Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Fifty Years Ago: Eyewitness to an Inferno Finds "Blue Eyes"

By Julius J. Lacano
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

While attending Recruit training at Recruit Training Command Great Lakes, every potential sailor goes through basic firefighting and damage control training. Among their lessons is a film called Learn or Burn. This film, along with the training film, Trial by Fire: A Carrier Fights for Life, tells the story of a tragedy that brought about sweeping changes to the United States Navy. While these films give today’s sailors a glimpse into the terror and chaos of the event as it unfolded, for others that glimpse is a memory that has yet to be erased from their minds.

This undated photograph showing launching operations aboard USS Forrestal (CVA 59) during the mid-1960s shows a similar aircraft spotting configuration to that used on the morning of July 29, 1967, off the coast of Vietnam.  Just before 11 am local time, an unguided Zuni rocket accidentally launched from the rearmost F-4 parked at the aft stern quarter into one of the A-4s lining the port quarter, which were each fully loaded with two 1,000-pound bombs and a centerline external fuel tank. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file photo)    
In 1967, a young rifleman in the United States Marine Corps named Jonnie Allen found himself as a member of the Marine Detachment (MARDET) onboard USS Forrestal (CVA 59). His duty, like the other Marines on board, would be to staff the ship’s brig, or jail. Allen, a veteran of the guided-missile cruiser USS Albany (CG 10), was not an enthusiastic “sea duty Marine.” Though he understood the reasons for and the necessity of it, he was always fearful of being trapped in a space so that watertight integrity could be maintained in order to save his ship and shipmates. He hated that he could have been trapped without any knowledge of what was going on around him. But, he was glad he was on a bigger ship since he considered being on a smaller ship in storm-tossed seas “no fun...rough…and scary."

