When reenacting or acting as a historical interpreter, its good to have a few historical dates and stories to share. This series will publish a few.
January 1, 1776 Norfolk burnt
Four British warships in the Elizabeth River opened fire on Norfolk, Virginia. This was not a retaliation by the British or even part of General Howe’s plan to subdue Washington’s Army. This bombardment was made under the direct command of Virginia’s royal governor, and their gunners bombarded the city that was a Tory stronghold. But the city had been occupied by rebel militiamen from Virginia and North Carolina, and Lord Dunmore sought to chase them away.
Dunmore’s landing parties were repulsed, but his ships were safely beyond the range of militia sharpshooters. The shot from Dunmore’s cannon pounded waterfront warehouses. Then the undisciplined “shirtmen” – as the militiamen were called because they had no uniforms and wore hunting shirts – took advantage of the confusion and looted shops and homes deserted by fleeing townsfolk. They tapped kegs of rum and, in a rampage of revenge, set buildings afire indiscriminately.
After almost 12 hours, Dun-more stopped the shelling. Two thirds of the city – more than 900 buildings – lay in ruin. Those residents who remained were hard pressed to find shelter and food. Smallpox broke out among the black population. In time, Dunmore, his ships packed with Tory refugees, sailed off to the sanctuary of Gwynn’s Island. In February 1776, the militia commanders, ordered by the Virginia Convention in Williamsburg to evacuate Norfolk, burned the remaining 400 buildings to the ground.