Sunday, August 20, 2023

ARP279 Race to the Dan

In our last episode, we took a detour to cover Arnold’s invasion of Virginia.  Before that, we covered the showdown between General Daniel Morgan’s army and the British army under Colonel Banastre Tarleton at Cowpens.

Even before General Cornwallis received word of the British defeat at Cowpens, he was preparing to renew his offensive into North Carolina.  With the arrival of General Alexander Leslie’s reinforcements, his army was upwards of 3300 men, about two-thirds of whom were regulars.

On January 18, 1781, Leslie’s men made their final march from Camden to link up with Cornwallis at Winnsboro.  That same day, Colonel Tarleton had returned to camp with less than 200 men, from a force of over 1200 that had led a couple of weeks earlier.  Cornwallis’ new army was now closer to 2500 men.

Into North Carolina

Undeterred, Cornwallis was ready to move  The following day, his army began its march northward.  At first, Cornwallis hoped to confront Morgan and finally defeat that division of the Continental Army.  Cornwallis not only wanted to defeat Morgan’s army, he also wanted to reclaim the 600 prisoners that Morgan had taken at Cowpens.

Greene Crosses the Dan River

But Morgan was not looking for a fight.  He had moved his men out of South Carolina and back into North Carolina, taking his prisoners with him.  His goal was to get the prisoners to a safe location, then reconnect with General Greene’s army somewhere in central North Carolina.

The British Army under Cornwallis found the march slow going.  His army moved only about twelve miles per day, taking nearly a week to make the march to Ramsour’s Mill, the site of a battle months earlier.  When Cornwallis arrived on January 25, he learned that Morgan’s army had passed through the area two days earlier.  Despite sticking to back roads, Morgan was averaging close to twenty miles per day.

Cornwallis spent a few days  at Ramsour’s Mill.  He was frustrated by his army’s slow movement and by his lack of good intelligence following the loss of Tarleton’s legion.  The general made the decision to burn his own supply wagons.  They were slowing down his army. He needed to move much more quickly if he was going to catch Morgan and Greene. It was not just the officers’ china and other luxuries that got tossed.  Tents, clothing, even the rum supply, went into the bonfire.  The men only carried what they could take on their backs.

One of the things each man was required to carry was an extra set of soles for his shoes.  Cornwallis expected to do a lot of walking in this campaign and wanted every soldier ready for that.

With the British on the march, so were Greene and his Continentals.  Greene hoped to reunite with Morgan’s army.  He also sent messages to Francis Marion and Light Horse Harry Lee in South Carolina, calling on them to bring their 300 horsemen to join the main army.

Greene and Morgan met up at Beattie’s Ford on the Catawba River on January 30.  Greene personally had raced ahead of his own army to catch up with Morgan.  He ordered General Isaac Huger to lead the army to Salisbury, further to the north.  When Greene met with Morgan at Beattie’s Ford, the men were aware that the enemy was already in sight.

On the other side of the river, Cornwallis’ British Regulars had encamped.  Only heavy rains and a swollen river kept them from attacking in force.

Greene had hoped that the American victory at Cowpens and the British invasion of North Carolina would turn out the local militia.  About 800 militia had turned out under General William Lee Davidson.  But these were not enough, even if the men could be trusted to fight.  Further, hundreds of Virginia militia who had been marching with Greene’s army, insisted on going home after their enlistments ended.  Morgan’s force was exhausted and much smaller than the enemy army facing them across the river. 

Greene held a council of war with Morgan, Colonel William Washington and militia General Davidson to decide what to do next.  The enemy would be able to ford the river within a few days, and Greene did not have the army assembled that he needed to defeat them.

The council agreed that retreat was the best option.  Davidson would keep the local militia at fords along the river, hoping to delay Cornwallis’ advance as long as possible.  Meanwhile the rest of the army would retreat north.

Cowan’s Ford

Cornwallis camped at Beattie’s Ford, wait for the river to fall enough for his men to cross.  Knowing that the Americans would contest the crossing, Cornwallis sent the bulk of his army four miles down river to Cowan’s Ford, which was not as good a crossing, but where Cornwallis hoped it would be less guarded.  

Cowan's Ford Crossing
On the American side, Davidson suspected that Cornwallis might attempt a crossing at Cowan’s Ford, so he deployed about 250 of his infantry militia there to contest any attempted crossing.  The main ford was two to four feet deep, and crossed an island in the river part way.  But another passage that was a little deeper, used primarily by wagons allowed for a crossing a little farther upstream.  Davidson only posted a small picket guard at the wagon crossing and put the bulk of his forces at the main crossing. 