About an hour after the catastrophic flight deck fire began, the destroyer Rupertus (DD 851) makes her approach in an effort to help combat the fire still consuming not only Forrestal's aft flight deck, but many of the spaces above the carrier's Hangar Bay Three. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
Unlike other Marines, Allen’s Vietnam experience would be short, but no less dangerous. In June of 1967, Forrestal departed Naval Station Norfolk for Vietnam and reached “Yankee Station” in the Gulf of Tonkin on July 25 to begin her rotation “on the line.” After 150 bombing sorties against targets in North Vietnam, Forrestal’s ordnance stores ran low, requiring an underway replenishment on July 28 with the ammunition ship USS Diamond Head (AE 19). Among the transferred ordnance were 16 AN-M65 1000-lb bombs, which were designed during World War II and manufactured in 1953. They were reportedly in such a corroded state that the Forrestal's commanding officer, Capt. John Beling, only accepted them as a last resort because they were needed the next day for missions and because of the complete lack of newer Mk 83 bombs available for issue in theater. He ordered the bombs stowed on deck to prevent the incineration of the ship if an accident occurred in the ship’s magazines.
On the afternoon of July 29, 1967, hose teams continue to douse the flight deck of USS Forrestal (CVA-59) with seawater after bringing the fire under control as the destroyer Rupertus (DD-851) in the background hoses down the port quarter alongside the carrier.  Many of the highly-trained members of the carrier's crash and salvage crew, including its leading chief, Aviation Boatswain's Mate Handling Chief Gerald Farrier, were killed only a minute and a half after the fire began by the initial bomb detonations.  As evinced by the various modes of dress and equipment worn by those manning the hoses, many of the Sailors who jumped in to replace the fallen damage control team members lacked the equipment and training to go up against a major Class Bravo (flammable liquid) fire. The lack of coordination between teams dispensing fire suppressing foam (designed to smother fires) and those fighting the fire with water caused the foam to be needlessly washed overboard, prolonging the disaster. (NHHC image)
Jonnie Allen began his morning on Saturday, July 29, at around 7:00 or 8:00 a.m., as was normal. Like most days at sea, this one was shaping up to be routine and tedious. Allen was sitting in a chair around 11:00 a.m. when he heard a noise and felt the ship shudder and shake in a way that made clear that something awful happened, or as Allen put it, “it seemed the ship got hit hard for that ship to do that." What Allen experienced was the destruction of two fully loaded and fueled aircraft, the detonation of eight of the sixteen 1,000-lb bombs that had been loaded the day before, and the sympathetic explosion of a 500-lb bomb. The explosions instantly killed almost all of Forrestal’s flight deck firefighting team and tore large holes in the ship’s armored flight deck allowing burning fuel to pour into the interior of the ship.
This forensic photograph taken after Forrestal's return to Subic bay shows that the carrier's armored flight deck was no match the 1,000-lb bombs that detonated in the burning jet fuel, opening the way for thousands of gallons to pour into machinery and berthing spaces below. (HRNM file photo) 
Of Allen’s memories, there is one that has remained etched in his mind for the past fifty years: the eyes of an acquaintance. “Paul Newman had blue eyes, Frank Sinatra had blue eyes, I had never seen eyes like that,” remarked Allen in his description of this “good looking, young fella.” His acquaintance, a tall 18 or 19-year-old Sailor, was one of the clerks in the ship’s store, which was located below the flight deck aft. As Allen and his damage control party waded through knee and thigh-deep water, they would bump into floating corpses of fellow crew members who were in various states. Some of the victims they encountered had faces and bodies that were charred by the inferno, while others were missing limbs or had their bodies torn apart by the explosions. The men snaked through dark and mangled corridors that were “so hot, steamy, with water dripping and running all over the place” until they reached the ship’s store, which was completely unrecognizable. There Allen encountered the young clerk lying as if asleep, with no visible marks, no cuts, or burns. Instead of dying through smoke inhalation, burning to death or being blown apart by the force of the explosion, the man was killed simply by the concussion of the detonations. After seeing the man, the young Marine began to wonder, why him? Why did this young man die while he survived? Allen said that he normally went to the ship’s store around the time of the explosion and, in fact, was in it the day before, and by sheer luck he was not in it that day. 
This forensic photograph taken at Subic Bay in August 1967 shows one of the berthings on the 03 level below the flight deck where approximately 50 airmen and seamen lost their lives after working a long night of flight operations. (HRNM file photo)
The men of the Forrestal struggled to save their ship throughout that afternoon and through the night, and the many fires that erupted from the explosion were not declared out until 4:00 a.m. the next morning. The young man with blue eyes, along with 133 others, died on that solemn day. 161 more men were injured and twenty-one aircraft were destroyed outright or damaged enough to be declared total losses. Capt. Beling, offered these words that evening after personally directing damage control efforts for the previous ten hours:
Our heavenly Father, we see this day as one minute and yet a lifetime for all of us. We thank you for the courage of those who gave their lives in saving their shipmates today. We humbly ask You to grant them peace and to their loved ones the consolation and strength to bear their loss. Help us to renew the faith we have in You. We thank You for our own lives. May we remember You as You have remembered us today. From our hearts we turn to You now, knowing that You have been at our side in every minute of this day. Heavenly Father, help us to rebuild and re-man our ship, so that our brothers who died today may not have made a fruitless sacrifice.

A burned-out flight deck tractor is the only recognizable object within a hellish scene that only hours before had been a busy workplace for hundreds.  (HRNM file photo)
Indeed, the sacrifices made by the Sailors aboard Forrestal 50 years ago were not fruitless.  The disaster taught the Navy many hard lessons, but it was the impetus for a revolution in damage control training, technologies, as well as shipboard organization and regulations.  Without the changes made since then, the stories of other incidents rooted in accidents and attacks aboard USS Samuel B. Roberts, USS Stark, USS Cole, and, most recently, USS Fitzgerald might have been much more tragic than they were.  

Author’s note: This story was written, in part, from an oral history collected as part of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum’s ongoing project to record the first-hand experiences of local Navy and Marine Corps veterans of the Vietnam War. If you are a local Navy or Marine Corps Vietnam veteran and you would like to contribute, please contact our Deputy Director of Education, Laura Orr, at: LAURA.L.ORR@NAVY.MIL .

