A City in Revolution
The World Turned Upside Down: Williamsburg During the War of Independence
by Kevin P. Kelly
By ten o’clock on the morning of July 15, 1779, the free citizens and
inhabitants of Williamsburg had finally gathered in front of the James City
County/Williamsburg courthouse. They were in a sullen and angry mood. Several
concerned residents, not the town’s officials, had called this extraordinary
town meeting. At issue was the frightful state of the economy.
After nearly four years of war, imported goods were costly and in short
supply and the demands of the Continental Congress to provide the army with
food and clothing had driven the price of those necessities to new heights.
Moreover, Virginia’s paper currency was rapidly depreciating.
the meeting, merchants were roundly condemned for hoarding scarce goods; others
blamed the greed of unpatriotic citizens; and all in attendance agreed that
unless something was done to reverse the situation, inevitable ruin would
ensue. A committee of five men, headed by Col. James Innes, was elected to
draft the necessary address and resolutions.
At the same hour the next morning, the townspeople once again assembled
at the courthouse to hear the draft proposal. It began by praising the
sacrifice of patriotic Virginians both on the battlefield and on the home
front. It went on to state that the only hope Great Britain (and those enemies
within) had for victory was the economic collapse of the Commonwealth. This
possibility was so real that drastic measures were necessary to confront the
The proposal’s key measures were a set of fixed, “fair and just” prices
for farm produce, imported goods such as rum and pepper, and everyday necessities
such as shoes, firewood, and soap. To enforce these prices, a committee of
inspection and observation was to be elected. Anyone caught demanding more,
or even willingly paying more, than the set price was to be publicly
named as “inimical to the rights and liberties of America.”
After the drafting committee’s address and resolutions were read
twice and debated, they were unanimously accepted and the committee of inspection
and observation was elected. Nothing more was heard of this committee, and
Williamsburg’s action did little to stop the collapse of Virginia’s
paper money. By 1781, when the legislature finally repudiated it, the scale
of depreciation of the virtually worthless paper money stood at a thousand
paper dollars to one silver dollar.
The mood of Williamsburg’s citizens two years earlier, on October
30, 1777, had been much different. For several days, rumors circulated in
the city that the Continental Army had scored a great victory at Saratoga,
New York. At three o’clock in the afternoon, confirmation of British
Gen. John Burgoyne’s defeat and the surrender of his entire army of
nine thousand was received at military headquarters in Williamsburg.
Word quickly spread throughout the town as the regular soldiers formed
up in Benjamin Powell’s woods. As their parade reached the Capitol,
the city’s militia joined it. Together the two forces marched down Duke
of Gloucester Street, which was lined with cheering men, women, and children,
to the Market Square. There, Gen. Thomas Nelson, the speakers of the lower
and upper houses of the General Assembly, and the city fathers reviewed them.
After the review, there were thirteen discharges of cannon, three volleys
from the infantry, and three huzzahs from all present.
The importance of this victory was not lost on those in the crowd who closely
followed the news of the war, for it was widely hoped that France would now
form an open alliance with the new United States. Later that evening, the
city was illuminated and the news of the victory was celebrated with
ringing bells, drinking, and gunfire.
On December 13, in accordance with Gov. Patrick Henry’s proclamation,
the town’s citizens again celebrated the victory at a sober thanksgiving
service at Bruton Parish Church. If there was a high‑water mark in the
townspeople’s experience of the war, this was it. By the war’s
end, Williamsburg and the lives of its citizens would be profoundly changed.
The war began for Williamsburg in the predawn hours of April 21, 1775.
Under cover of darkness, Lt. Henry Collins, a British naval officer acting
on orders from Governor Dunmore, sent a detachment of men to Williamsburg
to remove fifteen half barrels of gunpowder from the Magazine. Their movement
out of town was discovered and an alarm was sounded. As men rushed onto the
streets, their fear that the city was on fire gave way to anger. Williamsburg’s
independent company assembled and many urged it to march on the Governor’s
Palace and demand the return of the powder. However, Peyton Randolph
and other town leaders counseled moderation and their words were heeded.
No sooner had a tense calm been restored than word reached Williamsburg
that British troops and Massachusetts militiamen had fired on each other at
Lexington and Concord. Events quickly swirled out of control. Independent
companies mobilized and the Palace was fortified. In the early hours of June
8, Lord Dunmore, in fear of his life, abandoned the Palace and sought refuge
on a British warship on the York River. In slightly more than a month’s
time, life as Williamsburg residents had known it came to an end. Old friendships
were strained and families divided as former loyalties were questioned and
new ones demanded.
