THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Sunday, July 2, 1995 TAG: 9506300275 SECTION: CHESAPEAKE CLIPPER PAGE: 12 EDITION: FINAL TYPE: Cover Story SOURCE: Tony Stein LENGTH: Long : 143 lines
On July 4, Americans celebrate the freedom won by the Revolutionary War. Ask most people to name a battle of that war and they will say Bunker Hill. But what some historians regard as a critical battle of the Revolution was fought right here.
It's not exactly The Battle That History Forgot, but it's a battle that ought to be remembered a lot better.
It's the Battle of Great Bridge, fought in a furious and bloody half-hour the morning of Dec. 9, 1775. When it was over, allegedly invincible British redcoats had been beaten by sharpshooting Colonials.
But very few people have ever heard about it, and they should have. Granted, the battle was over in the blink of an eye, as major battles go. Granted, the numbers involved were small. But historians who talk about it say the results were critically important.
One such historian is Elizabeth Wingo of Norfolk, who has written a booklet about the battle.
She says that when the Colonials won, they saved lower Virginia from the rule of the British governor, Lord Dunmore. People loyal to the crown were demoralized. Dunmore realized he could not use Norfolk as a naval base. An important supply line through Great Bridge was restored and patriot spirits got a potent boost.
So why does every school child hear about the Battle of Bunker Hill and almost never about the Battle of Great Bridge?
Historian Alf J. Mapp Jr. of Portsmouth offers one reason.
``The Battle of Great Bridge was quite significant,'' he says. ``Even George Washington recognized that. But you don't hear about it as much as you should.''
He suggests that views of American history were nudged into shape by early 19th century textbooks written by New Englanders. Thus, the battles fought in New England got heavier play.
He gives an example of that self-satisfied New England mind-set by quoting New Englander Noah Webster of dictionary fame: Webster was once asked how he decided standard pronunciations. His answer was that he used the pronunciation favored by cultivated people where he lived!
Despite its comparative low place on the battle totem pole, the Battle of Great Bridge was clearly important. Within its brief framework, there are famous names, brave deeds and a heart-warming aftermath as winners showed memorable mercy on losers. This story of the battle is taken from accounts in the local history room of the Central Library.
In 1775, Great Bridge was a thriving, prosperous village, a major supply point and a key location on a land route to Norfolk. Once called Bridgetown, the village was named for its 40-yard-long span over the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River. The battlefield on Dec. 9, 1775, was around the area where the William E. Wood real estate office is today.
In early December, the opposing forces squared off. At the north or Norfolk side was a unit of British grenadiers under Capt. Charles Fordyce. At the south or Great Bridge side were Virginia troops under Col. William Woodford. There were a few days of preliminary sparring, but one of the wonderful stories about the battle concerns a con job pulled on Lord Dunmore
John Marshall, later chief justice of the United States, and his father, Thomas Marshall, were officers in the Virginia force. According to the story, Thomas Marshall coached a servant to pose as a runaway and tell Lord Dunmore that the American position was undermanned but that reinforcements were on the way. Thus, M'Lord, you had better attack immediately.
That may or may not have happened. What is fact is that the British attacked the next morning. They were confident. Dunmore had said that the Virginians had never faced regulars and would not stand their ground after the first volley.
According to one author, Fordyce led about 120 men. Behind breastworks at the American end, the same historian says, were about 70 or 80 Colonials. ``Boys, stand to your arms,'' yelled an American officer as the redcoats moved out.
They were impressive by sight and reputation, ``resplendent in their red-fronted bearskin caps, buff-laced red coats and buff breeches.'' They charged in perfect parade ground order, ``designed to provoke in the enemy fear of the valor and discipline of the British army.''
There was a problem, though. They had to advance over a narrow causeway, only six abreast, a compact target for the ready guns of the Americans. As they approached, American sentries fired the opening rounds of the battle. And one of those sentries lives in history. He was Billy Flora, a free black man.
Accounts of the battle say that Flora, posted behind some shingles, stood firm as the British tramped toward him. He fired eight shots before scrambling back into the American breastworks, winning a place as an authentic hero.
The Americans held their fire until the British were about 50 yards away. Then a volley shattered the parade-ground ranks of the redcoats. Capt. Fordyce went down with a wound in the knee. He bound it with a handkerchief and urged his men on. Then he fell again, mortally wounded with 14 bullets in his body. The British rallied, led by a Lt. Samuel Leslie, but the charge was broken and they withdrew. The unquestioned valor and discipline of the British army could not prevail against the Americans defending their young country.
The casualty count on the Colonial side was one man wounded in the hand. British casualties were less certain. Some reports set them as high as 102 killed and wounded, but one of the more accepted figures is 14 killed and 49 wounded.
The fate of the wounded is another dramatic aspect of the battle. The British troops had heard tales of American savagery, and their wounded cried out, ``Don't scalp me! Don't scalp me!'' What happened instead was that Americans, including a Great Bridge woman named Polly Miller, carefully and kindly tended the casualties. That's why there's a street near City Hall named Polly Miller Drive.
The British retreated to Norfolk, which they later abandoned. Col. Woodford wrote a proud report saying, ``This was a second Bunker Hill affair in miniature with this difference, that we kept our posts.''
Before the battle, George Washington had said the fate of America hinged a good deal on Dunmore being forced out of Norfolk. Still, few Americans understand how significant the battle was.
Why? There is Mapp's suggestion that history was left to New Englanders. Michael Connolly, a history teacher at Great Bridge High School, believes that we home folks have let the battle languish by not having tangible symbols of it. He envisions a reconstruction of the original bridge and a full-fledged historical examination of the battle and its true significance.
Not that some local folks haven't tried. The Great Bridge Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution has erected a monument, now at the Chesapeake Civic Center. The chapter successfully pushed the state to erect a historical marker on Battlefield Boulevard and also holds a yearly ceremony on the anniversary of the battle. But maybe the most vivid reminders are the diorama at the Central Library and a painting at Great Bridge High.
And let's not forget efforts for the past decade to create a historical drama based on the battle. No luck because there was no funding.
So the battle remains generally unknown, a fact lamented by a poem written by Fanny Wilson Tardy, a member of the Great Bridge DAR chapter. It's called ``Our Glorious Half-Hour,'' and it's both a salute and a plea. Here's an excerpt:
``The Battle of Great Bridge, we are proud to remember
``Was dated seventeen seventy-five on the ninth of December.
``It was won in a furiously fought half-hour
``And subdued the might of the British power.
``Let's keep the Great Bridge battle alive
``That its proud record might ever survive.
``We can rekindle its flame if we try -
``You and I.'' ILLUSTRATION: Photo
This painting, hanging at Great Bridge High School, depicts the
Battle of Great Bridge, where the Colonials won, saving lower
Virginia from the rule of British governor Lord Dunmore.