A few weeks back, you may have noticed a video on Emerging Revolutionary War’s Facebook page about the Marquis de Lafayette and his independent command during the spring and summer of 1781 in Virginia. Along with good pal, Dan Davis, we located a site of where Lafayette encamped while he maneuvers to protect the iron furnaces of the Fredericksburg area, keep a distance from British forces under General Lord Charles Cornwallis, and await reinforcements being sent south under General Anthony Wayne.
He continued to keep his commander-in-chief, General George Washington updated on affairs in the latter’s native state. From a camp in central Virginia the Frenchman penned the following letter.
“Camp Betwen Rappaahonock and North Anna June 3d 1781
My Dear General
Inclosed you will find the Copy of a letter to General Greene. He at first Had-Requested I would directly write to you, Since which His orders Have Been different, But He directed me to forward you Copies of My official Accounts. So many letters are lost in their Way that I do not Care to Avoid Repetitions. I Heartly wish, My dear General, My Conduct may Be approved of particularly By You. My Circumstances Have Been peculiar, and in this State I Have Some times Experienced Strange disappointements. Two of them the Stores at Charlotte’s Ville, and the delay of the [Pensylva] Detachement Have given me Much Uneasiness and May Be attended with Bad Consequences. There is great Slowness and Great Carelessness in this part of the world—But the Intentions are good, and the people want to Be Awakened. Your presence, My dear General, would do a Great deal. Should these deta[chments] Be Increased to three or four thousand, and the french Army Come this way, leaving One of our generals at Rhode island and two or three about New York and in the Jersays you Might be on the offensive in this Quarter, and there Could Be a Southern Army in Carolina. Your presence would do Immense good, But I would wish you to Have a large force—General Washington Before He personally appears must Be Strong enough to Hope Success. Adieu, My dear general, With the Highest Respect and Most Tender affection I Have the Honor to be Yours
If you persist in the idea to Come this Way you may depend upon about 3000 Militia in the field Relieved every two months. your presence will induce them to turn out with great Spirit.“
That letter may have been written somewhere around the terrain you see in the photos below. You never know what you can stumble into touring central Virginia!
The financial direction of the gunnery was put into the hands of Fielding Lewis. Born into a wealthy family at Warner Hall in Gloucester County, Virginia in 1725, Fielding was the third son of John and Frances Lewis. Following his father’s footsteps, Fielding was a prosperous industrialist, running a fleet of ships to England and English ports, exporting tobacco and grain. In addition, he operated a store and served on numerous committees and local government associations that laid the groundwork for governing what would eventually become the United States of America. Fielding was addressed as Colonel Lewis, more often than not, reflecting his participation as a provider of provisions and raising the local Spotsylvania militia during the French and Indian War. Feats he was to repeat and go beyond during the Revolutionary War.
Often using his vast personal wealth, Lewis purchased schooners and sloops, outfitting them with artillery to patrol the Rappahannock River in an effort to protect civilian lives and property, and to stop British troops from seizing colonial weaponry.
In February 1776, Lewis purchased the schooner, Liberty, outfitting it with armory. Later, renamed Hornet, it sailed under the command of Richard Taylor of Caroline County. It carried a crew of twenty-one men. Lewis, then purchased a sloop named Defiance and placed it under the command of Captain Eliezer Callender. In April, Lewis purchased the pilot boat, Adventure, appointing Captain William Saunders at the helm.
Lewis commissioned ships to be built as well. The row galley was the most popular vessel used for defense of the river and harbor at the time. Although equipped with sails, the primary source of power was the oar. Larger row galleys measuring seventy feet long could carry a crew of fifty men. These galleys often-times carried two large eighteen pound cannons. Lewis commissioned another ship named Dragon and launched it in 1777; it was used primarily to patrol the Chesapeake Bay.
Free and enslaved blacks were often members of the crew. Around one-hundred and forty black men served with the Virginia fleet; one to ten on each of the seventy vessels. About ten served on the Dragon. Some of these men may well have been slaves belonging to Lewis or Dick. Only ten percent of black men who served in the navy were free, most were escaped slaves posing as free men, like Crispus Attucks, the first casualty of the Revolutionary War. To fulfill enlistment quotas, slaves served as substitutes for their masters. Unlike white men who served for a specific time, blacks were in it for the long haul; for only then could their service earn them the promise of freedom.
