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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

HERALDRY | Lord Dunmore, Gov. of Virginia (Updated June 16, 2016)

Arms of John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, Governor
of the Colony of Virginia. Defeated by the rebels/patriots
in 1775. Note stars in two quarters, pierced and unpierced.
Dec. 9, 2015–This day in 1775, the Virginia and North Carolina militias defeated 200 British troops and some 800 slaves serving John Murray, fourth Earl of Dunmore and Virginia's governor.

The history of the American Revolution focuses on Yankee fighting at Lexington and Concord–not so much on Virginia.

But the most decisive battle may have been fought in  240 years ago today, more than one year before the Declaration of Independence. Two reasons for the importance of the battle:
  • The Fight Was Ambiguous. The greatest number of victims in Virginia's skirmishes were slaves seeking their freedom, not free rebels. The British Crown had declared that slaves who joined the army would be emancipated. (The Crown was looking for troops in a hurry and they offered emancipation only to the slaves of rebel slaveholders.)
  • The Crown Was Quickly Defeated. The Virginia battles were one-sided. They were over quickly. They were tragic for the slaves who signed up looking for their freedom, most of whom were killed, with few losses on the rebel side.
The main battle in Virginia occurred at Great Bridge outside of Norfolk, a British Crown-controlled town in the colony of Virginia. Gov. Dunmore had retreated to Norfolk after the rebels drove him from the capital of Virginia, Williamsburg, in June 1775.

In November, Dunmore offered emancipation to any slave of a rebel master willing to join his forces.

  • In the short term, it worked well. His emancipation promise attracted many slaves to Gov. Dunmore's army. By November 30, Dunmore’s military ranks had swelled and he was convinced of his ability to regain control of the colony via the promise of emancipation of slaves to rebels. The Continental Army's General George Washington feared Dunmore was correct. He wrote to the Continental Congress from New England, warning that they needed to defeat Dunmore ASAP. Dunmore’s forces won overwhelmingly at Kemp’s Landing. It looked as though Dunmore’s slave troops, which he called the Ethiopian Regiment, would ensure continued British rule in Virginia. 
  • On the other hand, Dunmore's emancipation promise angered slaveholders on both sides, not just the rebel owners–the slaveholders loyal to the Crown worried about the precedent Gov. Dunmore might set. His promise of emancipation was publicized in the Carolinas and prompted at least 150 men to march north to help defeat Dunmore. Dunmore did not appreciate the number and determination of the Carolina troops and sent only a few sailors and 60 troops from Norfolk to meet them, along with many slave troops. They got within 15 feet of the disciplined and determined rebels before being shot dead. Within 30 minutes, 150 of the Crown troops were killed, with only one rebel fatality. 
With the news of the defeat of his southern force, Dunmore set about defending Great Bridge. He built a stockade, disabling the main bridge and defending the smaller ones with cannon. However, his severe underestimation of the strength of the rebel militias, who were now calling themselves the Patriots, meant that his defenses were overrun. Of  800 slaves who signed up in anticipation of being freed, only 300 survived the battle. They retreated for safety to the British ship (the Otter), and the majority then contracted smallpox and died from it. 


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Douglas coat of arms (L)–argent azure 
in chief three stars argent, and Moray
 (Murray) coat of arms (R)–azure three 
stars argent two and one.
This is a little-told tale, because the moral high ground associated with the American Revolution is clouded over with issues that would not come to the fore until the Civil War. Perhaps by the 250th anniversary, in 2025, more attention will be paid to these decimated slaves who were seeking only what the rebels wanted, their freedom.

Returning to the source of the stars in the Stars and Stripes (my special interest), the story shows why George Washington, being a Virginian, would have had the Murray shield of the governor of his state fresh in his mind in 1775 and 1776. Until 1775, he and Governor Dunmore might even have met on friendly terms. They may have talked about the similarity between the Washington coat of arms with its red stars (or mullets) and the Scottish Douglas and Murray shields with their silver stars on a blue field.

This is another piece of evidence that the stars in the Stars and Stripes flag could have originated in Scotland, using the blue of the cross of St. Andrew. The would have been picked up by the Washington family, which lived just south of the border with Scotland, for the coats of arms of George Washington's first knighted ancestor. He used the five-pointed stars but in red, the color of the English St. George cross.