By July, Williamsburg had become an armed camp with more than two hundred
independent militiamen stationed in and around the city. During the summer
and fall, the presence of armed soldiers, flushed with initial enthusiasm
for the patriot cause, precipitated a number of unfortunate incidents that
disturbed the peace.
Petty pilfering was a constant irritant; fence rails disappeared into campfires;
and the trees in Benjamin Powell’s woodlot were used for target practice.
Furthermore, troops eagerly intimidated those they judged as poorly committed
to the rebellion.
Armed members of Williamsburg’s independent company confronted
the Rev. Thomas Gwatkin in his lodgings at the College of William and Mary
because they objected to his outspoken support of the governor. Joshua Hardcastle,
after uttering some intemperate remarks at a tavern, was dragged before a
mock court martial that threatened to give him a “coat of thickset” (tar
and feathers). Soldiers demanded that Robert Prentis, clerk to the receiver
general, Deputy Auditor General John Blair, and Postmaster John Dixon swear
not to release any royal revenue without the soldiers’ approval. In
the face of this intimidation, a number of other townsfolk, such as Dr. George
Pitt and Attorney General John Randolph, who could not bring themselves to
be disloyal to their king, felt compelled to go into exile in Great Britain.
As the tense stand off of the summer and early fall of 1775 gave way to
open warfare in late autumn, tensions increased in Williamsburg. A steady
stream of prisoners of war and Tories arrested because of their political
views were carted through town to the Public Gaol. While some, such as the
elderly William Aitcheson, a Norfolk merchant, were paroled, most were not.
Those thought to hold the most dangerous views were kept in close confinement
for months or even years and were a vivid reminder of the price to be paid
for loyalty to the crown. Even acts of kindness toward prisoners, such as
that Dr. Alexander Middleton provided to Lt. Andrew McCan of the Queen’s
Rangers in the spring of 1776, were viewed with deep suspicion by townspeople.
Neutrality had quickly become virtually impossible. Yet, at the very
same time that Tories were being imprisoned, an unknown number of Williamsburg
slaves escaped their rebel masters and sought the freedom Dunmore held out
to them if they joined his army.
The spring and summer of 1776 were seasons of high excitement in Williamsburg.
The Fifth Virginia Convention, meeting at the Capitol, declared the colony
independent on May 15 and approved a declaration of rights and a state constitution
The excitement peaked on July 25. In the afternoon, amid military parades,
the discharge of cannons, and the firing of small arms, the Declaration of
Independence was “solemnly” proclaimed to the cheers of the townspeople
at the Capitol, the Courthouse, and the Palace. The celebration continued
into the evening with the town’s illumination. Undoubtedly, toasts were
given and drunk by revelers at the Eagle (formerly King’s Arms) Tavern.
With Lord Dunmore’s departure from the Chesapeake Bay on August 5,
excitement subsided, and citizens soon settled into a new routine. Gov. Patrick
Henry and his staff were in residence at the Palace, and the rhythm of the
new central government asserted itself. The courts soon resumed sitting, and
the General Assembly of the new Commonwealth met for the first time in Williamsburg
in October 1776. Thereafter, it reassembled regularly in May and October.
Added to this was the general bustle of a military headquarters. Wagons
rumbled to and from the two public storehouses in and near town. Newly enlisted
and furloughed soldiers awaiting assignment bivouacked near the city. The
Gaol continued to house military prisoners along with the usual criminals.
The most notorious prisoner was Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton of Detroit. Known
as the “Hair Buyer” because of his aggressive use of Indian allies,
Hamilton had been captured by George Rogers Clark at Vincennes on February
24, 1779. Clark sent Hamilton and his garrison under guard to Williamsburg.
At word of Hamilton’s arrival on the eve of July 17, a crowd
of townspeople quickly gathered and taunted him as he was escorted to jail.
However, not everyone in Williamsburg heaped scorn on Hamilton, who later
recalled that, had it not been for the kindness of James and Frances Hubard,
his suffering would have been far worse.
Many of the men of Williamsburg answered the call to war. Blacksmith James
Anderson was appointed captain of the Commonwealth’s Company of Artificers.
His duties took him to Richmond to be closer to the supply center at Point
of Fork. Edmund Dickenson, a cabinetmaker and member of the local Masonic
lodge, received an officer’s commission in the First Virginia Regiment.
