We last left Virginia in Episode 278 when British General Benedict Arnold sailed from New York to the Chesapeake, then sailed up the James River to attack Richmond.
Arnold in Portsmouth
After Arnold’s raid on Richmond, he turned to his primary mission, which was to establish a defensible naval port at Portsmouth. Arnold’s efforts to build up the defenses there seemed to drag on for several months. Arnold seemed more interested in scouring the countryside to scatter any concentrations of militia, and to pillage the countryside for prizes.
|Marquis de Lafayette|
When Arnold struck, Continental General Baron Von Steuben had been in Virginia, attempting to raise more soldiers to send to Nathanael Greene’s army in North Carolina. Steuben had only been able to raise a few hundred soldiers, which he had sent to Greene. The Prussian officer managed to collect some militia to lead against Arnold’s raid on Richmond. By the time Arnold had left Richmond, Steuben had only been able to collect a few hundred militia, and many of them were unarmed. Some had to be sent home because they had no clothes. Their officers instructed them to gather clothing and return, but most did not bother to return.
Steuben had seen militia in New Jersey turn out within days to check British advances in that state. His experience in Virginia, and the failure of militia to turn out to check Arnold’s raid led him to believe the Virginia militia was simply lacking the basic organization and training that other state militias had.
Steuben was beyond frustrated with Governor Jefferson and the state government. One of Steuben’s first efforts was to reinforce Hood’s Point on the James river, to prevent another British raid on Richmond. He could not even get anyone to dig trenches for defense of the point. Jefferson said that militia could only be called out to fight, not for fatigue duty. Digging ditches was work for slaves. But he could not use slaves to dig the ditches because the state had no money to pay their masters for the work.
Steuben had another Continental brigadier in the state. General Peter Muhlenberg, a minister, who was raised in Pennsylvania, moved to Virginia, before the war. He had lived on the Virginia frontier.
In 1776, he had given a homily to his parish from Ecclesiastes in the bible about there being different times for different purposes under heaven. He preached that there was a time to preach and a time to fight. He then took off his minister’s robes to reveal to his parishioners the military uniform that he had on underneath it.
When Arnold struck, Muhlenberg was on leave, at his home on the Virginia frontier, celebrating Christmas with his family. It took several days for word of the British attack to reach him, but he immediately left home and attempted to recruit militia for defense of the state.
While General Von Steuben attempted to raise more men and supplies from Richmond, he deployed Muhlenberg to take command of the forces around Portsmouth, trying to keep the British in check.
In February, as General Greene’s Continentals and Cornwallis’ regulars were marching northward toward the Dan River in southern Virginia, Governor Jefferson called on Steuben to raise 3000 militia to move southward. However the state did not have enough arms for them, and many men did not have their own muskets.
Steuben ordered Muhlenberg’s more capable frontier militia to move to the south, and replaced them in Portsmouth with relatively ineffective, and often unarmed, local militia. About this same time, word arrived that a French fleet was approaching the Chesapeake. Steuben changed plans and ordered Muhlenberg to prepare for a coordinated attack on Portsmouth.
Soon though, details followed that the French “fleet” consisted of one ship of the line and two smaller frigates, and no soldiers. The militia had turned out but some were unarmed, almost none had bayonets, and the units had almost no artillery. Steuben asked the French naval commander to fire on the British defenses, but putting wooden ships against entrenched artillery on land was a recipe for disaster. The French commander refused, and just sailed away. Once again, Steuben turned to the growing possibility of the war crossing the North Carolina border into southern Virginia.
As I’ve mentioned before, the Americans had targeted the traitor Arnold for capture and execution. Governor Thomas Jefferson proposed offering a 5000 guinea reward for the successful capture of Arnold. That would be well over a million dollars today.
Jefferson also tasked General Muhlenberg with putting together a special task force of soldiers to kidnap Arnold. Jefferson suggested that Muhlenberg raise a task force of backwoodsmen from the frontier to capture Arnold. If they brought him back alive, they could share the 5000 guinea reward.
Muhlenberg did collect a force for the task, but they never got close to a capture. Arnold was well aware of the price on his head. He kept a guard around himself at all times. He rarely ventured outside British lines, and then only when commanding a large force of soldiers. He also carried with him two loaded pistols at all times, determining that if the Americans did take him, it would not be alive.
When the kidnap plans came to nothing, Jefferson tried to plan something else. He met with a Virginia navy Captain named Beesly Edgar Joel.
Captain Joel had a rather colorful history. He had deserted from the British army and spent some time in Washington’s camp in New Jersey. There, he had provided some bad intelligence to the Continentals. Washington suspected he might be a British spy, but didn’t really have any proof of that. Instead he ordered Joel to go away and stay clear of the army.
