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13 January, 2012
The Story of Bacon's Rebellion|
XII - Jamestown Besieged and Burned
by Standard, Mary Newton
|But Sir William Berkeley had played his favorite trick at least twice too often. Moreover, he little knew of what stern stuff Bacon and his handful of ragamuffins were made, though they were far too well acquainted with the silver-haired old Cavalier's ways and wiles to pin any faith to the fair words that could so gliby slip off of his tongue and out of his memory.
Early that morning the beginning of the siege was formally announced by six of Bacon's soldiers, who ran up to the palisades of the town fort, "fired briskly upon the guard," and retreated safely within their own earthwork. The fight now began in earnest. Upon a signal from within the town the Governor's fleet in the river shot off their "great guns," while at the same time the guard in the palisades let fly their small shot. Though thus assailed from two sides at once, the rebels lying under their earthwork were entirely protected from both, and safe in their little fortress, returned the fire as fast as it was given. Even under fire, Bacon, the resourceful, strengthened and enlarged his fort by having a party of his soldiers to bind fagots into bundles, which they held before themselves for protection while they made them fast along the top and at the ends of the earthwork.
A sentinel from the top of a chimney upon Colonel Moryson's plantation, hard by Jamestown, watched Berkeley's maneuvers all day, and constantly reported to Bacon how the men in town "posted and reposted, drew on and off, what number they were and how they moved."
For three days the cross-firing continued, during which the besiegers were so well shielded that they do not seem to have lost a single man.
Upon the third day the Governor decided to make a sally upon the rebels. It is written that when he gave the order for the attack some of his officers made such "crabbed faces" that the "gunner of York Fort," who, it seems, was humorously inclined, ofiered to buy a colonel's or a captain's commission for whomsoever would have one for "a chunk of a pipe."
It is also written that the Governor's Accomac soldiers "went out with heavy hearts, but returned with light heels," for the Baconians received them so warmly that they retired in great disorder, throwing down their arms and leaving them and their drum on the field behind them, with the dead bodies of two of their comrades, which the rebels took into their trenches and buried with their arms.
This taste of success made the besiegers so bold and daring that Bacon could hardly keep tbem from attempting to storm and capture Jamestown forthwith; but he warned them against being over rash, saying that he expected to take the town without loss of a man, in due season, and that one of their lives was worth more to him than the whole world.
Upon the day after the sally some of Bacon's Indian captives were exhibited on top of the earthworks, and this primitive bit of bravado served as an object-lesson to quicken the enthusiasm of the neighborhood folk, who were coming over to the Rebel in great numbers.
News was brought that "great multitudes" were also declaring fdr the popular cause in Nansemond and Isle of Wight Counties, "as also all the south side of the river."
Bacon sent a letter from camp to two of his sea-faring friends, Captain William Cookson and Captain Edward Skewon, describing the progress of the siege and urging them to protect the "Upper parts of the country" against pirates, and to bid his friends in those parts "be courageous, for that all the country is bravely resolute."
In the midst of the siege Bacon resorted to one measure which for pure originality has not been surpassed in the history of military tactics, and which, though up to the present writing no other general sufficiently picturesque in his methods to imitate it has arisen, has furnished much "copy" for writers of historical romances.
The Rebel had the good fortune to capture two pieces of artillery, but a dilemma arose as to how he should mount them without endangering the lives of some of his men. His ingenious brain was quick to solve the riddle. Dispatching some of his officers to the plantations near Jamestown, he had them to bring into his camp Madam Bacon (the wife of his cousin Nathaniel Bacon, Sr., President of the Council), Madam Bray, Madam Page, Madam Ballard, and other ladies of the households of embers of his Majesty's Council who had remained loyal to the Governor. He then sent one of these fair ones, under escort, into Jamestown, to let her husband and the husbands of her companions know with what delicate and precious material their audacious foe was strengthening his fort, and to give them fair warning not to shoot. The remaining ladies (alas for the age of chivalry!) he stationed in front of his breastworks and kept them there until the captured "great guns" had been duly mounted; after which he sent them all safely home.
