April 20, 1775 – This Day During The American Revolution – Gunpowder Incident

April 20, 1775 – Gunpowder Incident was a conflict early in the American Revolutionary War between Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of the Colony of Virginia, and militia led by Patrick Henry. On April 20, 1775, one day after the Battles of Lexington and Concord (and well before news of that event reached Virginia), Lord Dunmore ordered the removal of the gunpowder from the magazine in Williamsburg, Virginia to a Royal Navy ship. This action sparked local unrest, and militia companies began mustering throughout the colony. Patrick Henry led a small militia force toward Williamsburg to force return of the gunpowder to the colony’s control. The matter was resolved without conflict when a payment of £330 was made to Henry. Dunmore, fearing for his personal safety, later retreated to a naval vessel, ending royal control of the colony. On the night of April 20, royal marines went to the Williamsburg powder magazine, loaded fifteen half barrels of powder into the governor’s wagon, and transported it to the eastern end of the Quarterpath Road to be loaded aboard the Magdalen in the James River. The act was discovered by townsfolk while underway, and they sounded an alarm. Local militia rallied to the scene, and riders spread word of the incident across the colony. Dunmore had as a precaution armed his servants with muskets, and it was only the calming words of Patriot leaders, including the Speaker of the House of Burgesses, Peyton Randolph, that prevented the assembling crowd from storming Dunmore’s mansion. The city council demanded the return of the powder, claiming it was the property of the colony and not the Crown. Dunmore demurred, stating that he was moving the powder as protection against its seizure during a rumored slave uprising, and would eventually return it. This seemed to satisfy the assembled crowd, and it dispersed peacefully. Unrest however persisted in Williamsburg and spread throughout the countryside. After a second crowd was convinced to disperse by Patriot leaders, Dunmore reacted angrily, warning on April 22 that if attacked, he would “declare Freedom to the Slaves, and reduce the City of Williamsburg to Ashes.” He also told a Williamsburg alderman that he had “once fought for the Virginians” but “By God, I would let them see that I could fight against them.” By April 29, militia mobilizing in the countryside had learned of the battles at Lexington and Concord. Nearly 700 men mustered at Fredericksburg, and decided to send a messenger to Williamsburg to assess the situation before marching on the capital. Peyton Randolph advised against violence, and George Washington, a longtime leader of the Virginia militia, concurred. In response to their advice, the Fredericksburg militia voted by a narrow margin not to march. However, militia from other parts of the colony did march to Williamsburg. The Hanover County militia, led by Patrick Henry, voted on May 2 to march on Williamsburg. Henry dispatched a small company to the home of Richard Corbin, who was the Deputy Collector of the Royal Revenue in Virginia, in a bid to force him to pay for the powder from Crown revenue in his possession; the remainder of the Hanover County militia, numbering about 150, marched toward Williamsburg, arriving about 15 miles (24 km) away on May 3. That day Dunmore’s family escaped Williamsburg to Porto Bello, Lord Dunmore’s hunting lodge on the York River, and from there to the HMS Fowey, lying at anchor in the York River. Corbin was not at home—he was in Williamsburg, meeting with Dunmore. Henry was advised by Carter Braxton, Corbin’s son-in-law and a Patriot member of the House of Burgesses, not to enter the city, while Braxton rode into the city and negotiated a payment. The next day, May 4, Henry received a bill of exchange for £330 signed by a wealthy plantation owner, as payment for the powder (he refused the offer of payment from Crown accounts). Henry then departed to take his place as a member of Virginia’s delegation to the Second Continental Congress, promising to deliver the money to “the Virginia Delegates at the General congress”. On May 6 Dunmore issued a proclamation charging Henry with extortion of the £330, and forbidding the citizenry to assist Henry in any way. Henry was offered protection by several counties, and was escorted by several companies of militia to the Maryland border as he made his way to Philadelphia.

The powder magazine in Williamsburg from which the gunpowder was removed

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