Today, the Norfolk Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin tells the story of how the Patriots defeated the Loyalists in Norfolk 239 years ago.
In December 1775, the Virginia Gazette published an account of the Patriots overtaking the Tories in Norfolk, Virginia:
“The Great Bridge is built over what is called the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River, twelve miles above Norfolk. The land on the east 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 entirely surrounded by water and marsh and joined to the mainland by causeways.
“On the little piece of firm land on the further or Norfolk side Lord Dunmore had erected his fort, in such a manner that his cannon commanded the causeway on his side and the bridges 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 (those nearest 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 Col. Woodford, but withdrawn before day, that they might not be exposed to the fire of the enemy’s fort in re-crossing the causeway to our camp, this causeway also being commanded by their cannon.
“The causeway on our side in length was about 160 yards, and on the hither extremity our breastwork was thrown up. From the breastwork ran a street, gradually ascending, about the length of 400 yards, to a church where our main body was encamped. The great trade to Norfolk in shingles, tar, pitch and turpentine, from the country back of this, had occasioned so many houses to be built here, whence the articles were conveyed to Norfolk by water. But this by the by. Such is the nature of the place as described to me, and such our situation, and that of the enemy.
“On Saturday, the 9th inst., after reveille beating, two or three great guns and some musketry were discharged by the enemy, which, as it was not an unusual thing, was but little regarded by Col. Woodford. However, soon after he heard a call to the soldiers to stand by their arms, upon which, with all expedition, he made the proper dispositions to receive them.
“In the meantime the enemy had crossed the bridge, firing the remaining houses on the island and some large piles of shingles and attacked our guard on the breastwork. Our men returned the fire, and threw them into some confusion; but they were instantly rallied by Capt. 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 placed on the edge of the island, facing the left of our breastwork, played briskly at the same time upon us. Lieutenant Travis, who commanded in the breast work, ordered his men to reserve their fire until the enemy came within fifty yards, and then 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. 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, and they retreated over the causeway with precipitation, and were dreadfully galled in their rear. Hitherto, on our side only the guard, consisting of twenty-five, and some others, in the whole not amounting to more than ninety, had been engaged.
“Only the regulars of the 14th Regiment, in number 12O, had advanced upon the causeway; and about 230 negroes and Tories had, after crossing the bridge, continued upon the island. The regulars, after retreating along the causeway, were again rallied by Capt. Leslie, and the two field-pieces continued playing upon our men.
“It was at this time that Col. Woodford was advancing down the street to the breastwork with the main body, and against him was now directed the fire of the enemy. Never were cannon better served; yet in the face of them and musketry, which kept up a continual blaze, our men marched on with the utmost intrepidity.
“Col. Stevens, of the Culpepper battalion, was sent round to the left to flank the enemy, which was done with so much spirit and activity 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 pursuing the enemy too far. From the beginning of the attack till the repulse at the breastwork might be fourteen or fifteen minutes; till the total defeat, upward of half an hour. It is said that some of the enemy preferred death to captivity, from fear of being scalped, which Lord Dunmore cruelly told them would be their fate should they be taken alive.
“Thirty-one killed and wounded fell into our hands, the number borne off was much greater. Through the whole engagement every officer and soldier behaved with the greatest calmness and courage. The conduct of our sentinels I cannot pass over in silence. Before they quitted their stations they fired at least three rounds as the enemy were crossing the bridge, and one of them, posted behind some shingles, kept his grounds until he had fired eight times, and after he had received the fire of a whole platoon made his escape across the causeway to our breastwork.
“The scene was closed with as much humanity as it was conducted with bravery. The work of death being over, everyone’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 to those capable of assistance that he gave signs from the fort of his thankfulness.
“What is not paralleled in history, and will scarcely be 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 rendered it still more amazing is, that a field-piece raked the whole length of the street and absolutely threw double-headed shot as far as the church and afterward, as our troops approached, cannonaded them heavily with grape shot.”
Colonel Woodford, making report of the battle of Great Bridge to Edmund Pendleton, President of the Convention, wrote:
‘’Great Bridge, near Norfolk, December 9, 1775. The enemy were reinforced about three o’clock this morning (as they tell me) by every soldier of the Fourteenth Regiment at Norfolk, amounting to two hundred, commanded by Captain Leslie, and this morning, after reveille beating, crossed the bridge by laying down some planks, and made an attack to force our breastwork (the prisoners say the whole number amounted to five hundred volunteers and blacks) with two pieces of cannon, but none marched up but His Majesty’s soldiers, who behaved like Englishmen.
“We have found of their dead Captain Fordyce and twelve privates, and have Lieutenant Batut, who is wounded in the leg, and seventeen private prisoners, all wounded. They carried their cannon back under cover of the guns of the fort, and a number of their dead. I should suppose, to speak within compass, their loss must be upward of fifty. Some powder and cartridges were taken.
“I sent an officer to inform them if they would not fire upon our people they should collect the dead and wounded: this they agreed to, and there has been no firing since. We are now under arms, expecting another attack. There is but one man of ours hurt and he is wounded in the hand. The prisoners inform us that Lord Dunmore has got a reinforcement of Highlanders, which I expect will be up next.”
In 1775 and early 1776, almost all of Norfolk burned, but the people rebuilt their town into prosperity again.
The Norfolk Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin shows against an 1851 view of Norfolk and Portsmouth on the Elizabeth River.