Saturday, July 20th, 2024

The Great Bridge Battlefield and Waterways History Foundation Story


Bringing America's first RevolutionaryWar Victory to Life

by Rob Lauer

Elizabeth Goodwin

Elizabeth Goodwin

Daily commuters along South Battlefield Boulevard probably associate the road with rush hour traffic and bridge lifts, with no idea that they are actually driving through American History. But a glance to the east, just north of the Intracoastal Waterway, reveals a clue to the area's fascinating past: a majestic colonial building reminiscent of the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg.

A scenic lane lined with rustic split-rail fences leads to the building's parking lot. A park and picnic area are perfect for family outings, nearby nature trails entice guests to explore surrounding woodlands, and a dock invites boaters along the waterway to "drop anchor" for a visit. Though the traffic along Battlefield Boulevard is a stone's throw away, this place seems set apart from the rest of the world, and the jewel of this place is the majestic redbrick edifice overlooking the waterway. This is the Great Bridge Battlefield and Waterways Museum. Since opening in June 2020, to walk through its doors is to enter the past.

"So many people don't know that there was an important Revolutionary War battle right here in their own backyard," Executive Director Elizabeth Goodwin says, "but once they visit us, they really enjoy learning about the history of this place."

In the 1770s, Great Bridge was a major artery of commerce between Virginia and North Carolina. When the American Revolution erupted in 1775, British forces in Norfolk considered the route essential for getting supplies from the south. Patriot forces hoped to cut off those supplies to the British by securing the road.
That led to the Battle of Great Bridge on December 9, 1775. Though the 30-minute battle had few casualties (all on the British side) it was the first American victory of the revolution, setting off an unprecedented chain of events. Four days later, the Virginia Convention in Williamsburg adopted its first public declaration expressing a spirit of independence. This led to Virginia's resolution to the Continental Congress in May 1776, declaring that the 13 colonies should be free and independent from British control. That resolution was adopted, inaugurating the writing of the Declaration of Independence, which was signed on July 4, 1776.

Though dubbed The Second Bunker Hill by historians, the Battle of Great Bridge was all but forgotten by the general public. In the mid-1990s, this public amnesia was on the verge of becoming permanent. The Army Corp of Engineers announced plans to replace the bridge across the Intracoastal waterway, which, along with urban development, threatened what was left of the original battlefield.

The value of museums is that they
can take a deeper dive into history.
This museum also makes
that deeper dive fun.

The gift shop offers a piece of history for everyone

The gift shop offers a piece of history for everyone

To save this irreplaceable piece of American History, a group of dedicated citizens formed The Great Bridge Battlefield and Waterways History Foundation-a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and promoting the histories of the Battle of Great Bridge, the Dismal Swamp, the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canals, and their importance to the creation and growth of America.

"The foundation was formed on December 9, 1999-the 224th anniversary of the Battle of Great Bridge," Elizabeth explains. "We worked with the Army Corp of Engineers and the City of Chesapeake and came up with a strategic plan to enhance the four quadrants around the bridge to encompass historical interpretation."

The museum now plays a central role in presenting that historical interpretation. "We have eight galleries of exhibits and interpretive panels that explain the importance of what happened here and how it affects us today," Elizabeth points out. She also believes the museum is an invaluable educational asset for local schools. "So much gets packed into the schools' curriculum that teachers have only so much time to focus on history. The value of museums is that they can take a deeper dive into history."This museum also makes that deeper dive fun.

"We have a battle room with videos where guests can experience what it was like to stand in the middle of the fighting during the Battle of Great Bridge," Elizabeth says. "We have people dressed in period clothing-which guests love because it helps bring the past to life. We work closely with several historical re-enactment groups that participate in the special programs and events we offer throughout the year. Our Family Fun Days include our Independence Day celebration-featuring an onsite Revolutionary War encampment. There's 'Halloween at the Museum' in October and 'Christmas Past and Present' in December-a program that lets kids visit three different historical periods and experience what Christmas was like in each."

Signature fundraising events include Valentines and Wine, to be held on February 11, and Revolutionary Beer Fest on April 15. "We'll have a new event in September," Elizabeth adds; "Tavern Night at the Museum commemorating the tavern that stood in the Village of Great Bridge in the 1700s."

The museum also offers a series of lectures and presentations by nationally-renowned writers, scholars, and historical interpreters. Dr. William G. Chrystal, who portrays several Founding Fathers, will return to the museum on June 5 to present an evening with Alexander Hamilton.

Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander is scheduled to speak about her book "Virginia Waterways and the Underground Railroad." "People fleeing slavery hid in the Dismal Swamp because the place was so dismal no one wanted to go search for them there," Elizabeth explains. "It's pretty powerful to realize that enslaved people preferred life in the swamp to the conditions they were fleeing."

How does the foundation fund the museum and such a wide variety of events?

"We are a nonprofit foundation, so we depend on memberships and tax-deductible donations," Elizabeth replies. "Those interested in supporting us can donate online at our website or, better yet, become members."

Basic annual membership includes free admission to the museum year-round, gift shop discounts, a quarterly newsletter, and information on upcoming events. Other membership levels include discounts for ticketed events.

"We'd love for everyone to visit us," Elizabeth concludes. "The museum and surrounding nature trails make this an incredible family destination sight. Most of all, we want people to understand the importance of the battle fought on these grounds nearly 250 years ago, how our nation came to be, and how we can continue to work to create a better future for ourselves and our children."

Great Bridge Battlefield and Waterways History Foundation