We last left General Charles Cornwallis and the British southern army in Episode 280, following their victory at Guilford Courthouse. I’ve talked about how Nathanael Greene the Continentals moved into the Carolinas, and about how the war in Virginia began to spin up, but I’ve only mentioned as an aside that Cornwallis remained in Wilmington, North Carolina. This week, I want to focus on what Cornwallis was doing.
Retreat from Guilford Courthouse
Following the battle of Guilford Courthouse, the British remained on the battlefield for a few days, mostly tending to the wounded. General Cornwallis sent a message to General Greene saying that the British were trying to attend to the enemy wounded but did not have the resources. He asked Greene to send surgeons to attend to the American wounded.
Remember that, even before the battle, Cornwallis has burned his supply wagons and marched his army all over North Carolina with almost no rations. Even his non-wounded men were exhausted and hungry.
The British also captured four American canons and about 1300 muskets. They took the cannons with them. They distributed some of the muskets to loyalist militia, but had to destroy hundreds of them. Thus just couldn't carry them. The British also took several hundred prisoners. But without the resources to feed or guard them, Cornwallis ended up releasing most of them on parole.
Cornwallis managed to collect a few wagons and sent many of the British wounded back to Wilmington. Some of the wounded had to be dragged on litters. Sixty-four men who were deemed too wounded to survive the trip were left at a nearby Quaker meetinghouse, where at least a quarter of them died over the next couple of weeks.
After several days, Cornwallis began marching his army east. They first headed to Cross Creek, where they were told that they could find loyalists and supplies. It was there that Cornwallis issued his proclamation that declared victory in North Carolina and granted amnesty to almost anyone who would surrender themselves within the next month.
The people, however, realized that despite the battlefield victory at Guilford Courthouse, the British were retreating. Even those inclined to support the loyalist cause were not inclined to join the army at this time. They had seen too many times loyalists joining the British, only to have the army move on to another colony. At that point the loyalists and their families became targets for patriot wrath. Any hopes to find recruits and food from the loyalist Scots at Cross Creek proved very disappointing.
Instead of being able to rest and recuperate there, the army had to continue its march to Wilmington, scouring the region as they marched to find any food for the hungry soldiers. Despite leaving behind some of the worst wounded, dozens more wounded died on the journey back to Wilmington, leaving a trail of British graves along the way. Among those who died was Colonel James Webster, who had been wounded at Guilford Courthouse.
On April 7, about three weeks after the battle, the British army stumbled into Wilmington where it hoped to rest and recuperate. Cornwallis spent the next few months trying to get commendations or promotions for officers who had performed well and trying to agree to a prisoner exchange with General Greene.
|Cornwallis Headquarters in Wilmington|
Cornwallis was inclined to move north. He did not think he could move his army fast enough to help Rawdon. Either Rawdon would be successful without him, or would not. If not, his army of less than 1500 men would likely have to retreat to Charleston and sit there doing nothing, unless he could receive reinforcements. That seemed highly unlikely. He did, however, see an opportunity to retake Virginia. He wrote to General Clinton, seeking permission to march north.
Before Clinton could reply, Cornwallis left Wilmington on April 25, marching his army of about 1500 men north toward Virginia. He had been in Wilmington for less than three weeks. It took about two weeks to get to the Virginia border, nearly 200 miles from Wilmington. There, he heard news of Rawdon’s victory at Hobkirk Hill. Confident that the southern army was secure, he crossed into Virginia the following day, May 13.
About a week before, Cornwallis had written General William Phillips to tell him that he planned to join their armies at Petersburg, Virginia. The army made its slow march the 70 miles to Petersburg. When Cornwallis arrived on May 20, he found General Benedict Arnold in command. Phillips had died of a fever five days earlier.
By joining the two armies, Cornwallis had a combined force of about 7000 soldiers. Cornwallis believed that he could go on the offensive and take the entire state of Virginia. But General Clinton’s orders to General Phillips had been to use the army in Virginia to protect the base at Portsmouth and only engage in short raids into the interior. Cornwallis felt obliged to wait for additional orders from Clinton before committing to any new major offensive.
With General Arnold’s agreement, Cornwallis wanted to move the base at Portsmouth across the James River to Yorktown. The new location was seen as more defensible and gave better access to food. they didn't actually make the move at this point, but this is what they were considering at the time. Cornwallis would also attempt to take Richmond and push out the smaller Continental Army there under General Lafayette.
|Byrd Plantation at Westover|
Cornwallis moved the bulk of his army back to the Byrd Plantation at Westover, just south of Richmond. The Virginia legislators had already abandoned the town, and agreed to meet further to the west in Charlottesville.
In the end, taking Richmond proved to be a non-event. Hopelessly outnumbered, Lafayette withdrew his Continental Army of 1000 men out of Richmond before the British arrived. Lafayette was still awaiting the arrival of 800 Continental reinforcements under the Command of General Anthony Wayne. Even if those reinforcements arrived, the British army opposing them would be four times their size. Lafayette took a page from General Greene’s strategy. He would not take on the entire army in a conclusive battle. Instead, he would stay close and use raids to harass the enemy but focus on keeping his smaller army intact.
