Read CHAPTER X - THE RAPE OF THE GUNPOWDER of Patrick Henry , free online book, by Moses Coit Tyler, on

Several of the famous men of the Revolution, whose distinction is now exclusively that of civilians, are supposed to have cherished very decided military aspirations; to have been rather envious of the more vivid renown acquired by some of their political associates who left the senate for the field; and, indeed, to have made occasional efforts to secure for themselves the opportunity for glory in the same pungent and fascinating form. A notable example of this class of Revolutionary civilians with abortive military desires, is John Hancock. In June, 1775, when Congress had before it the task of selecting one who should be the military leader of the uprisen colonists, John Hancock, seated in the president’s chair, gave unmistakable signs of thinking that the choice ought to fall upon himself. While John Adams was speaking in general terms of the military situation, involving, of course, the need of a commander-in-chief, Hancock heard him “with visible pleasure;” but when the orator came to point out Washington as the man best fitted for the leadership, “a sudden and striking change” came over the countenance of the president. “Mortification and resentment were expressed as forcibly as his face could exhibit them;" and it is probable that, to the end of his days, he was never able entirely to forgive Washington for having carried off the martial glory that he had really believed to be within his own reach. But even John Adams, who so pitilessly unveiled the baffled military desires of Hancock, was perhaps not altogether unacquainted with similar emotions in his own soul. Fully three weeks prior to that notable scene in Congress, in a letter to his wife in which he was speaking of the amazing military spirit then running through the continent, and of the military appointments then held by several of his Philadelphia friends, he exclaimed in his impulsive way, “Oh that I were a soldier! I will be." And on the very day on which he joined in the escort of the new generals, Washington, Lee, and Schuyler, on their first departure from Philadelphia for the American camp, he sent off to his wife a characteristic letter revealing something of the anguish with which he, a civilian, viewed the possibility of his being at a disadvantage with these military men in the race for glory:

“The three generals were all mounted on horseback, accompanied by Major Mifflin, who is gone in the character of aide-de-camp. All the delegates from the Massachusetts, with their servants and carriages, attended. Many others of the delegates from the Congress; a large troop of light horse in their uniforms; many officers of militia, besides, in theirs; music playing, etc., etc. Such is the pride and pomp of war. I, poor creature, worn out with scribbling for my bread and my liberty, low in spirits and weak in health, must leave to others to wear the laurels which I have sown; others to eat the bread which I have earned."

Of Patrick Henry, however, it may be said that his permanent fame as an orator and a statesman has almost effaced the memory of the fact that, in the first year of the war, he had considerable prominence as a soldier; that it was then believed by many, and very likely by himself, that, having done as much as any man to bring on the war, he was next to do as much as any man in the actual conduct of it, and was thus destined to add to a civil renown of almost unapproached brilliance, a similar renown for splendid talents in the field. At any rate, the “first overt act of war” in Virginia, as Jefferson testifies, was committed by Patrick Henry. The first physical resistance to a royal governor, which in Massachusetts was made by the embattled farmers at Lexington and Concord, was made in Virginia almost as early, under the direction and inspiration of Patrick Henry’s leadership. In the first organization of the Revolutionary army in Virginia, the chief command was given to Patrick Henry. Finally, that he never had the opportunity of proving in battle whether or not he had military talents, and that, after some months of nominal command, he was driven by a series of official slights into an abandonment of his military career, may have been occasioned solely by a proper distrust of his military capacity on the part of the Virginia Committee of Safety, or it may have been due in some measure to the unslumbering jealousy of him which was at the time attributed to the leading members of that committee. The purpose of this chapter, and of the next, will be to present a rapid grouping of these incidents in his life, incidents which now have the appearance of a mere episode, but which once seemed the possible beginnings of a deliberate and conspicuous military career.

