Story behind historic magazine in Williamsburg


“I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

— Patrick Henry

March 23, 1775

“The sword is drawn and God knows when it will be sheathed.”

— The Virginia Gazette’

April 27, 1775

If you’ve ever been to Colonial Williamsburg, you might have taken part in a reenactment of the “storming of the palace,” an incident that took place in late April of 1775. The incident played out over some weeks and had a major role in convincing Virginians that Massachusetts wasn’t the only colony suffering under the King’s rules.

Like many large towns of the era, Williamsburg, then the capital of the Virginia colony, had a magazine for safe storage of arms and ammunition. The original magazine dates back to 1714, when Alexander Spotswood, then the colony’s governor, received a large shipment of munitions from Queen Anne. The colony’s assembly authorized him to spend up to £200 in its construction.

It was completed within a year and entrusted to its first keeper, John Brush, who had shot, powder, flint, tents, swords, pikes, cooking utensils, and upwards of 3,000 Brown Bess flintlocks under his care. An exterior perimeter wall was built between 1754 and 1763 during the French and Indian War due to the influx of weapons for the war effort.

By 1775, revolutionary sentiment was boiling in the colonies. The Intolerable Acts had been enacted a year before. The Boston Tea Party was 18 months past, and the First Continental Congress had been in session since the previous September. Virginia militia companies had started to form, and they were in need of supplies. Then, 249 years ago today, on March 23, 1775, at the Second Virginia Convention, Patrick Henry delivered his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. It was clear then to the royal governor of the day, Lord Dunmore, that something needed to be done.

On the night of April 20, 1775, he sent Lt. Henry Collins with a squad of Royal Marines. He had instructions to empty the arsenal and disable all of the muskets stored there. In the early morning hours of April 21, the Marines were discovered and townspeople raised the alarm by banging drums throughout the city. The Marines quickly left the city with 15 half barrels of powder.

When dawn came, the city’s populace marched on the governor’s residence — the very act that is replayed to this day on that same green. Williamsburg Mayor John Dixon convinced the people to follow proper British law and send a delegation to the governor demanding an explanation and the crowd dispersed. Just six days later, word of the battles at Lexington and Concord was spread to the citizenry by a special broadside from the Virginia Gazette. Henry sprang into action again and led a group of 150 militia to demand payment for the gunpowder. £330 was paid to Henry. Two days later, the governor charged Henry with extortion, and he was escorted by the militia to Philadelphia.

The same day the arrest warrant was issued, the 5th Virginia convention convened in Williamsburg. Nine days later, it declared independence, called for a drafting of a declaration of rights, made Henry the new governor, and sent Richard Henry Lee back to Philadelphia to propose independence to the Continental Congress. He did so on June 7, and the motion was seconded by John Adams. On June 10, the Declaration Committee was formed and they reported out at the end of June.

On July 1 the delegations voted, with South Carolina and Pennsylvania voting no, New York abstaining, and Delaware casting no vote because their delegation was tied 1-1. The following day, South Carolina reversed and two of the members of Pennsylvania’s delegation, John Dickinson and Robert Morris, abstained so that Pennsylvania could vote yes and the decision would be unanimous. Delaware’s third member, Caesar Rodney, had arrived overnight and broke the tie, allowing Delaware to vote in favor. New York abstained again, although they received permission from the New York legislature to vote yes one week later.

The Williamsburg incident was just one small piece of the puzzle that led to the Declaration, but it was a crucial piece in convincing the revolutionary leaders of Virginia to throw their support behind independence — support that was necessary for the vote to succeed in the Continental Congress.

The perimeter wall of the magazine was torn down in 1856 so that the bricks could be used in the foundation of a nearby church. Two walls of the magazine collapsed in 1888, and a fire destroyed the roof the following year. The remaining structure was restored and the guardhouse and perimeter wall rebuilt in 1934. The full structure has been open to the public since 1949 and can be viewed in Colonial Williamsburg — just a nine-and-a-half hour drive from Delaware.

David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette, as sister newspaper of The Inquirer, since 2005.

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