Joel headed down to Virginia where he offered his services. Joel suggested to Jefferson that they put together a fire ship. They would fill the ship with explosives. When Arnold headed out on a ship again, they would sail the ship down toward Arnold, set it on fire, and blow up both ships, hopefully killing Arnold.
Militia General Thomas Nelson, of the Virginia militia, told Joel that the Virginia Navy desperately wanted the ship he had raised for other purposes. They could refit the ship and use it again for something other than blowing it up. Nelson also wrote to Jefferson that it was almost certain that this plot would fail anyway since the British had already become aware of the plans.
Jefferson wrote to Joel, calling off the plan. Instead, he gave Joel a commission on another ship with the purpose of capturing escaped slaves who were trying to make their way to the British. General Nelson would go on to replace Jefferson as governor in the next election.
Washington Focuses on Virginia
General Washington, of course, wanted to capture Arnold as well. But he had problems of his own. Remember that while Arnold was raiding Richmond, Washington was busy putting down the mutinies of the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Lines. He had hoped to focus on attacking the British in New York, but still lacked the men and resources to do so.
About this same time, Washington saw the loss of his most valued aides. Colonel John Laurens had been sent to France in hopes of securing men and money for a summer campaign. Colonel Alexander Hamilton had been requesting a combat role for some time. He was sick of being behind a desk as a glorified secretary. Washington refused to let him go.
The incident that finally broke Washington and Hamilton was a minor one. In mid-February, Washington asked Hamilton to come speak with him. Hamilton said he would be right there, but first had to go downstairs to deliver an urgent letter. On the way back, Hamilton ran into Lafayette and got delayed in a conversation, which, according to Hamilton, only took less than a minute.
When he came back upstairs, Washington snapped at him and said “Col Hamilton, you have kept me waiting at the head of the stairs these ten minutes. I must tell you Sir that you treat me with disrespect.” Hamilton then snapped back that if Washington felt disrespected, they should part.
|Washington and Hamilton|
So, despite an army in mutiny, a Congress that was providing nothing, his own personal staff dissolving, and a southern army fleeing the Carolinas, Washington needed to focus on the British army under the hated traitor Benedict Arnold, who was invading his home state.
A few days following his break with Hamilton, Washington ordered General Lafayette to take command of a division of Continentals and move south to confront Arnold in Virginia. His primary mission was to catch and hang Arnold.
When Lafayette arrived in Yorktown, he was the senior officer in command. Although Steuben was 27 years older than Lafayette, his commission as major general was issued about a year after Lafyette’s. So while Lafayette should have taken command, the younger officer wisely left Steuben in command to continue the fight with Jefferson over men and supplies. Lafayette said he would wait until the arrival of his army, which was still in Maryland.
Lafayette’s March to Virginia
Washington gave Lafayette a command of about 1200 men, with orders to march to Virginia. The march from Northern New Jersey was a difficult one. Hoping to keep his mission a secret as long as possible, Lafayette ordered his men to prepare a short march. After a week, they reached Trenton, still with no idea of their ultimate destination.
|Map of Chesapeake, 1781|
While still aboard his boat, Lafayette wrote to Jefferson asking about the necessary supplies for his army. Jefferson’s response was anything but reassuring. He said he had made the requests but that Virginians weren’t really used to obeying laws that they didn’t like, so the army probably would not get what it needed.
Jefferson called the legislature into an emergency session to raise funds for the army trying to defend Virginia, and also to punish militia who either didn’t show up for duty or who deserted. The legislature rejected the proposals. Instead, they just began investigations that led to the firing of Virginia’s war commissioner. When Patrick Henry and others called for a special legion to be raised in defense of the state, the legislature wasted days arguing about the uniform designs and the use of a band to lead the legion. Sure, the legislature wanted to expel the enemy from the state, but if that meant raising taxes, well that might be a bit too much. Instead, the legislatures blamed other states for failing to come to their aid in their time of need. After three weeks in session, the legislature accomplished almost nothing then left Richmond again and would not meet for another two months.
Things got worse in Virginia over the next few weeks. Several communities on the western frontier protested efforts to draft them into the Continental Army and to pay taxes for the defense of the state. These communities argued that they should not be forced to pay for the defense of the rich tidewater regions of the state. Similarly, residents of the eastern shore, also resisted efforts to draft them. They would not leave their own homes when the British were threatening them.
Many of the protesters violently defended efforts to enforce the draft and tax laws. Some even began drinking toasts to the king and damning Congress. Some militia who did turn out for their mandated 90 days, stacked arms and went home on day 91, regardless of the continuing threat. Jefferson felt he had no choice but to allow this. Otherwise, these regions might turn out as loyalist regiments in support of the king..
Lafayette continued to try to move his men south. After a transport ship left Baltimore, a British privateer forced it to turn back. Even if he could get his army to Virginia, there was no food or supplies for his army there. A frustrated Lafayette tried to remain patient as he spent week/s trying to get his army into Virginia.