Watercolor portrait of Edmund Dickinson (CWF 2000-100).
in Williamsburg about 1770, this watercolor
portrait of Edmund Dickinson is
one of the few likenesses we
have of an eighteenth‑century American
Henry Nicholson, who as a fourteen‑yearold commanded a group
of boys who played at soldiering in 1775, volunteered to join Virginia’s
Corps of Horse in 1778. On the recommendation of General Nelson, a number
of the town’s citizens raised the money to equip Nicholson and three
other young men of the city. John J. Carter, a local publican, and James Purdie,
the eldest son of Alexander Purdie, both served in the Continental line.
Not surprisingly, Williamsburg residents closely followed the course of the
war as it was reported in the newspapers; but news from the front lines was
so slow to arrive and was often misleading. At times it was better to get
information from returning veterans. After his enlistment was up, John Carter
returned to Williamsburg and regaled his customers with tales of the Battle
Unfortunately, news from the battlefields was sometimes all too true. Word
reached Williamsburg by August 4, 1778, that Major Dickenson had been killed
at the Battle of Monmouth on June 28. The August 2, 1780, issue of the Virginia
Gazette reported that young James Purdie died on board a British prison
ship in New York harbor. Perhaps it was fortunate his father had died in April
1779 without knowing his son’s fate.
Through the late 1770s, the failing economy rivaled the war as the major
concern. When the city’s residents met on July 17, 1779, to tackle the
problem of inflation, they had an additional reason to worry about their economic
future. The General Assembly, which had adjourned less than a month earlier,
had voted to move the capital to Richmond in the spring of 1780. There had
been periodic efforts to relocate the capital since mid‑century,
but the strength of the Tidewater councilors in the upper house had blocked
“A Plan of the Posts of York and Gloucester in the Province of Virginia”
1955‑485). The work of cartographer Edward Fage, this 1782
for the use of the British Navy rather than for public consumption.
The new constitutional government, put in place in 1776, seriously weakened
the influence of the Tidewater interests because the new Senate, unlike
the colonial upper house, included members from the western parts of the state.
Furthermore, the new General Assembly reversed Great Britain’s
late colonial policy of not creating new counties in Virginia.
By May 1779, delegates from eleven new western counties sat in the House
of Delegates. Friends of Williamsburg also lost two votes when Jamestown and
the college were denied representation in the new assembly. The appearance
of a British fleet in the Bay, in early May 1779, probably spurred the western
delegates to action. Citing the need for a more centrally located capital,
as well as Williamsburg’s exposure to an attack, they carried the day.
When the last General Assembly that would meet in Williamsburg convened on
October 4, 1779, rumors that it might reverse the previous decision gave faint
hope to some townsfolk. But those hopes died as it became clear the decision
to move the capital would go forward.
When the assembly finally adjourned on Christmas Eve, the holiday spirit
was absent from many Williamsburg homes. There was little anyone could do
but wait for the inevitable to happen. On March 25, 1780, formal notice was
published that the business of the executive branch of government would cease
in Williamsburg on April 7 and would resume in Richmond on the 24th.
As if the capital’s relocation was not bad enough, Williamsburg was
to face even more wartime troubles. Until 1780, Williamsburg had avoided the
full brunt of the war; but that seemed about to change. In August 1777, a
British fleet carrying Gen. William Howe’s army to Head of Elk
entered the Chesapeake Bay. Six hundred soldiers, including a company of college
students, quickly mustered at Williamsburg; and by the end of August, 4,000
soldiers were encamped around the capital. They were soon sent home, however,
when the British threat diminished.
Then, on May 8, 1779, a British expeditionary force sailed into the Bay and
captured Portsmouth and Norfolk. Again, the city militia and the college company
mustered and joined the 1,800 soldiers stationed near Yorktown. Not intending
to stay, the British withdrew on May 24.
Later, on October 20, 1780, Gen. Alexander Leslie led an invasion force
of 2,200 into Virginia: British troops were landed at Newport News, and British
cavalry units patrolled within fifteen miles of Williamsburg. Again the British
stay was brief. Leslie departed the region on November 22 in response
to urgent orders sending him to Charleston, South Carolina. Although alarming,
these brief intrusions caused only minor disruption in Williamsburg.
That changed in late December 1780, when newly commissioned British Gen.
Benedict Arnold led another invasion force of 1,800 troops into Virginia.
Unlike the earlier British armies, this one planned to stay. To make his intentions
clear, Arnold led a lightning strike up the James River, capturing Richmond
before settling into his winter quarters at Portsmouth on January 19. In response,
3,700 Virginia militiamen were stationed near Fredericksburg, Cabin Point,
and Williamsburg. On March 26, Gen. William Phillips reinforced Arnold
with 2,600 more troops.