Within the city of Williamsburg, at the period now spoken of, had long been kept the public storehouse for gunpowder and arms. In the dead of the night preceding the 21st of April, 1775, a little less than a month, therefore, after the convention of Virginia had proclaimed the inevitable approach of a war with Great Britain, a detachment of marines from the armed schooner Magdalen, then lying in the James River, stealthily visited this storehouse, and, taking thence fifteen half-barrels of gunpowder, carried them off in Lord Dunmore’s wagon to Burwell’s Ferry, and put them on board their vessel. Of course, the news of this exploit flew fast through the colony, and everywhere awoke alarm and exasperation. Soon some thousands of armed men made ready to march to the capital to demand the restoration of the gunpowder. On Tuesday, the 25th of April, the independent company of Fredericksburg notified their colonel, George Washington, that, with his approbation, they would be prepared to start for Williamsburg on the following Saturday, “properly accoutred as light-horsemen,” and in conjunction with “any other bodies of armed men who” might be “willing to appear in support of the honor of Virginia."

Similar messages were promptly sent to Washington from the independent companies of Prince William and Albemarle counties. On Wednesday, the 26th of April, the men in arms who had already arrived at Fredericksburg sent to the capital a swift messenger “to inquire whether the gunpowder had been replaced in the public magazine." On Saturday, the 29th, being the day already fixed for the march upon Williamsburg, one hundred and two gentlemen, representing fourteen companies of light-horse, met in council at Fredericksburg, and, after considering a letter from the venerable Peyton Randolph which their messenger had brought back with him, particularly Randolph’s assurance that the affair of the gunpowder was to be satisfactorily arranged, came to the resolution that they would proceed no further at that time; adding, however, this solemn declaration: “We do now pledge ourselves to each other to be in readiness, at a moment’s warning, to reassemble, and by force of arms to defend the law, the liberty, and rights of this or any sister colony from unjust and wicked invasion."

It is at this point that Patrick Henry comes upon the scene. Thus far, during the trouble, he appears to have been watching events from his home in Hanover County. As soon, however, as word was brought to him of the tame conclusion thus reached by the assembled warriors at Fredericksburg, his soul took fire at the lamentable mistake which he thought they had made. To him it seemed on every account the part of wisdom that the blow, which would have to be “struck sooner or later, should be struck at once, before an overwhelming force should enter the colony;” that the spell by which the people were held in a sort of superstitious awe of the governor should be broken; “that the military resources of the country should be developed;” that the people should be made to “see and feel their strength by being brought out together; that the revolution should be set in actual motion in the colony; that the martial prowess of the country should be awakened, and the soldiery animated by that proud and resolute confidence which a successful enterprise in the commencement of a contest never fails to inspire."

Accordingly, he resolved that, as the troops lately rendezvoused at Fredericksburg had forborne to strike this needful blow, he would endeavor to repair the mistake by striking it himself. At once, therefore, he despatched expresses to the officers and men of the independent company of his own county, “requesting them to meet him in arms at New Castle on the second of May, on business of the highest importance to American liberty." He also summoned the county committee to meet him at the same time and place.

At the place and time appointed his neighbors were duly assembled; and when he had laid before them, in a speech of wonderful eloquence, his view of the situation, they instantly resolved to put themselves under his command, and to march at once to the capital, either to recover the gunpowder itself, or to make reprisals on the king’s property sufficient to replace it. Without delay the march began, Captain Patrick Henry leading. By sunset of the following day, they had got as far as to Doncastle’s Ordinary, about sixteen miles from Williamsburg, and there rested for the night. Meantime, the news that Patrick Henry was marching with armed men straight against Lord Dunmore, to demand the restoration of the gunpowder or payment for it, carried exhilaration or terror in all directions. On the one hand, many prudent and conservative gentlemen were horrified at his rashness, and sent messenger after messenger to beg him to stay his fearful proceeding, to turn about, and to go home. On the other hand, as the word flew from county to county that Patrick Henry had taken up the people’s cause in this vigorous fashion, five thousand men sprang to arms, and started across the country to join the ranks of his followers, and to lend a hand in case of need. At Williamsburg, the rumor of his approach brought on a scene of consternation. The wife and family of Lord Dunmore were hurried away to a place of safety. Further down the river, the commander of his majesty’s ship Fowey was notified that “his excellency the Lord Dunmore, governor of Virginia,” was “threatened with an attack at daybreak, ... at his palace at Williamsburg;” and for his defence was speedily sent off a detachment of marines. Before daybreak, however, the governor seems to have come to the prudent decision to avert, by a timely settlement with Patrick Henry, the impending attack; and accordingly, soon after daybreak, a messenger arrived at Doncastle’s Ordinary, there to tender immediate satisfaction in money for the gunpowder that had been ravished away. The troops, having already resumed their march, were halted; and soon a settlement of the trouble was effected, according to the terms of the following singular document:


