In mid-1775, Lord Dunmore, royal governor of Virginia, fled the colonial capital in Williamsburg for the safety of the British fleet. His uneqivocal support of royal interests over patriot ones had made him an unpopular figure. He later took up headquarters in Norfolk, a town with a large loyalist population. Dunmore sought to quiet patriot ardor by destroying farms and plantations belonging to rebels and by seizing a number of printing presses. He hoped to end patriot opposition by a well-timed military blow.
Dunmore assembled a small army composed of British regulars, loyalist volunteers and a number of runaway slaves who had been promised their freedom in return for their service. The patriot force comprised militia and volunteers from Virginia and Maryland, including young John Marshall.
Dunmore chose to confront the patriots in a small fortification located at the south end of a causeway over a swamp south of Norfolk. The advancing force was met on December 9, 1775, by entrenched patriot riflemen who inflicted a heavy toll. More than one hundred of Dunmore’s men were killed or wounded; one rebel soldier was injured. The thoroughly defeated loyalist army retreated to Norfolk and Dunmore again sought refuge aboard ship.
This dire situation deteriorated further on January 1, 1776, when Dunmore ordered the shelling of Norfolk. He was angered by ongoing sniper fire from the town. The destruction of Norfolk was nearly total. Fires resulted from the bombardment and other blazes were set by partisans of both sides. More than 800 buildings were burned, amounting to about two-thirds of the town. Another 400 structures were destroyed in February as part of the patriot scorched-earth policy.
Following the Battle of Great Bridge and the bombardment of Norfolk, British control in Virginia ended. On January 25, 1776, at Virginia Convention at Williamsburg, a resolution denouncing Dunmore's proclamation concerning slaves and indentured servants was adopted:
... we think it proper to declare that all slaves who have been, or shall be, seduced by His Lordship's proclamation, or other arts, to desert their master's service, and take up arms against the inhabitants of this colony, shall be liable to such punishment as shall hereafter be directed by the Convention. And to the end that all such who have taken this unlawful and wicked step may return in safety to their duty, and escape the punishment due to their crimes, we hereby promise pardon to them, they surrendering themselves to Col. William Woodford or any other commander of our troops, and not appearing in arms after the publication hereof.