The Norfolk area, where the Tory element was strong, had been the base of operation for Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia, since he had fled to the safety of the British warships in Virginia waters in June of 1775. And until his forces were defeated at the Battle of Great Bridge on December 9, 1775, he more or less had things under his control. Dunmore's defeat at Great Bridge, however, turned the tide and from then on Norfolk's fate hung in the balance.
Five days after the battle, the Virginia troops under Colonel William Woodford occupied the borough, from which most of the inhabitants, including the leading Tory families, had fled, the latter seeking refuge aboard Dunmore's already crowded ships in the harbor. Five days later, Colonel Robert Howe and his North Carolina provincial troops arrived, after which Howe assumed control of all the colonial forces in Norfolk.
From then on, Howe's sharpshooters, stationed in high and secluded places along the waterfront, began picking off anyone who dared to show his head above deck on the British ships.
Intense cold, the crowded conditions aboard the ships, and near starvation finally forced Dunmore to act, but when he demanded food from Howe he flatly refused. This sparked the cannonading by the British that began the destruction of pre-Revolutionary Norfolk.
The firing began about 3:15 p.m. on New Year's Day of 1776, and continued until 2 a.m. on January 2. Under the cover of a constant bombardment of double-headed bar, chain, and grapeshot, British landing parties attempted to rifle the waterfront warehouses, but in most instances they were repulsed by Howe's men.