Historical Tales: 2—American - Charles Morris

The Great Rebellion in the Old Dominion

The years ending in "76" are remarkable in America as years of struggle against tyranny and strife for the right. We shall not soon forget the year 1776, when the famous rebellion of the colonies against Great Britain reached its climax in the Declaration of Independence. In 1676, a century before, there broke out in Virginia what was called the "Great Rebellion," a famous movement for right and justice. It was brought about by the tyranny of Sir William Berkeley, the governor of the colony of Virginia, as that of 1776 was by the tyranny of George III., the King of England. It is the story of the first American rebellion that we are about to tell.

Sir William had ruled over Virginia at intervals for many years. It was he who took old Opechancanough prisoner after the massacre of 1643. In 1676 he was again governor of the colony. He was a man of high temper and revengeful disposition, but for a long time he and the Virginians got along very well together, for the planters greatly liked the grand style in which he lived on his broad estate of "Green Springs," with his many servants, and rich silver plate, and costly entertainments, and stately dignity. They lived much that way themselves, so far as their means let them, and were proud of their governor's grand display.

But what they did not like was his arbitrary way of deciding every question in favor of England and against Virginia, and the tyranny with which he enforced every order of the king. Still less were they pleased with the fact that, when the Indians in the mountain district began to attack the settlers, and put men, women, and children to death, the governor took no steps to punish the savage foe, and left the people to defend themselves in the best way they could. A feeling of panic like that of the older times of massacre ensued. The exposed families were forced to abandon their homes and seek places of refuge. Neighbors banded together for work in the field, and kept their arms close at hand. No man left his door without taking his musket. Even Jamestown was in danger, for the woodland stretched nearly to its dwellings, and the lurking red men, stealing with noiseless tread through the forest shades, prowled from the mountains almost to the sea, like panthers in search of prey.

At that time there was a man of great influence in Virginia, named Nathaniel Bacon. He was a newcomer, who had been in America less than three years, but he had bought a large estate and had been made a member of the governor's council. He was a handsome man and a fine speaker, and these and other qualities made him very popular with the planters and the people.

Bacon's plantation was near the Falls of the James River, where the city of Richmond now stands. Here his overseer, to whom he was much attached, and one of his servants were killed by the Indians. Highly indignant at the outrage, Bacon made up his mind that something must be done. He called a meeting of the neighboring planters, and addressed them hotly on the delay of the governor in coming to their defence. He advised them to act for themselves, and asked if any of them were ready to march against the savages, and whom they would choose as their leader. With a shout they declared that they were ready, and that he should lead.

This was very much like taking the law into their own hands. If the governor would not act, they would. As a proper measure, however, Bacon sent to the governor and asked for a commission as captain of the force of planters. The governor received the demand in an angry way. It hurt his sense of dignity to find these men acting on their own account, and he refused to grant a commission or to countenance their action. He went so far as to issue a proclamation, in which he declared that X11 who did not return to their homes within a certain time would be held as rebels. This so scared the planters that the most of them went home, only fifty-seven of them remaining with their chosen leader.

With this small force Bacon marched into the wilderness, where he met and defeated a party of Indians, killing many of them, and dispersing the remainder. Then he and his men returned home in triumph.

By this time the autocratic old governor was in a high state of rage. He denounced Bacon and his men as rebels and traitors, and gathered a force to punish them. But when he found that the whole colony was on Bacon's side he changed his tone. He had Bacon arrested, it is true, when he came to Jamestown as a member of the House of Burgesses, but this was only a matter of form, to save his dignity, and when the culprit went down on one knee and asked pardon of God, the king, and the governor, Berkeley was glad enough to get out of his difficulty by forgiving him. But for all this fine show of forgiveness Bacon did not trust the old tyrant, and soon slipped quietly out of Jamestown and made his way home.

He was right; the governor was making plans to seize him and hold him prisoner; he had issued secret orders, and Bacon had got away in good time. Very soon he was back again, this time at the head of four hundred planters. As they marched on, others joined, them, and when they came into the old town, and drew up on the State-house green, there were six hundred of them, horse and foot.

The sight of this rebel band threw old Berkeley into a towering rage. He rushed out from the State-house at the head of his council, and, tearing open his ruffled shirt, cried out, in a furious tone:

"Here, shoot me! 'fore God, fair mark; shoot!"

"No," said Bacon, "may it please your honor, we will not hurt a hair of your head, nor of any other man's. We are come for a commission to save our lives from the Indians, which you have so often promised; and now we will have it before we go.