Friday, July 21, 2017

One Century Ago: Admiral Dillingham Inherits a Mess


As an example of a locality with almost ideal conditions for a training station, I would give the vicinity of Norfolk, Va.... The great possibilities of this strategic locality make it certain, that with the increase of the fleet, the Government will be obliged to have its principal training station and rendezvous there in the near future, and it is apropos of this consideration that is well now, to study plans for the best possible habitation for our men.
Rear Admiral A.C. Dillingham, 1910 
Great leaders don't make a recommendation or proposal unless they are willing to see it through personally.  Such was the case one hundred years ago this month for Rear Admiral Albert C. Dillingham, just after ground was broken at a former exposition site and fairgrounds just north of Norfolk, Virginia, for a huge facility he had envisioned seven years before.  In 1910, he had professed his belief in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings that Norfolk would make an ideal site for a permanent new recruit training facility.  Officially, Norfolk was already one of four locations throughout the country where initial recruit training was conducted, but Dillingham, who had recently finished up a tour as commanding officer of the Receiving Ship Franklin opposite Norfolk Naval Shipyard, wrote, "At Norfolk there is officially no training station, there never having been any appropriation for the specific purpose of training at that place, although, as a matter of fact, it is the most important training station in operation."
A postcard marketed at about the time of the 1907 Jamestown Exposition showing the Receiving Ships Richmond and Franklin (the names on the postcard being reversed) at the St. Helena Annex in the Berkeley section of Norfolk, across the South Branch of the Elizabeth River from Norfolk Naval Shipyard. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)
This seemingly contradictory claim captured the conundrum facing those running the two receiving ships then located on the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River.  A decade into the 20th Century, the few hundred new recruits entering the Navy there were still trained much the way they were before the "New Navy" of the 1880s.  Receiving ships were not only too small to train large numbers of recruits, but, like the infamous British prison hulks of the Revolutionary War, diseases spread rapidly among the Sailors living and training there.  The Bureau of Navigation had concluded early in the new century that new Sailors needed more varied and technically sophisticated training than a receiving ship could provide, yet in Norfolk, there was little room to grow.  A shore-based training station had been established near the receiving ships at St. Helena in 1908, during then-Captain Dillingham's tour there.  In 1915, Franklin completed her 38-year tenure as the primary receiving ship of the station, yet when war against Germany was declared two years later, there were still two receiving ships, consisting of the bark Cumberland (IX 8) and former steam sloop Richmond.  With the modest shore station, St. Helena Annex had a maximum capacity of 3,555 men.
This portion of a panoramic series of photographs taken on January 2, 1917, shows the recruit training facilities of the St. Helena Annex, beginning with (from left) the Receiving Ships Richmond and Cumberland, the small boat training pier, parade and training grounds within the center image, concluding at the center right with modest bungalows for recruits. The demands of war that summer quickly overwhelmed the facility, which resorted to tents to contain the overflow of new recruits.  When those quickly ran out, some prospective Sailors showing up in Norfolk were told to go home until new accommodations could be found. (Norfolk Naval Shipyard Archives)    
Dillingham's wish to create a modern training facility finally came true in June, 1917, after President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill authorizing the purchase of the former Jamestown Exposition land and some adjoining properties, including the Pine Beach Hotel, to become Naval Operating Base Hampton Roads.  On the cusp of retirement after serving as a senior military liaison to the government of the Dominican Republic, Dillingham found himself back in Hampton Roads with a mandate to bring his vision to fruition.  Even with $1.6 million in funding and 4,000 construction workers suddenly at his disposal, however, Dillingham's twilight tour would not be a walk in the park.  He had inherited a monumental mess.  
The United States Lifesaving Station, which once stood where Chambers Field is located today, was beyond economical repair by the time it was surveyed on August 2, 1917.  Just ten years before, it was one of the many Jamestown Exposition buildings that merited its own postcard (Inset). (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection) 
The dilapidated fairgrounds were a far cry from the gilded city on Willoughby Bay envisioned by the Jamestown Exposition Company.  Even during the exposition itself in 1907, many of the larger pavilions were not quite finished, and the company went bankrupt shortly thereafter.  The sprawling fairground had in just a decade been reduced to ruin through neglect and by the dramatic storms that sweep across Hampton Roads.  The demise of many of the remaining buildings was also probably hastened by vandals and looters who had ripped everything that they could wrest from them, nailed down or not, by the time they were surveyed during the summer of 1917.  Only the state houses, the majority of which had remained for the most part in private hands, avoided the worst of a destructive decade.  Despite the degradation, housing for 7,500 men had been constructed by August 4, only one month after ground was broken and an epic cleaning and building effort began.
A photograph taken on August 12, 1917 from the overgrown and dilapidated Godspeed Pier that was created for the Jamestown Exposition shows the former exposition auditorium at center and its east and west wings (known as buildings N-21 and N-23 today), while the postcard (inset) created for the exposition shows what its creators intended for them to look like for visitors in 1907.  The Hall of History (now Building N-24) did not appear in the postcard, but it lies just to the right of the East Wing in the photograph. (HRNM Collection) 
The interior of the former Auditorium Building of the exposition, seen here on August 4, 1917, looked like this when Rear Adm. Dillingham made it his headquarters, yet its condition was such that many essential administrative functions still had to be conducted in downtown Norfolk until the buildings could be reconditioned. (HRNM Collection) 
ABOVE: The East Wing of the former Jamestown Exposition Auditorium (now known as Building N-21), seen here on July 18, 1917, shows signs not only of neglect but of vandalism.  The words, "Education Building" can barely be seen above its central bay.  BELOW:  The interior of the East Wing at around the same time, where exhibits from colleges and universities across America were displayed during the exposition, including a college diploma awarded in 1760. (HRNM Collection)  