Battle of Cape Henry
Even if they could get an army into Virginia, in order for any attack on Portsmouth to be successful, the Americans needed to control the waters around it. Otherwise the British defenders could simply sail away. Lafayette received word that a French fleet would arrive shortly with ships of the line and French soldiers from Newport to assist in the attack on Portsmouth. In late march a fleet arrived on the horizon flying the flag of France. The patriots celebrated and sent a Virginia naval officer on a small launch to greet their allies. As the officer came aboard the ship, he discovered that it was a British fleet, flying the French flag as a ruse. He became a prisoner of war.
Weeks earlier, Washington had traveled to Newport to convince General Rochambeau and Admiral Destouches to deploy French forces to Virginia as part of this operation. The French were reluctant to do so since Britain had a larger fleet at New York, but after a storm wrecked part of the British fleet, the French agreed to deploy a fleet of seven ships of the line, one frigate and 1200 soldiers to sail down to Portsmouth.
The fleet left Newport on March 8 with Admiral Destouches in command. The British in New York learned of the departure two days later. British Commander Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot left New York with eight ships of the line to intercept the French fleet. With faster ships, the British arrived in Portsmouth ahead of the French.
The two fleets spotted each other shortly after dawn on March 16, a little more than 40 miles off the coast of Cape Henry. The two commanders ordered their fleets into lines of battle and engaged with the enemy. The two fleets were pretty evenly matched, although the British had a slight advantage in the number of guns.
|Battle of the Capes|
Eventually, Destouches ordered the French fleet to sail away to the east to regroup, while the British fleet sailed into the Chesapeake Bay. The following morning, Destouches decided his fleet was too badly damaged to resume the fight. Instead, he ordered the fleet to sail back to Newport for repairs.
The battle left the British fleet in control of the bay. The American militia had to pull back to avoid the risk of being captured. After learning of the retreat of the French Navy, carrying the needed reinforcements that Lafayette needed, the general gave up on his plans and began to move his army back north to rejoin Washington in New Jersey.
William Phillips Reinforcements
About two weeks after the British Navy defeated the French, another British fleet arrived, mostly transporting an army of 2200 soldiers under the command of General William Phillips. The new British army, when combined with Arnold’s force, gave a total strength of over 3500 officers and men.
Phillips was an experienced officer. He had most recently served in the Saratoga Campaign where his then enemy, Benedict Arnold had defeated him and made him a prisoner of war. Phillips then spent several years in Virginia as a prisoner, often dining at Monticello with Governor Thomas Jefferson.
After having been exchanged for General Benjamin Lincoln, whom the British had captured at Charleston, General Phillips had returned to command. With his arrival in Portsmouth, Phillips now had his former enemy commander, Benedict Arnold, as a subordinate, and faced his former dining companion, Thomas Jefferson, as an enemy.
Philips’s army, combined with Arnold’s, was now larger than the army under Cornwallis in North Carolina. The new commander was highly experienced and well respected.
As Lafayette prepared to return to New Jersey with his Continental Army, he received orders to turn around and go back to Virginia. Cornwallis was expected to link up with Phillips in Virginia. The new massive army was poised to overrun the state.
Initially, Lafayette had been upset that he had been deployed to Virginia, which he thought would be a sideshow, while the war under Washington really got going around New York. Now, he was commanding a critical defense of the largest state in the Union against the largest British army that had been in the field for several years.
Virginia had gone from being a military distraction for both armies to the location of a major campaign of the war, perhaps one that would become decisive to the war itself.
Next week: General Phillips launches an attack on Petersburg, Virginia.
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Next Episode 283 Petersburg (Available October 8, 2023)
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(from archive.org unless noted)
Arnold, Isaac Newton The Life of Benedict Arnold; His Patriotism and His Treason, Chicago: Jansen, McClurg & Co. 1880.
Eckenrode, H.J. The Revolution in Virginia, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1916.
Harrell, Isaac Samuel Loyalism in Virginia; chapters in the economic history of the Revolution, New York, AMS Press, 1965.
Kapp Friedrich The Life of Frederick William Von Steuben, New York: Mason Bros. 1859.
Lassiter, Francis Rives Arnold's invasion of Virginia, 1781, Longmans, Green & Co. 1901.
Ward, Harry M. Richmond during the Revolution, 1775-83, Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1977 (borrow only).
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Cecere, Michael The Invasion of Virginia, 1781, Westholme Publishing, 2017.
Ferling, John Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021.
Kranish, Michael Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War, Oxford Univ. Press, 2010. https://www.amazon.com/dp/0195374622?&linkCode=ll1&tag=amrevpodcast-20&linkId=3b9ad090545a7776dbdace5678f2f7fe&language=en_US&ref_=as_li_ss_tl
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.