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Raise a Glass to Colonel William Woodford at the Battle of Great Bridge (And in Your Liquor Cabinet)

view of Great Bridge Virginia

View of the Great Bridge Near Norfolk in Virginia where the Action Happened between a detachment of the 14th Regt. & a body of the Rebels, William L. Clements Library, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Early in the morning on December 9, 1775, one of the earliest and least known actions of the American Revolution took place in Virginia. The Battle of Great Bridge was one of the most important actions of the war — and one of its main combatants left a legacy much closer than you think…it might even be hiding in your liquor cabinet!

Months earlier as tensions escalated between colonial governor Lord Dunmore’s loyalists and patriots in southeast Virginia, the Virginia Assembly authorized Colonel William Woodford to muster his 2nd Virginia Regiment, along with the Culpeper Minute Battalion, and march to confront Dunmore. Woodford’s forces arrived at Great Bridge on December 2 but surveying the situation, Woodford chose not to immediately engage.

This was far from Woodford’s first military rendezvous. Born in Caroline County, Va., on October 6, 1734, young Woodford distinguished himself during the French and Indian War. Upon his return home he married the daughter of George Washington’s cousin and nestled into a life typifying that of Virginia’s well-placed gentry elite. Woodford busied himself with politics and the patriot cause before the Virginia Assembly granted him command over the 2nd Virginia Regiment in August 1775, in a move that prepared Virginia to take up arms against their colonial governor.

Billy Flora

Billy Flora, a free Black Virginian, defended the patriot earthworks at the Battle of Great Bridge. African Americans fought on both sides of the battle. Learn more about Billy, and Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

In the months between Woodford’s August appointment and the first week of December, Dunmore and his loyalist forces wreaked havoc on Hampton Roads, confiscating food, supplies, and even a printing press from colonists. The situation continued to escalate, reaching a fever pitch when Dunmore’s November proclamation of martial law promised freedom to enslaved African Americans who ran away from their “rebel” owners to join his “Ethiopian Regiment.” By December Dunmore’s support included a then-unknown number of Virginia loyalists, formerly enslaved men, and detachments from the 14th Regiment of Foot—professional British soldiers recently arrived from Florida.

From Woodford’s vantage point on December 2, he had no idea how many armed loyalists sat inside the walls of the hastily built Fort Murray, on the opposite side of a marshy causeway in Great Bridge, Va. Woodford positioned sentries ahead of the patriot earthworks to wait out an assault until more troops—and badly needed supplies—could arrive. But a week later, it was Dunmore who broke the stalemate. Having marched overnight from Norfolk to reach Great Bridge, members of the 14th Regiment under Captain Samuel Leslie scarcely had time to rest before wheeling out two artillery pieces and taking shots at the patriot position on the morning of December 9.

William Woodford letter

One of Colonel Woodford’s letters describing the action at Great Bridge notes the only patriot casualty: “one man of ours wounded in the hand.” William Woodford to the President of the Virginia Convention, 9 December 1775, Revolutionary Government, Papers of the Fourth Convention, Record Group 2, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Va.

After observing the cannon fire, the next thing Woodford saw was a line of grenadiers, led by Captain Charles Fordyce of the 14th Regiment, marching men across the narrow and recently-repaired bridge that separated the two positions. As the British advanced, the patriots readied their guns and waited for the command from Lieutenant Edward Travis, who ordered the men to hold their fire until the enemy advanced within 50 yards of their position. The wait paid off. After they opened fire patriot militiamen decimated the approaching British at close range. The British suffered 48 wounded and 15 killed—among them Captain Fordyce who fell just feet from the patriot earthworks. After another unsuccessful charge the British turned and made their way back to the safety of Fort Murray. It was all over before Woodford even got close enough to engage.

The next day, Woodford described the short but deadly exchange:

“Capt. Fordyce of the Grenadiers led the van with his company, who, for coolness and bravery, deserved a better fate, as well as the brave fellows who fell with him. All of them behaved like heroes. They marched up to our breast-works with fixed bayonets, and perhaps a hotter fire never happened, or a great carnage for the number of troops. I have the pleasure to inform you that the victory was complete.”

After the battle, Woodford allowed the British to collect their dead and wounded under a flag of truce. Of the fallen Captain Fordyce, “a gallant and brave officer,” Woodford provided a full military burial owing to his “great merit.”

With the British threat to Virginia largely quelled, Woodford and his 2nd Virginia joined Washington’s Continental Army in 1776. Woodford became one of the few men to receive the rank of brigadier general, and commanded forces at the Battle of Brandywine in 1777 and the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. At the Siege of Charleston in May 1780 the British took Woodford prisoner, along with the Virginia Line of the Continental Army under his command. For months Woodford languished onboard the prison ship Packet, anchored off the coast of New York, before dying on November 13, 1780.

On October 13, 1789, the Virginia Assembly honored William Woodford by naming a Kentucky County in his honor—the same county which is home to Woodford Reserve Distillery which then, by extension, was also named for the Revolutionary colonel!

Raise a glass to Colonel William Woodford, and the patriots’ victory at the Battle of Great Bridge on December 9, 1775!

Katherine Egner Gruber
Special Exhibition Curator, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

Selected Sources

What Was the Battle of Great Bridge?” Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

Billy Flora at the Battle of Great Bridge,” Norm Fuss, Journal of the American Revolution

Colonel Woodford’s letter describing the Battle of Great Bridge at the Library of Virginia

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