The first ship to engage in warfare was the Hornet, capturing four enemy merchantmen in the Rappahannock. Their ship, Speedwell, was taken into custody by the Virginia Navy and sent to the West Indies to bring back gunpowder. Fielding imported guns and ammunition for use in the colonies by the Rappahannock and the Patsey.
Lewis’s commitment to freeing the colonies from British rule was unrelenting. A wealthy man, he sacrificed nearly everything he possessed to see his dream of American independence from Britain rule become a reality. He sat on one local government committee after another. He bought ships and turned them into naval ships. He managed the financial direction of the gunnery, as well as procuring military materials. Col. Lewis appointed ship captains and he raised regiments, adding manpower to the Continental Army. During this time, Lewis didn’t neglect the on-going responsibilities he administered before the war. He presided over legal cases as the Justice of the Peace, provided religious leadership, administrative duties and support for the poor as a vestry member of St. George’s Anglican Church, and ran his plantation and mercantile business.
The Fifth Convention met in May of 1776 and authorized the Virginia Committee to reimburse Lewis 1,059 pounds to pay privateers who imported provisions. He was also reimbursed an additional 1,800 pounds in July. However by the end of the war Lewis was virtually bankrupt. He was owed a considerable amount of money but he never recouped all of the money he invested. By 1780, Lewis’ health had deteriorated to the extent that he was no longer able to manage the gunnery and the full responsibility fell on the shoulders of Charles Dick, who had used his personal credit to finance various tasks related to the success of the gunnery. The Convention was delinquent in its payments to Lewis, Dick and the sixty employees at the gunnery. Dick closed the factory for a time due to his inability to meet payroll. He wrote to Governor Thomas Jefferson his frustrations about the lack of funds:
“I will do all in my Power to carry on the Work; but impossibiltys I cannot do … There must be proper stores laid in, Provisions, Walnut Plank for Gun-stocks, Iron, Steel are the principal articles, and these require even a good deal of Real money – And without which little or nothing can be done; I cannot speak plainer.”
The gunnery closed in 1783, the same year that the Treaty of Paris was signed establishing the independence of the United States of America. The manufacturing plant continued to operate, repairing muskets badly damaged after the war. Subsequently, once the gunnery ceased operations, the property and land was sold to trustees of the Fredericksburg Academy, whose president was James Mercer. The academy opened in 1786.
The last major battle of the Revolutionary War occurred at Yorktown. Major General Charles Cornwallis surrendered to General George Washington in October of 1781. By December, Fielding Lewis, at the age of fifty-six, had succumbed to his battle with (consumption) tuberculosis. Charles Dick died a few years later in 1783. True patriots, Fielding Lewis and Charles Dick sacrificed their fortunes and health to free colonial America from British rule and were eye-witnesses to the birth of a new nation.
Today, at Historic Kenmore, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, stands the 18th-century plantation home built by Fielding Lewis and Betty Washington Lewis. The home, the pre-Revolutionary colonial kitchen and the Crownsinshield Gallery are open to the public for tours. Besides the antique collection of furniture and decorative arts, a musket produced by the Fredericksburg Gun Manufactory hangs in a display case in the gallery.
In the pages of American history, Col. Lewis and Charles Dick stand out as men whose faithful and persistent dedication to the cause of liberty lives on as an example of true patriotism.
“Fielding Lewis and Charles Dick may not have served on the battlefield during the Revolution, but they fought their own battles on the homefront, sacrificing all they had to keep the Gunnery running, naval ships operating and the militia supplied. Their sacrifices should remind us all to ask ourselves if we would be willing to do the same if ever called upon.” – Meghan Budinger, Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations, The George Washington Foundation.
*Endnotes “Protecting the New Nation: The Fredericksburg Gun Manufactory
Photo Credit Information
Meghan Budinger, curator, sent me a list of questions that I had to answer in order to get permission to use the photographs from their collection.
