A hundred years before the Declaration of Independence, in 1676, a rebellion took place in Virginia led by Nathaniel Bacon and joined by white frontiersmen, slaves, and servants. To quote from A People's History of the United States: "[It was] a rebellion so threatening that the governor had to flee the burning capital of Jamestown, and England decided to send a thousand soldiers across the Atlantic, hoping to maintain order among forty thousand colonists." The grievances of this motley group were various: frontiersmen believed they were not getting proper protection from Indian attacks; slaves and servants felt the weight of oppression from their masters and the political leaders of Virginia. The British Crown set up a Commission of Inquiry to report on Bacon's rebellion, which they did as follows1.From Voices of A People's History, edited by Zinn and Arnove
Bacon in most incens'd manner threatens to be revenged on the Governor and his party, swearing his soldiers to give no quarter and professing to soorne to take any themselves, and so in great fury marches on towards James Towne, onely halting a while about New Kent to gain some fresh forces, and sending to the upper parts of James River for what they could assist him with.
Having increased his number to about 300 in all, he proceeds direcdy to towne, as he marcheth the people on the high wayes coming forth praying for his happiness and railing ag't [against] the Governour and his party, and seeing the Indian captives which they led along as in a shew of tryumph, gave him many thankes for his care and endeavours for their preservation, bringing him forth fruits and victualls for his soldiers, the women telling him if he wanted assistance they would come themselves after him.
Intelligence coming to Bacon that the Governour had good in towne a 1000 men well arm'd and resolute, "I shall see that," saith he, "for I am now going to try them."....
In the evening Bacon with his small tyr'd body of men comes into Paspahayes old Fields and advancing on horseback himselfe on the Sandy Beech before the towne commands the trumpet to sound, fires his carbyne, dismounts, surveys the ground and orders a French worke to be cast up.
All this night is spent in falling of trees, cutting of bushes and throwing up earth, that by the help of the moone light they had made their French worke before day, although they had but two axes and 2 spades in all to performe this work with.
About day-break next morning six of Bacons soldiers ran up to the pallasadees of the Towne and fired briskly upon the guard, retreating safely without any damage at first (as is reported). [T]he Governor gave comand that not a gun should be fir'd ag't Bacon or his party upon paine of death, pretending to be loath to spill bloode and much more to be beginner of it, supposing the rebells would hardly be so audacious as to fire a gun against him, But that Bacon would rather have sent to him and sought his reconciliation so that some way or other might have bin found out for the preventing of a warr, to which the Governour is said to have shewne some inclination upon the account of the service Bacon had performed (as he heard) against the Indian enemy, and that he had brought severall Indian prisoners along with him, and especially for that there were several! ignorant people which were deluded and drawne into Bacon's party and thought of no other designe than the Indian warr onely, and so knew not what they did.
But Bacon (pretending distrust of the Governor) was so fair from all thought of a Treaty that he animates his men against it, celling them that he knew that party to be as perfidious as cowardly, and that there was noe trust to be reposed in such, who thinke it noe Treachery by any wayes to Suppresse them, and for his tendernesse of Shedding Blood which the Governor pretends, and preventing a warr, sayes Bacon, "There are some here that know it to be no longer since than last weeke that hee himself comanded to be Fired against us by Boats which the Governor sent up and downe to places where the country's Provisions were kept for mainteinance of the Indian Warr, to fetch them away to support a warr amongst ourselves, and wounded some of us (which was done by Sorrell) which were against the designe of converting these stores to soe contrary a use and intention of what they were raised for by the People." Bacon moving downe towards the Towne and the Shipps being brought before the Sandy Beach the better to annoy the enemy in case of any attempt of theirs to storme the Palassadoes, upon a signall given from the Towne the Shipps fire their Great Gunns, and at the same tyme they let fly their Small-shot from the Palassadoes. But that small sconce that Bacon had caused to be made in the night of Trees, Bush and Earth (under w'ch they lay) soe defended them that the shott did them noe damage at all, and was return'd back as fast from this little Fortresse. In the heat of this Firing Bacon commands a party of his men to make every one his Faggott and put it before his Breast and come and lay them in order on top of the Trench on the outside and at the end to enlarge and make good the Fortification, which they did, and orders more spades to be gott, to helpe to make it yet more defensible, and the better to observe their motion [Bacon] ordered a constant sentinel in the daytime on top of a brick chimney (hard by) to discover from thence how the men in Towne mounted and dismounted, posted and reposted, drew on and off, what number they were, and how they moved. Hitherto their happen'd no other action then onely firing great and small shott at distances.