Received from the Honorable Richard Corbin, Esq., his majesty’s receiver-general, L330, as a compensation for the gunpowder lately taken out of the public magazine by the governor’s order; which money I promise to convey to the Virginia delegates at the General Congress, to be under their direction laid out in gunpowder for the colony’s use, and to be stored as they shall direct, until the next colony convention or General Assembly; unless it shall be necessary, in the mean time, to use the same in defence of this colony. It is agreed, that in case the next convention shall determine that any part of the said money ought to be returned to his majesty’s receiver-general, that the same shall be done accordingly.


The chief object for which Patrick Henry and his soldiers had taken the trouble to come to that place having been thus suddenly accomplished, there was but one thing left for them to do before they should return to their homes. Robert Carter Nicholas, the treasurer of the colony, was at Williamsburg; and to him Patrick Henry at once despatched a letter informing him of the arrangement that had been made, and offering to him any protection that he might in consequence require:

May 4, 1775.

SIR, The affair of the powder is now settled, so as to produce satisfaction in me, and I earnestly wish to the colony in general. The people here have it in charge from the Hanover committee, to tender their services to you as a public officer, for the purpose of escorting the public treasury to any place in this colony where the money would be judged more safe than in the city of Williamsburg. The reprisal now made by the Hanover volunteers, though accomplished in a manner least liable to the imputation of violent extremity, may possibly be the cause of future injury to the treasury. If, therefore, you apprehend the least danger, a sufficient guard is at your service. I beg the return of the bearer may be instant, because the men wish to know their destination.

With great regard, I am, sir,
Your most humble servant,


Patrick Henry’s desire for an immediate answer from the respectable Mr. Nicholas was gratified, although it came in the form of a dignified rebuff: Mr. Nicholas “had no apprehension of the necessity or propriety of the proffered service."

No direct communication seems to have been had at that time with Lord Dunmore; but two days afterward his lordship, having given to Patrick Henry ample time to withdraw to a more agreeable distance, sent thundering after him this portentous proclamation:

Whereas I have been informed from undoubted authority that a certain Patrick Henry, of the county of Hanover, and a number of deluded followers, have taken up arms, chosen their officers, and styling themselves an independent company, have marched out of their county, encamped, and put themselves in a posture of war, and have written and dispatched letters to divers parts of the country, exciting the people to join in these outrageous and rebellious practices, to the great terror of all his majesty’s faithful subjects, and in open defiance of law and government; and have committed other acts of violence, particularly in extorting from his majesty’s receiver-general the sum of three hundred and thirty pounds, under pretence of replacing the powder I thought proper to order from the magazine; whence it undeniably appears that there is no longer the least security for the life or property of any man: wherefore, I have thought proper, with the advice of his majesty’s council, and in his majesty’s name, to issue this my proclamation, strictly charging all persons, upon their allegiance, not to aid, abet, or give countenance to the said Patrick Henry, or any other persons concerned in such unwarrantable combinations, but on the contrary to oppose them and their designs by every means; which designs must, otherwise, inevitably involve the whole country in the most direful calamity, as they will call for the vengeance of offended majesty and the insulted laws to be exerted here, to vindicate the constitutional authority of government.

Given under my hand and the seal of the colony, at
Williamsburg, this 6th day of May, 1775, and in the
fifteenth year of his majesty’s reign.


God save the king.