The British began their night march at about 1:00 AM on February 1, moving about half the army down to Cowan’s Ford.  They began crossing the ford at around dawn.  The men tied their ammunition belts around their necks in order to avoid them being soaked in the deep water.  They used their muskets with bayonets to dig into the rocky soil as they crossed the river in order to keep the currents from sweeping them downstream.

Even so, the current was pretty brutal, especially in the wagon crossing.  Several soldiers and horses were carried away by the river, and many drowned. 

The militia quickly alerted to the crossing and began firing on the British.  Cornwallis returned fire from cannons he had set up on the British side of the river.  As General Williamson attempted to rally his militia at the riverside, a British rifleman knocked him off his horse, killing him instantly.  

The militia continued to fire, but the British kept up their crossing.  When enough had gotten across, they formed a bayonet charge to disperse the remaining militia.  Soon, the militia were marching on the road to Salisbury, trying to catch up with the main army.

By mid-morning, the British had established a force on the other side of the river and were forming to begin their chase.  Cornwallis reported only four killed and thirty-six wounded in the crossing, but that appears to be woefully inaccurate.  Locals reported dozens of bodies found over the next few days or weeks.  Many of the bodies did not appear to be shot.  The soldiers had simply drowned while trying to cross the river.

Torrence’s Tavern

Many of the militiamen who had escaped from Cowan’s Ford after the British had crossed, moved about ten miles north to Torrence’s Tavern.  There, the whiskey flowed freely and the soldiers attempted to calm their nerves from the battle they had just fought. The tavern was a local rallying point. The militia who gathered there expected to meet up with more militia from the area before they would move again.

Torrence's Tavern
Early that afternoon, a rider galloped up to the tavern with the news that Tarleton was on his way.  Captain Nathaniel Martin attempted to set up a defense, but many of the men were too drunk and exhausted to do much.  Soon about 200 green-coated horsemen rode into view.

Tarleton saw he was facing a much larger force, but they were disorganized. The heavy rain made it unlikely that the militia’s rifles would fire. Tarleton shouted “remember the Cowpens” and ordered a saber charge directly into the enemy lines.  He later claimed that his legion killed 50 men on the spot, wounded many others as they fled, and dispersed about 500 of the enemy.  This was probably an exaggeration.  Another British officer who arrived on the scene of the battle a few hours later reported seeing less than ten enemy bodies.

Nathanael Greene was at a farmhouse only six miles away from the tavern that morning.  From captured prisoners, Tarleton learned of Greene’s presence and rode off in pursuit.  But Greene had received warning of the British crossing and had already moved on.

Trading Ford

The next goal for both armies was Trading Ford on the Yadkin River.  This was just above the rendezvous point at Salisbury.  Greene arrived there on February 3, finding Morgan and his Continental Army already at the site.  Isaac Huger, with the rest of the Continental Army, still had not arrived.

Trading Ford
Torrential rains had made the river impassable.  Greene feared he might have to face Cornwallis there, with no avenue for escape.  Fortunately, Greene had planned ahead and did have some boats available. Given the swift currents, even passage across in a boat was slow going and dangerous.  The army spent the day and night ferrying men and equipment across the river.  

The following morning the vanguard of the British Army under General Charles O’Hara arrived on the scene.  Only about 150 militia were still on the near side of the river.  They fired a few shots at the approaching British column and then fled.  Greene had prepared for this contingency, leaving canoes a few miles downstream for the militia to cross.  

Once again, the British found a swollen river between them and the enemy.  Greene had removed all the boats. Cornwallis could only fire a few cannonballs across the river as he saw his target, once again, retreat further north.

Guilford Courthouse

The next rendezvous point for the army was Guilford Courthouse.  Morgan continued to push his men through knee deep mud roads.  They managed to make the fifty mile march in two days.  Once there, Morgan gave his men a well deserved rest, while sending some scouts to search the area for food and supplies.  

Otho Williams

Over the next few days, the army grew.  Isaac Huger finally arrived at Guilford Courthouse with the hundreds of Continentals that he had marched up on an eastern route.  Light Horse Harry Lee also made it with his legion.

It was at this point that Morgan had had enough.  His sciatica had put his body through unbearable pain.  He could barely sit in a saddle.  Greene begged him to stay, but saw that his condition made that impossible.  On Morgan’s recommendation, Greene gave command of the division to Colonel Otho Holland Williams.  Morgan managed to get a carriage and rode home to Virginia to recuperate.

Meanwhile, with Trading Ford still impassable, Cornwallis sent Tarleton upriver in search of another place to cross the Yadkin.  Tarleton found an unguarded ford known as Shallow Ford.  As the Americans rested and assembled at Guilford Courthouse, the British had to march forty miles upriver to cross, then forty miles back all through torrential rains and deepening mud soaked paths.

