By Kyle Willyard
The rest in Williamsburg did not last long. Lord Dunmore's troops, with the cooperation of British Navy vessels under the command of Captain Matthew Squire, began raiding towns along the James River. On October 24th, the Committee of Safety placed the 2nd Virginia Regiment, under the command of Colonel William Woodford, on alert. To the 2nd Virginia it attached five companies from the Culpeper Minute Battalion (Abraham Buford's, James Jamerson's, William Pickett's, John Chilton's and Joseph Spencer's). The combined force was then ordered to the "Neighbourhood of Norfolk or Portsmouth". (Scribner and Tarter, Vol. IV, p.7)
Meanwhile, one of Captain Squire's tenders was driven into a bank during a storm not far from Hampton. Some of the crew were captured then later released. The good people of Hampton though, did take possession of the tender's armaments and put the crart to the torch. On the night of the twenty-fifth, Captain Squire landed men east of Hampton and looted a number of houses. The next morning the captain and his squadron appeared "off the mouth of Hampton river." Fearful of attempting navigating in water obstructed by a bar and a channel partly closed by sunken rebel craft, Squire had left his sloop, the Otter, behind. With him, the Captain had a large schooner, a sloop, and three tenders. Squire declared his mission was to "desire the people to deliver up the materials" taken from the tender, although many inhabitants believed his purpose "to sett fire to the Town." However, until the channel could be cleared of debris, no serious attempt to send troops ashore could be attempted. Only a indecisive exchange of cannon and musket fire ensued. (Scribner and Tarter, Vol. IV, p. &9)
News of the attack reached Williamsburg between 8 and 9 O'Clock that night. The Committee of Safety ordered Woodford to Hampton with Capt. Abraham Buford and his Culpeper Riflemen (Accounts vary as to whether they numbered 50 or 100.). With wagon horses that were lent by "Gentlemen of the Town", they rode all night through "an incessant and heavy Rain", covering about thirty-six miles in less than twelve hours. The company reached Hampton sometime between 7 and 8 O'Clock the next morning. Col. Woodford left the riflemen in the church to dry out while he rode down to the river to take a look at the situation. Through the night, Capt. Squire's men had been cutting through the sunken vessels and his flotilla was now broadside the town and commencing bombardment.
In a letter from John Page to Thomas Jefferson, Page tells of the fight. "He (Col. Woodford) mounted his Horse and riding down to the Wharf found that the Peop[le] of the Town had abandoned their Houses and the Militia had left the Breast Work which had been thrown up across the Wharf and Street. He returned to order down Captn. Nicholas's Company and Bluford's (Buford's)" He then lead Buford's Company "under Cover of Houses on the other Side of the Street placing some in a House and others at a Breast Work on the Shore." (Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol.1, p.257)
Squire had supposed that once he started raking the houses and streets with his cannon, the rebel troops would soon turn to flight. Instead, the militia already present were being reinforced with expert marksmen. The largest cannon that Capt. Squire had were four-pounders, and they proved ineffective against the well built, brick homes that housed the riflemen, who were now pouring rifle balls into his vessels. The Jones house in particular stood out like a fortress. Such a heavy fire poured from the house, that the British supposed it manned by 200 defenders. (The actual number was undoubtedly much less) (Scribner and Tarter, Vol. IV, p.8)
Page continues, "The Fire was now general and constant on both Sides. Cannon Balls Grape Shot and Musket Balls whistled over the Heads of our Men, Whilst our Muskets and Rifles poured Showers of Balls into their Vessels and they were so well directed that the Men on Board the Schooner in which Captn. Squires himself commanded, were unable to stand to their 4 Pounders which were not sheltered by a Netting, and gave but one Round of them but kept up an incessant firing of smaller Guns and swivels, as did 2 Sloops and 3 Boats for more than an Hour and 1/4, when they slipt their Cables and towed out". Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. I, p.257)
Squire's situation was becoming uncomfortable. With the Culpeper riflemen swinging into action, it soon was more so. Standing to a cannon became a flirtation with death, climbing a rigging, pure suicide. Here was something novel in the long history of warfare-the forest outgunning the sea. Slowly Squire's guns became silent, and the Captain withdrew.
As Squire's flotilla was leaving, one of the tenders, the Hawke, commanded by Lt. John Wright, drifted towards the shore. The riflemen's fire was so effective that the men refused to man the tender properly, exposing themselves to the hall of bullets that was pouring in. The Lieutenant was himself shot. According to Page he "Jumpt over Board and was attended to Shore by 2 Negros and a white Man, one of the Negros was shot by a RifleMan across the Creek at 400 yds. distance." The Hawke was captured along with its crew and arms.
In Mr. Page's estimation, "If Col. Woodford's Men whom he had ordered rou[nd] to the Creeks Mouth could have got there soon enough they would undoubtedly have taken the little Squadron for the Sailors could not possibly have towed them through their Fire. Page also writes that "Although the nearest of the Tenders was 3 Hundred Yds. and the farthest about 450 from our Me[n,] yet our Fire was [so] well directed that the Sailor[s] were not able to stand to their Guns and serve them pro[perly] but fir[ed] them at Random at an Unaccountable Degree of Elevation." Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol I, p.257-257)
Following the bombardment, Captain Buford's company rejoined the battalion at Williamsburg.
The incident at Hampton would not prevent Capt. Squires from trying again to land troops along the river. In a letter from Edmund Pendleton to Thomas Jefferson, Pendleton writes "The life and Soul of this Corps is Capt, Green's Company of Riflemen from Culpeper, who in three Reliefs of about 22 at a time, scour the Rivers, and have in various Attempts, prevented a landing of the enemy." (Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol.1, p260)
A few days later on the 10th of November, the same squadron that attacked Hampton tried to prevent the 2nd Virginia Regiment and Culpeper Battalion from crossing the river at Burwell's Ferry. Pendleton wrote, "the King Fisher and four tenders full of men came up to Burwells Ferry and made several attempts to land during three days stay, but never came nearer than to receive a discharge of the Rifles, when they retired with great pricipitation, and 'tis Supposed the loss of some men." The squadron fired on a vessel at the ferry landing and ordered her to come along side. Riflemen stationed there ordered the captain to stay where he was. Page states, "The Vessel lay about 3 Hundred Yds. from our Men and about 3/4 Mile from the Man of War, which began to fire on her, and finding that her Shot had no Effect sent off a Barge full of Men to take her, but as soon as the Barge had got within a small Distance of the Vessel the Riflemen fired and say they killed three Men." The barge tried one more time, meeting the same fate, except that this time they lost only one man. Page continues, "I can assure you that about 20 Rifle Men have disputed with the Man of War and her Tenders for this Vessel 2 Days and they have hitherto kept her and the Ferry Boats safe, which it is supposed they wish to burn. It is incredible how much they dread a Rifle." Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol.1, p.258)
At this time, half of the Minute Battalion were discharged from active duty due to an overabundance of volunteers. Colonel Taliaferro led them home, while the rest remained with Woodford and formed a separate detachment of his troops. This detachment under the command of Edward Stevens and Thomas Marshall was soon ordered back to Hampton to defend the port against another attack. Governor Dunmore had already retired to the vicinity of Norfolk and began a massive fortification project.
Copyright 1995 by Kyle Willyard
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