“The Sword is Now Drawn…” The Powder Incident, Lexington and Concord moves Virginia to Revolution

Battle of Lexington by Amos Doolittle, December, 1775

One of the most amazing parts of the events on April 19, 1775 is just how sophisticated the colonial information network was. As soon as Lt. Col. Francis Smith’s British Regulars began to move across the Charles River, riders fanned out from Boston and to neighboring towns. Each town then had more riders that spread out and soon dozens of men were riding through the New England countryside warning of the fighting that took place. Soon information spread to the mid-Atlantic colonies and Philadelphia on April 24th. In the age of no electricity, the complexities and speed that news traveled from Boston to the other colonies was pretty amazing. Stories grew from person to person and it would take months and even years to decipher truth from exaggeration. It was imperative for both the “Patriots” and General Thomas Gage to get their version of the events of April 19th out as fast as possible. Facts or not, the importance of the public relations was of utmost importance to both sides to win the hearts and minds of the other colonies.

As the news reached Virginia, the colony was already at a crossroads with their

Virginia Lt Governor, John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore

Governor. The last House of Burgesses that met in Williamsburg was dissolved in August 1774 over their vocal support of the people of Massachusetts after the Boston Port Act. The once popular Governor, John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore (Governor Dunmore), was angered over their overt support and ordered them dissolved and returned home. The legislature defied his orders and met soon after at the nearby Raleigh Tavern, thus constituting the “First Virginia Convention.” With questionable legal authority, the Convention called for solidarity and non-importation of British goods. They also agreed to meet again in the future. The “Second Virginia Convention” met in March of 1775 in Richmond, a safe distance from the Governor’s influence in Williamsburg. It was at this Convention that Patrick Henry made his famous “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” speech on March 23. Though considered radical at the time, the speech energized the Convention and set the tone. When the Governor learned of the Convention and especially Henry’s speech, he made a fateful decision to remove the gunpowder stored in the magazine in Williamsburg.

On the evening of April 20, 1775 – unbeknownst to the Virginians, one day after Lexington and Concord, Lord Dunmore ordered Royal Marines to remove the powder to a nearby ship, the HMS Magdalen. Quickly townsfolk were alerted to what was going on and local militia were called, with riders (much like the more famous riders in Massachusetts) and carried the word throughout the colony. Threatened by local militia, Dunmore armed his servants at the Governor’s Palace and only after Peyton Randolph intervened was violence avoided. But the reprieve was brief as more counties learned of the Governor’s actions and more crowds collected outside of the Governor’s Palace demanding he return the powder.

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By 1775, there were three Virginia Gazette’s being printed in Williamsburg. This copy, printed by John Dixon and William Hunter first reported the events at Lexington and Concord on April 29, 1775.

Any attempts by the Governor to diffuse the situation were lost when on April 28th, when news arrived in Virginia (first in Alexandria) about the events in Lexington and Concord. Though the truth of what happened on April 19th was shocking enough, the truth had been stretched as the word spread south. On April 29, the Virginia Gazette reported that the courthouse in Concord was burned and casualties on both sides were exaggerated. Reports of armed militias in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut soon arrived in Virginia. The debated details would have no impact on the outcome of the news, blood had been shed and the colonists of Massachusetts now besieged the British army in Boston. The revolutionaries in Virginia, such as Patrick Henry, now had the Powder Incident in Williamsburg and the battle outside of Boston to rally public opinion towards independence and revolution. Henry, a master of oration and rhetoric, along with anti-British press in Williamsburg like the Virginia Gazette (there were three published in Williamsburg at the time) pounced on the opportunity to turn conservative and moderate voices to the patriot side. As a Virginia Gazette broadside published as the news of Lexington and Concord reached Virginia, “It is now full time for us all to be on guard, and to prepare ourselves against every contingency. The sword is now drawn, and God knows when it will be sheathed.”

With this news, militia companies that were already beginning to assemble across the colony became tense with the possible opportunity of violence. George Washington, Colonel of the Fairfax Company and involved in the Independent Company forming in Fredericksburg, decided to remain near Mount Vernon to await events and inspect the Alexandria volunteers. Washington by now believed the best place to look for answers was in Philadelphia at the Second Continental Congress that was assembling in May. He believed only a concerted effort by all the colonies would achieve any success. As reported in the Virginia Gazette (Purdie’s) on May 12, calmer heads prevailed in Fredericksburg as a messenger was sent to Williamsburg to ascertain the situation and were convinced by Patriot leaders to stand down.

The situation in Hanover was much different, as avowed revolutionary Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry making his historic “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech at the Second Virginia Convention, March 23, 1775 at St. John’s Church in Richmond. Courtesy of Historic St. John’s Church

rallied his local militia in a call to arms to march on Williamsburg. Other companies from across Virginia shunned the decision of the Fredericksburg Independent Company and rallied to Henry’s call. Henry saw the events in Massachusetts and in the Williamsburg as part of a concerted effort by the British Crown to subdue the colonies. Henry, with over a hundred militia marched on Williamsburg to demand the Governor to return the powder. Dunmore fled town with his family and threatened to burn the town. Through tense negotiations, the powder was paid for (£330) and Dunmore returned to Williamsburg with his family, though by June 8, Dunmore again left Williamsburg never to return.

Though no blood was shed in Virginia in April 1775, it became clear that the Powder Incident and the news of Lexington and Concord solidified Virginia’s fate as a leader in the revolutionary cause. Not all Virginians were eager to leave Great Britain, but Henry and other revolutionaries were able to use Dunmore’s actions in Williamsburg, combined with the bloodshed outside of Boston as a catalyst to turn public opinion. By the time the Virginia House of Burgesses reconvened in Williamsburg on June 1st, there was little doubt of their sentiment towards Great Britain. In just one year, on May 15, 1776 the Virginia Convention would pass a resolution calling for independence from Great Britain.

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