Both men were in a violent rage, walking up and down and gesticulating like men distracted. Soon Sir 'William withdrew with his council to his office in the State-house. Bacon followed, his hand now touching his hat in deference, now his sword-hilt as anger rose in his heart. Some of his men appeared at a window of the room with their guns cocked and ready, crying out, "We will have it; we will have it."

This continued till one of the burgesses came to the window and waved his handkerchief, calling out, "You shall have it; you shall have it."

Hearing this, the men drew back and rested their guns on the ground and Bacon left the chamber and joined them. The matter ended in Bacon's getting his commission as general and commander-in-chief, while an act was passed by the legislature justifying him in all he had done, and a letter to the same effect was written to the king and signed by the governor, council, and assembly. Bacon had won in all he demanded.

His triumph was only temporary. While he was invading the country of the Pamunky Indians, killing many of them and destroying their towns, Berkeley repudiated all he had done. He proclaimed Bacon a rebel and traitor and issued a summons for the train-bands to the number of twelve hundred men, bidding them pursue and put down Bacon the rebel. The men assembled, but when they heard for what they were wanted they broke out into a shout of "Bacon! Bacon! Bacon!" and dispersed again, leaving the old tyrant and his attendants alone. News of these events quickly reached Bacon and his men in the field. He at once turned and marched back.

"While I am hunting wolves which are destroying innocent lambs," he exclaimed, indignantly, here are the governor and his men after me like hounds in full cry. I am like one between two millstones, which will grind me to powder if I do not look to it."



As he came near Jamestown the governor fled, crossing Chesapeake Bay to Accomac, and leaving Bacon in full possession. A new House of Burgesses was called into session and Bacon's men pledged themselves not to lay down their arms. Sir William had sent to England for soldiers, they said, and they would stand ready to fight these soldiers, as they had fought the governor. A paper to this effect was drawn up and signed, dated August, 1676. It was the first American declaration of independence.

The tide of rebellion was now in full flow. The movement against the Indians had, by the unwarranted behavior of the governor, been converted into civil war, nearly the whole colony supporting Bacon and demanding that the tyrant governor should be deposed.

But, while this was going on, the Indians took to the war-path again, and Bacon at once marched against them, leaving Sir William to his own devices. His first movement was against the Appomattox tribe, which dwelt on the river of the same name, where Petersburg now stands. Taking them by surprise, he burned their town, killed many of them, and dispersed the remainder. Then he marched south and attacked other tribes, driving them before him and punishing them so severely as quite to cure them of all desire to meddle with the whites.

From that time forward Eastern Virginia was free from Indian troubles, and Bacon was looked upon as the deliverer of the colony. But lack of provisions forced him to return and disband his forces, only a few men remaining with him. He soon learned that he had a worse enemy than the Indians to fight at home. Some of his leading supporters in Jamestown, Lawrence, Drummond, Hansford, and others, came hastily to his camp, saying that they had been obliged to flee for safety, as Sir William was back again, with eighteen ships in the river and eight hundred men he had gathered in the eastern counties.

The affair had now coma to a focus. It was fight, or yield and be treated as a traitor. Bacon resolved to fight, and he found many to back him in it, for he soon had a force collected. How many there were we do not know. Some, say only one hundred and fifty, some say eight hundred; but however that be, he marched with them on Jamestown, bringing his Indian captives with him. Rebels and Royalists the two parties were now called; people and tyrant would have been better titles, for Bacon was in arms for the public right and had the people at his back.

The old governor was ready. While in Accomac he had taken and hung two friends of Bacon, who had gone there to try and capture him. He asked for nothing better than the chance to serve Bacon in the same way. His ships, armed with cannon, now lay in the river near the town. A palisade, ten paces wide, had been built across the neck of the peninsula in which Jamestown stood. Behind it lay a strong body of armed men. Berkeley felt that he had the best of the situation, and was defiant of his foes.

It was at the end of a September day when Bacon and his small army of "rebels" arrived. Springing from his horse, he led the tired men up to the palisades and surveyed the governor's works of defence. Then he ordered his trumpeter to sound defiance and his men to fire on the garrison. There was no return fire. Sir William knew that the assailants were short of provisions, and trusted to hunger to make them retire. But Bacon was versed in the art of foraging. At Green Spring, three miles away, was Governor Berkeley's fine mansion, and from this the invading army quickly supplied itself. The governor afterwards bitterly complained that his mansion "was almost ruined; his household goods, and others of great value, totally plundered; that he had not a bed to lie on; two great beasts, three hundred sheep, seventy horses and mares, all his corn and provisions, taken away." Evidently the "rebels" knew something about the art of war.