State Marker: N-7,Fredericksburg Gun Manufactory
Courtesy of the George Washington Foundation (The Papers of George Washington Revolutionary War Series, Fielding’s letter to George Washington)
Courtesy of the George Washington Foundation (The Papers of George Washington Revolutionary War Series, Military Manual)
Courtesy of the George Washington Foundation (Musket: Fredericksburg Gunnery, Gift of Thomas Mellon II, 1936.)
Courtesy of the George Washington Foundation (Colonel Fielding Lewis, portrait by John Wollaston, Courtesy of the George Washington Foundation, circa 1755-1757.)
Courtesy of the George Washington Foundation Memorial stone from The Sons of the American Revolution
Emerging Revolutionary War is honored to welcome back historian Malanna Henderson.
Located at 200 Gunnery Road between Dunmore and Ferdinand Streets is the Old Walker-Grant public school. The three-acre campus is home to the Fredericksburg Regional Head Start educational program. Built in 1938, Walker-Grant was the first publically financed high school for black youth in Fredericksburg. The institution was named for Joseph Walker and Jason Grant.
Walker, born into slavery in Spotsylvania County in 1854, was freed after the Civil War and moved to Fredericksburg. Employed in a paper mill, Walker was self-taught and had a keen interest in expanding educational opportunities for black youth. He served as the sexton at St. George’s Episcopal Church for more than 50 years. Jason Grant was born free in Chatham, Ontario, Canada, in 1861 to a middle-class family. He attended Wilberforce Educational Institute in Ohio. He met an inspiring educator from Fredericksburg and decided to move there and teach. Grant taught at the county and city schools and also served as principal. His career spanned 42 years. Both Walker and Grant worked diligently to establish a learning institution for black children whose educational opportunities were marginalized by the social order of the day: segregation and racial discrimination.
Over two-hundred years ago, this location was once the site of the Fredericksburg Gunnery plant; the first government ran factory of its kind in the nation. Established in 1776, its existence was paramount to the victory of the Continental forces in winning the Revolutionary War.
By then, the colonists had interpreted an array of British economic policies as threatening their rights as Englishmen. When a slew of taxes were demanded of the colonists who were accustomed to governing themselves, their rebellious cry became, “no taxation without representation.” Until then, the planter-statesmen and other notables still felt they could reconcile with the mother country, despite the occurrences of the Boston Massacre in 1770 and the Boston Tea Party in 1773. However, in Virginia an odious act by the royal governor put the colonists on notice that the British were willing to spill more blood in an effort to vanquish the rebellion.
In the dead of night, on April 21, 1775, a mixed military unit of His Majesty’s Navy and Marines confiscated gun powder and armaments from the Williamsburg Magazine. This vital repository of weapons was stockpiled for the defense against Indian raids, slave revolts and riots. The action of the British soldiers left Virginia virtually defenseless.
John Murray, Fourth Earl of Dunmore and the last royal governor of Virginia ordered the raid. Many colonists saw this as the last straw. Dunmore had repeatedly rebuked the colonial statesmen’s demands, dissolving the House of Burgess and other political committees. An aristocrat, accustomed to having his word obeyed without question, Dunmore saw the burgeoning independence of the statesmen as an affront to his authority and responded by acts of retribution instead of compromise.
Blood had already been spilt at the Battles of Lexington and Concord a few days prior. Thus, disarming the colonists seemed a logical strategy to weaken their resolve. The shot heard around the world occurred in the north and in the south; the stealth act of a midnight raid struck a wedge between Britain and the American colonies that was irreparable.
The colonists had to arm themselves if they were going to war with England, whose military might seemed Herculean to the limited martial skills of the local colonial militias. There was no standing army. Each of the thirteen colonies had their own reservists, comprised of farmers, merchants and tradesmen who were needed sporadically for lawless incidents.
