Liberty or Death!

Dunsmore PalaceOn April 20, 1775, the day after the Shot Heard 'Round the World, properly called the Battles of Lexington and Concord, but two weeks before the news of that battle could have possibly reached Virginia, the Gunpowder Incident took place in Williamsburg, Virginia.

By early 1775, it was clear to all that trouble was brewing. Patrick Henry, leader of the local militia, had given his "If This Be Treason" speech right there in Williamsburg ten years prior, spurring on the Virginia Stamp Act Resolutions; the Boston Massacre had marred 1770; and the Boston Tea Party, just over a year past set off alarms throughout the King's military.

Add to all that with the fact that Virginia had sent colonists as delegates to the Continental Congress where Patrick Henry gave yet another inspirational speech, dubbed "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death," followed by a resolution calling for armed resistance, and the air had to be thick with the coming revolution.

With that history in mind, and fearing an insurrection, the Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, tried to have the gunpowder removed from the magazine which stood in the middle and loaded onto a British ship anchored in the York River.

Now, the magazine, a cylindrical brick tower in the center of town, is where the residents of Williamsburg kept the weapons and ammunition, including shot, powder, flints, tents, tools, swords, pikes, canteens, cooking utensils, and Brown Bess flintlocks. Dunmore gave the key to Henry Colins, the commander of the H.M.S. Magdalen, ordering him to remove the powder and disable the muskets which were stored there.

So off they went, in the middle of the night, and royal marines began stowing the gunpowder in the wagon when the townsperson on watch saw what was going on and sounded the alarm. The local militia sped to the magazine, and the Governor's men barely got away, taking with them 15 half-barrels of powder.

Almost all of the residents of Williamsburg gathered on Market Square, and there was talk of perpetrating violence on the Governor, but violence was averted when the city fathers calmed the mob and convinced them that the better plan was to send a delegation to the Governor's mansion to demand an explanation of the theft of their property.

Dunmore's response was a lie: he told the delegation that he had received news of an "intended insurrection of slaves" and was trying to keep the townfolk safe from such an uprising. He later wrote a statement which was more truthful, and which said, in part, that he feared that the colonists were "raising a Body of armed Men in all the Counties" and that he thought it "prudent to remove some gunpowder which was in a Magazine in this Place, where it lay exposed to any Attempt that might be made to seize it, & I had Reason to believe the People intended to take that step."

News of the raid spread quickly across the colony, and the militia in Hanover, Orange, and Albemarle sought the advice of George Washington, who advised them to move on Williamsburg. Dunmore began to feel somewhat insecure. He announced to the colonists that if he were attacked, he would declare freedom to the slaves and reduce the city of Williamsburg to ashes."

On April 27, news of the Battle of Lexington and Concord finally reached Williamsburg, and the headline of the Williamsburg's newspaper, the Virginia Gazette read "The Sword is drawn and God knows when it will be sheathed."

Patrick Henry, leading the Hanover militia, got there first on May 3, and the Governor's family fled to the family's hunting lodge on the York River. Dunmore sent word to Boston asking for military reinforcements, and for the next few days, the militia, assembled just outside the city, waited while, from inside the city, Dunmore issued threats that he would set fire to the city and have the Royal Navy fire on Yorktown. On May 6, Carter Braxton, who would later sign the Declaration of Independence, negotiated a settlement to the Gunpowder Incident whereby the Governor would pay for the gunpowder, to the tune of 330 pounds.

The crisis over, the militia left, and Patrick Henry went off to attend the Continental Congress with the rest of the Virginia delegation, at which time, Dunmore issued a proclamation making Henry a criminal.

On June 4, a trap set at the magazine wounded two young men who were attempting to break in, and that spurred an angry mob to storm the building on June 5. The militia gathered amidst rumors that the royal marines were on their way back.

On June 8, Dunmore fled the Governor's Palace to the safety of a British ship at Yorktown, making him the last royal governor to occupy the mansion, and on November 7, he officially declared Virginia in a state of rebellion.

Over the years, the magazine has been a market, a Baptist meeting house, a Confederate arsenal, a dancing school, and a livery stable. It is now part of Colonial Williamsburg, a living museum on the site where it all happened.

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