Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

Post image for Diary of David L. Day.

Diary of David L. Day.

February 22, 2014

David L Day–My diary of rambles with the 25th Mass



Feb. 22. Washington’s birthday. How well Virginians have emulated his example and teachings is this day apparent. God pity the Mother of Presidents. This classic old town, next to Jamestown, is the oldest in the state. It is full of historical reminiscences and a great field for the antiquarian. Until near the close of the 17th century this was simply a suburb of Jamestown and was called the middle plantation. After the burning of Jamestown by Bacon and the accession of William III. to the throne, matters here began to assume a brighter aspect. Situated midway between the York and James rivers, which are here four miles apart, and enjoying the patronage of the king, the colonists became ambitious and thought the town would extend each way to the rivers and become the London of the New World.

For some time the founding of a college had been agitated and after the accession of William the charter was granted, he making large endowments of land and money in furtherance of the object. This was the second college in the British colonies, and in honor of the king and queen was named William and Mary. The great object of it was to educate in Virginia a succession of Church of England clergymen. After the erection of the college the town was laid out and named Williamsburg in honor of the king. From this time, under the patronage of the king and gentlemen of rank and wealth who came over and took up settlement, the town went ahead. A church, state-house and other public buildings were erected. An immense residence was built tor the colonial governors and called the King James palace.

The town was the capital of the state or colony, and here the burgesses were wont to meet. It grew in population and wealth, and up to the time of the breaking out of the revolution was the most aristocratic and loyal town in all the colonies. The first thing that disturbed this truly loyal people was the debates in the house of burgesses on the stamp act, about the year 1715. Patrick Henry, then a young man and just elected to the house, opposed the act and with all his powers of reasoning and eloquence, advocated resistance to it. In these debates he gained the displeasure of some of the older numbers and especially those resident here. At this time Thomas Jefferson, a student in the college here, began to get interested in public affairs; he often looked in on the house of burgesses and listened to the debates, and a dozen years afterwards, in his declaration of independence, shone out the principles he there learned. Henry continued a member of the house of burgesses for several years, advocating the cause of the colonies, and in the Virginia convention to choose delegates to attend a congress of the colonies to be holden at Philadelphia to draft a declaration, he advocated it with all his impassioned eloquence, closing with those memorable words: “I know not what others may think, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

About the time that Governor Gage of Massachusetts attempted to seize the stores at Concord, a similar proceeding took place here, under the direction of Lord Dunmore, the colonial governor. At midnight Capt. Collins of the armed schooner Magdalen, with a company of marines, entered the town and carried off twenty barrels of powder from the public magazine. This so incensed the people in the adjoining comities that they rose in arms and demanded a return of the powder or they would march on the town. Dunmore, becoming frightened, moved his family aboard a ship at Jamestown, and some of the leading citizens quieted the people by promising them the powder should be returned or paid for. But those promises were not kept, and Patrick Henry, at the head of about 1500 militia moved on the town, declaring he would have the powder or would make a reprisal from the public treasury. When within about fifteen miles from here he was met by a courier who paid for the powder, thus ending the expedition.

A year or two afterwards Henry was chosen governor of the colony, and on his coming here brought with him quite a force of militia. On Henry’s approach Gov. Dunmore went aboard a vessel and the fleet sailed down the river. Lord Dunmore was the last colonial governor and the last occupant of the palace. Henry so hated everything that pertained to kings or royalty that he positively refused to occupy the palace, and it was left to go to decay and ruins. Nothing now remains of it save the foundations and a few scattering bricks.

William and Mary College

Is now amass of ruins; a company of the 11th Pennsylvania cavalry were the vandals. As this company were returning from a scout they were fired on with one or two shots from out the college as they were riding past. Instead of surrounding the building and capturing the murderers, they set it on fire and burned it to the ground. This college was located at the extreme western end of the town, and was a fine brick building over 100 feet in length and three stories high, with two tower entrances about 80 feet apart, in one of which was a fine bell. In front is a large park, coming to a point, forming the main entrance some 30 rods in front of the building. On each side of the gate are large live oak trees. In this park are situated four large old English style houses, two on each side and facing each other. They are about 40 feet square, two stories high, with a four-cornered roof coming to a point at the top. These were the residences of the officers and tutors of the college.

