War! Patrick Henry's Finest Hour, Lord Dunmore's Worst

The story you are about read is both comic and tragic, and it is hard to say which predominates. The villain in the piece, Lord Dunmore, does try to get up a proper war, issuing bombastic proclamations, tramping about the countryside at the head of a regiment of British grenadiers and bombarding the homes of former members of his Governor’s Council. There are the usual atrocities: the young woman disemboweled by one of Col. Banastre Tarleton’s dragoons and left nailed to the door of a house at Jamestown; the death agonies of the scores of slaves who answered Dunmore’s call for an army of Ethiopes; and, on the promised lighter note, the spectacle of Capt. Squire of the Otter, obstinately clinging to a tree in a hurricane after refusing an invitation from the tree’s owner, a rebel, to take shelter in his house.

But it is largely a made-up war, waged by Dunmore for fear of being thought inactive by his masters in the British ministry and inspired by a desire for personal revenge. The promised encounter between Patrick Henry (now Commander in Chief of Virginia’s army) fails to come off, Henry having been pointedly left cooling his heels in his war camp behind the College of William and Mary by a Safety Committee that is afraid he will use the army to make himself dictator. Less enemies than foils to each other, Dunmore’s worst defect, bad judgment, underscores Henry’s greatest virtue, intrepidity. The grudge match between good and evil fades to the spectacle of an “humane good man,” as one loyalist termed Dunmore, laboring to turn himself into Washington’s “monster.”

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Patrick Henry was not surprised to find his name put forward for the position of Virginia Commander in Chief. He had asked for the job. Pendleton, who had stunned John Adams by being the only Virginian to vote against Washington as Commander in Chief of the American Army, now astonished many Convention delegates by not opposing Henry for Colonel of the First Regiment, a title thought to carry with it automatic appointment to the position of Commander in Chief.

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Even before he became Chairman of the Committee of Safety, Pendleton had had “anxious and uneasy moments” over the thought of Patrick Henry at the head of an army.21 Part of this uneasiness had to do with the belief that Henry was simply unqualified for the job, and part with the memory of Henry’s 1765 call for a Cromwell to stand up for America, which Pendleton’s father-in-law, Speaker John Robinson, had denounced as “treason.” Nor was Pendleton likely to forget Henry’s ridicule of the former Speaker’s loan office proposal – or his advocacy in support of the inquiry that exposed Robinson’s practice of loaning the colony’s retired currency to bankrupt planters. With his snowy hair and courtly manners (Henry used to say Pendleton had “too much courtesy”), Pendleton belonged to another era – Robinson’s era – with its patronage and its political intrigue. Robinson’s patronage had shaped Edmund Pendleton’s career, both as a lawyer and as a legislator. Now the deftest political operator in Virginia, Pendleton specialized in parliamentary obstructions so counterrevolutionary that, according to Phillip Mazzei, he was called “Moderation Pendleton.” As Pendleton put it in a December 24, 1775 letter to Woodford, Henry’s election to the position of Commander in Chief was a mistake which could not be remedied because he had done “nothing worthy of degradation and must keep his rank.” Pendleton would see that Henry kept his rank – knowing that his rank could be used to keep him. Meanwhile, Henry’s second in command, Woodford, was to be ordered into the field and invited to exercise powers that his Commander in Chief, left languishing at the capital, could only enjoy in theory.

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Dunmore knew that he was ignorant of the arts of war; knew that he lacked judgment. In his eponymous war against the Shawnee he had been inept but lucky; now he was in danger of seeming merely incompetent. On the 17th of October, he was given an opportunity to show that he was neither inept nor a spectator: in the morning, he received intelligence of a large cache of rebel gunpowder at Kemps Landing; by noon he had Capt. Leslie and his 14th Regiment sailing down the Elizabeth River’s South Branch. A few hours later, and Leslie had disembarked and quick-marched to within two miles of town. Though he had been told that there were 400 rebels in the neighborhood, and though his line of march took him through a dense forest at night, Leslie continued on to Kemps Landing. There he found the town deserted and the powder gone, the effect no doubt of a timely warning. After pillaging a few houses, Leslie marched his men back through the same dense forest, apparently as oblivious to the possibility of a rebel ambush going as he had been in coming. How much of his behavior was inspired by Dunmore’s anxieties over becoming a tame spectator and how much by Leslie’s own fears of inaction, the sources, unfortunately, fail to say.