Most truly was it said that Bacon "knit more knots by his own head in one day than all the hands in town were able to untie in a whole week!"
So effectual a fortification did the glimmer of a few fluttering white aprons upon his breastworks prove to be, that, as though confronted by a line of warriors from Ghostland, the Governor's soldiers stood aghast, and powerless to level a gun, while to add still further to their discomfiture they had to bear with what grace they could command having their ladies dubbed the "guardian angels" of the rebel camp.
The cannon mounted under such gentle protection were never given a chance to prove their service.
Jamestown stood upon low ground, full of marshes and swamps. The climate, at all times malarious and unhealthy, was at this season made more so than usual by the hot September suns. There were no fresh water springs, and the water from the wells was brackish and unwholesome, making the place especially "improper for the commencement of a siege." While the Governor had the advantage of numbers, and his men were fresh and unwearied, Bacon had the greater advantage of motive. Sir William Berkeley's soldiers were bent upon plunder, and when they found that the Rebel's determined "hearts of gold" meant to keep them blocked up in such comfortless quarters, and that the prospects were that there was nothing to be gained in Sir William's service, they began to fall away from him in such numbers that, upon the day after the placing of Bacon's great guns, the old man found that there was nothing left for him but a second flight. That night he, with the gentlemen who remained true to him -about twenty in all - stole out of their stronghold in great secrecy, and taking to the ships, "fell silently down the river." The fleet came to anchor a few miles away, perhaps that those on board might reoccupy the town again as soon as the siege should be raised, perhaps that they might, in turn, block up the rebels in it if they should quarter there.
Bacon found a way to thwart either design.
The first rays of morning light brought knowledge to the rebels that the Governor bad fled, and that they were free to take possession of the deserted capital. That night, as Berkeley and his friends rocked on the river below, doubtless straining eyes and ears toward Jamestown, and eagerly awaiting news of Bacon's doings there, the sickening sight of jets of flame leaping skyward through the darkness told them in signals all too plain that the hospitable little city would shelter them nevermore.
Filled with horror, they weighed anchor and sailed with as great speed as the winds would vouchsafe to bear them out of James River and across the Chesapeake's broad waters, where Governor Berkeley found, for a second time, a haven of refuge upon the shores of Accomac County.
This great city of Jamestown, which though insignificant in number of inhabitants and in the area it covered, was a truly great city, for its achievements had been great, was thus laid low at the very height of its modest magnificence and power. Though but little more than a half century old, it was already historic Jamestown, for with its foundations had been laid, in the virgin soil of a new world, the foundations of the Anglo-Saxon home, the Anglo-Saxon religion, and Anglo-Saxon law. This town, so small in size, so great in import, could proudly boast of a brick church, "faire and large, "twelve new brick houses and half a dozen frame ones, with brick chimneys." There was also a brick state house the foundations of which have lately been discovered.
The inhabitants are facetiously described by a writer of the time as for the most part "getting their livings by keeping ordinaries at extraordinary rates."
"Thoughtful Mr. Lawrence " devoted Mr. Lawrence (whose silver plate the Governor had not forgotten to carry off with him, for all his leave-taking was so abrupt) -and Mr. Drummond heroically began the work of ruin by setting the torch to their own substantial dwellings. The soldiers were quick to follow this example, and soon all that remained of Jamestown was a memory, a heap of ashes, and a smoke-stained church tower, which still reaches heavenward and tells the wayfarer how the most enduring pile the builders of that first little capital of Virginia had heaped up was a Christian temple.
Mr. Drummond (to his honor be it said) rushed into the burning State House and rescued the official records of the colony.
In a letter written the following February Sir William Berkeley said that Bacon entered Jamestown and "burned five houses of mine and twenty of other gentlemen's, and a very commodious church. They say he set to with his own sacrilegious hand."