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Great Bridge Letter

  • William Woodford Letter about the Battle of Great Bridge, December 9, 1775
  • William Woodford Letter about the Battle of Great Bridge, December 9, 1775
  • William Woodford Letter about the Battle of Great Bridge, December 9, 1775
In this letter Colonel William Woodford described the Battle of Great Bridge, the first land battle of the Revolutionary War in Virginia.
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William Woodford Letter about the Battle of Great Bridge, December 9, 1775

This letter from Colonel William Woodford to the president of the Virginia Revolutionary Convention, Edmund Pendleton, describes the Battle of Great Bridge that took place near Norfolk early in the morning of December 9, 1775. It was the first land battle of the Revolutionary War in the South. After the royal governor, John Murray, fourth earl of Dunmore, fled Williamsburg in June 1775, he established a headquarters near Portsmouth, where Loyalists and British warships congregated. Dunmore issued a proclamation on November 7, 1775, offering freedom to enslaved Virginians who ran away and joined him, and Dunmore's forces skirmished with militia near Norfolk. To protect the area from Dunmore's forces, the Virginia Committee of Safety ordered Woodford, commanding officer of the 2d Virginia Regiment, and the Culpeper Minutemen to the scene. Woodford stationed his force at Great Bridge, a span over the Elizabeth River.

Under orders from Dunmore, the British commander, Captain Samuel Leslie attacked Woodford's forces. The attack failed, as Virginia soldiers fired on the attackers, killing more than 13 British soldiers and wounding nearly 50 others. The Virginians suffered no casualties. Dunmore then withdrew his force to Portsmouth, and the Virginians, reinforced by troops from North Carolina, marched into and occupied Norfolk, the largest city in Virginia.

Woodford served gallantly in the Continental army, was promoted to brigadier general in 1777, and died as a prisoner of war after being captured when the army of which he was a part surrendered in Charleston, South Carolina.

For Educators

Questions

1. What types of people made up the British forces?
2. The patriots and the British were at a deadlock for several days before the battle. Who attacked first?
3. Why was royal governor Dunmore confident of a British victory?

Further Discussion

1. How did Dunmore's Proclamation (November 7, 1775) affect those who fought in this battle?
2. Why was the victory at the Battle of Great Bridge important for the Americans?

Suggested Reading

Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Selby, John E. The Revolution in Virginia, 1775–1783. Williamsburg, Va.: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1988.

Sir. Great Bridge 9th Decr. 1775
The Enemy were reinforced about three Oclock this Morning with (as they tell me) every Soldier of the 14th Regt. at Norfolk, amounting to 200 commanded by Capt. Leslie, & this Morning after Revelle Beating crossed the Bridge by laying down some plank, & made an attempt to Force our breast worke, the prisoners say the whole number amounted to 500, with Volunteers & Blacks, with two peices of Cannon but none marched up but his Majestys Soldiers, who behaved like English men—we have found of their Dead Capt. Fordice & 12 privates, & have Leiut. Bettet wounded in the Leg & 17 privates prisoners all Wounded, they carried their cannon back under cover of the guns of the Fort, & a number of their Dead, I should suppose (to speak within Cumpas) their Loss must be upwards of 50, some powder & carterages were taken. I sent an Officer to inform them If they would not fire upon our people, they should Collect the Dead & wounded, this they agreed to, & there has been no Fireing since, we are now under Arms expecting another Attack, please forward Doctr. Browns chest of Medecines & Baggage down, the Convention will be so good to excuse the incorrectness of this Letter wrote in the greatest Hurry—I am, with great Respec[t]
 Sir
   Your Most Obedt. Servt
WM WOODFORD.
NB. but one Man of ours Wounded in the Hand—the prisoners inform Ld Dunmore has got a Reinforcement of Highlanders—they I expect will be up Next—the 2 Mates of the 1st Regt I shall keep till further orders—hurry down, a Reinforcement & more Amunition or this Lower part of the Country will be theirs.