We last left General Benedict Arnold in Episode 264, when he hatched a plot with the British to turn over West Point and betray his country. In exchange, he would receive a large sum of money and a commission in the British Army.
The Americans discovered the plot when they captured British Major John André with documents outlining the plan. Arnold, however, managed to escape to British-occupied New York and begin a new life as a British officer.
Secretary Germain in London confirmed General Clinton’s promise to grant Arnold a commission as brigadier general in the regular army. Arnold’s new mission was to raise an army of loyalists and help bring the war to an end.
Arnold’s American legion fell short of hopes. He managed to raise between 200 and 400 soldiers from loyalists and deserters from the Continental Army. Among his recruits was an American spy sent to look for an opportunity to kidnap Arnold and return him to Continental lines.
British Interest in Virginia
The British commander, General Henry Clinton had to find a mission to test his new general’s capabilities as a British officer. By the end of 1780, Clinton was eyeing Virginia.
Other than the Portsmouth Raid in 1779, Virginia had largely avoided any real battles during the war. It served as a source of food and supplies for the Continental Army. By 1780, it was developing into the main supply base for General Nathanael Greene’s southern army in the Carolinas.
General Clinton believed that he could at least disrupt operations in Virginia. This would impact supplies for the enemy’s southern army. He also wanted to establish a port on the Chesapeake, at Portsmouth, which could serve as a naval port for ships supporting the southern colonies.
In late 1780, Clinton had deployed 2500 soldiers under General Alexander Leslie to establish a British presence at Portsmouth. Leslie had begun to build defenses, when he received instructions from General Cornwallis to move even further south. After the British lost their loyalists at King’s Mountain, Cornwallis needed reinforcements if he wanted to do much of anything in the Carolinas. So, Leslie’s forces left Portsmouth only a few weeks after arrival, and headed for Charleston by ship.
Clinton then tasked General Arnold with securing the Chesapeake for the British. Arnold’s command consisted of between 1500 and 1800 soldiers, almost entirely American loyalists. Aside from his own small legion, Clinton gave Arnold the Queen’s American Rangers, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe. Other loyalist regiments came from the mid-Atlantic. Most of them had been with the army for years and were experienced combat veterans. The only regular regiment assigned to Arnold was the 80th Regiment of Foot, a Scottish regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Dundas. Also joining the expedition were 100 Hessian Jaegers under the command of Captain Johann Ewald, and a few pieces of field artillery.
Clinton had no expectations that Arnold would take all of Virginia. In fact, given Arnold’s reputation for reckless aggression in battle, he explicitly warned Arnold against going too far. His mission was to continue the setup of a British-controlled port at Portsmouth, and to encourage loyalist enlistments only in the neighboring counties where the British could assert control.
He also told Arnold to consult with Colonels Simcoe and Dundas before taking any major actions. Clinton even issued secret instructions to Simcoe and Dundas to take command of the operation if Arnold got out of control.
British Fleet Arrives in Virginia
A fleet carrying Arnold’s army departed Sandy Hook, New Jersey on December 20, 1780. By December 30, parts of the fleet sighted Hampton Roads in the Chesapeake. A storm had scattered the fleet en route. Arnold was missing about one-third of his army.
|John Graves Simcoe|
He did not want to wait very long since the enemy would see his fleet, giving them time to put together a defense. Arnold first attempted to land near Jamestown, but received reports that a large militia group was preparing to challenge him there. Instead, he kept his forces aboard ship.
The fleet captured about twenty smaller boats at the mouth of the James River, taking them as prizes. Rather than land immediately, Arnold used those smaller boats to move his forces up the James River towards Richmond.