Among the major buildings not constructed as residences, only the main auditorium of the exposition, where Dillingham made his headquarters, and its adjoining wings, along with the former Hall of History next door and the nearby Pennsylvania Building, which would become an officer candidate school, were not too far gone to be repaired.  The Pine Beach Hotel at the northwestern end of Sewells Point was also retained for a number of years, although it too had sustained fairly extensive damage during the interregnum between corporate control and the federal acquisition of the land.

The photographs above and below were taken roughly one month and five days apart from roughly the same vantage point during the fall of 1917, a testament to the furious pace of construction maintained during Rear Adm. Dillingham's tenure as commander.  Note the United States Lifesaving Station still standing in the background at the far left. (HRNM Collection via National Archives and Records Administration)


Just three months, one week, and one day after ground was broken on the first new recruit barracks at Sewells Point, 1,400 apprentice seamen marched north from St. Helena training station in the Berkeley section of Norfolk across the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth, which represented a Rubicon of sorts from whence recruit training in the area would never be the same.  They marched past the northern reaches of the city along Jamestown Boulevard (now known as Hampton Boulevard) to the former Lee's Parade Ground, where Dillingham was waiting for them.  Taciturn to a fault, the admiral said only a few words before the assembled ranks and members of the press, concluding with the only words he was quoted as saying: "The Base has begun to function."  On Armistice Day, just shy of a year and one month after that, around 34,000 enlisted men were training and serving at the new naval operating base, which consisted of the training station, the new Fifth Naval District headquarters, a new naval hospital, and a submarine station.  As of November 27, 1918, 12,693 recruits were undergoing initial training at NOB Hampton Roads, more than three-and-a-half times the capability of St. Helena before the war began. 
The Naval Operating Base Hampton Roads Training Battalion poses for a group photograph on the former Lee's Parade Ground in December 1917.  Note Building N-42, now the main base gymnasium, in the background to the right. (HRNM Collection) 
Memorialized today by the boulevard that bears his name, sweeping past the historic houses of Admirals' Row, as well as the Pennsylvania House, which later became the birthplace of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, Rear Adm. Albert Caldwell Dillingham was a man of vision who could not only clearly articulate that vision, but could then lead thousands to translate that vision into reality.  In a less than a decade, from conception to completion, he revolutionized the training and development of Sailors in Hampton Roads, and helped transform an ossified institution still entrenched in the age of sail into a system most Sailors of today would still recognize. Despite the fact that what we now know as Naval Station Norfolk did not become a truly functioning "operating base" until after the First World War, Dillingham led the effort to make the training station fully operational well before the end of the war, and it remained that way until after the end of the Second World War.

ABOVE: The former Jamestown Exposition Hall of History, probably the most solidly-built structure still standing when the United States Government bought the property in 1917, was nonetheless still pretty beat-up when this picture was taken between 1918 and 1921.  BELOW: The same building today, known as Building N-24, serves as the main base gym of Naval Station Norfolk. (HRNM Collection/ M.C. Farrington) 


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Of Such Stuff, Facts are Made: The Case of the "Dolphin"

Editor's note: The nation recently observed Independence Day. It is a time when, aside from cookouts, parades, and fireworks displays, we remember those whose sacrifices during the American Revolution bought the freedoms that the United States Navy defends today.  It is with this in mind that the author addresses what has been called "the worst loss in the short history of the Virginia navy...." during that war. 

