Welcome to the Round Table . . . Billy Flora!

On December 9, 1775, the 2nd Virginia Regiment and rebel militia units, including the Culpeper Minute Men, were guarding the “Great Bridge” across the southern branch of the Elizabeth River on the only road leading south from Norfolk to North Carolina. British troops and loyalist forces were camped just to the north of the bridge to defend Norfolk, then the seat of royal government and a loyalist stronghold, against the Patriots ordered to march on Norfolk by the General Assembly. The order to attck Norfolk was a response to the November 1775 proclamation by the royal governor, Lord Dunmore, imposing martial law on the colony and offering freedom to enslaved Virginians who would fight with the British. Among the Patriot militia troops at the Great Bridge was a 20-year-old free black man serving as a sentry at the north end of the bridge: William “Billy” Flora.

Drawing of a view of the Great Bridge.

Fearing that delay would allow the Patriot troops to gather strength and attack Norfolk, Lord Dunmore and the Britsih commander decided to attack first. As the British advanced toward the patriots, Flora fired eight times on the enemy.  He was the last sentry to leave the bridge.  According to one account, Flora even removed the last board of the bridge, preventing the British from attacking the retreating patriots.  Flora is credited by historians with slowing the British advance and allowing patriot forces more time to prepare for battle. His valiant actions were lauded by his comrades and even by a newspaper of the time.

As a result of the Battle of Great Bridge, Lord Dunmore and other loyalists were no longer safe in Norfolk, and they retreated to British warships. Although he tried to regain a foothold in Virginia several times to reassert royal authority, by August 1776 Lord Dunmore had left for New York never to return.

Flora was born in 1755 in Portsmouth, Virginia.  His parents were free African Americans who owned a livery stable in Portsmouth.  He fought throughot the Revolution in various Patriot units. He died in 1820, having received a pension and a land grant for his service in securing America’s independence. He was an ulikely hero in an unlikely battle that effectively ended 150 years of royal government in the first permanent Englisg colony in the Western Hemisphere.

Check out the Billy Flora Fact Sheet for more information and discussion questions for your local society meeting.