With the Continental Army finally combined, Greene considered a fight at Guilford Courthouse.  But the men were still in no condition for a fight.  His army consisted of less than 1500 men, with perhaps another 500 local militia, some of whom were not even armed.  The large numbers of militia he hoped for had never appeared.  Greene knew Cornwallis had an army of close to 2500 men, most of whom were regulars or Hessians, with the remainder being mostly battle-hardened provincials.

Even so, the failure to stand and fight would mean the army would have to retreat into Virginia.  They would effectively cede North Carolina to the British without a major battle.

Greene held another council of war with Huger and Williams.  Morgan, who had not left yet, also attended.  The unanimous verdict was that the army had to retreat to Virginia.

Race to the Dan

At the time, the British were about twenty-five miles to the west, at Salem, North Carolina (Modern day Winston-Salem).  Cornwallis received intelligence that Greene and his Continentals would move north to the Dan River and cross into Virginia.  The fords on the Dan were due north of both armies, meaning that Cornwallis could head off Greene’s march and get to the fords at least as fast as Greene.

British and Continental Routes to the Dan
Once again though, Greene had other plans.  Greene split his army, sending Morgan’s old division under Otho Williams north toward the Dan River fords.  At the same time, Greene moved the rest of his army northeast, away from the British and toward a target that would reach an unfordable part of the Dan River.

Williams’ force of about 700 men kept the enemy occupied, without entering into a full battle. Williams had to keep a respectable distance between his army and the British in order to avoid a massacre.  He used scouts to locate the enemy.  When there was enough distance at night, Williams would camp, only to rise at about 3:00 and march away, in order to avoid a dawn attack.  His men would then stop for breakfast a few hours later, for their only meal of the day, then continue their march.

Bruce’s Crossroads

Riding with Williams was Colonel Lee, whose horsemen remained closest to the enemy.  On February 11, Lee stopped at a local farmhouse for breakfast.  He soon got word that British dragoons were only a few miles away.  Lee immediately mounted and rode out with a local man and his bugler to investigate.  A few miles down the road, they encountered a few of Tarleton’s dragoons on horseback.  The Americans fled as the dragoons charged them.  Unfortunately the young bugler was on a slow moving pony.  The dragoons quickly overtook him and hacked the boy to death with their sabers.

By this time part of Lee’s squadron had caught up with the men and charged the dragoons.  The squadron killed or chased off the dragoons.  Hearing the sounds of battle from a distance, Tarleton brought up more of his legion to attack.  As they charged down the road, they ran into an ambush quickly set up by Lee’s men.  The British dragoons suffered 13 dead and several captured.  The only American death was the unfortunate bugler.

Crossing the Dan

As Williams led Cornwallis closer to the fords on the Dan, it became clear that this was not where the main Continental army was headed.  Greene, with his ever-methodical planning, had arranged for boats to carry his army across the Dan further downstream.  Williams had been a distraction to allow Greene time to get his men across in the boats. 

Dan River Monument
As Williams got closer to the river, he had orders to march quickly downstream to the boats and cross before the British could arrive.  As Williams rode downriver toward the crossing point, he saw campfires still on the near side of the river.  If Greene had not yet crossed, the British would be upon them before they could do so. 

Williams began to dread the notion that he would have to fight a hopeless delaying action against the entire British army in order to buy time for the crossing.  As Williams entered the camp, he was relieved to find it empty.  Greene had already moved his army to the crossing and had left a few men to stoke the campfires as a distraction.

By the evening of February 14, Greene sent a courier to Williams letting him know that the main army had crossed.  Now Williams had to get to the crossing and get over before the British overtook them.  Williams drove his already exhausted men in an all-night march to the crossing point, and began to get his men and horses into the boats for the crossing.  Greene was there waiting for him, and the men crossed the Dan together.  

The last men to cross that night were Light Horse Harry Lee and Colonel Edward Carrington, the man who had arranged for the boats that carried the army to safety.

Frustrated Again

When the lead British forces under General O'Hara, got to the crossing point on the Dan, they found the Americans already on the other side and, once again, no way for them to cross the river.

Cornwallis had marched his army with amazing speed through horrible conditions, but the Americans were still faster.  By this time, Cornwallis had been marching hundreds of miles without tents and supplies, trying to engage an enemy who kept slipping away.  He was now more than 240 miles from his nearest supply base back at Camden, South Carolina.

Tarleton, who had been in the lead against the Americans described the retreat as “judiciously designed and vigorously executed."  Cornwallis wrote to Lord Rawdon that “the fatigue of our troops and the hardships which they suffered were excessive.” He found himself cut off from his own supply lines and communications, deep in enemy territory.

