March 28 and 29 Re-Enactment –

A Post Such As Portsmouth – British Operations in Hampton Roads, 1781 – is a 2-day re-enactment designed to inform and entertain the public.  It features a variety of civilian impressions, military impressions, as well as members of the Royal Navy. The event takes place March 28-29, 2020 at the corner of High and Court Streets in Olde Towne Portsmouth, Virginia.

Setting the Stage

Historic Map showing the Portsmouth Virginia fortifications of 1781

Map of the Fortifications of Portsmouth from the Rochambeau Collection in the Library of Congress

On New Year’s Day, 1776, a full six months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, war was at hand on the Elizabeth River.  The British had suffered a terrible defeat at Great Bridge just a month earlier, (thanks in no small part to the role played by Portsmouth’s own Billy Flora) when the North Carolina and Virginia regiments joined forces to keep the British out of northeastern North Carolina and the Albemarle Sound.  Instead of celebrating the New Year, the citizens of one of the colony’s largest cities found themselves confronted with round-the-clock cannon fire from British ships positioned in the Elizabeth River.  The rebel/patriot leaders soon realized that they would not be able to hold onto the City of Norfolk for much longer, so under the leadership of Colonel’s Howe and Woodford, the decision was made to finish the destruction of Norfolk to prevent the British from acquiring its strategic advantages.  This decision proved to be one of the most far-reaching strategic military decisions of the war for Independence.

General Benedict Arnold

Benedict Arnold – Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Fast forward to 1781.  Portsmouth had suffered only minor damage in the shelling of Norfolk back in 1776.  The infrastructure was in good standing and the population, consisting of both those loyal to the British and loyal to the cause for independence, was strong.  Preceding the arrival of General Cornwallis into Portsmouth, Virginia, the infamous traitor, now British General, Benedict Arnold, leads a British force into Hampton Roads. Occupying Portsmouth as their base, along with Colonel Simcoe’s Queen’s Rangers and Captain Ewald’s Jaegers, the British conducted raids in Hampton Roads, and skirmished with Virginia’s forces including Major Weeks at Kempe’s Landing and Great Bridge. General Lafayette led a failed assault on the British post in March 1781, signifying the city’s importance to the beginning and ending of the Revolution in Virginia. As spring approaches, the British await Lord Cornwallis as he and his army campaigns through North Carolina.

Event Description

This is where our event begins.  Join us for:

  • Living History Encampments portraying the British Occupation of Portsmouth, VA during Winter /Spring 1781.
  • British & Patriot Forces, and Civilians portraying Activities and History Vignettes in historic Olde Towne Portsmouth.
  • Interactions with each other and the Public through multiple short skits / vignettes and demonstrations throughout the day.


Schedule of Events

Saturday, March 28

9:00 am – 9:30 am:

Parade.  British march into Portsmouth
(Commemoration of: January 19-20, 1781 “OCCUPATION OF PORTSMOUTH”)

Flag Raising. – “ALL HANDS” (Front Gate)

9:30 am – 10:00 am:

  • Occupation/Formation-Army/Navy. Arnold gives orders to army. Post guard, Oath Giver and Arnold’s Command Tent/Table.
  • Council of War: Unit Commanders & Event Coordinators; overview of camp
  • Civilians open market at courthouse square.

10:00 am – 11 am:

Period Vignette: Press Gang altercation between sailors and civilians.
Sailors approach civilian, interrogate him, try to press him, he resists, draws crowd, sailors exit, crowd follows with intensity, Royal Navy officer threatens crowd and orders them to disperse.  Sailors press man into service and carry him away.

11 am – 11:30 am:

British Army DRILL.

11:30 am – 12 pm:

RN Swivel Gun Drill.

12 pm – 12:30 pm:

Period Vignette: Arrest of a Runaway Servant by British soldiers.
(Runaway servant, an Irish laborer, is a street vendor.  After handbills are distributed to re-enactors and the public 15 minutes earlier, runaway is recognized by British soldiers who want the reward.  He tries to flee but is captured, arrested, and taken before an officer.

12:00 – 1 pm:
Army Foraging Party (Lunch). (“Patrol” in Groups)

1 pm – 1:30 pm:

Period Vignette: Courts Martial Soldier is court martialed for sleeping at his post.
1 witness is brought up.  Officer questions soldier and witness.  Officer determines that soldier is guilty and sentences him to hard labor and/or loss of rations.

2 pm – 2:30 pm:

Period Vignette: Arrest of a Spy.
Spy is gathering intelligence while posing as street vendor.  Militia approach to purchase something. Militia begin asking questions and getting suspicious.  Militia sees note in basket and seize it.  Note has incriminating information.  Spy is arrested and taken before an officer.

2:30 – 3 pm:

Civilian is brought into camp with captured militia reports of Lafayette’s forces (March 18, 1781).

3 pm to 3:30 pm:

Commemoration of: March 19, 1781 “SKIRMISH OF SCOTT’S CREEK”

  • Capt. Ewald is Injured (Skirmish at Scott’s Creek) & Surgeon Examines/Treats Ewald in Tent.
  • Period Vignette: Report of Skirmish at Scott’s Creek (March 19, 1781). (Capt. Ewald Report/Account to General Arnold).

3:30 – 4 pm:

Period Vignette: (Formation of All Participants) General Arnold Speech and “Oath of Loyalty to King.”

4pm – public events end

Sunday, March 29

10:30 am – 11:30 am

18th century church service at Trinity Episcopal Church

11:30 am – 3:00 pm

Living history displays continued and vignettes as available

Collage of re-enactors

About Portsmouth History

Explored by Captain John Smith as early as 1609, Portsmouth was founded as a town in 1752, on 65 acres of land on the shores of the Elizabeth River. The town was founded by William Crawford, a wealthy merchant and ship owner who at various times had held office as the Norfolk County presiding court judge, high sheriff, militia lieutenant colonel and representative to the House of Burgesses. Because of his militia service, he is frequently referred to as “Colonel Crawford.” The 65 acres were part of Colonel Crawford’s extensive plantation and were constituted as a town by an enabling act of the General Assembly of Virginia. The town was named after the English naval port of that name, and many of the streets of the new town reflected the English heritage.
The town already had a rich history by the time it was separated from the county government and given status as an independent city in 1858. Its location as an East Coast deepwater port has been the common denominator of the City’s development throughout its centuries of growth.  Click here for a Chronology of Historically Significant Events in Portsmouth.