Chronicles of America 

Berkeley's Tyranny

Bacon with an increased army now rode out once more against the Indians. He made a rendezvous on the upper York -- the old Pamunkey -- and to this center he gathered horsemen until there may have been with him not far from a thousand mounted men. From here he sent detachments against the Indian's villages in all the upper troubled country, and afar into the sunset woods where the pioneer's cabin had not yet been built. He acted with vigor. The Indians could not stand against his horsemen and concerted measures, and back they fell before the white men, westward again; or, if they stayed in the ever dwindling villages, they gave hostages and oaths of peace. Quiet seemed to descend once more upon the border.

But, if the frontier seemed peaceful, Virginia behind the border was a bubbling cauldron. Bacon had now become a hero of the people, a Siegfried capable of slaying the dragon. Nor were Lawrence and Drummond idle, nor others of their way of thinking. The Indian troubles might soon be settled, but why not go further, marching against other troubles, more subtle and long-continuing, and threatening all the future?

In the midst of this speculation and promise of change, the Governor, feeling the storm, dissolved the Assembly, proclaimed Bacon and his adherents rebels and traitors, and made a desperate attempt to raise an army for use against the new-fangledness of the time. This last he could not do. Private interest led many planters to side with him, and there was a fair amount of passionate conviction matching his own, that his Majesty the King and the forces of law and order were being withstood, and without just cause. But the mass of the people cried out to his speeches, "Bacon! Bacon!" As the popular leader had been warned from Jamestown by news of personal danger, so in his turn Berkeley seems to have believed that his own liberty was threatened. With suddenness he departed the place, boarded a sloop, and was "wafted over Chesapeake Bay thirty miles to Accomac." The news of the Governor's flight, producing both alarm in one party and enthusiasm in the other, tended to precipitate the crisis. Though the Indian trouble might by now be called adjusted, Bacon, far up the York, did not disband his men. He turned and with them marched down country, not to Jamestown, but to a hamlet called Middle Plantation, where later was to grow the town of Williamsburg. Here he camped, and here took counsel with Lawrence and Drummond and others, and here addressed, with a curious, lofty eloquence, the throng that began to gather. Hence, too, he issued a "Declaration," recounting the misdeeds of those lately in power, protesting against the terms rebel and traitor as applied to himself and his followers, who are only in arms to protect his Majesty's demesne and subjects, and calling on those who are well disposed to reform to join him at Middle Plantation, there to consider the state of the country which had been brought into a bad way by "Sir William's doting and irregular actings."

Upon his proclamation many did come to Middle Plantation, great planters and small, men just freed from indentured service, holders of no land and little land and much land, men of all grades of weight and consideration and all degrees of revolutionary will, from Drummond -- with a reported speech, "I am in overshoes; I will be in overboots!" and a wife Sarah who snapped a stick in two with the cry, "I care no more for the power of England than for this broken straw!" -- to those who would be revolutionary as long as, and only when, it seemed safe to be so.

How much of revolution, despite that speech about his Majesty's demesne and subjects, was in Bacon's mind, or in Richard Lawrence's mind and William Drummond's mind, or in the mind of their staunchest supporters, may hardly now be resolved. Perhaps as much as was in the mind of Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and George Mason a century later.

The Governor was in Accomac, breathing fire and slaughter, though as yet without brand or sword with which to put his ardent desires into execution. But he and the constituted order were not without friends and supporters. He had, as his opponents saw, a number of "wicked and pernicious counsellors, aides and assistants against the commonalty in these our cruel commotions." Moreover -- and a great moreover is that! -- it was everywhere bruited that he had sent to England, to the King, "for two thousand Red Coates." Perhaps the King -- perhaps England -- will take his view, and, not consulting the good of Virginia, send the Red Coats! What then?

Bacon, as a measure of opposition, proposed "a test or recognition," to be signed by those here at Middle Plantation who earnestly do wish the good of Virginia. It was a bold test! Not only should they covenant to give no aid to the whilom?? Governor against this new general and army, but if ships should bring the Red Coats they were to withstand them. There is little wonder that "this bugbear did marvellously startle" that body of Virginia horsemen, those progressive gentlemen planters, and others. Yet in the end, after violent contentions, the assembly at Middle Plantation drew up and signed a remarkable paper, the "Oath at Middle Plantation." Historically, it is linked on the one hand with that "thrusting out of his government" of Sir John Harvey in Charles I's time, and on the other with Virginian proceedings a hundred years later under the third George. If his Majesty had been, as it was rumored, wrongly informed that Virginia was in rebellion; if, acting upon that misinformation, he sent troops against his loyal Virginians -- who were armed only against an evil Governor and intolerable woes then these same good loyalists would "oppose and suppress all forces whatsoever of that nature, until such time as the King be fully informed of the state of the case." What was to happen if the King, being informed, still supported Berkeley and sent other Red Coats was not taken into consideration.

This paper, being drawn, was the more quickly signed because there arrived, in the midst of the debate, a fresh Indian alarm. Attack threatened a fort upon the York -- whence the Governor had seen fit to remove arms and ammunition! The news came most opportunely for Bacon. "There were no more discourses." The major portion of the large assemblage signed.

The old Government in Virginia was thus denied. But it was held that government there must be, and that the people of Virginia through representatives must arrange for it. Writs of election, made as usual in the King's name, and signed by Bacon and by those members of the Council who were of the revolt, went forth to all counties. The Assembly thus provided was to meet at Jamestown in September.