But by their movings and drawings up about towne, Bacon understood they intended a sally and accordingly prepares to receive them, drew up his men to the most advantageous places he could, and now expected them (but they observ'd to draw off againe for some tyme) and was resolved to enter the towne with them, as they retreated, as Bacon expected and foretold they would do. In this posture of expectation Bacons forces continued for a hour till the watchman gave notice that they were drawne off againe in towne, so upon this Bacons forces did so too. No sooner were they all on the rebells side gone off and squandered but all on a sudden a sally is made by the Governors party,. . . But we cannot give a better account, nor yet a truer (so far as we are informed) of this action than what this Letter of Bacons relates:...
"...Yesterday they made a sally with horse and foote in the Van; they came up with a narrow Front, and pressing very close upon one anothers shoulders that the forlorne might be their shelter; our men received them so warmly that they retired in great disorder, throwing downe theire armes, left upon the Bay, as also their drum and dead men, two of which our men brought into our trenches and buried with severall of their armes...They shew themselves such pitifull cowards, contemptable as you would admire them. It is said that Hubert Farreii is shot in the belly, Hartwell in the legg, Smith in the head, Mathewes with others, yet as yet we have no certaine account..."
After this successless sally the courages and numbers of the Governors party abated much, and Bacons men thereby became more bold and daring in so much that Bacon could scarce keepe them from immediately falling to storme and enter the towne; but he (being as wary as they rash) perswaded them from the attempt, bidding them keepe their courages untill such tyme as he found occasion and opportunity to make use of them, telling them that he doubted not to take the towne without losse of a man, and that one of their lives was of more value to him than the whole world.
Having planted his great guns, he takes the wives and female relations of such gentlemen as were in the Governors service against him (whom he had caused to be brought to the workes) and places them in the face of his enemy, as bulworkes for their battery, by which policy he promised himself (and doubdess had) a goode advantage, yet had the Governors party by much the odds in number besides the advantage of tyme and place.
But so great was the cowardize and baseness of the generality of Sir William Berkeley's party (being most of them men intent onely upon plunder or compell'd and hired into his service) that of all, at last there were onely some 20 gende-men willing to stand by him, the rest (whom the hopes or promise of plunder brought thither) being now all in haste to be gone to secure what they had gott; so that Sir Wm. Berkeley himselfe who undoubtedly would rather have dyed on the place than thus deserted it, what with importunate and resisdess solicitations of all, was at last over persuaded, now hurryed away against his owne will to Accomack and forced to leave the towne to the mercy of the enemy.
Bacon haveing early intelligence of the Governor and his party's quitting the towne the night before, enters it without any opposition, and soldier like considering of what importance a place of that refuge was, and might againe be to the Governor and his party, instandy resolves to lay it level with the ground, and the same night he became poses'd of it, sett fire to towne, church and state house (wherein were the country's records which Drummond had privately convey'd thense and preserved from burning). The towne consisted of 12 new brick houses besides a considerable number of frame houses with brick chimneys, ail which will not be rebuilt (as is computed) for fifteen hundred pounds of tobacco.
Now those who had so lately deserted it, as they rid a little below in the river in the shipps and sloop (to their shame and regret) beheld by night the flames of the towne, which they so basely forsaking, had made a sacrifice to ruine.
Footnotes1 (1677). In Charles M. Andrews, ed., (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1915), pp. 129-36. A True Narrative of the Rise, Progresse, and Cessation of the Late Rebellion in Virginia, Most Humbly and Impartially Reported by His Majestyes Commissioners Appointed to Enquire into the Affaires of the Said Colony Narratives of the Insurrections, 1675-1690