I finished up last week with the arrival of General William Phillips in Portsmouth Virginia in March of 1781.
Initially, the British commander in New York, General Henry Clinton, had dispatched forces to Virginia in hopes of disrupting American supplies to the southern army, and creating a friendly port for the navy. But after Arnold’s successful raid on Richmond, it became apparent that more aggressive action in Virginia might pay off for the British. He sent General Phillips to take command from Arnold in Virginia, and see if there was a chance that Virginia might fall to British authority.
As everyone on both sides quickly discovered, Virginia’s defenses were a mess. To put it charitably, the militia was ineffective. The state government seemed unwilling to take any steps to defend the state or support those who could. The Continental Army under General Lafayette was still up in Maryland. Even if it did manage to get into Virginia, it was only about one-third the size of the British force under General Phillips.
British General Henry Clinton’s decision to send General William Phillips and several thousand more soldiers to Virginia was evidence that he thought there was some promise for more military action in the state.
I’ve discussed General Phillips in earlier episodes. He was one of the few top British officers not to come from an aristocratic family. We know little about his background, except that he came from a military family. He got his start in artillery, which was not normally a way to rise to command. Yet through his ability as an officer, and through good contacts, he managed to rise through the ranks. He was both a general and becoming a member of Parliament before the war began.
Although the Saratoga Campaign was not successful, Phillips did participate in it and came through it with his reputation intact. He spent the next three years as a prisoner of war, much of it in Virginia, where he became a regular dinner guest at Monticello with Thomas Jefferson. He returned to active service in 1780, after being exchanged for General Benjamin Lincoln, who had been captured at Charleston.
Virginia would be Major General Phillips’ first independent command as a major general. Upon his arrival, he took command from Brigadier General Benedict Arnold. It appears that many of the officers were happy with the new commander.
Arnold’s success in Virginia had helped his reputation with the British command in New York. but at the same time, many of the old criticisms of the American General Arnold, followed him into the British Army. General Arnold had started a spat with Commodore Thomas Symonds, who commanded the British Navy in Virginia.
Arnold claims to have convinced Symonds that they should split 50/50 any spoils of war that they captured. Traditionally, naval officers kept for themselves and their crews some percentage of any ships or cargo that they captured. Army officers traditionally did not collect any official share of booty as personal property.
By late January, 1781, shortly after the raid on Richmond, Arnold and Symonds were no longer on speaking terms, and everyone was of the view that Arnold was primarily out to enrich himself above all else. Symonds prevented Arnold from shipping some of his captured goods back to New York. Arnold then ordered Symonds to move his ships into dangerous and shallow waters, which Symonds refused to do. This led Arnold to suggest that Symonds was either a coward or disloyal, which of course did not help the relationship.
Many other officers under Arnold, Including the Hessian Jaeger commander Johann Ewald, were skeptical of any man who would switch sides in the middle of a war. Many of them questioned Arnold’s decision not to burn private stores of tobacco and other goods in the Richmond raid, murmuring that they believed Arnold hoped to seize those goods for his personal enrichment.
Once Phillips took command, many British officers and men were more comfortable with their commander. Phillips criticized Arnold’s defenses at Portsmouth, finding them inadequate to a potential attack. He also tried to at least get Arnold and Symonds to work together as needed.
At the same time, Philips was not pushing Arnold aside. He conferred with Arnold on the state of affairs in Virginia, and took his advice on future actions.
Raid Up the Potomac
One of the first actions the two men agreed on was a British raid up the Potomac. The river marked the border between Maryland and Virginia. Phillips wanted to make sure that it would not serve as a route for Lafayette to bring his Continental Army into the fight. It was also an opportunity to destroy American supplies and flex British power in the state. General Clinton had ordered Philips to do what he could to destroy any enemy stores in the state. This raid was part of that effort.
After that, Captain Graves returned to America, where he commanded several smaller ships in North America and the West Indies with little note. Graves commanded the Savage, a sloop with only 14 guns. He had sailed to Virginia along with Admiral Arbuthnot’s fleet. Although the Savage was too small to clash with the French at the battle of Cape Henry, it was just the right size for a river raid up the Potomac River.
Graves left Hampton Roads on April 3. It took the fleet four days to reach the mouth of the Potomac River. The fleet seized several small merchant ships and encountered a few British privateers in the bay.
The fleet spent a few days around St. Clements Island, stopping ships that came within site of the fleet. They then began to sail up river, encountering a group of Maryland militia on April 10 near Mathias Point. Graves landed a shore party to dispatch the militia and destroy several buildings, including a linen factory. The militia put up some fight since Graves reported one man killed and another wounded.