So much business done, off rode Bacon and his men to put down this latest rising of the Indians. Not only these but Native Americans in a new quarter, tribes south of the James, kept them employed for weeks to come. Nor were they unmindful of that proud old man, Sir William Berkeley, over on the Eastern Shore, a well-peopled region where traveling by boat and by sandy road was sufficiently easy. Bacon, Lawrence, and Drummond finally decided to take Sir William captive and to bring him back to Jamestown. For this purpose they dispatched a ship across the Bay, with two hundred and fifty men, under the command of Giles Bland, "a man of courage and haughty bearing," and "no great admirer of Sir William's goodness." The ship proceeded to the Accomac shore, anchored in some bight, and sent ashore men to treat with the Governor. But the Governor turned the tables on them. He made himself captor, instead of being made captive. Bland and his lieutenants were taken, whereupon their following surrendered into Berkeley's hands. Bland's second in command was hanged; Bland himself was held in irons.

Now Berkeley's star was climbing. In Accomac he gathered so many that, with those who had fled with him and later recruits who crossed the Bay, he had perhaps a thousand men. He stowed these upon the ship of the ill-fated Bland and upon a number of sloops. With seventeen sail in all, the old Governor set his face west and south towards the mouth of the James.

In that river, on the 7th of September, 1676, there appeared this fleet of the King's Governor, set on retaking Virginia. Jamestown had notice. The Bacon faction held the place with perhaps eight hundred men, Colonel Hansford at their head. Summoned by Berkeley to surrender, Hansford refused, but that same night, by advice of Lawrence and Drummond, evacuated the place, drawing his force off toward the York. The next day, emptied of all but a few citizens, Jamestown received the old Governor and his army.

The tidings found Bacon on the upper York. Acting with his accustomed energy, he sent out, far and wide, ringing appeals to the country to rouse itself, for men to join him and march to the defeat of the old tyrant. Numbers did come in. He moved with "marvelous celerity." When he had, for the time and place, a large force of rebels, he marched, by stream and plantation, tobacco field and forest, forge and mill, through the early autumn country to Jamestown. Civil war was on.

Across the narrow neck of the Jamestown peninsula had been thrown a sort of fortification with ditch, earthwork, and palisade. Before this Bacon now sounded trumpets. No answer coming, but the mouths of cannon appearing at intervals above the breastwork, the "rebel" general halted, encamped his men, and proceeded to construct siege lines of his own. The work must be done exposed to Sir William's iron shot.

Now comes a strange and discreditable incident. Patriots, revolutionists, who on the whole would serve human progress, have yet, as have we all, dark spots and seamy sides. Bacon's parties of workmen were threatened, hindered, driven from their task by Berkeley's guns. Bacon had a curious, unadmirable idea. He sent horsemen to neighboring loyalist plantations to gather up and bring to camp, not the planters -- for they are with Berkeley in Jamestown -- but the planters' wives. Here are Mistress Bacon (wife of the elder Nathaniel Bacon), Mistress Bray; Mistress Ballard, Mistress Page, and others. Protesting, these ladies enter Bacon's camp, who sends one as envoy into the town with the message that, if Berkeley attacks, the whole number of women shall be placed as shield to Bacon's men who build earthworks.

He was as good -- or as bad -- as his word. At the first show of action against his workmen these royalist women were placed in the front and were kept there until Bacon had made his counter-line of defense. Sir William Berkeley had great faults, but at times -- not always -- he displayed chivalry. For that day "the ladies' white aprons" guarded General Bacon and all his works. The next day, the defenses completed, this "white garde" was withdrawn.

Berkeley waited no longer but, though now at a disadvantage, opened fire and charged with his men through gate and over earthworks. The battle that followed was short and decisive. Berkeley's chance-gathered army was no match for Bacon's seasoned Indian fighters and for desperate men who knew that they must win or be hanged for traitors. The Governor's force wavered and, unable to stand its ground, turned and fled, leaving behind some dead and wounded. Then Bacon, who also had cannon, opened upon the town and the ships that rode before it. In the night the King's Governor embarked for the second time and with him, in that armada from the Eastern Shore, the greater part of the force he had gathered. When dawn came, Bacon saw that the ships, large and small, were gone, sailing back to Accomac. Bacon and his following thus came peaceably into Jamestown, but with the somewhat fell determination to burn the place. It should "harbor no more rogues." What Bacon, Lawrence, Drummond, Hansford, and others really hoped -- whether they forecasted a republican Virginia finally at peace and prosperous -- whether they saw in a vision a new capital, perhaps at Middle Plantation, perhaps at the Falls of the Far West, a capital that should be without old, tyrannical memories -- cannot now be said. However it all may be, they put torch to the old capital town and soon saw it consumed, for it was no great place, and not hard to burn.

Jamestown had hardly ceased to smoke when news came that loyalists under Colonel Brent were gathering in northern counties. Bacon, now ill but energetic to the end, turned with promptness to meet this new alarm. He crossed the York and marched northward through Gloucester County. But the rival forces did not come to a fight. Brent's men deserted by the double handful. They came into Bacon's ranks "resolving with the Persians to go and worship the rising sun." Or, hanging fire, reluctant to commit themselves either way, they melted from Brent, running homeward by every road. Bacon, with an enlarged, not lessened army, drew back into Gloucester. Revolutionary fortunes shone fair in prospect. Yet it was but the moment of brief, deceptive bloom before decay and fall.

At this critical moment Bacon fell sick and died. Some said that he was poisoned, but that has never been proved. The illness that had attacked him during his siege of Jamestown and that held on after his victory seems to have sufficed for his taking off. In Gloucester County he "surrendered up that fort he was no longer able to keep, into the hands of that grim and all-conquering Captaine Death." His body was buried, says the old account, "but where deposited till the Generall day not knowne, only to those who are resolutely silent in that particular."

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