The college stands facing down the main street, which is quite a mile long; straight as a line and very wide, giving a fine view from the college. This is the second or third time that this college has been burned, but this last time seems to have been without cause or reason.

The Episcopal Church,

An antiquated structure of gothic architecture, its brown spire and slender turrets pointing to where man’s heart should oftener turn, is situated near the center of the town. It is built of brick brought over from England; they are very different in shape and color from those made in this country. There are no services held here now, but that doesn’t matter much as it needs something more than the grace of God to keep this people in the line of duty and loyalty to the government. Their great need just at present is gunpowder. The churchyard contains over an acre, and is a cemetery where countless generations sleep forgot, and where rests his head upon the lap of earth the youth to fortune and to fame unknown.

The Old State House.

Situated not far from the church, is a plain old brick building about 60 feet long and about 30 feet wide, built on a basement story. The entrance is from a portico reached by a wide flight of steps. Here in these classic halls have been discussed grave questions of state—the destinies of the colonies, and as one walks through them, he can easily imagine he hears the voice of Patrick Henry saying: “The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to your ears the clash of resounding arms.”

The Insane Asylum

Is a large, massive, prison-looking building, filled with the unfortunate wards of the State of Virginia, but who are now the wards of the nation, and are being well and tenderly cared for. On pleasant days the mild and harmless patients have the liberty of the yard, which is spacious, well laid out and set with trees. At the entrance gates are small brick houses into which they can go when so disposed. At the gates they will stand and talk with the passers-by, asking a thousand questions and all manner of favors. Some of them are intelligent and will converse for a few minutes in a rational manner, when they will switch off on their crazy talk and lingo. This is said to be the oldest insane institution in the United States, having been founded previous to the revolutionary war, but the present building would seem to be of more recent construction.

King James’ Palace.

I have not been able to get much history of this, when or by whom it was built, and the only tradition I have been able to gather is that it was a magnificent and gorgeous establishment, where the colonial governors lived in great pomp and state. All there is left of it now is a small piece of brick work about four feet high on one of the south-west corners or angles. It was situated on the north side of the town, and back some 30 or 40 rods from the main street on which it fronted. It is difficult to form much of an idea of this building, as only the foundations are left, and a part of these are only dimly traced; but it must have been a very extensive affair. It was all of 125 feet front and 50 feet deep, with two wings in the rear extending back nearly 100 feet, leaving an open court or garden. The foundations on the front and ends show several angles, as though fashioned after some of the old English castles. The height of it can only be guessed, but probably it was not less than three stories.

The grounds and gardens which surrounded it were extensive, and must have been tastefully laid out, if one can judge by tracing the old walls, and by the few remaining shrubs and bushes which survive. The grounds in front extended to the street, making a lawn or park of some two or three acres. This has been a good deal curtailed, having been built over on three sides, leaving a common or park on the street of about an acre, called the Palace Green. Why such an establishment as this was built in this wilderness is only a matter of conjecture. It certainly was far beyond the needs of the colonial governors, and was probably built with an eye to its being a convenient refuge for royalty in case of adverse fortunes at home. Why it should have been left to decay and ruin is more than we at this day can understand. After the loyalists had left on the breaking out of the war, there probably was no one who cared enough about it to look after it, and the colonists so hated everything that pertained to royalty that it was left to the bats and owls, and in time went to ruin. Patrick Henry refused to occupy it while governor, aud his successors followed his example. Egad! but what good cheer and right royal times must have been had here in those good old colony times, but the old palace to ruins has gone, leaving no memories or associations clustering around it save that it was the king’s palace.

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