Following the entry of France into the war in 1778, British policy in America shifted dramatically. London essentially put the war against New England and the mid-Atlantic states on hold. They redeployed much of their army to the West Indies, where valuable islands were up for grabs, and also hoped to reclaim a few southern colonies where they expected to find a fair number of loyalists ready to support them.
Virginia, however, was not part of this southern strategy. It was a heavily populated state, and officials did not see a large loyalist uprising happening there. As a result, Virginia had pretty much avoided being the scene of many battles in the war, up until this time. In 1779, that was not going to change. The British were still having trouble securing Georgia, and just making some tentative attempts at South Carolina, as I discussed last week. Launching a massive land invasion into Virginia was not part of anyone’s plan.
The other part of Britain’s plan was to harass the coasts. The British Navy still dominated the seas, especially once the French fleet under Admiral d’Estaing sailed for the West Indies. The navy could attack coastal targets at will, with very little danger of retaliation.
With this in mind, British planners in New York organized a spring raid in May 1779. Since Virginia patriots had chased off Colonial Governor Lord Dunmore in early 1776, Virginia had seen relatively little conflict. The British had sailed up the Chesapeake in 1777 in their attempt to reach Philadelphia, but they did not really stop in Virginia. The fleet sailed well up into Maryland then the army marched north to Philadelphia.
The lower Chesapeake Bay was mostly free of British harassment during most of these early years of the war. The only water entry into the bay was a relatively narrow area off the coast of Norfolk. The relative peace in the area allowed farmers to grow crops for the Continental Army, and produce tobacco for sale abroad. The British now hoped to execute a search and destroy mission with a fleet of ships, they would capture or destroy anything of value that they could find in the Chesapeake Bay area.
Commodore George Collier assembled the fleet that would be used. Collier by this time was the ranking naval official in America. You may recall that Admiral Richard Howe left America rather abruptly, leaving the rather incompetent James Gambier in Command. Admiral John Byron had been second in command and should have taken command, but he sailed off for the West Indies where his fleet prevented the French from retaking St. Lucia. Admiral Gambier remained in New York but did little. In April 1779, he received his recall orders and departed New York for England. That left Captain Collier in command as the senior naval officer in America.
By December of that year, Sir George took command of the 44 gun Rainbow. In 1776, he participated in a convoy commanded by Commodore William Hotham to transport Hessian soldiers to New York as part of General Howe’s efforts to capture that city.
Over the next two years, Collier operated out of Nova Scotia raiding American vessels. Shortly after his arrival in Nova Scotia in late 1776, he relieved the Siege of Fort Cumberland, thus ensuring continued British control of the region (see Episode 119). Collier carried out his duties with great energy and enthusiasm. In 1777, he captured or destroyed 76 enemy vessels, including the 32-gun Hancock, one of New England’s most well-armed privateers.
Following Admiral Gambier’s recall, Collier took command of the North American squadron. He sailed to New York to coordinate with army's commander, General Henry Clinton.
In planning the attack, Collier worked with Major General Edward Mathew. General Mathew was a decade older than Collier. Born in Antigua in 1729, Mathew was the son of a British officer stationed in the West Indies.
At the age of 16 or 17, he managed to acquire a commission as an ensign in the Coldstream Guards, a particularly prestigious regiment whose primary duty is the personal protection of the King. Given this duty, there isn’t any record of Mathew engaging in combat during the War of Austrian Succession, or the Seven Years War. During that time, he did manage to marry the daughter of a Duke. He also rose to the rank of colonel by 1775 and served as a personal aide de camp to King George III.
As the war in America became front and center, Mathew took command of a 1000 man brigade drawn from the Coldstream Guards. He received a commission as a brigadier general and sailed for America in 1776 to assist with Howe’s invasion of New York. His brigade served with distinction at the Battle of Long Island and Kips Bay. Mathew personally led troops during the British assault on Fort Washington.
The following year, Mathew would accompany General Howe on the Philadelphia Campaign, Matthew led his brigade with distinction at Brandywine and Germantown, and the following year at Monmouth. Mathew’s brigade then returned to New York with the rest of the army. While there, Mathew received word from London of his promotion to major general. In early 1778, General Clinton assigned Mathew to work with Commodore Collier in organizing a raid on the Chesapeake Bay area.