The British under Cornwallis continued to pursue Lafayette, ignoring the capital and hoping to capture the Continentals. Cornwallis hoped to make Lafayette, who he just called “the boy” in letters, a British prisoner and send him in chains back to New York. If Cornwallis could capture or destroy the small Continental force under Lafayette, Virginia would be defenseless.
The Virginia militia, as I’ve said in earlier episodes, had proven nearly useless. General von Steuben had collected about a thousand militia, which he had managed to use to slow the British under General Phillips back in May. But aside from that, the bulk of the militia refused to turn out at all.
Throughout the state, local communities were engaged in draft riots, refusing to serve in the Continental Army. The main reason Steuben had been in Virginia was to oversee the raising of these new recruits, which they had hoped to deploy south to General Greene during the fighting in the Carolinas.
Local resistance to service in the Continental Army seemed to carry over into militia duty. While many of the draft protesters said they would serve in the militia, but not as Continentals, when it came time to turn out for militia duty, they seemed quite reluctant. Once reason for reluctance was a concern that militiamen would be compelled to join the Continentals. Virginians in the west, who had felt the eastern part of the state had never supported them when they were under attack by Indian tribes, seemed to have no desire to support the eastern regions now that the British Army was occupying their land.
The few militia that did turn out for duty often had no guns or ammunition. They also demanded to return home promptly after 90 days, regardless of any immediate threat.
Point of Fork Raid
By the beginning of June, Steuben had only about 500 or 600 men under his command. Virginia had received a quota from Congress to provide more than 3000 Continental recruits, but this was all that Steuben had been able to raise after months of effort.
Many were not armed, had no uniforms or shoes, and were in no condition to fight. Steuben goal was still to march his army into the Carolinas, despite the British marching through Virginia. Steuben hoped that by marching to join Greene in the Carolinas, he could get at least part of the British army to follow him out of Virginia.
|Baron von Steuben|
Before he could march anywhere Steuben needed to equip his men. He marched for the Point of Fork Arsenal, which was along the James River where it merges with the Rivanna River, about 40 miles northwest of Richmond. Steuben had hoped to supply his small army from the arsenal, and also to protect its desperately needed supplies from the enemy.
At the same time, General Cornwallis, also aware of the supply depot at Port of Fork, had deployed a loyalist force under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe to destroy the supplies.
Simcoe had deployed to Virginia from New York under General Arnold. Although Simcoe was a regular, he commanded a regiment of loyalists known as the Queen’s Rangers, made up primarily of New Yorkers. By this time, the regiment had dwindled to about 100 men. To supplement the rangers, Cornwallis also gave Simcoe the 71st infantry, about 300 regulars.
On June 3, Steuben learned from local militia cavalrymen that the enemy was approaching. He sent out scouts to get more details and deployed a force of 30 soldiers to slow any advance on his position. But the Queen’s Rangers managed to capture or kill any scouts, as well as the advance force, resulting in Steuben having no good intelligence on the enemy.
By June 5, Steuben saw the enemy setting up camp across the river from him. Steuben’s force of Continentals actually outnumbered the enemy. But Simcoe deployed most of his forces along the river, while setting up some tents and campfires in the woods behind his army. This gave the impression that Simcoe’s force was only an advance guard ahead of the entire British army under Cornwallis.
Believing that to be the case, Steuben used rafts and canoes to move his army across the river behind his army to escape the British. The following morning, the British crossed into the Point of Fork Arsenal to find it abandoned.
Because it was abandoned in haste, the Continentals had left behind most of the guns and supplies held there, which fell into the enemy’s hands.
Steuben marched his army to the south, still following his plant to join up with Greene’s army in the Carolinas. But he then got word from Greene that he should remain in Virginia and assist Lafayette in the defense of the state. So Steuben's Continentals turned around and returned to the fighting in Virginia.
About the same time that Cornwallis deployed Simcoe to take Port of Fork, he also deployed Colonel Banastre Tarleton to raid Charlottesville. Tarleton, of course, had served under Cornwallis in the Carolinas, proving himself to be an aggressive leader who often defeated the enemy through surprise. Tarleton’s speed and aggression, however, cost him at Cowpens, where he lost most of his legion. Following Cowpens, Tarleton rebuilt his legion and led Cornwallis’ column on the march from Wilmington into Virginia.
Many British officers and men, however, were reluctant to serve under Tarleton following his loss at Cowpens. They believed that the colonel’s recklessness had led to the loss of his men, and did not want to become cannon fodder for Tarleton’s next reckless raid. The 71st Regiment which had marched with Simcoe had originally been assigned to Tarleton. Cornwallis moved the regiment to Simcoe’s command after receiving protests from the regiment about serving under Tarleton.
Tarleton took a force of 180 dragoons and another 70 mounted infantry on a hard ride toward Charlottesville. His goal was to capture as many legislators there as possible, along with Governor Jefferson.
