In the course of exploring Aquia Landing and vicinity through various blog posts, let’s pause in one of the periods predating the steamboats and railroad. The typical visitor to the public beach there who gazes across Aquia Creek to Brent’s Point in Stafford County is probably unaware they are looking at the tip of a peninsula that hosted the Fredericksburg area’s only known Revolutionary War fighting between organized units.
The shooting part of the Revolution came to Stafford in July 1776, 15 months after Virginia’s Royal Governor, John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, declared his colony in rebellion and a year after he moved the seat of his “government” to a British fleet that would raid up and down the Chesapeake and its tributaries. That these operations included an amphibious attack on the Widewater peninsula—dramatic and much commented-on at the time—has recently begun to reenter common knowledge locally, thanks to the posting of primary accounts on Robert Heges VIIII’s Encyclopedia of Dumfries, Virginia website, around 1997, and the publishing of other primary accounts, together with extended narratives of the Widewater episode, in works such as Jerrilynn Eby’s They Called Stafford Home: The Development of Stafford County, Virginia from 1600 Until 1865 (1997) and Donald G. Shomette’s Maritime Alexandria: the Rise and Fall of an American Entrepôt (2003).
The following contemporary description, perhaps penned by an officer in the Virginia State Navy and recently made available online by an archive in Illinois, provides an overview of the amphibious operation of 1776. It began with four British warships sailing past on the Potomac on July 22, and continued the next day, when at least one of the four, the 44-gun, two decker HMS Roebuck, returned to dispatch landing craft to William Brent’s Richland. Richland, centered around what was described as an “elegant brick house,” was situated on the Widewater peninsula roughly three-quarters of the way up (northwest along) its Potomac shoreline. Brent owned land in Prince William County as well as in Stafford, and was captain of the Prince William militia:
On Monday, July 22, the Roebuck, Mercury, Otter, and an armed ship, came up Potomack, and anchored about two miles below Dumfries, where the river is yet quite fresh. On Tuesday, about twelve o’ clock, they sent off two tenders, a gondola covered, and eight boats, mostly large, and full of men, consisting of the remains of the Fourteenth Regiment, Marines, &c. They landed at William Brent’ s Esq.; where about sixty of the Stafford Militia were posted, without any cover. The gondola, drawing but sixteen inches water, run in close to the shore, and, with a nine-pounder and grape shot, obliged the Militia to retreat, when about one hundred and fifty men landed and burnt the house, out houses, hay stacks, &c., and intended to have burnt Mr. Brent’ s fine merchant mill, and several other houses along shore….
(Revolutionary War gondolas were flat-bottom craft, each bearing a single mast rigged for square sail.)
The additional arsons, the account continues, were cancelled
on the Roebuck’ s observing that the Prince William Militia were on their march to Mr. Brent’ s, she hoisted a white flag, and their men immediately retreated, so that no further damage was done. The fleet having taken in fresh water, fell down the river the next day. I followed them to the Narrows, about thirty miles below this, and found they had done no other mischief. As I returned on Friday, I was informed that three white men and four negroes were found dead on the shore, two of the whites sewed up in hammocks and shot through the breast; they had fine Holland shirts, and are supposed to be of some distinction; and a gold laced hat was found, with a bullet hole through both sides of the crown. As the Riflemen had some fair shot at them, it is not doubted but several are killed. No damage was done on the side of the Militia.
In evaluating other primary sources, Eby’s and Shomette’s books provide colorful elaboration for and modification of this report. Evidently, the Stafford militia had helped bring the British “mischief” down upon their heads by becoming intoxicated, taunting the enemy afloat, and then falling asleep. Enough, however, recovered their faculties in time to inflict casualties upon the landing force. The wonderfully named Captain Andrew Snape Hamond, commander of the Roebuck (and destined not only for a knighthood and a baronetcy but also for service on the court martial that tried the Bounty mutineers), acknowledged six wounded at Widewater. Yet a letter that George Washington’s stepson, John Parke Custis, wrote to his stepfather tallied closely with the passage quoted above by crediting a Staffordian named Combs with three British dead. Hamond also specified that the landing craft included a row galley—one of the more exotic vessels to appear in combat in the annals of Fredericksburg-area military history—and stated that the force sent ashore totaled 108 Royal Marines and regulars from the 14th Regiment of Foot. Before Roebuck departed the area, Hamond dispatched a galley to the Maryland shore of the Potomac, towards another gathering of militia, who soon fled into the countryside.
In some ways, the engagement at Widewater prefigured Civil War events along different stretches of the same peninsula, particularly at Brent’s Point and the Aquia Landing harbor, as well as along the lower Potomac generally. Like the Union commanders who planned operations for that stretch of river in 1861, Dunmore attempted to subdue a rebellion by asserting naval power along the same waterway, mounting the occasional ambhibious operation (as did the Federals, with their disastrous landing on Mathias Point in King George County in 1861). The parallels are far from exact—those Union planners also sought to weaken a partial Confederate blockade of Washington, D.C.—but Civil War developments in that area carry a distinct sense of déjà vu when considered alongside Dunmore’s operations.
Although Captain Hamond made no mention of losing “four negroes,” and the Virginian’s account quoted above identifies neither their status nor their nationality, it does indicate another parallel to the future Civil War. It suggests an awareness that people of color could have a very different view of patriotism and personal interest than the colony’s white revolutionaries. On November 7, 1775, eight months before the Widewater engagement, Dunmore had triggered North America’s first mass emancipation by making formal via a proclamation an offer he had his commanders had been making informally for some time: freedom to slaves who would join the British cause. Along Virginia’s rivers, British troops and ships represented a previously unattainable life to enslaved people, who learned of the governor’s offer even before it was formalized. Many accepted, serving most often in noncombatant roles but also as soldiers and sailors.
In a newspaper advertisement datelined four days prior to the issuance of Dunmore’s proclamation in November 1775, for instance, Robert Brent, who owned the Woodstock estate in Stafford not far from Richland, announced that his enslaved manservant, Charles, had effected a “long premeditated” escape. Charles, Brent added, was “determined…to get liberty, as he conceived, by flying to lord Dunmore.” Brent appended the notice to share a rumor that Charles was aboard an oyster boat. In her book, Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty, Cassandra Pybus notes that Charles was returned to slavery by the crew of a boat on which he had stowed away.
Former slaves served with the British from time to time as guides, as freedmen would do during the Civil War, so perhaps one or more of the dead black men at Widewater—again, if we assume they were indeed present—had avoided the fate of Charles only to fall while attempting to pilot Dunmore’s soldiers and marines.
Noel G. Harrison