Collier and Mathew assembled a force which included six men-of-war, Collier’s flagship, Raisonable, along with the Rainbow, Solebay, Otter, Diligent, and Harlem. The fleet also included the Sloop Cornwallis and 28 smaller troop transports carrying nearly 2000 regulars, Hessians, and loyalist volunteers. At the last minute, the Solebay left the fleet to be redeployed to a convoy bringing food to the British garrison at Savannah.
The fleet left New York on May 5, 1779, headed for the Chesapeake. Favorable winds allowed the fleet to reach Virginia in less than three days, arriving at the Capes of Virginia on May 8. Supplementing the force were several loyalist privateers that volunteered to join the fleet.
Upon arrival, a thunderstorm forced the fleet to hunker down for a day. The ships emerged undamaged. Collier ordered the Otter, along with several transport ships carrying light infantry, to sail up into the Chesapeake and engage the enemy.
The Americans had a fleet of smaller ships, a shipyard, and a few small forts in the area, but nothing capable of challenging a fleet of this size. The smaller American ships retreated up the James River where the shallower water would not allow the British warships to pursue. Collier transferred to the smaller Rainbow in an attempt to move upriver, but could not move even the smaller ship far enough up river to engage with the fleeing Americans. Collier then transferred to a smaller ship to reconnoiter the area and survey the enemy forts.
The American fort, later known as Fort Nelson, guarded the shipyard at Portsmouth, Virginia. It was relatively small, but with solid defensive walls and cannons. Collier and Mathew agreed to take the fort through a joint operation. The Rainbow would fire at the fort from the river while the army attacked it from the land.
The defending garrison of about 100 men, commanded by Major Thomas Mattews, saw the soldiers deploy and opted to abandon the fort rather than put up a fight. The Americans fled, leaving behind their cannons and ammunition. The British took the fort without any fight. Later in the day, they occupied the town of Portsmouth, less than a mile from the fort.
Norfolk and Suffolk
On the opposite shore sat Norfolk and Virginia’s largest shipyard. Again, the American defenders fled without a fight at the sight of the large British warships. Collier occupied the shipyard. To avoid capture, the Americans burned a complete 28-gun ship ready for launch. They also destroyed two large French merchant ships loaded with tobacco and other supplies.
|Lower Chesapeake Bay|
Next, the fleet moved on to Suffolk, where the British again occupied the town without a fight, finding nine thousand barrels of salted pork, which had been designated to ship north to the Continental Army. They also seized eight thousand barrels of pitch, tar, and turpentine, along with other stores. Again, the British raiders burned everything, along with another seven vessels that could not escape. About this time, the Otter returned from its raid into the northern Chesapeake, having found equal success in capturing or destroying large amounts of stores.
Although the fleet was under orders not to burn private homes, apparently some of the privateers had gotten carried away and burned a few homes believed to be owned by patriots. In response, Collier sent a captured ship laden with salt to provide compensation to the victims who had lost their homes. Collier also reported that he received a note of thanks along with a gift of six lambs in thanks for his act of kindness.
One item of “property” that the British were not reluctant to seize was slaves. Collier reported taking aboard 256 men, 135 women and 127 children collected from area plantations. Later, patriot leaders would claim the British took three times that number and sold the slaves in the West Indies. The British commander denied this and said he was giving asylum to oppressed people who wished to leave. There is some evidence that the British raiders went to great efforts to collect whole families and to reunite family members who had been separated to different plantations. It seems clear that the slaves left quite voluntarily and did everything they could to assist the British effort.
At one point, the Americans sent a delegation under a flag of truce. They had a note signed by Governor Patrick Henry seeking the return of four slaves taken from a local landowner. The British commander concluded the men must have been sent as spies to have used a flag of truce over such a trivial matter. He informed the delegation that he would respect their flag of truce and allow them to return, but that they should never try to abuse the practice of a flag of truce again.
The Virginians never put up any sort of resistance. The British continued with their destruction unhampered by any attacks. Collier and Mathews concluded that if they remained, they might perhaps convince much of the local populace to swear allegiance to the king and to bring the area under royal control once again.
Having completed what destruction they could, there was some debate about whether they should continue to occupy Portsmouth in order to deny use of the ports to the enemy. The British could still carry off many shiploads of valuable stores and prevent the enemy from shipping supplies to the Continental Army. They sent a messenger ship to New York to ask General Clinton. Before they could receive a response, though, they opted to leave. The British set fire to the remainder of stores that they could not carry. Collier estimated that they had destroyed at least one million pounds sterling worth of supplies in their raid.
By May 24, the fleet weighed anchor and began its voyage back to New York. For the British, the raid was considered an unqualified success. They destroyed tons of enemy supplies and did not lose a single man.
