Suffolk and the Revolution: Part Three

Published 4:54 pm Saturday, September 10, 2016

By Kermit Hobbs Jr.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Kermit Hobbs continues his occasional look at the history of Suffolk today with the last in a three-part series about Suffolk at the time of the Revolutionary War.

Historian John Burk wrote: “Ruthless devastation attended the British. They set fire to the Town, and nearly the whole was consumed. Several hundred barrels of tar, pitch, turpentine, and rum had been deposited on lots contiguous to the wharves. The heads of the barrels being knocked out, and their contents, which flowed in a commingled mass, catching the blaze, descended to the river like torrents of burning lava. As the wind blew from the wharves with great violence, these substances with difficulty soluble in water, rapidly floated to the opposite shore in a splendid state of conflagration, which they communicated to the thick and decaying herbage of an extensive marsh… This immense sheet of fire, added to the vast columns of undulating flames, which ascended from the burning houses in the Town — the explosion, at intervals, of the gun-powder in the magazines — the consequent projection through the air of large pieces of ignited timber, which flew like meteors to an astonishing distance — all contributed to form a collective scene of horror and sublimity and desolation such as could not be viewed without emotions not to be described.

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“The ravages of this expedition were completed by destroying several hundred barrels of pork deposited at the house of Colonel Willis Riddick for use of the Virginia army.”

Col. Lawson of Smithfield, probably a militia commander, wrote in a letter, “On my way down (from Smithfield to Suffolk) I met numbers of the unfortunate and distressed inhabitants, flying from the rapid approach of the enemy, with such circumstances of distress as language cannot paint. I feel no pleasure in enumerating and dwelling upon the distresses of our unhappy countrymen and fellow-creatures, but on the present occasion, they exceed anything in imagination. The enemy are now in possession of Suffolk, a part of which is actually in flames, and the whole will probably be so in a small time.”

The June 22, 1779, issue of the London Gazette, reported: “On the 12th the Guards marched at Night to Suffolk, Eighteen Miles, and arrived at Day-break. The Town was hastily deserted; and some Vessels, a very large Magazine of Provisions, with Naval Stores, and two Pieces of Cannon, were destroyed.”

The London Chronicle reported: “Sir William Erskine had landed there and after taking possession of a vast quantity of tobacco, which was then ready for shipping, had totally destroyed the town of Suffolk, with several of the ports and a number of magazines.”

The two “Pieces of Cannon” were, no doubt, the two that Captain Bright had provided the militia.

The British had marched into Suffolk and done their worst as the local population helplessly watched. In his 1818 book, The History of Virginia, John Burk commented on the overwhelming superiority of the British forces and the inability of the people to resist.

He lamented, “These physical disadvantages neither zeal, nor courage, nor patriotism could counteract… War was no longer honorable.”

There is an interesting postscript to this story. Eighty-four years later, during the Civil War, when Union troops were occupying Suffolk, the following note appeared in the New Haven Palladium:

“During the Revolutionary war, the English knocked in the heads of several thousands of barrels of tar which they had captured in store near Suffolk, Virginia, and let it run off into a depression in an old field where it formed a pond about four acres in extent. Gradually hardening in the sun, it became a solid rocky mass, and remains till this day. It looks like slate, and is from two inches to a foot in thickness. Our boys in camp nearby use it for fuel.”

If we only knew where to look, we might still find some of it today!

Kermit Hobbs Jr. is an accomplished Suffolk historian and businessman. Email him at