A Free and Independent State

Now, therefore, we, the people of Virginia, do declare and ordain that the Ordinance adopted by the people of this State in Convention, on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-eight, whereby the Constitution of the United States of America was ratified, and all acts of the General Assembly of this State, ratifying or adopting amendments to said Constitution, are hereby repealed and abrogated; that the union between the State of Virginia and the other States under the Constitution aforesaid, is hereby dissolved, and that the State of Virginia is in the full possession and exercise of all the rights of sovereignty which belong to a free and independent State.

Ordinance of Secession, 17 April, 1861.

Whereas, Seven of the States formerly composing a part of the United States have, by authority of their people, solemnly resumed the powers granted by them to the United States, and have framed a Constitution and organized a Government for themselves, to which the people of those States are yielding willing obedience, and have so notified the President of the United States by all the formalities incident to such action, and thereby become to the United States a separate, independent and foreign power; and whereas, the Constitution of the United States has invested Congress with the sole power “to declare war,” and until such declaration is made, the President has no authority to call for an extraordinary force to wage offensive war against any foreign Power: and whereas, on the 15th inst., the President of the United States, in plain violation of the Constitution, issued a proclamation calling for a force of seventy-five thousand men, to cause the laws of the United states to be duly executed over a people who are no longer a part of the Union, and in said proclamation threatens to exert this unusual force to compel obedience to his mandates; and whereas, the General Assembly of Virginia, by a majority approaching to entire unanimity, declared at its last session that the State of Virginia would consider such an exertion of force as a virtual declaration of war, to be resisted by all the power at the command of Virginia; and subsequently the Convention now in session, representing the sovereignty of this State, has reaffirmed in substance the same policy, with almost equal unanimity; and whereas, the State of Virginia deeply sympathizes with the Southern States in the wrongs they have suffered, and in the position they have assumed; and having made earnest efforts peaceably to compose the differences which have severed the Union, and having failed in that attempt, through this unwarranted act on the part of the President; and it is believed that the influences which operate to produce this proclamation against the seceded States will be brought to bear upon this commonwealth, if she should exercise her undoubted right to resume the powers granted by her people, and it is due to the honor of Virginia that an improper exercise of force against her people should be repelled. Therefore I, JOHN LETCHER, Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, have thought proper to order all armed volunteer regiments or companies within this State forthwith to hold themselves in readiness for immediate orders, and upon the reception of this proclamation to report to the Adjutant-General of the State their organization and numbers, and prepare themselves for efficient service. Such companies as are not armed and equipped will report that fact, that they may be properly supplied.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the Commonwealth to be affixed, this 17th day of April, 1861, and in the eighty-fifth year of the Commonwealth.


John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore

John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, in Highland Dress.

Nephew of the second Earl of Dunmore, at fifteen years he was appointed page to Charles Edward Stuart (“Bonnie Prince Charlie”) and, with his father William Murray, was a participant in the Jacobite Uprising of 1745, after which the Murrays were placed under house arrest.  After his father’s conditional pardon in 1750, he joined the British Army.  In 1756, after the deaths of his uncle and father, John became the fourth Earl of Dunmore, and sat as a Scottish representative peer in the House of Lords from 1761 to 1774 and from 1776 to 1790.

Lord Dunmore served as royal governor of the Colony of Virginia from 25 September 1771 until his departure to New York in 1776; he continued to hold the position and to draw his pay until 1783, when American independence was recognised.

Having a contentious relationship with the colonial legislature, he dissolved and reconvened the House of Burgesses several times.  On 23 March 1774, Patrick Henry’s “Give me Liberty, or give me Death!” speech at the Second Virginia Convention and the accompanying resolution calling for the formation of an armed resistance made Dunmore “think it prudent to remove some Gunpowder which was in a Magazine in this place.”  Dunmore gave a key to Lieutenant Henry Colins, commander of H.M.S. Magdalen, and ordered him to remove the powder, provoking what became known as the Gunpowder Incident.  At Williamsburg, on the night of 20 April 1775, royal marines loaded fifteen half barrels of powder (one half barrel = one keg) into the governor’s wagon intent on transporting it down the Quarterpath Road to the James River to be loaded aboard the British ship.  This was discovered while underway, and local militia rallied to the scene, and riders spread word of the incident across the colony.

The Powder Magazine at Williamsburg.

Confronted by Patrick Henry and the Hanover Militia on 3 May, Lord Dunmore evacuated his family from the Governor’s Palace to his hunting lodge Porto Bello on the York River.

On 6 May, Dunmore issued a proclamation against “a certain Patrick Henry… and a Number of deluded Followers” who had organised “an Independent Company… and put themselves in a Posture of War.”

As hostilities continued, Dunmore himself left Williamsburg on 8 June 1775, retreating to Porto Bello where he joined his family.  From there, being dislodged by the Virginia rebels and wounded in the leg, he took refuge on the British warship Fowey in the York River.  General George Washington commented in December 1775, “I do not think that forcing his lordship on shipboard is sufficient.  Nothing less than depriving him of life or liberty will secure peace to Virginia, as motives of resentment actuate his conduct to a degree equal to the total destruction of that colony.”

Dunmore is noted for Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, also known as Lord Dunmore’s Offer of Emancipation, published on 7 November 1775, whereby he offered freedom to slaves who abandoned their Patriot masters to join the British forces.  This was the first mass emancipation of slaves in North America.  As governor of Virginia, Dunmore had withheld his signature from a bill against the slave trade.  However, by the end of the War, an estimated 100,000 escaped slaves sought refuge with the British, an estimated 20,000 of them served in the army, though the majority served in noncombatant roles.

He organised these Black Loyalists into the so-called Ethiopian Regiment.  However, after the Battle of Kemp’s Landing, Dunmore became overconfident, which precipitated his defeat at the Battle of Great Bridge, 9 December 1775.  Following the defeat at Great Bridge, he loaded his troops, and many Virginia Loyalists, onto British ships; as there was an outbreak of smallpox at the time, this had disastrous consequences, particularly for the ex-slaves; some 500 of the 800 members of the Ethiopian Regiment died.

On News Year’s Day in 1776, after burning some buildings on the Norfolk waterfront from which the rebels were firing on his ships (ultimately giving them an excuse to burn the entire city), it became obvious that his position in Virginia was untenable and he retreated to New York.

From 1787 to 1796, he served as royal governor of the Bahamas.

Dunmore County was organised in 1772 and named in his honour, but as the American Revolution got underway, it was renamed Shenandoah County.