During one attempt to seize a ship on January 2, 1781, Arnold had his first exchange of fire with land forces. A local battery along the shore of the river fired on his ship. Clinton had ordered Arnold not to engage in indiscriminate destruction since they still hoped to recruit Virginians to the loyalist cause. In response to the fire from shore, Arnold simply sent them a note under a flag of truce. It said in part:
I have to acquaint you, that however disagreeable It may be to me, unless you immediately desist firing, and suffer the Prise to be taken away with all Her Materials, I shall be under the Necessity of landing and burning the Village, which I wish to Avoid.
The militia ceased fire and Arnold was able to capture the prize ship without any further interference.
The following day, Arnold’s fleet proceeded up the James River to Hood’s point, about 35 miles below Richmond. There, the patriot militia had established another artillery battery to contest the British advance. Once again, Arnold sent a note similar to the one he had sent before.
When he received no response, Arnold landed Colonel Simcoe with about 130 Queen’s Rangers, as well as the light infantry and grenadier companies of his regulars. By the time Simcoe reached the artillery, the militia had fled. Simcoe’s men spiked the guns, rendering them useless, and managed to capture a few militia stragglers. They also seized a howitzer, which they carried back to the ship as a prize. They did not pillage the countryside or take any punitive actions against civilian property.
Following Simcoe’s return, the fleet continued upriver. He arrived at Westover, the following day. Westover Plantation was a large and prosperous plantation owned by the Byrd family. The Byrds were politically divided, some of them fighting with the patriots, others with the loyalists. The plantation owner, a widow named Mary Byrd, received Arnold and his men warmly. Mary was the cousin of Arnold’s wife, Peggy Shippen Arnold. She provided breakfast for Arnold and his officers, and engaged in pleasant conversation.
Arnold limited his efforts with the locals to get intelligence on the region and possible defenses that he might face. Many local Tories were willing to volunteer their services. Things looked promising that Virginia might be willing to move into the British camp.
Locals told Arnold that the twenty-five miles between his camp at Westover and Richmond were virtually undefended. He could continue to move upriver and take the capital.
These intelligence reports proved correct. The Americans had been caught nearly defenseless. Governor Thomas Jefferson had ordered the state capital moved from Williamsburg to Richmond back in April of 1780. Williamsburg was too close to the coast and an easy target for British raiders.
Even Richmond’s inland location did not prove much of a deterrent though. Most of the Virginia line had been captured at Charleston earlier in 1780. Much of its militia had been dispersed at Camden a few months later. Since then the Continentals had been desperately trying to raise more soldiers in Virginia to send down to Nathanael Greene in North Carolina. In fact, Greene’s second in command, General Von Steuben, was still in Virginia at the time of Arnold’s landing, trying to raise troops and supplies for the southern army.
The result of that was that any men of fighting age still in Virginia, were probably mostly either loyalists or among those who were unwilling or unable to fight. When Jefferson received word of a British fleet arriving, he attempted to activate the militia and had hoped to oppose a British landing near Jamestown. But when Arnold simply ignored that defense and sailed upriver, Jefferson’s government was caught with almost no defenses at all.
The governor dashed off a few more letters calling out the militia, but primarily focused on removing state papers and supplies out of Richmond to Westham, about six miles west of the capital. Officials hoped that if the British burned and looted Richmond, that their critical papers and supplies would be safe.
Advance on Richmond
Given the reports of minimal patriot defenses, Arnold was tempted to continue on to Richmond. However, he was still missing one-third of his army and was cognizant of Clinton’s orders about not being too rash or aggressive.
Arnold held a council of war with Colonels Simcoe and Dundas. The three men decided that they could send a force on the one-day march to Richmond with minimal risk to the overall mission. They decided that Arnold and Simcoe would lead a raiding party of 800 men to Richmond, while leaving their base of operations at Westover with Dundas.
The British made no attempt to hide their intentions through a night march or a lightning raid. The column left Westover at around two in the afternoon on January 4. It marched about half of the distance that day, camping at Four Mile Creek, about twelve miles from Richmond. The following morning, the column continued its march , approaching the city limits by about 1:00 PM on the fifth.
