Battle of the Great Bridge

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From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol I. Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.

December 9. –This morning, after reveille beating, two or three great guns and some muskets were discharged from the enemy’s fort near Great Bridge, 1 which, as it was not an unusual thing, was little regarded by Colonel Woodford. 2 However, soon after he heard a call to the soldiers to stand to their arms; upon which, with all expedition, he made the proper disposition to receive the enemy. In the mean time the enemy had crossed the bridge, fired the remaining houses on the island, and some large piles of shingles, and attacked our guard in the breastwork. Our men returned the fire, and threw them into some confusion, but they were instantly rallied by Captain Fordyce, and advanced along the causeway with great resolution, keeping up a constant and heavy fire as they approached. Two field-pieces, which had been brought across the bridge and planted on the edge of the island, facing the left of our breastwork, played briskly at the same time upon us. Lieut. Travis, who commanded in the breastwork, ordered his men to reserve their fire till the enemy came within the distance of fifty yards, and then they gave it to them with terrible execution. The brave Fordyce exerted himself to keep up their spirits, reminded them of their ancient glory, and, waving his hat over his head, encouragingly told them the day was their own. Thus pressing forward he fell within fifteen steps of the breastwork. 3 His wounds were many, and his death would have been that of a hero, had he met it in a better cause. The progress of the enemy was now at an end; they retreated over the causeway with precipitation, and were dreadfully galled in the rear. Hitherto on our side only the guard, consisting of twenty-five, and some others, upon the whole not amounting to more than ninety, had been engaged. Only the regulars of the 14th regiment, in number one hundred and twenty, had advanced upon the causeway, and about two hundred and thirty Tories and negroes had, after crossing the bridge, continued upon the island. The regulars, after retreating along the causeway, were again rallied by Captain Leslie, and the two field-pieces continued to play upon our men. It was at this time that Colonel Woodford was advancing down the street to the breastwork with the main body, and against him was now directed the whole fire of the enemy. Never were cannon better served; but yet, in the face of them and the musketry which kept up a continual blaze, our men marched on with the utmost intrepidity. Colonel Stevens, of the Culpeper battalion, was sent around to the left to flank the enemy, which was done with such activity and spirit that a rout immediately ensued. The enemy fled into their fort, leaving behind them the two field-pieces, which, however, they took care to spike up with nails. Many were killed and wounded in the flight, but Colonel Woodford very prudently restrained his troops from urging their pursuit too far. From the beginning of the attack till the repulse from the breastwork might be about fourteen or fifteen minutes; till the total defeat, upwards of half an hour. It is said that some of the enemy preferred death to captivity, from a fear of. being scalped, which Lord Dunmore inhumanly told them would be their fate should they be taken alive. Thirty-one killed and wounded fell into our hands, and the number borne off was much greater. Through the whole of the engagement every officer and soldier behaved with the greatest courage and calmness. The conduct of our sentinels we cannot pass over in silence. Before they quited their stations, they fired at least three rounds as the enemy were crossing the bridge, and one of them, who was posted behind some shingles, kept his ground till he had fired eight times; and after receiving a whole platoon, made his escape over the causeway into our breastwork. The scene was closed with as much humanity as it had been conducted with bravery. The work of death being over, every one’s attention was directed to the succor of the unhappy sufferers, and it is an undoubted fact that Captain Leslie was so affected with the tenderness of our troops towards those who were yet capable of assistance, that he gave signs from the fort of his thankfulness for it. 4 What is not to be paralleled in history, and will scarcely appear credible, except to such as acknowledge a Providence over human affairs, this victory was gained at the expense of no more than a slight wound in a soldier’s hand; and one circumstance which renders it still more amazing is, that the field-pieces raked the whole length of the street, and absolutely threw double-headed shot as far as the church; and afterwards, as our troops approached, cannonaded them heavily with grape-shot. 5

 

1 As the scene of action is but little known to the generality of people, it may be necessary to give some description of it, that the relation may be more clear and satisfactory. The Great Bridge is built over what is called the southern branch of Elizabeth River, twelve miles above Norfolk. The land on each side is marshy to a considerable distance from the river, except at the two extremities of the bridge, where are two pieces of firm land, which may not improperly be called islands, being surrounded entirely by water and marsh, and joined to the mainland by causeways. On the little piece of firm ground on the farther or Norfolk side, Lord Dunmore had erected his fort in such a manner that his cannon commanded the causeway on his own side, and the bridge between him and us, with the marshes around him. The island on this side of the river contained six or seven houses, some of which were burnt down (the nearest to the bridge) by the enemy, after the arrival of our troops; in the others, adjoining the causeway on each side, were stationed a guard every night by Colonel Woodford, but withdrawn before day, as they might not be exposed to the fire of the enemy’s fort in recrossing the causeway to our camp, this causeway being also commanded by their cannon. The causeway on our side was in length, about one hundred and sixty yards, and on the hither extremity our breastwork was thrown up. From the breastwork ran a street, gradually ascending, about the length of four hundred yards, to a church, where our main body was encamped. —Pinckney’s Virginia Gazette, December 20.
2 Colonel William. Woodford, commander of the Virginia Militia.
3 The unfortunate Fordyce was a captain of grenadiers in the fourteenth regiment. “As he was a brave and gallant officer,” said Colonel Woodford, “I promised to bury him with all the military honors due to his great merit.”–Letter from Col. Woodford to Edmund Pendleton in New York Packet, January 4. 1776.
4 The soldiers showed the greatest humanity and tenderness to the wounded prisoners. Several of them ran through a hot fire to lift up and bring in some that were bleeding, and whom they feared would die if not speedily assisted by the surgeon. The prisoners expected to be scalped, and called out, “For God’s sake do not murder us.” One of them who was unable to walk, calling out in this manner to one of our men, was answered by him, “Put your arm about my neck, and I’ll show you what I intend to do.” Then taking him, with his arm over his neck, he walked slowly along, bearing him up with great tenderness to the breastwork. —Pennsylvania Evening Post, January 6.
5 Pennsylvania Evening Post, January 6.

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