By J. Huntington Lewis
HRNM Docent & Contributing Writer

Photographic Illustration by J. Huntington Lewis

... John Cowper commanded a vessel of War, and that during the War of the Revolution whilst at Sea the said vessel was sunk by the British and all hands perished. That this deponent understood he went to sea with his colours nailed to the mast head, with a determination not to strike the same to the enemy and all that was heard of him afterward was that a vessel answering to the description of one under his command attacked a vessel of the enemy of Superior force, and was sunk with the coulours flying at the mast and all hands perished.
- Sworn statement of John C. Cohoon to John B. Benton, Nansemond County, June 12, 1839, in "Claim for Service of Simon Harris," VAS12, Southern Campaign American Revolution Pension Statements and Rosters  

In December 1839, the heirs of Dr. Simon Harris submitted a petition to the State of Virginia, claiming that Dr. Harris never received the land bounty promised to him by for his service on the Dolphin, a vessel of the Virginia State Navy during the Revolutionary War, and that they were entitled to that land bounty.  John C. Cahoon of Suffolk, the grand nephew of John Cowper related this story (above) in a letter supporting the petition saying that “He had no knowledge of the service of his grand-uncle, further than what has been handed down as a matter of family tradition, and from this source he has always heard from his earliest infancy.”

James Murdaugh, a prominent Portsmouth lawyer, submitted a related petition in March 1840 for an heir of John Cowper. Attached to that petition was a letter from Commodore James Barron who wrote that “I hereby certify that I was well and personally acquainted with Capt John Cowper of Nansemond County, Virginia. He perished at sea sometime during the Revolutionary War as well as I can recollect in the year 1779...the entire crew of his vessel perished with him.”


The story of Captain John Cowper and the Dolphin resurfaced in the January 1857 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger, within an article by Dr. W. P. Palmer entitled, “The Virginia Navy of the Revolution.” Palmer described in florid prose an engagement between Dolphin and two enemy vessels, adding that those who witnessed it from a great distance said “that the fight was long and doubtful, so far as they could judge; that at length two of the vessels were seen suddenly to sheer off to the eastward, leaving no vestige of the third, and they most naturally concluded that she was sunk in the action.” He estimated that the occurrence took place in late 1779 or early 1780. The article was not footnoted.*

In 1934, Robert Armistead Stewart's The History of Virginia's Navy of the Revolution retold the story with brevity. The book was not footnoted; yet in his preface, Armistead stated that his sources were various archives and Palmer's article in the Southern Literary Messenger. When the story of the loss of the Dolphin is related by later authors, it is Stewart's book that is most often given as a factual source.

But is the story true?

Did it really happen?

In all probability, no.


Here is why:

1.      The incident was supposed to occur within distant sight of Fort Monroe (Old Point Comfort at that time.) Yet there are no contemporary accounts.  The Virginia Gazette makes no mention of the battle, yet a battle of such nature would have surely been reported.
 
2.      British sources make no mention of the capture or sinking of the Dolphin.

3.      There were no survivors.  Even in the bloodiest of wooden ship battles of that time period, there were almost always some survivors.

4.      Commodore Barron was at the ripe old age of 10 years when he knew John Cowper.

5.      Except for the petitions from the heirs of Doctor Harris and John Cowper, there were no other petitions from the heirs of the Dolphin's 70-man crew.
 
6.      The Dolphin was probably not a ship of the Virginia Navy.  It was in all likelihood a privateer.  A privateer cruises to capture enemy commerce with a profit motive.  It runs from superior firepower.

There is a contradictory account of the Dolphin's loss in “A Family Portrait of Patrick Henry” by William Hamilton Henry in Eclectic Magazine, Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, Volume 146, January 1906. Mr. Henry stated that the Dolphin was destroyed by Brigadier General Benedict Arnold in 1781 in the James River. No supporting evidence was given, and no corroboration can be found among American and British sources.

Concerning Captain Cowper’s nailing his flag to the mast: This was a common expression for valor and determination at the time of the petition. While its use in the petition does nothing to prove or disprove the story, it is not surprising that it would be used to enhance the story.

In an 1833 issue of The Military and Naval Magazine, the nephew of John Cowper, who also was named John, told of his experiences aboard the privateer Marquis Lafayette, which was built at a shipyard run by the Cowper family. He praised the ship and the abilities of her captain Joseph Meridith.**

What really happened to the Dolphin is unknown. Most likely it was lost at sea with no survivors due to a storm, fire, or other maritime disaster with no survivors (not uncommon) like so many other ships. The family story probably developed to give their children heroes instead of a vacancy in their heritage and may have contained a bit of family rivalry.