Although Cornwallis had crossed over North Carolina, he did not really occupy it.  Rather than chase the Americans into Virginia, Cornwallis gave up on his northward march.  Instead, he moved his army at a relaxed pace about 50 miles south to Hillsborough.

There, he raised the King’s standard, claimed that the British had successfully reclaimed North Carolina, and called for the loyalists of the state to turn out and join his army.  Less than a hundred men joined.  Even worse, the area offered next to nothing in terms of food or supplies for his army.  Cornwallis further created ill-will by the need for his soldiers to go house to house and confiscate food for the army.  The men also had to butcher oxen and even some of their own draft horses in order to feed the hungry and exhausted regulars.

Meanwhile, Greene’s army was celebrated in Virginia.  Lee, a Virginian himself, described the army as being received as brethren and enjoying the abundant supplies of food available in the area.

Even so, Greene could not cede North Carolina to British control  Within days, he was planning to return to North Carolina and finally confront the British Army.  But we’ll have to leave that for next time, when we cover the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.

- - -

Next Episode 280 Guilford Courthouse 

Previous Episode 278 Arnold Raids Richmond

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Further Reading


Peterson, Bruce L. “The Importance of a Small Skirmish During the Race to the Dan” Journal of the American Revolution, Sept. 1, 2021.

Cecere, Michael “Race to the Dan” Journal of the American Revolution, Feb. 18, 2014.

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Connor, R. D. W. Revolutionary leaders of North Carolina, Greensboro, N.C. State College, 1916. 

Crow, Jeffrey (ed) The Southern Experience in the American Revolution, Univ. of NC Press, 1978.

Greene, George Washington The Life of Nathanael GreeneVol. 1Vol. 2, & Vol. 3, New York: Cambridge Univ. Press 1867-1871. 

Weigley, Russell Frank The Partisan War: the South Carolina Campaign of 1780-1782, Univ. of SC Press, 1970 (borrow only). 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Aaron, Larry G. The Race to the Dan: The Retreat That Rescued the American Revolution, Halifax Co. Historical Society, 2007. 

Carbone, Gerald Nathanael Greene: A Biography of the American Revolution, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010 (borrow on 

Edgar, Walter B. Partisans and Redcoats: The Southern Conflict That Turned the Tide of the American Revolution, New York: Morrow, 2001 (borrow on

Ferling, John Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021. 

Golway, Terry Washington's General : Nathanael Greene and the triumph of the American Revolution, H. Holt, 2006. (borrow on

Lumpkin, Henry From Savannah to Yorktown: the American Revolution in the South, Univ of SC Press, 1981 (borrow on 

Russell, David Lee. The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies. McFarland & Company, 2000 (borrow on

Swisher, James K., The Revolutionary War in the Southern Back Bountry, Pelican Publishing, 2008 (borrow on 

Tonsetic, Robert L. 1781: The Decisive Year of the Revolutionary War, Casemate, 2011 (borrow on 

Waters, Andrew To the End of the World: Nathanael Greene, Charles Cornwallis, and the Race to the Dan, Westholme Publishing, 2020. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

ARP278 Arnold Raids Richmond

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.

Benedict Arnold

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.

Alexander Leslie

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.

Westover Plantation
Arnold had hoped that his presence would encourage Virginia loyalists to turn out, and for some who had supported the patriots to reconsider their positions and join Arnold in restoring the King’s peace.  However, Clinton had ordered him not to make bold proclamations this far inland from the coast.  Clinton did not want to make promises that turned out loyalists, then leave those loyalists and their families hanging in areas where the British could not be assured of retaining control.

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.

American Defenses

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.

Johann Ewald

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
Back in Richmond, Arnold set up headquarters at Galt’s Tavern.  He oversaw the destruction of government buildings and property, but made every effort to prevent the destruction of private property or looting by his soldiers.  Despite efforts, there was some collateral damage of private property, especially when some of the building fires got out of control and wiped out several city blocks.

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.

Beverly Robinson

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.

- - -

Next Episode 279 Race to the Dan 

Previous Episode 279 Battle of Cowpens

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Further Reading


Benedict Arnold and William Phillips in Virginia, 1780-1781:

“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,

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,

“From Thomas Jefferson to the County Lieutenants of Charlotte and Certain Other Counties, 2 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives,  

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.

Decker, Michael M. Baron Von Steuben and the military forces in Virginia during the British invasions of 1780-1781, Univ. Richmond Masters Thesis, 1979.

Free eBooks
(from 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 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.

Tonsetic, Robert L. 1781: The Decisive Year of the Revolutionary War, Casemate, 2011 (borrow on 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.