The presence of a large British force nearby heartened the spirits of several
Williamsburg residents who had become disillusioned with the patriot cause.
In March, William Hunter, a former printer, was able to slip in and out of
Portsmouth to provide the British with important intelligence; and on
April 18, 1781, Phillips and Arnold began their spring offensive. Encountering
little resistance, the British occupied Williamsburg two days later.
With the willing guidance of the veteran John J. Carter, they captured
and burned the shipyard on the Chickahominy River. After remaining in town
for two days, Phillips and Arnold continued on to Petersburg where, on May
20, Maj. Gen. Charles, Earl Cornwallis, joined them with his southern army
and took command of a combined army of approximately 7,000 soldiers.
Arnold’s invasion caught Virginia off guard, and Cornwallis’s
arrival compounded the problem for Virginians. A widespread panic set
in across the Commonwealth, reaching a peak in early June, when Lt. Col. Banastre
Tarleton nearly caught the entire General Assembly napping at Charlottesville.
After these raids, Cornwallis pulled his troops back toward the Tidewater.
Gen. Marquis de Lafayette, at the head of a small band of Continental troops,
cautiously followed him. On June 25, Cornwallis’s army reached
Williamsburg: the city was occupied for the second time.
Cornwallis established his headquarters at the President’s House
at the college. President Rev. James Madison and his wife, Sally, were forced
to lodge in the main building of the college. Other senior officers secured
housing elsewhere in town, while the army of 7,000 camped in and around the
city. With the army were several hundred runaway slaves who sought freedom
with the British, as well as a small number of loyalist refuges with their
The army spent ten days in Williamsburg resting and replenishing its
supplies. Cattle drivers soon herded nearly one hundred cattle and two hundred
sheep into town. Army carters brought in wagonloads of shelled corn, hundreds
of pounds of bacon, and 150 gallons of rum. William Plum lost a valuable inventory
of tanned leather.
On July 4, the British marched off toward Jamestown and, eventually, Portsmouth,
leaving behind several soldiers ill with smallpox and what St. George
Tucker called a “plague” of stinging flies. Before the townspeople
could recover from the occupation, Cornwallis returned; and on August
2, his advance guard landed at Yorktown only twelve miles from Williamsburg.
Cornwallis’s occupation of Williamsburg brought to a head the ambivalence
many of the city’s residents felt toward the patriot cause even after,
or because of, six years of war. Slaves of Dr. James McClurg and James Cocke
ran away with the British. Other slaves may have as well.
Convinced the British would win the war, William Hunter openly joined them
in June. So, too, did James Hubard, who had refused to take the oath of allegiance
to Virginia in 1777. That action resulted in a brief imprisonment and the
destruction of his law practice. By 1781, the Hubard family, which was
divided over the father’s action, lived in greatly reduced circumstances.
Hubard may have joined the British simply as a way out of an intolerable situation.
Others also willingly assisted the occupying troops. As an excuse not to
muster with the city’s militia, some probably used the parole Cornwallis
insisted all men of military age take, which allowed them to remain free on
their promise not to take up arms against the British. Their actions earned
them the censure of their neighbors. Two were arrested for “disaffection,” and
the city’s Common Council urged the Commonwealth to punish the rest.
Decisions made in the West Indies and New York soon ended the uneasy standoff
between Cornwallis and Lafayette. When word reached Washington that the French
fleet in the West Indies was sailing to the Chesapeake Bay, he marched the
allied army south in hopes of trapping Cornwallis. The fleet reached
Virginia on August 31, 1781; and on September 5, a French army of 3,000 landed
at Jamestown Island.
On September 7, Lafayette moved his troops into position just east of Williamsburg.
When Washington and French General Rochambeau reached Williamsburg on September
14, Washington established his headquarters at George Wythe’s house,
while Rochambeau settled in at Betty Randolph’s. The first element of
the American army landed at College Landing on September 20. Within six days,
a combined allied army of 16,000 was encamped all around the city. Once again
the town was engulfed by the war.
The next three weeks saw a whirlwind of activity in Williamsburg. As a secure
rear area, the city served as an important supply depot and evacuation point.
Refugees from Yorktown made their way here. Both the Americans and the French
established their main hospitals in Williamsburg; the French housed their
sick and wounded at the college, while the Americans housed their disabled
soldiers at the Palace. The total number of sick and wounded carried to Williamsburg
is not known, but at least four hundred were still hospitalized there when
the siege of Yorktown ended.