One hates to dismantle a story about heroic Virginia seamen that has been considered factual for 160 years, but the story itself is not supported by verifiable facts. If anyone has evidence that appeared before 1839 that confirms the family story, the legend may finally become fact.


* In 1872, Dr. Palmer was appointed “to secure the preservation of historical papers in the [Virginia] capitol building” Between 1875 and 1885, he compiled and edited the multi-volume set of the Calendar of State Papers. In 1896, he was elected Vice-President of the Virginia Historical Society.

 ** This John Cowper served a one-year term as mayor of Norfolk, Virginia, in 1801 and lived in what is now known as the Taylor-Whittle House.


About the author: Hunt Lewis, a former communications officer in the Navy and the museum's longest-serving docent, is editor of the long-running "Moments in Naval History" feature in the The Flagship newspaper.

Editor's note: This and every HRNM blog post by a contributing writer reflects the opinions and core beliefs of the writer and should not be construed as representing the official policies or opinions of the museum, the Department of the Navy, or the United States Government.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Lord Dunmore's Navy in Hampton Roads, 1775-1776, Part IV: One Last Grasp for the Old Dominion

By Matthew Krogh
Contributing Writer

Editor's Note:  Independence Day is a perfect time to remind ourselves about the type of government Americans declared their independence from 241 years ago.  To this end we release the fourth and final installment in a series about Virginia's last royal governor, John Murray, Fourth Earl of Dunmore, who attempted to retain power during the early months of the Revolutionary War from a base of operations in Hampton Roads.   


This postcard dating from the Jamestown Exposition of 1907 depicts the arrival of Lord Dunmore aboard a British warship, probably the 24-gun HMS Fowey, off Yorktown on the morning of June 8, 1775, seen anchored near HMS Magdalen. Although most sources mention Dunmore’s flight as being aboard Fowey, Magdalen’s journal entry for that day, as recorded in Volume 1 of Naval Documents of the American Revolution, holds that “at 5 AM the Earl of Dunmore and his familey came on board, at 7 weigh’d and came to Sail [then] at 11 Anchord abreast of York Town [and] Saluted his Lordship on his Coming on board and Leaving the Vessel with 13 Guns.”  The schooner’s 13-gun salute to the governor, who had just fled his palace in Williamsburg with his family the night before, marked the end of his control over the colony, but it signaled the beginning of Dunmore’s navy, a ramshackle assortment of nearly 200 vessels, from which he waged an almost 14-month campaign to retake the colony. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division) 
In January 1776, Lord Dunmore had made a strategic mistake by putting Norfolk to the torch amidst his own tempestuous attitude. He did this despite recruiting thousands of men from Norfolk to his standard. With triumph slipping through his fingers he sought to destroy what he could not retain, resulting in a pyrrhic victory. Indeed, firing on Norfolk was considered barbaric and ill advised by most Britons since it was the best staging area and supply center in the Chesapeake. On January 5, 1776, the Naval Committee wrote to the Virginia Convention, saying, “The Congress attentive to the safety and security of every part of the united Colonies, and observing the peculiar distresses that the Colony of Virginia is liable from a Marine enemy, have with all possible expedition fitted out a small fleet of Armed Vessels, which they have ordered in the first place to the Bay of Chesapeak, if the winds and weather permit.” Dunmore’s time was running out as colonial leaders moved resources to Hampton Roads.

With Norfolk destroyed, Col. Robert Howe of the North Carolina militia and his men attempted to destroy Dunmore’s original headquarters – Gosport, the naval supply center built by Andrew Sprowle. British marines tried to protect the buildings there but Patriot forces succeeded in burning the distillery, warehouses, and homes. The frigate Roebuck arrived in the Elizabeth River with additional troops in February. With Norfolk untenable, Dunmore relocated to Portsmouth a few days later where he continued his forays into the countryside and into the Chesapeake Bay. In March 1776, Maj. Gen. Charles Lee arrived in Williamsburg to take command of Virginia’s forces and made it a priority to rid the Old Dominion of Lord Dunmore and his navy. He stationed detachments in a ring around Portsmouth, seized the properties of loyalists, and attempted to burn merchant vessels offshore at Norfolk. On May 20, Lee fought a repeat of the Battle of Hampton when he attacked Dunmore’s fleet from the safety of the ruins of the Norfolk wharf. Dispossessed of his will to continue in the present condition Dunmore set sail soon after with 100 vessels and several hundred black volunteer troops, marines, sailors, and loyalists, including Sprowle. They headed for Gwynn’s Island in the Chesapeake Bay where Dunmore hoped to establish a new beachhead for the British. He had not given up on Virginia yet.

