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Anniversary of the 1775 Battle of Hampton

Today marks the anniversary of the Battle of Hampton, the first battle of the Revolutionary War to occur south of Massachusetts. The battle occurred thanks to a hurricane on September 2, 1775 which led to a squabble between Captain Matthew Squire of the HMS Otter and the residents of Hampton.

As the story goes the HMS Otter’s tender, named Liberty, was driven aground during the hurricane and the next day local inhabitants boarded the vessel, removed the guns, stores and parts of the vessel and then burned it. Apparently sailors from the Otter had been making a nuisance of themselves and this was how the residents of made their displeasure known.

The Virginia Gazette describes the hurricane and the subsequent burning of the tender in its September 8, 1775 edition:

“Every day last week it rained more or less, and sometimes continued the chief part of the night; but on Saturday it never ceased pouring down, and towards noon the wind began to rise, which increased soon afterwards to a mere hurricane, it blowing most furiously from the N.E. till near 10 o’clock at night. Infinite damage has been done to the crops of corn and tobacco, much wheat spoiled in barns, a great number of trees blown down, and almost every mill-dam in the country given way. —Capt. Robertson and Capt. McCunn, both lying at York town, bound for London, and laden with tobacco, were drove ashore, and must unload before they can be got off; but the Prospect, Norwood, likewise for London, with tobacco, had the good fortune to ride out the storm, and has received no injury. Some other smaller vessels were drove ashore, but will be got off with little damage.—At Norfolk, all the small craft were drove ashore, besides some ships, which have been chiefly got off, except the Mercury man of war, Capt. McCartney, who lies in two feet of water only; and there may he stick fast, fast! [I love this comment! Can you tell there were hard feelings on the part of the Americans?]—Capt. Squires, of the Otter sloop, going round to York in his tender, had very near perished in the storm, being cast away upon Back river, near Hampton; where his vessel was burnt by the people thereabouts, in return for harbouring gentlemen’s negroes, and suffering his sailors to steal poultry, hogs, &c. Two of the crew were runaway slaves from Col. Wilson Miles Cary’s quarters in King & Queen, who were taken soon after they got ashore; and his pilot, a mulatto man, was the property of Henry King, esq; of Hampton, with whom, after skulking in the woods about 48 hours, he found means to paddle off in a canoe.”

Apparently six of the tender’s crew were taken prisoner but were released after threats were made by the governor. On September 15 Captain Squire recounted demanded the return of the boat and the stolen materials or he would hold “the people of Hampton, who committed the outrage…answerable for the consequences.”

When Captain Squire decided that the contest between himself and the citizens of Hampton could not be resolved peacefully he attacked Hampton with six small craft. Nine blacks and British sailors were killed when the vessels came under heavy long arms fire and Squire was forced to retreat. Needless to say he didn’t get his boat or his stuff back.

We are lucky to have one of swivel guns from Liberty’s wreck in our collection. It was found buried in the sand near the mouth of Harris Creek on the Back River in Elizabeth City County (now Hampton), about 1925. I’ve attached a picture, but if you are interested in seeing the real thing it’s on display at the Hampton History Museum through March 2018.

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