Samantha Hagan

In 1715, a public weapons magazine was built in the center of the Colonial Virginian capital of Williamsburg. It was erected to house weapons and supplies necessary for the defense of the colony against slave revolts, Native American attacks, and pirate raids. But in 1775, the small brick building became a flash point of the American Revolution when Patrick Henry led a citizens’ militia of up to 500 armed men against the Royal Government of Virginia.

Patrick Henry was an orator and political leader. He was a burgess, the colonial equivalent of a state representative. Along with the rest of the elected members of the House of Burgesses, he lost his official powers when Royal Governor Dunmore disbanded the legislature for becoming too critical of British Rule.

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In protest, the members of the House of Burgesses met illicitly in March of 1775 in Richmond, Virginia to conduct the business of the legislature. It was at this meeting that Henry delivered his most famous speech, calling for the formation and armament of volunteer companies in every county to prepare to fight against royal tyranny.

Following the rousing speech with his legendary closing words, “give me liberty or give me death,” the majority of those present voted with Henry to form the militia and immediately set about doing so.

It didn’t take long for the citizens in the new militia to have the opportunity to prove their dedication to the cause of liberty. Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, understood the reports that Henry’s impassioned speech was turning public sentiment against British rule and towards independence. On April 20th, 1775, just one day after the skirmishes in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, Dunmore issued an order commanding a cadre of royal marines to enter the public magazine under cover of darkness, and remove the community’s gunpowder supply and disable the remaining weapons.

Unfortunately for the governor, the marines were spotted in action and soon the entire town of Williamsburg was aware that the people of the colony had been robbed of their public defenses. News quickly spread to the rest of Virginia, just as reports of Lexington and Concord began reaching the colony. The people were ready to fight back. Revolution had begun.

Samantha Hagan

Samantha Hagan is Director of the Patrick Henry Legacy Program at the Patrick Henry Center.