On October 19, 1781, Cornwallis formally surrendered. After a few days’ rest,
the defeated British soldiers marched through Williamsburg on their way to
prison camps in western Virginia and Maryland. Undoubtedly, many Williamsburg
residents relished the changed condition of these once proud soldiers who,
just a few months earlier, had been masters of the city.
Latrobe watercolor of the Lord Botetourt Statue in the Piazza of the Second
(from the Collection of the Maryland Historical Society). Benjamin
late‑eighteenth‑century drawing of Lord Botetourt’s
statue and the ruinous condition
of the Capitol gives an idea of Williamsburg’s
diminishing status after 1780.
On November 6, the victorious American army marched through on the way back
to New York. Shortly thereafter, Rochambeau’s French army took up its
winter quarters in fields east and west of town, and its commander set up
his headquarters at George Wythe’s home.
Although fire was a great hazard of urban life in wartime, Williamsburg
had, until 1781, managed to escape its worst terrors. In April 1779, a fire
had broken out on the roof of a house near Market Square, but it was quickly
extinguished and caused little damage. On November 23, 1781, the President’s
House at the college caught fire; but although the house was gutted, the twenty‑three
hospitalized French officers were safely evacuated, and the French kept the
fire from spreading to the main college building.
A month later, at eleven o’clock on the night of December 22, a fire
was discovered in the basement of the Palace. The sick and wounded Americans
were carried to safety with the loss of only one life, but the fire burned
with such intensity that the Palace was completely consumed within three
hours. Flaming embers from that fire rained down on all the houses along Palace
Green; but again, the alert French prevented further destruction, climbing
out onto roofs to smother the hot coals. In the morning, the American invalids
were moved to the empty Capitol. To comprehend the loss of these two buildings
so soon after Cornwallis’s surrender, townsfolk rumored that either
slaves or Virginians still harboring Tory sentiments must have set the
When the French army finally departed in late July 1782, the war went with
them, but its impact remained. As the townspeople went about their daily business,
they passed many vacant houses and deserted shops. Except for an occasional
admiralty court, the Capitol stood locked and empty. A few people were salvaging
bricks from the rubble that was once the Palace.
Repair work had begun at the college, but it was some time before the president
and his wife could move back in. The vestry of Bruton Parish had to cope with
the loss of public taxes that had supported the church before the war; and
with fewer visitors coming to town, the number of taverns declined.
A city that was once a thriving center for nearly forty rival merchants could
boast of less than half that number in 1782. By 1782, Williamsburg had lost
more than a quarter of its prewar population and would lose even more in the
When word came announcing the general peace between Great Britain and the
United States, the citizens of Williamsburg, despite their losses and an uncertain
future, put on a celebration that equaled any they had ever done. On
May 1, 1783, they gathered at the Courthouse and, after reading Congress’s
proclamation, formed a parade, led by four flag bearers and a mounted herald.
Next came the city sergeant carrying the city mace, followed by the mayor,
the recorder with the charter, and the city clerk with the plan of the city.
Behind these officials marched the aldermen and common councilors two by two.
To the pealing of the college, church, and Capitol bells, the parade moved
to the college, where the proclamation was read again. It then reversed course
and proceeded to the Capitol, where the proclamation was read a final time.
The war‑weary but jubilant citizens spent the rest of the day toasting
the independence that had been so hopefully declared in the old Capitol in
May 1776 and remembering the hand they had played in making the Revolution
Selected Sources and Suggested Readings
Buel, Richard. In Irons: Britain’s Naval Supremacy and the American
Revolutionary Economy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998.
Davis, Burke. Yorktown: The Winning of American Independence.
New York: Harper and Row, 1969.
Goodwin, Rutherfoord. A Brief and True Report Concerning Williamsburg
in Virginia. Richmond, Va.: The Dietz Press, 1980.
Johnston, Henry Phelps. The Yorktown Campaign and the Surrender of Cornwallis,
1781. Eastern National Park and Monument Association, 1881; repr.
Spartanburg, S.C.: The Reprint Co., 1973.
Lumpkin, Henry. From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in
the South. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1981.
Selby, John E. The Revolution in Virginia, 1775‑1783. Williamsburg,
Va.: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1988.
Virginia Gazette 1775‑1780. Microfilm. John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library,
York County, Virginia. County Court Records. Microfilm. John D. Rockefeller
Jr. Library, Colonial Williamsburg.