Following that encounter, Graves raced his fleet up the river, arriving in Alexandria the following day. While the fleet remained just offshore, the local militia turned out in force. The militia commander was John Fitzgerald, who had served for several years in the Continental Army. including a time as Washington’s aide-de-camp. After being wounded at the battle of Monmouth, Fitzgerald returned home to Alexandria, but remained active in the militia.
Although it appears that the militia did not turn out in enough numbers to prevent a British raid on the town, Graves never sent a landing party ashore. A terrible rain that afternoon and evening may have been part of the reason. It would have made it difficult to burn the town. Also, one of the British ships ran aground, and Graves probably wanted to focus on rescuing his ship.
The following day, the British fleet turned around and began sailing back downriver. Although they had managed to sail most of the distance from the Chesapeake to Alexandria in two days, they took their time sailing back down river, stopping at all the plantations along the shore.
The fleet lingered for several days just off the shore of Mount Vernon. Landing parties marched to several area plantations. Including one belonging to Henry Lyles, who lived across the river from Washington in Maryland. Graves demanded that they provide him with fresh provisions, which he would pay for. When refused, Graves landed between 100 and 200 men who burned the plantation and seized whatever they wanted.
The result was that Mount Vernon was spared destruction. A few days later, Lafayette wrote to Washington what had happened. The general immediately wrote to his cousin to scold him for dealing with the enemy. The general noted that Lund should not have cooperated with the enemy in any way, and that doing so, after so many neighbors had resisted, only made him look bad and reflected poorly on his honor.
As Washington put it “It would have been a less painful circumstance to me, to have heard, that in consequence of your non-compliance with their request, they had burnt my House, and laid the Plantation to ruins.”
After leaving Mount Vernon, the fleet landed at several other plantations down river, receiving fire several times and burning and destroying properties in response. About a week after leaving Alexandria, the fleet was back down the river and in the Chesapeake Bay. He forwarded much of his supplies and dozens of escaped slaves back to Portsmouth, while spending a few more weeks roaming the Chesapeake, plundering plantations and policing other ships in the area. By the end of May, he was back in Portsmouth and ready for his next mission.
The raid on the Potomac, however, was only a sideshow to General Phillips’ larger plan to destroy Virginia’s infrastructure and crush any local military resistance within the state. This would start with another larger raid up the James River toward Richmond. In April, Phillips took a force of about 2500 men aboard a fleet of ships, and along with General Arnold, left Portsmouth. Their first stop was Williamsburg, about 40 miles away. The defense of Williamsburg was a local militia force of about 600 men under the command of James Innes. As the British approached, Innes, whose men had been on patrol for more than two days with no food or supplies, opted to retreat. Governor Jefferson issued a call for more militia in the region to turn out and support Innes, but once again he was largely ignored.
General Arnold marched into Williamsburg virtually unopposed. The only defense came from an ambush where college students from William and Mary College fired on the British as they entered the city. After a single ineffectual volley, the students fled.
The British took Williamsburg. They also captured and destroyed a nearby navy yard. The Americans had withdrawn some of the ships from the shipyard, but also left some behind. The British seized what they could, burned what they could not use, and made sure the shipyard was inoperable.
With that, they reboarded their ships, and continued up the James River. They sailed past the still-undefended Hood’s Point. Once again, the British camped around the Byrd Plantation in Westover, about a day’s march south of Richmond. This time, the size of the British force was three times the size that Arnold had used to raid Richmond three months earlier. This was an army of occupation.
Between the 2500 strong British army and Richmond were maybe 1000 militia that General Von Steuben had managed to round up, mostly by combining with the militia commanded by General Muhlenberg who had been deployed near Portsmouth. Despite being outnumbered and having less experienced soldiers, Von Steuben and Muhlenberg decided to make a stand ad Petersburg, a town a few miles south of Richmond. The actually defenses were set up just outside of Petersburg in the village of Blandford.
The American commanders were under no illusion that they would win the battle. Their goal was to delay the British advance in hopes that reinforcements would arrive in time to defend Richmond. The militia would tie up the British army for as long as they could, then retreat across the Appomattox River.
|British battle map - Blandford|
Phillips saw no need to rush the matter. Unlike Tarleton who would wake his men at two in the morning so that they could be on top of the enemy by dawn, Phillips allowed his men a good night’s sleep. The army woke up, had breakfast, and was on the march by about 10:00 AM. Colonel Simcoe’s corps of Queen’s Rangers led the column, followed by Arnold’s American Legion and Ewald’s Hessian Jaegers. Eleven British gunboats moved up the Appomattox, carrying more men and supplies.