Beyond question, there were in Virginia at that time many excellent gentlemen who still trusted that the dispute with Great Britain might be composed without bloodshed, and to whom Patrick Henry’s conduct in this affair must have appeared foolhardy, presumptuous, and even criminal. The mass of the people of Virginia, however, did not incline to take that view of the subject. They had no faith any longer in timid counsels, in hesitating measures. They believed that their most important earthly rights were in danger. They longed for a leader with vigor, promptitude, courage, caring less for technical propriety than for justice, and not afraid to say so, by word or deed, to Lord Dunmore and to Lord Dunmore’s master. Such a leader they thought they saw in Patrick Henry. Accordingly, even on his march homeward from Doncastle’s Ordinary, the heart of Virginia began to go forth to him in expressions of love, of gratitude, and of homage, such as no American colonist perhaps had ever before received. Upon his return home, his own county greeted him with its official approval. On the 8th of May, the county of Louisa sent him her thanks; and on the following day, messages to the same effect were sent from the counties of Orange and Spottsylvania. On the 19th of May, an address “to the inhabitants of Virginia,” under the signature of “Brutus,” saluted Patrick Henry as “his country’s and America’s unalterable and unappalled great advocate and friend." On the 22d of May, Prince William County declared its thanks to be “justly due to Captain Patrick Henry, and the gentlemen volunteers who attended him, for their proper and spirited conduct." On the 26th of May, Loudoun County declared its cordial approval. On the 9th of June, the volunteer company of Lancaster County resolved “that every member of this company do return thanks to the worthy Captain Patrick Henry and the volunteer company of Hanover, for their spirited conduct on a late expedition, and they are determined to protect him from any insult that may be offered him, on that account, at the risk of life and fortune." On the 19th of June, resolutions of gratitude and confidence were voted by the counties of Prince Edward and of Frederick, the latter saying:

“We should blush to be thus late in our commendations of, and thanks to, Patrick Henry, Esquire, for his patriotic and spirited behavior in making reprisals for the powder so unconstitutionally ... taken from the public magazine, could we have entertained a thought that any part of the colony would have condemned a measure calculated for the benefit of the whole; but as we are informed this is the case, we beg leave ... to assure that gentleman that we did from the first, and still do, most cordially approve and commend his conduct in that affair. The good people of this county will never fail to approve and support him to the utmost of their powers in every action derived from so rich a source as the love of his country. We heartily thank him for stepping forth to convince the tools of despotism that freeborn men are not to be intimidated, by any form of danger, to submit to the arbitrary acts of their rulers."

On the 10th of July, the county of Fincastle prolonged the strain of public affection and applause by assuring Patrick Henry that it would support and justify him at the risk of life and fortune.

In the mean time, the second Continental Congress had already convened at Philadelphia, beginning its work on the 10th of May. The journal mentions the presence, on that day, of all the delegates from Virginia, excepting Patrick Henry, who, of course, had been delayed in his preparations for the journey by the events which we have just described. Not until the 11th of May was he able to set out from his home; and he was then accompanied upon his journey, to a point beyond the borders of the colony, by a spontaneous escort of armed men, a token, not only of the popular love for him, but of the popular anxiety lest Dunmore should take the occasion of an unprotected journey to put him under arrest. “Yesterday,” says a document dated at Hanover, May the 12th, 1775, “Patrick Henry, one of the delegates for this colony, escorted by a number of respectable young gentlemen, volunteers from this and King William and Caroline counties, set out to attend the General Congress. They proceeded with him as far as Mrs. Hooe’s ferry, on the Potomac, by whom they were most kindly and hospitably entertained, and also provided with boats and hands to cross the river; and after partaking of this lady’s beneficence, the bulk of the company took their leave of Mr. Henry, saluting him with two platoons and repeated huzzas. A guard accompanied that worthy gentleman to the Maryland side, who saw him safely landed; and committing him to the gracious and wise Disposer of all human events, to guide and protect him whilst contending for a restitution of our dearest rights and liberties, they wished him a safe journey, and happy return to his family and friends."