A few local militia shadowed the column, but ran off when Colonel Simcoe dispatched riders to engage with them. The British managed to complete its two day march with no one firing a shot against them.
The city itself was in chaos. The legislature had skipped town as soon as word arrived of the approaching British. Private citizens struggled to remove their property from town along jammed country roads. Governor Jefferson was still seeing the removal of state property from Richmond to Westham, that morning, finally riding away just hours before the British entered the capital.
The city defenses consisted of several hundred local militia setting up on Richmond Hill, which was the best high ground in the town. Arnold once again dispatched Colonel Simcoe, along with Captain Ewald and his Hessian jaegers to contest the hill. But as the British moved up Richmond Hill, the patriot militia fled without a shot fired.
Another small group of militia gathered on Shockoe Hill. Again, they fled as soon as the enemy approached. Simcoe managed to capture six stragglers who fled their defenses a little too slowly.
Having captured Richmond with almost no resistance, the British spent the afternoon of the 5th destroying government buildings and property. After Arnold learned that the Americans had moved much of their property to Westham, he dispatched Simcoe with half of his force to ride to Westham and burn all the government buildings and property that were located there. Westham also contained an iron foundry, workshops, and a munitions magazine, all of which were put to the torch.
|British Sketch of Richmond Raid|
Arnold though, mostly sought to protect private property. He believed that Richmond, much like Philadelphia, saw most of its private property in the hands of loyalists. He wanted to establish good relations with these city leaders in hopes of turning the state back to a British-ruled colony.
Even so, Arnold could not resist an opportunity to make a buck. He issued a proclamation to the local inhabitants, informing them that property such as "Tobacco, Rum, Wine, Sugar, Molasses, Sail Cloth and Coffee" were subject to seizure and confiscation as military prizes. But being the nice guy that he was, Arnold offered to buy these items from the locals at fifty cents on the dollar.
The merchants took the offer to Governor Jefferson for a response. Jefferson indignantly refused to bargain or correspond with the traitor Arnold in any way. So when Arnold got no response, he seized or destroyed a great deal of the supplies in Richmond and the surrounding area.
The British continued their work into the night and the following morning. By the afternoon of January 6, Arnold was ready to leave Richmond. Simcoe wanted to remain another night, but Arnold was concerned that Virginia might be able to call in enough militia to create a significant resistance if given enough time. Arnold had no desire to occupy Richmond permanently, and did not want to look like he was being chased out of town by militia.
That afternoon, Arnold reassembled his column and marched back to Four Mile Creek. The following day, they returned to Westover. Again, on the march back, they faced no opposition. Some of Simcoe’s men were accused of looting homes on the return march, but mostly followed the orders to leave private property alone.
Arnold even left twenty guineas (about $16,000 in today’s money) to care for the poor of the city. Governor Jefferson later insisted the money be returned.
Following the British departure from Richmond, the city was in chaos. There were reports of local patriot militia and other residents looting in the city before the Americans could restore order. The British reported losing nine men during the raid. It is not clear if the missing men deserted, or were captured while straggling. But there were no reported losses from fighting.
After the return to Westover, Arnold received a report that several hundred militia were assembling at Charles City Court House about nine miles from the British camp. Simcoe led forty mounted rangers to disperse the militia. In brief fighting there, one ranger was killed and three wounded.
The other significant action taken was against the Berkeley Plantation, near Westover. Berkeley was the home of Benjamin Harrison, a member of the Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Arnold, of course, had never liked most members of Congress, even before he switched sides, and allowed a little retribution in this case.
The British looted the plantation, seizing or killing all the livestock. Although they did not burn the home, they did pillage it, removing all the furniture and paintings to the front lawn, where they held a large bonfire. They also absconded with forty slaves, although it’s not clear if the slaves left voluntarily.
