15 half-barrels of gunpowder, while Williamsburg was fast asleep. An alarm was raised, but it was too late.
The colonists were livid! The magazine had been “erected at the public expence . . . for the protection and security of the country . . . in cases of invasions and insurrections.” Lord Dunmore had no right to seize the public’s gunpowder.
Indeed, a mob might have assaulted Dunmore but for the intervention of Peyton Randolph, the speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses. Randolph convinced the townspeople to seek a peaceful resolution.
Dunmore was wily, though. He tried to use the people’s fears against them, making the (untruthful) argument that he’d seized the ammunition because he was worried about a slave uprising! He argued the gunpowder was more “secure” with him, but he promised to return it, if needed.
Randolph was inclined to believe this falsehood. Patrick Henry was not.
By May 3, Henry was outside Williamsburg and in command of a detachment of men from his home county of Hanover. He demanded the stolen gunpowder—or restitution for it.
In the meantime, Williamsburg had finally learned of the “shot heard ‘round the world” at Lexington Green. Perhaps some people were getting worried?
The next day, the colony’s receiver general gave Henry 330 pounds. Henry called off his men, but he was only temporarily appeased. He would soon leave to attend the Second Continental Congress.
Dunmore hated being outdone by Henry. On May 6, he issued a proclamation denouncing “a certain Patrick Henry” and his “deluded Followers,” for unlawfully taking up arms and exciting rebellion.
Don’t you bet they wore that proclamation like a badge of pride?
Charles Campbell, History of the Colony and Ancient Dominion of Virginia (1860)
Circular Letter from the Earl of Dartmouth to the Governours of the Colonies (Oct. 19, 1774)
Letter from Thomas Cushing to Benjamin Franklin (approx. date Dec. 30, 1774)
Norman Fuss, Prelude to Rebellion: Dunmore’s Raid on the Williamsburg Magazine (Journal of the American Revolution; April 2, 2015)
Tony Williams, Hurricane of Independence: The Untold Story of the Deadly Storm at the Deciding Moment of the American Revolution (2008)