After the Battle of Great Bridge on December 9, 1775, Lord Dunmore and his fleet abandoned the city of Norfolk. Patriot soldiers from North Carolina and Virginia took control of the city. They refused to provide food and supplies to the British fleet. Patriot sharpshooters were used to prevent British ships from approaching Norfolk. On January 1, 1776, British naval vessels in the Elizabeth River fired shots into the city, which the Americans let burn to prevent the British from retaking Norfolk and possibly reestablishing it as a naval base.
Some residents escaped to safer locations before the attack. The resulting destruction of homes in the region left many families homeless or in need of shelter. At the time, there were no social services programs or organizations to assist families in need. While some families could take refuge in the homes of others and the wealthier families could escape to their plantations or country homes in other areas, others were not as fortunate. Many families had no choice but to remain in Norfolk during and following the siege.
Such was the case of Mary Webley, a Norfolk woman with three young children and a husband who had lost an arm in an accident years before the attack on Norfolk. As her husband could not easily find work, the family struggled financially. Mary was nursing her youngest child during the attack and her leg was broken when a cannon ball was shot into her home. Mary Webley's family lost their home, as many did that day,
In October 1776, under the newly formed state legislature, Mary Webley petitioned for and received the sum of £10 (possibly worth about $2,000 in the 21st century) as a one-time compensation. It was unusual for a woman to make this request, as women were not considered to be the head of the family, but Mary Webley made every effort to ensure that her family had a chance to recover from their losses. There are no known records available that provide information about what happened to the Webley family.
The right to petition the legislature played a vital role in Virginia politics from the American Revolution to the Civil War. It was not restricted by class, race, or sex, which meant that even Virginians who couldn't vote could address the General Assembly on a wide variety of issues such as repairing turnpikes, filing claims for public assistance, asking for a divorce, or requesting freedom for an enslaved person, among many other concerns.
Citation: Petition of Mary Webley, City of Norfolk, 1776, Legislative Petitions Digital Collections, Library of Virginia.
VS.1, VS.9, USII.1, USII.4, VUS.1, VUS.8
Scan it: Scan the document and the transcription. What happened to Mary Webley that led her to petition for support from the state legislature?
Analyze: The events in Norfolk occurred less than a month after the Battle of Great Bridge. How were these two events related? Why might have the decision to let Norfolk burn been considered controversial at the time?
Be the Journalist: You are a reporter working on a historical account of the events of January 1, 1776, in Norfolk with emphasis on telling Mary Webley’s story. Write a short narrative description of the events of the day and how it impacted the lives of those who remined in Norfolk and witnessed the destruction.
Social Media Spin: Create a post for social media commemorating the events in which you provide a brief historical account of the event.