Arnold also received word that the Americans had reoccupied Hood’s Point, which could prove a danger to British river traffic. He deployed some troops under loyalist Colonel Beverly Robinson to march overland to secure the point again. The men walked into an ambush set by Colonel George Rogers Clark. It turns out Clark happened to be in Richmond to lobby for more support for his western campaign, and was able to engage with the British raiders. The attack was a quick hit and run, but led to the greatest number of casualties during the raid. The loyalists lost three killed and seventeen wounded.
Over the next couple of days, the British began the process of moving eighty miles back downriver in small boats. Arnold had never planned his move up the James River to be anything more than a short raid. He returned to Portsmouth, per his original orders, which he fortified and prepared for use as his army’s winter quarters.
On January 19th part of Arnold’s raiding party reached Portsmouth, with the remainder arriving the following day.
The raid had much of its intended effect. The fact that Arnold had been largely unopposed led to criticisms of Jefferson’s government and its inability to defend the state. Many Americans grudgingly credited Arnold with moving quickly, before militia could assemble and mount any real defense. But it’s unclear that even if they had more time, the militia would have been able to mount any credible threat to Arnold’s forces. By this time the missing third of his army had made it to Portsmouth. Absent a large effort by Continental forces, they were there to stay.
Much of the local patriot militia surrendered to the British and accepted parole. Many men wanted this since they could avoid turning out for further militia duty or duty in the Continental Army if they were on parole. It was a great excuse to stay home. The problem got so bad that Governor Jefferson declared that the militia paroles were void and that they would continue to be expected to report for duty.
Despite the surrendering militia, loyalists did not turn up in great numbers to join Arnold. The general blamed this on his predecessor, General Alexander Leslie, who had encouraged loyalists to come out of hiding when he arrived the previous year. Then, when Leslie was called away to the Carolinas, the Virginia loyalists had to face retribution from their patriot neighbors. No one was going to stick their neck out again until convinced that the British were there to stay.
Arnold’s raid helped to secure his reputation with the British leadership. He had proven himself an effective combat officer, doing more with fewer men than other British raids in the area had ever been able to accomplish.
Arnold spent the next few months building his defenses at Portsmouth, and sending patrols inland to break up any reported militia gatherings. On February 13, Arnold learned of the approach of three French men-of-war. The ships stayed for less than a week then sailed off without engaging. But their mere presence inspired 2500 militia to organize and advance on Portsmouth.
The ships sailed away without engaging. The militia also returned home once the French left, without firing a shot. But the event demonstrated to Arnold that he would face opposition if the opportunity arose. While Virginia was not organized enough to defend itself, it also was not ready to return to British rule.
Next week: General Nathanael Greene moves into Virginia, not to attack Arnold, but to escape from the British under Cornwallis in the Race to the Dan.
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Previous Episode 279 Battle of Cowpens
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Benedict Arnold and William Phillips in Virginia, 1780-1781: http://www.virginiaplaces.org/military/benedictarnoldraid.html
“Benedict Arnold in Richmond, January, 1781: His Proposal Concerning Prize Goods: With Historical Introduction by George Green Shackelford.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 60, no. 4, 1952, pp. 591–99. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4245878
Lender, Mark Edward and James Kirby Martin “A Traitor’s Epiphany: Benedict Arnold in Virginia and His Quest for Reconciliation.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 125, no. 4, 2017, pp. 314–57. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26322642
“From Thomas Jefferson to the County Lieutenants of Charlotte and Certain Other Counties, 2 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-04-02-0343
Hannum, Patrick H. and Christopher Pieczynski “Skirmish at James’s Plantation: Victory and Defeat for Benedict Arnold in Virginia, Journal of the American Revolution, October 14, 2021. https://allthingsliberty.com/2021/10/skirmish-at-jamess-plantation-victory-and-defeat-for-benedict-arnold-in-virginia
Decker, Michael M. Baron Von Steuben and the military forces in Virginia during the British invasions of 1780-1781, Univ. Richmond Masters Thesis, 1979. https://scholarship.richmond.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1437&context=masters-theses
(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.
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.