On July 17, 1775, the Third Virginia Convention convened in Richmond to create a working government structure. Delegates were elected to serve on the Committee of Safety, which replaced the Committee of Correspondence. Its powers were comparable to the defunct House of Burgess. The most important resolutions that sprung from those meetings were to raise two regiments, a total of sixteen companies of sixty-eight men each to serve one year tours. In addition, sixteen districts of Minutemen were planned. In all of the county militias, the remaining free white males between the ages of fifteen to fifty were to muster, eleven times a year. Below is a page from Colonel Lewis’s manual on military exercises and drills, dated 1777.
The last meeting of the convention took place on the 26th of August. An ordinance to build a gun manufacturing plant was enacted. One prominent Virginian intellectual described it as, a first step “in open defiance of British parliamentary law.”
The five commissioners appointed to operate the gun factory were Mann Page; William Fitzhugh; Samuel Selden; Charles Dick and Fielding Lewis, George Washington’s brother-in-law, husband to his sister Betty Washington. Lewis was elected chairman of the Committee. As it turned out, the only men who stayed the course was Charles Dick and Fielding Lewis.
Initially, the convention issued to Lewis 2,000 pounds to construct the gun manufacturing plant. Early in November, Lewis purchased a ten-acre tract of land located south of town. He also leased a nearby mill on four town lots.
Knowing how desperate the Continental Army was for arms, Lewis penned a letter, on February 4, 1776, to George Washington in haste. Now the Commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, George received this letter from Fielding describing the developments of the factory and the formation of the army regiments they were establishing. Of note, in August of 1775, Patrick Henry was named Colonel of the 1st Regiment, and the 2nd Regiment was commanded by William Woodford with Alexander Spotswood serving as major. In January of 1777, Hugh Mercer was named Colonel of the 3rd Regiment.
“…our Gunn Manufactory is now beginning & expect by New Years day to have near fifty Men imploy’d who will make about Twelve Gunns compleat a Day…”
The gunnery was close to the Hunter Iron Works, an important supplier. James Hunter, the owner, added the manufacturing of muskets to his production output, independent of government funding. He also supplied regiments with axes, spades, shovels and mattocks.
The items produced at the Fredericksburg Gunnery were muskets, bayonets, flint locks, ramrods and more. The plant encompassed a main manufactory, a stone powder magazine, cartridge works, repair shops and a vegetable garden, for the benefit of the employees.
Charles Dick ran the day to day operations, hiring a master workman and artisans. Although, the very capable Mr. Dick never discussed his origins or even his birthdate; the self-made man wasn’t a member of the established gentry. However, he easily found his place amongst Fredericksburg’s leading citizens. Dick was a successful merchant, land owner, Mason and a well-respected member of the community. He served on several important civic organizations; the Committee of Correspondence and later the Committee of Safety. A business partner and personal friend of Fielding Lewis, Dick was godfather to Lewis’ first son.
On September 22, 1775 an advertisement for locksmiths was published, most likely in the Virginia Gazette. Dick needed gunsmiths, artisans and a variety of other laborers to make the gunnery productive. It was evident, early on, that there was a deficiency of expert gunsmiths ready for hire. The House of Delegates passed an apprentice act so Dick could train a class of artisans from the white youth in the area. The young men would be housed, fed and clothed; all paid for by the government. Dick forbade the drinking of beer and rum at the establishment, a drastic change from Eighteenth Century practices. Three black men were engaged to cook, bake and do an assortment of odd jobs. Whether they were slave or free is unknown.
In an emergency the aristocrats of the town, women, too, worked at the factory stuffing cartridges, etc., for the more than one hundred guns hastily readied for the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania militia. The most commonly used weapon at the time was the British Brown Bess, a muzzle-loading smoothbore musket. It fired a single shot ball or a cluster shot which fired multiple projectiles like a shotgun. About four shots per minute was the typical output from most soldiers. By May of 1777, the factory produced similar muskets to the British Brown Bess by the rate of twenty per week.
Emerging Revolutionary War is honored to welcome guest historian Scott H. Harris, Director of the James Monroe Museum.
It is one of the great exploits of the American Revolution. On the night of December 25, 1776, General George Washington led the Continental Army across the icy Delaware River to attack a Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey. Young Lieutenant James Monroe held the flag behind Washington as they were rowed across the freezing river (standing up).