This was not all, for their leader adopted another stratagem not well in accordance with the rules of chivalry. A number of the loyalists of the vicinity had joined Berkeley, and Bacon sent out small parties of horse, which captured the wives of these men and brought them into camp. Among them were the lady of Colonel Bacon, Madame Bray, Madame Page, and Madame Ballard. He sent one of these ladies to the town, with a warning to the husbands not to attack him in his camp, or they would find their wives in front of his line.

What Bacon actually wanted these ladies for was to make use of them in building his works. He raised by moonlight a defensive work of trees, brushwood and earth around the governor's outwork of palisades, placing the ladies in front of the workmen to keep the garrison from firing on them. But he had the chivalry to take them out of harm's way when the governor's men made a sortie on his camp.

The fight that took place may have been a hard one or a light one. We have no very full account of it. The most we know is that Bacon and his men won the victory, and that the governor's men were driven back, leaving their drum and their dead behind them. Whether hard or light, his repulse was enough for Sir William's valor. Well intrenched as he was and superior in numbers, his courage suddenly gave out, and he fled in haste to his ships, which set sail in equal haste down the river, their speed accelerated by the cannon-balls which the "rebels" sent after them.

Once more the doughty governor was a fugitive, and Bacon was master of the situation. Jamestown, the original Virginia settlement, was in his hands. What should he do with it? He could not stay there, for he knew that Colonel Brent, with some twelve hundred men, was marching down on him from the Potomac. He did not care to leave it for Berkeley to return to. In this dilemma he concluded to burn it. To this none of his men made any objection. Two of them, indeed, Lawrence and Drummond, who had houses in the place, set fire to them with their own hands. And thus the famous old town of John Smith and the early settlers was burned to the ground. Old as it was, we are told that it contained only a church and sixteen or eighteen houses, and in some of these there were no families. To-day nothing but the ruined church tower remains.

Bacon now marched north to York River to meet Colonel Brent and his men. But by the time he got there the men had dispersed. The news of the affair at Jamestown had reached them, and they concluded they did not want to fight. Bacon was now master of Virginia, with the power though not the name of governor.

What would have come of his movement had he lived it is impossible to say, for in the hour of his triumph a more perilous foe than Sir William Berkeley was near at hand. While directing his men in their work at the Jamestown trenches a fever had attacked him, and this led to a dangerous dysentery which carried him off after a few weeks' illness. His death was a terrible blow to his followers, for the whole movement rested on the courage and ability as a leader of this one man. They even feared the vindictive Berkeley would attempt some outrage upon the remains of the "rebel" leader, and they buried his body at night in a secret place. Some traditions assert that he was dealt with as De Soto had been before him, his body being sunk in the bosom of the majestic York River, where it was left with the winds and the waves to chant its requiem.

Thus ended what Sir William Berkeley called the "Great Rebellion." Its leader dead, there was none to take his place. In despair the men returned to their homes. Many of them made their way to North Carolina, in which new colony they were warmly welcomed. A few kept up a show of resistance, but they were soon dispersed, and Berkeley came back in triumph, his heart full of revengeful passion. He had sent to England for troops, and the arrival of these gave him support in his cruel designs.

All the leading friends of Bacon whom he could seize were mercilessly put to death, some of them with coarse and aggravating insults. The wife of Major Cheeseman, one of the prisoners, knelt at the governor's feet and pitifully pleaded for her husband's life, but all she got in return from the old brute was a vulgar insult. The major escaped the gallows only by dying in prison.

One of the most important of the prisoners was William Drummond, a close friend of Bacon. Berkeley hated him and greeted him with the most stinging insult he could think of.

"Mr. Drummond," said he, with a bitter sneer, "you are very welcome; I am more glad to see you than any man in Virginia. Mr. Drummond, you shall be hanged in half an hour."

And he was. His property was also seized, but when the king heard of this he ordered it to be restored to his widow.

"God has been inexpressibly merciful to this poor province," wrote Berkeley, with sickening hypocrisy, after one of his hangings. Charles II., the king, took a different view of the matter, saying: "That old fool has hung more men in that naked province than I did for the murder of my father." More than twenty of Bacon's chief supporters were hung, and the governor's revenge came to an end only when the assembly met and insisted that these executions should cease.

We have told how Bacon came to his end. We must do the same for Berkeley, his foe. Finding that he was hated and despised in Virginia, he sailed for England, many of the people celebrating his departure by firing cannon and illuminating their houses. He never returned. The king was so angry with him that he refused to see him; a slight which affected the old man so severely that he soon died, of a broken heart, it is said. Thus ended the first rebellion of the people of the American colonies.