Virginia’s New Governor
As the British returned to New York, Virginia was left to clean up the mess that they had left behind. Although there was a great deal of damage, the raid had lasted less than three weeks. Given the hardships of war, Virginia’s damage was not even close to what some other states had experienced.
Henry had served in the First Continental Congress in 1774 and returned to the Second Continental Congress in 1775. He then returned to Virginia where he played a leading role at the Virginia Convention that established independence and created a new government. Henry worked on the Committee that created the new state Constitution, which the convention adopted unanimously on June 29, 1776 less than a week before the Continental Congress' Declaration of Independence.
The new Constitution called for a governor, chosen by both houses of the legislature, who could be elected to three consecutive one-year terms. The Convention had chosen Henry, who took office on July 5, becoming the independent state’s first governor. He moved into the colonial governor’s mansion in Williamsburg and led Virginia through the first years of the war.
Henry’s terms of office were focused on prosecution of the war, and were not without controversy. During his first term, leaders seriously debated making him dictator in order to further the war effort. This proposal was eventually defeated. Governor Henry also sided with Washington and played a role in exposing the Conway Cabal. Henry had developed another connection to Washington when he married Dorthea Dandridge in 1777, a cousin of Martha Dandridge Custis Washington. In response to the 1779 raid, Henry had attempted to call up a militia army, but they were too slow to respond. The British departed before the militia could assemble.
On June 1, 1779 the Virginia Assembly elected a new governor. The vote was contentious but a majority backed Thomas Jefferson, who assumed office in July. It was a close vote. Nearly half of the assembly wanted General Thomas Nelson. The state militia officer had served in the Continental Congress where he assisted in drafting the Articles of Confederation. He had also played a key role in Virginia’s Constitutional Convention and had been serving on the Council of State. The vote had to go to a second round after Lieutenant Governor John Page took enough votes in the first round to prevent any candidate from receiving a majority.
Jefferson had largely stepped back from politics before his election. After completing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson started asking to be replaced at the Continental Congress. The only reason he stayed for several months longer was that the rest of the Virginia Delegation had already gone home. He had to make sure the state had some representation. Congress wanted him to go to France to serve as a commissioner, but he declined.
By fall 1776, Jefferson had returned home and had taken a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. There, he left war issues to others and focused on legislative reforms: estate law, property rights, court reforms, and things like that. Some of it was controversial, especially some of the reforms which removed protections that helped elite planters keep their estates when they fell on hard times. He drafted the Virginia Bill of Religious freedom, but it would take nearly a decade before that would become law.
Jefferson had spent most of 1777 and 1778 focusing on his home life, having a child, and rebuilding his home at Monticello. British prisoners from Saratoga had been settled around his home in Charlottesville. The Jeffersons spent considerable time with some of the enemy officers, particularly General Baron von Riedesel and his wife.
Jefferson was well-regarded in the assembly, which is why they elected him governor. But he did not seem particularly interested in the new job. Although he nominally held a rank as a militia colonel, Jefferson was not a military man. The recent raid on the Chesapeake might have led many to consider a leader with more military experience.
While Jefferson attended to his duties as governor, he seemed to view it as more of a burden that kept him away from home. He was forced to focus on issues of war that did not seem to suit his interests and experience. Even so, Jefferson would be elected to a second term a year later.
Next week: we look in on the Continental Congress again, where inflation threatens to collapse the economy and harm the war effort.
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Clinton, Henry. “Expedition to Portsmouth, Virginia, 1779.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 12, no. 3, 1932, pp. 181–186. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1919178
Sir George Collier http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/collier_george_4E.html
Sir George Collier https://morethannelson.com/officer/sir-george-collier
“Patrick Henry in Council to John Jay, 11 May 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-01-02-0095
The Burning of Portsmouth: http://www.blackloyalist.info/event/display/147
Jefferson, Thomas as Governor of Virginia https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/jefferson-thomas-as-governor-of-virginia
(from archive.org unless noted)
Gilbert, Chinard Thomas Jefferson The Apostle Of Americanism, Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1944.
Town, Ithiel (ed) A detail of some particular services performed in America, during the years 1776, 1777, 1778, and 1779, New York: [self-published], 1835.
Tyler, Moses Coit Patrick Henry, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. 1915.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Meacham, Jon Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Random House, 2012.
Russell, David Lee The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies, McFarland & Co. 2000.
Unger, Harlow Giles Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation, Da Capo Press, 2010.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.