John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore (1732 – 25 February 1809), was the colonial governor of Virginia at the outbreak of the American Revolution. He was the son of William Murray, the third Earl, and his wife Catherine (née Murray), and born in Scotland in 1732. Murray succeeded his father to the earldom in 1756 and sat as a Scottish Representative Peer in the House of Lords from 1761 to 1774 and from 1776 to 1790. He was named as the British Governor of the Province of New York from 1770 to 1771.
When Dunmore removed all the gunpowder from the magazine in the colonial capital at Williamsburg on April 20, 1775 he started the ball rolling that would soon become full rebellion. Confronted by an outraged citizenry who believed the governor had acted in order to expose them to the mercy of their slaves, Dunmore inflamed passions by announcing any retaliation would cause him to arm his own slaves and others who joined them. He would also free them. Given that the planters of Virginia held some 180,000 people enslaved, to even hint at such a thing was truly shocking. By June, he had been forced to take refuge on a British warship in the James River, where he was only too happy to take advantage of the offer of service from fugitive slaves. From the relative safety of HMS Fowey, Dunmore began to assemble a squadron to strike back at the rebellious Virginians, welcoming any runaways that were able to make their way across to his fleet. Throughout the Tidewater slave patrols were increased and exemplary punishment was applied to runaways. A fifteen-year-old girl, who had fled from her master and tried unsuccessfully to reach Dunmore, received a flogging of eighty lashes followed by hot embers poured on her lacerated back.
Enslaved Virginians understood that the terrible risks involved in running away had never been greater, yet still they went. About a hundred had reached his fleet by November 1775. This was exactly the kind of “tampering with the slaves” that James Madison had most feared. “To say the truth,” he confided to a friend, “that is the only part in which this Colony is vulnerable … we shall fall like Achilles by the hand of one that knows that secret.”1 Lord Dunmore knew that secret. Made bold by the idea of what might be accomplished should the trickle of runaways become a flood, Dunmore declared martial law on November 14, 1775 and published a proclamation that freed “all indented Servants, Negroes, or others … that are able and willing to bear Arms.” He made no distinction between Patriot or Loyalist property. George Washington, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Patriot forces, insisted that Dunmore must be crushed, or the momentum of slave defections would be “like a snow ball rolling.” 2
When Dunmore’s proclamation was published in the Virginia Gazette, it was accompanied by a grim warning to slaves “weak enough to believe that Lord Dunmore intends to do them a kindness,” to consider “what they must expect to suffer if they fall into the hands of the Americans.” 3 The punishment for those who defected to Dunmore was death, while a fugitive caught while attempting to reach Dunmore was to be sent to work in the lead mines.
At the end of November, Dunmore could report “between two to three hundred [runaways] have already come in and these I form into a Corps as fast as they come … “ 4 They came mostly from Hampton, Norfolk and Portsmouth and were often maritime workers, especially pilots. Others ran off with British forces when they cruised along the James River, while still more absconded from plantations close to navigable waterways. They mostly came on small craft, though some came on foot. Propelled by sheer willpower, they swam out to Dunmore’s ships.
Recruits for Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, as the governor styled his new corps, were provided with weapons and taught how to use them. Alarmed Patriots reported that several hundred of the black corps were working to fortify a strategic area of Great Bridge, at the head of the southern branch of the Elizabeth River, twelve miles above Norfolk. Wearing an assortment of ragged and cast-off clothing, the Ethiopian Regiment comprised about half of the crew that engaged the Virginian militia commanded by Colonel Woodford at Great Bridge on December 9, 1775. During the battle, the British commander was killed, along with about sixty of his men, while eighteen wounded prisoners were taken into custody.
Blatant recruitment of their slaves by the deposed governor provided the Patriots with the perfect argument as to why they could no longer give allegiance to the Crown. Patrick Henry protested at the Fifth Virginia Convention, held in Williamsburg throughout May and June 1776, that for a representative of the Crown to be “encouraging insurrection among our slaves, many of whom are now actually in arms against us,” revealed the King to be a “tyrant instead of the protector of his people.“ The only honorable response, Henry argued, was “an immediate, clear, and full Declaration of Independency.” 5 A resolution to that effect was carried unanimously on June 29, 1776. A new constitution was formally adopted and Henry was elected the first governor. As the head of the independent Commonwealth of Virginia, Henry proved ineffectual in stemming the tide of slave defections to the enemy. Sometime during his stay in Williamsburg, one of his enslaved servants, a man in his early twenties named Ralph, slipped away to join Lord Dunmore.6
Dunmore’s plans were ruined by the smallpox epidemic that hit in 1776. When he was driven from his hastily made base on Gwynn Island in July, Dunmore found his floating town was assailed by Patriot militia on all sides and his options for making landfall were completely cut off. Being penned up in a ship with no hope of being relieved by British forces had become intolerable. With his forces “too few to stay off Virginia having lost so many by sickness,” the dispirited Dunmore gave the order to abandon Virginia. The fleet that sailed out of the Chesapeake toward New York on August 7 held between 200 and 300 surviving members of the Ethiopian Regiment and their families along with at least three thousand loyalists aboard over 100 ships. 7
1. Madison to Bradford, June 19, 1775, The Papers of James Madison, vol. 1, 153
2. Washington to Reed, December 15, 1775, The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 2, 553.
3. Purdie’s Virginia Gazette, November 24, 1774.
4. Dunmore to Howe, November 30, 1775 in William Bell Clark, ed., Naval Documents of the American Revolution vol. 2, (Washington, 1967), 1210-11.
5. Quotes from Henry in Robert Douhat Meade, Patrick Henry: Practical Revolutionary (Philadelphia, 1969), 107-8.
6. For Ralph Henry, Book of Negroes and Rivington’s The Royal Gazette, (New York), February 6, 1779.
7. Dunmore to Germain, July 31 and September 4, 1776, CO 5/1353, Naval Documents of the American Revolution, vol. 5, 1312-14. The commodaore, Andrew Snape Hamond’s narrative suggests that there were about 200 effective black troops on Gwynn Island.