Of all the Revolutionary War battles, the Skirmish at Kemp’s Landing is one of the smallest. Its only real claim to fame is that it was the first fight in Virginia, and when the first Virginian blood was spilled for the Revolutionary cause.
In the mid-1600’s, George Kempe of England acquired land along the Elizabeth River. He developed a port to increase the tobacco trade and the import of bricks, lumber, and other goods. The small community that grew there was called Kemp’s Landing (also spelled Kempe’s Landing).
This map of Virginia, drawn around 1775, is upside down (North is at the bottom, South is at the top) and it shows Kemp’s Landing near the center with Norfolk to the right.
With the building tension of the growing American Revolution, there was a struggle to gain control of military supplies like muskets and gunpowder. In March 1775, Virginia’s royal British Governor John Murray, Earl of Dunmore (also called just Lord Dunmore) had already raided the colonial storehouse in Williamsburg. Lord Dunmore removed his family from the vicinity, fearing for his safety, even though there was no fighting.
The tension grew. The Patriots had accumulated a group of men and Lord Dunmore had requested military backup. General Thomas Gage sent a small detachment of his foot regiment, who began raiding the surrounding villages for more military supplies, hoping to bolster their stores and cripple the Patriots.
It was then that Lord Dunmore wrote his proclamation offering freedom to Patriot slaves in exchange for service in the British Army. His actions angered the Patriots and they began organizing troops to send in to Norfolk. The local militia commander and a local landowner sent out a plea for help and mustered about 170 men. They set up an ambush along the road to Great Bridge, about 10 miles from Kemp’s Landing.
Dunmore had heard rumors of growing milita troops, and began scouting the area. He sent about 120 men to Kemp’s Landing. Some of the men had been drinking and the inexperienced and militia ruined the ambush by firing too soon and the trained British regulars had little trouble returning fire. The militia fled, though the militia commander, who was intoxicated and had collapsed while fleeing, was captured by a former slave who had responded to the proclamation. The results of the Skirmish at Kemp’s Landing were 18 Patriots captured, seven killed—five in battle and two drowned crossing a creek. Only one British soldier suffered a minor wound.