Throughout 1775, tensions had been rising between Virginian patriots and their royalist governor, Lord Dunmore. The War of Independence had broken out earlier that year, in Lexington, Mass., but not a single shot had been fired in the South. Virginia’s patriots managed to uphold a boycott against British goods, but it was far from clear that most Virginians would join the patriots’ side. Many remained neutral, wary of casting their lot with a ragtag militia that dared to fight one of the mightiest militaries in the world.
Then, on Oct. 26, 1775, the war crossed the Mason-Dixon line. The two sides exchanged fire at Hampton, Va., after patriots burned a beached British ship, the Liberty, to a charred-out shell. The Battle of Hampton lasted less than a day, with both sides retreating. But it set in motion a sequence of events that led many neutral southerners to support a war they had at first embraced only tepidly. Critical to those events was Dunmore’s formal proclamation, in early November, granting freedom to slaves who fought for his army. Though not as well-known as early battles in the North, like Bunker Hill, the Battle of Hampton was a pivotal moment in the nascent conflict, bringing the war to the South by preying upon southerners’ worst fear: a full-blown slave revolt.
Thomas Jefferson directly alluded to that fear in the initial draft of the Declaration of Independence in the summer of 1776. In his list of grievances against the British, Jefferson, a Virginian slave-owner, included the crime of “exciting those very people”—slaves—“to rise in arms among us.” The outrage that Jefferson and many like him expressed at the arming of slaves has led historians like Woody Holton to argue that what slaves did at Hampton “indirectly helped motivate white Virginians to declare independence from Britain.”
Despite Dunmore’s Proclamation, and Jefferson’s rhetoric, a full-scale slave revolt never materialized. Yet at least 1,000 slaves escaped their masters and joined Dunmore’s all-black Ethiopian Regiment, including George Washington’s own slave, Harry. By the end of the war, from 20,000 to 100,000 enslaved blacks—as many as one in five enslaved Africans from all 13 states—ran to British lines.
Many of them ended up worse off than they were before. Hundreds died from disease or were caught escaping. And Dunmore’s proclamation turned out to be “practical rather than moral,” as the historian Sylvia Frey has put it. Dunmore accepted only the slaves of patriots, refusing to take loyalists’ slaves who did not have their owners’ permission. (The British often returned slaves to masters who remained loyal to the crown.) When the British Parliament debated a bill to arm slaves as a military-wide policy, members roundly rejected it by a vote of 278 to 107. Edmund Burke expressed the view of many when he announced in the House of Commons “the horrible consequences that might ensue from constituting 100,000 fierce barbarian slaves to be the judges and executioners of their masters.”
The slaves themselves perhaps deserve final credit for forcing Dunmore to offer them freedom. Several months before he issued his formal proclamation in November 1775, blacks had been escaping to his lines, volunteering their service, and acting as useful guides. They escaped to Dunmore’s side in even greater numbers when, in April 1775, Dunmore only threatened—but did not actually carry out—his policy of freeing slaves outright. On April 21, 1775, Dunmore announced he would “declare Freedom to the Slaves, and reduce the City of Williamsburg to Ashes” if the patriots harmed any royal official.
Though he wouldn’t free slaves until November, what he did do on April 21—the same day he issued his threat of emancipation—was remove gunpowder from the local magazine. Dunmore’s removal of gunpowder is traditionally viewed as an early galvanizing move in the war, but his threat of freeing slaves was perhaps more important, provoking the fear that if hostilities broke out Virginians wouldn’t be able to defend themselves from the British forces—or their own slaves. The Virginian Benjamin Waller wrote that Dunmore lost “the Confidence of the People not so much for having taken the Powder as for the declaration he made of raising and freeing the slaves.”
Some of the slaves who volunteered for Dunmore’s army before his November proclamation played important roles in the lead-up to the Battle at Hampton. Runaway slaves like Joshua Harris acted as navigators for Dunmore’s ships. Harris was on board the Liberty when, on Sept. 2, a hurricane swept it ashore, though he escaped before the patriots stole its military supplies and burned it to the ground. The gesture incensed Dunmore, intoxicated patriots, and underscored how central slaves had become in turning colonists against their British rulers. The Liberty “was burnt by the people,” the Virginia Gazette reported, “in return for … harbouring gentlemen’s negroes.”
After the incident, Dunmore demanded his property returned, to which the patriots responded in kind: Return their property—their slaves—and no shots would be fired. Refusing the offer, Dunmore began planning his attack on Hampton. British soldiers decamped their ships anchored on Hampton’s shore on Oct. 24; patriot forces responded by marching toward Hampton, leaving their post at a college grounds in Williamsburg 30 miles away. Two days later, the groups opened fire, both quickly retreating to opposing sides of the nearby James River. The patriots had proved more capable than Dunmore thought. Realizing that slaves might be necessary for his wartime strategy, both as useful military soldiers and for the havoc an open declaration of freedom to slaves might cause, Dunmore finally issued his offer of freedom-for-service two weeks later.