Although Thomas Jefferson is most remembered for drafting the Declaration of Independence for the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in July, 1776, he also drew this “Map of Action at Gwin’s Island” shortly afterward. (Thomas Jefferson Papers, Series 1: general Correspondence, 1651 to 1827. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division)
At Gwynn’s Island, Dunmore and his men suffered additional privations and it was reported that he had “400 half starved motley soldiers.” After retrieving Governor Robert Eden of Maryland in June, the island became an even bigger target for American troops bent on the destruction of Dunmore’s Navy. On July 5, the day after America declared independence, Dunmore sent a flag of truce in order to exchange prisoners. Captain Andrew Hamond of HMS Roebuck wrote of the situation, stating, “I have been under the absolute necessity of giving to Lord Dunmore & his floating Town, consisting of a Fleet of upwards of 90 Sail, destitute of allmost every material to Navigate them, as well as seamen.” By July 8, militia under General Andrew Lewis opened fire on Dunmore’s hastily-built fort. The first shot fittingly passed through the hull of the ship Dunmore while another splintered a timber, wounding Lord Dunmore himself. “Good God that ever I should come to this!” Dunmore purportedly shouted. He could no longer bare the emotional and physical pain that Virginia had caused him.
Sir Andrew Hamond. (Wikimedia Commons)  
Despite Dunmore’s urging, Clinton concentrated British forces in New York and the Carolinas. This left the Old Dominion to the Americans until the British returned in force toward the end of the war under Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold and Gen. Charles Cornwallis. Cornwallis’ army finally entrenched itself at Yorktown, near the mouth of the York River, in autumn. The Royal Navy suffered a defeat at the hands of the French fleet in the Battle Off the Capes as they attempted to resupply British land forces, as they had done in 1776. This left Cornwallis no choice but to surrender to Gen. George Washington’s army in October, 1781. Had the British listened more attentively to Lord Dunmore in 1776 and maintained a firm grasp of the lower Chesapeake Bay, the war in Virginia might have turned out differently.

By the time Dunmore’s ships cleared the Capes, the American Revolution had begun in earnest. In the end, the Battle of Hampton in October, 1775, marked the failure of traditional British naval tactics for the first time in the American Revolution and a lack of understanding one’s enemy on the part of Lord Dunmore.  The Battle of Kemp’s Landing saw a resurgence of Dunmore’s fortunes but a continuance of poor leadership and unscrupulous decisions. Great Bridge saw Dunmore’s forces suffer another defeat, forcing him to seek safety with the Royal Navy. Similarly, the burning of Norfolk witnessed the failure of Dunmore’s governorship and the retreat to Gwynn’s Island beheld the final dissolution of his meager navy as it suffered from starvation and disease. Yet, Lord Dunmore’s navy had saved him from capture and rescued hundreds of loyalists and former slaves. Perhaps they even had done Virginia a favor by whisking away the pugnacious Scottish peer. When two runaway slaves deserted the British fleet and reported Dunmore’s departure, Purdie’s Virginia Gazette compared Lord Dunmore to another infamous historical figure. In doing so, the paper established a new low for gentlemanly conduct when it stated that Dunmore had “perpetuated crimes that would even have disgraced the noted pirate Black Beard.” Given the chance, Patriots probably would have mounted Dunmore’s head on a pike in Hampton as well.


Seen here in 2008, the site of Lord Dunmore's last stand in July 1776, Gwinn's Island, was originally granted to British Col. Hugh Gwinn in 1640.  Although mostly known as a long-time vacation destination, around 600 full-time residents still call the island home. Three miles long, two miles wide, and 2,000 acres in area, it still lies today at the mouth of the Piankatank River in Mathews County, Virginia. (Ben Fertig, Integration and Application Network, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science) 
Matthew Krogh is a reenactor with HM Sloop Otter