By 2:00, Phillips halted the column, about a mile from the enemy lines. He formed his army into a line of battle. Colonel Robert Abercrombie would lead some light infantry and Jaegers against the American left flank, hoping to capture the bridge that the Americans wanted for their retreat. Cologne Thomas Dundas would lead two regiments of regulars against the American Right flank. Phillips would hold another division of light infantry, as well as Arnold’s and Simcoe’s units in reserve in case they were needed.
Up until this time the Virginia militia had proven terrible in battle and tended to flee within minutes of encounters with the enemy. The first line of militia maintained a defensive fire for about 30 minutes, until the British brought up more soldiers and artillery. The first line then pulled back with good order, to join up with the second defensive line.
As the battle continued, Philips deployed Colonel John Graves Simcoe to ride his rangers around the American left. Abercrombie had gotten bogged down. Simcoe was to ride around the battle and secure the bridge that would cut off the American line of retreat. As Simcoe rode off, Phillips ordered two assaults on the second line, but of which came under heavy fire and had to pull back.
Once again, the British brought up more artillery, thus forcing the Virginians to retreat. The Americans still held the bridge, made an orderly retreat across the Appomattox, and pulled up the bridge planking to prevent the British from following. From the other side of the river, both sides continued an artillery duel.
As the British struggled to cross the Appomattox, the Virginia militia retreated north to Chesterfield Courthouse, just outside of Richmond. The fighting and maneuvering meant that it took the British army five days to march the twenty miles to the outskirts of Richmond.
The British reached Richmond on April 29. As the army looked across the James River at its target, it discovered a new turn of events.
Weeks earlier, General Lafayette had grown frustrated at his inability to get his army of 1200 Continentals into Virginia. He had returned to Baltimore, where his main army had camped, with the intention of marching north to rejoin Washington’s main army in New Jersey. Washington, however, had received word of Phillips’ arrival in Virginia with reinforcements. Washington sent orders to Lafayette to return to Virginia and contest the state with the British.
The ever dutiful Lafayette marched his army south, arriving in Alexandria, Virginia only a few days after the British raid under Thomas Graves had threatened the city. Lafayette lingered there for a few days. He learned about the threat to Mount Vernon, and wrote Washington about that. Soon though, he continued on, pushing his men on the one hundred mile march to Richmond.
When Phillips arrived across the river from Richmond, he found Lafayette’s Continentals entrenched in the city and awaiting his attack. Phillips still had an army twice the size of Lafayette’s, but a river crossing in the face of the enemy, and pushing them out of the city would probably be a pretty costly victory for the British.
Instead, the British burned the tobacco warehouses and other buildings that were south of Richmond, and returned to Westover without any further confrontations. Once in Westover, Phillips received word on May 7 that General Cornwallis was marching his army up from North Carolina, and that the two armies should meet in Petersburg.
Two days later, Phillips marched his army back to Petersburg to occupy the town and await the arrival of Cornwallis. He discovered, however, that Lafayette had not simply remained in Richmond. The Continentals had advanced to Petersburg and met the British with artillery fire from the heights just north of town.
It was around this time that Phillips encountered the most deadly enemy of the war. He came down with a terrible fever. Historians guess that it was either malaria or typhoid. Phillips had to take to a sickbed, and put General Arnold back in command of the army.
Over the next few days, Phillips suffered from his fever, as Lafayette’s Continental artillery continued to reign fire on the enemy. After a shell hit the house where he was trying to recover, he reportedly said “Won’t that boy let me die in peace?” Soon afterward, on May 13, Phillips succumbed to his illness and died, all the while remaining under fire from the officer whose father his own artillery had killed at the Battle of Minden decades earlier. Lafayette had avenged his father.
A few days later, Cornwallis arrived in Petersburg with his army. What had started in Virginia as a distraction, had now become the primary goal of the British southern army. General Clinton sent even more reinforcements from New York, bringing Cornwallis’ army up to over 7000. General Washington deployed more continental reinforcements under General Anthony Wayne, to join Lafayette in Virginia. The armies were gearing up for a major campaign.
But we will have to get to that in a future episode. Next week, we are headed south again as Spanish General Bernardo de Gálvez attacks the British at Pensacola.
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Next Episode 284 Pensacola (Available October 15, 2023)
Previous Episode 282 Lafayette to Virginia
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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.
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.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.