Colonial Williamsburg Research Division Web Site

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.

During 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 threat.

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 in June.

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).
Probably executed in Williamsburg about 1770, this watercolor
portrait of Edmund Dickinson is one of the few likenesses we
have of an eighteenth‑century American tradesman.

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 of Trenton.

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 those attempts.

“A Plan of the Posts of York and Gloucester in the Province of Virginia”
(CWF 1955‑485). The work of cartographer Edward Fage, this 1782 map was
meant 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 families.

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 Capitol
(from the Collection of the Maryland Historical Society). Benjamin Latrobe’s
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 fire.

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 following decades.

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 happen.

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, Colonial Williamsburg.

York County, Virginia. County Court Records. Microfilm. John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, Colonial Williamsburg.