"Rebel against Rebel": Enslaved Virginians and the Coming of the American Revolution

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FOR more than six months after the battles of Lexington and Concord, the fighting between British and patriot troops was confined to the northern colonies. Then on 26 October 1775, a squadron of British naval vessels attacked the town of Hampton, Virginia. The Revolutionary War had come to the South.1 The battle of Hampton resulted partly from the actions of a "small mulatto man" named Joseph Harris. Only four months earlier, Harris had been a resident of Hampton and the property of another Hamptonian, Henry King, whom he served as a pilot on the Chesapeake Bay. Harris, it was said, was "well acquainted with many creeks on the Eastern Shore, at York, James River, and Nansemond, and many others." All in all, he was "a very useful person."2

Harris's knowledge gave him an opportunity to gain his freedom. On 8 June 1775, Virginia's last royal governor, John Murray, fourth earl of Dunmore, fearing an attack from the increasingly belligerent patriots, fled Williamsburg and took refuge on HMS Fowey. There he set about assembling a small squadron to fight the patriots. To accomplish his designs he needed people who knew the bay, so when Harris slipped off one night in July and presented himself to the skipper of the Fowey, he was welcomed and immediately put to work as a pilot. When the Fowey left the Chesapeake a short time later, Harris transferred to a tender called the Liberty.

On the night of 2 September 1775, a hurricane swept through Tidewater Virginia and drove the Liberty ashore near Hampton. On board Harris's vessel when it went aground was Matthew Squire, captain of the Liberty's mother ship, the Otter. Harris obtained a canoe from a slave, and he and Squire managed to get across Hampton Roads to the Offer, which was anchored off Norfolk. Their escape was fortunate, because white leaders had threatened to execute slaves like Harris who fled to the British. Meanwhile, the beached Liberty fell into the hands of the rebels, who helped themselves to the sails and other equipment (including seven swivel guns) and then set the boat ablaze. The Liberty "was burnt by the people thereabouts," the Virginia Gazette reported, "in return for [Squire's] harbouring gentlemen's negroes, and suffering his sailors to steal poultry, hogs, &c." Captain Squire was furious. He demanded that Hampton at least return the Liberty's stores. The rebel committee that ruled the town said it would be happy to comply with the captain's request-as soon as Squire returned Harris and other black crewmen to their former owners. This Squire refused to do, prompting a patriot newspaper to note with sarcasm the "singular ATTACHMENT AND LOYALTY to his sovereign" of Squire's "Ethiopian director."3

Eventually deciding that the contest could not be resolved peacefully, Squire attacked Hampton on 26 October with six small craft. The little squadron came under deadly long arms fire. Some nine blacks and other British sailors were killed, and Squire had to retreat. One of his vessels, the Hawke, went aground, and its crew was captured. The white prisoners, including Joseph Wilson, an indentured servant who had escaped from George Washington, were "treated with great humanity," a patriot newspaper reported. The black crewmen were "tried for their lives."4

The engagement at Hampton was the first battle of the Revolutionary War south of Massachusetts. Just as the earlier fighting in New England had helped poison relations between Britain and all the rebel colonies, so the battle of Hampton helped embitter white Virginians against their king. Thomas Jefferson reported that the armed confrontation had "raised our country into perfect phrensy." The story of the battle would have been very different if Joseph Harris had not made his dash for freedom. Perhaps Hampton whites would never have come into conflict with Captain Squire at all.5

Harris was but one of thousands of enslaved Virginians who found opportunity within the breach that opened between loyalist and patriot whites in 1775. …