As he got close to the town, Tarleton stopped at several plantations, looking for state officials who might be staying there. After a brief stop at the Cuckoo Tavern on the evening of June 3, Tarleton and his men launched a dawn raid on Castle Hill, a plantation owned by Thomas Walker. There, the dragoons captured several legislators who had been staying there.
According to local history, the family delayed Tarleton by offering him a meal of fried chicken. They hoped it would buy time for others in Charlottesville to make their escape.
One of those present at the Cuckoo Tavern the night before was a young man named Jack Jouett. The patriot realized that Tarleton was likely headed to Monticello. Jouett rode all night using side paths to avoid British patrols, reaching Monticello at around 4:30 AM the following morning.
Receiving the warning, Jefferson seemed in no rush to leave. He ordered a carriage to get ready but then sat down to breakfast. Several legislators were staying with him. Jefferson recommended that they leave so they headed into Charlottesville. Jefferson put his wife and daughters into a carriage that would carry them to a neighbor’s plantation about 14 miles away.
Jefferson then remained at Monticello, trying to determine the warning was true and if the British really were on their way to capture him. He rode over to a taller hill known as Montalto to see if he could get a view of the British approach. He scanned the region with his telescope, saw nothing and started to return to Monticello. However, he discovered he had dropped his sword and returned to Montalto to retrieve it. This time, he noticed a British column in the distance.
Even so, believing he had time, Jefferson returned to Monticello. Jouett had ridden on to Charlottesville to warn the legislature. They immediately passed a resolution to leave and to regroup at Staunton, then everyone made their escape.
When Tarleton’s dragoons rode into town later that day, they managed to capture a handful of legislators who had lingered after Jouett’s warning. Tarleton also hoped to liberate a POW camp at Charlottesville that contained thousands for prisoners, many still held from the surrender at Saratoga. The Americans, however, had removed the prisoners some time earlier. Tarleton only recovered about twenty prisoners who had been hiding in the nearby woods for several weeks.
One of the legislators captured was Daniel Boone. Because he was dressed in frontier garb, he tried to pass himself as just some guy passing through town. But when Jouett called him “Captain Boone” by mistake, the soldiers grabbed him, thinking he might be an officer. Boone spent the night in custody, but managed to convince his captors that his title was simply an honorific from fighting in earlier Indian wars. They ended up letting him go.
Meanwhile back at Monticello, another militia officer named Christopher Hudson, unaware that Jefferson had already been warned, stopped by to make sure the governor was gone. He found Jefferson still home, sorting through papers. Hudson had spied some of Tarleton’s dragoons riding up the hill toward the main house. Hudson convinced Jefferson that they needed to leave, now! The men rode into the woods, avoiding British patrols and eventually catching up with the carriage carrying Jefferson’s family to safety.
Within five minutes of their departure, the British rode up to the mansion. They managed to capture several slaves, including Martin Hemings, who had been hiding the family silver. An officer put a gun to Hemings’ head and said he would shoot unless the man told him where Jefferson was. Hemings said to go ahead and shoot, at which point the officer gave up.
The soldiers remained in the house for about 18 hours, drinking a fair amount of Jefferson’s wine. But they did not burn Monticello, which seems surprising given Tarleton’s reputation. Some say it was out of appreciation for the good treatment of prisoners who had been held in the area.
The soldiers did destroy over a thousand muskets and other military supplies held at Charlottesville. They also burned tobacco and several out-buildings on the plantation.
The British who had been on the march and hungry for so long, enjoyed the region’s bounty. They ate and drank well, and seized many horses that local owners had refused to give to the Continental Army. They also took on many slaves, some of whom were used as laborers. Some became personal servants for officers. Most ended up dying from disease in the following months.
Cornwallis set up headquarters at another of Jefferson’s Plantations: Elk Hill, about twenty miles southeast of Monticello.
The British, however, did not remain. Cornwallis’ primary target had been the Continental Army under Lafayette. When Lafayette refused to stand and fight, Cornwallis was not inclined to repeat his dance with Nathanael Greene, where he just chased the enemy all over the state, exhausting his men.
The General did pass through Richmond, where he burned some more government buildings, and also the nearby tobacco warehouses that Arnold had spared.
Cornwallis planned to wipe out the many supply depots and food sources in Virginia, planning a series of new raids throughout the state. Then he received his orders from General Clinton. It seems that General Clinton had never wanted Cornwallis to go to Virginia in the first place. He wanted him to secure the Carolinas. But with Cornwallis now in Virginia, there was not much Clinton could do. He did, however, order Cornwallis to confine his mission to securing a position on the coast, and not to continue trying to capture all of Virginia.
Clinton also ordered that Cornwallis send about half of his army back to New York. Clinton had intelligence that General Washington and Rochambeau were planning an attack on New York City. Clinton needed all of the forces he could muster to defend against that attack. With that, the British offensive in Virginia came to an end.
Next week: Although the British begin to pull back, the Americans continue the fight in Virginia at the battle of Green Spring.
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Next Episode 289 Green Spring (Available November 19, 2023)
Previous Episode 287 Fort Ninety-Six
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(from archive.org unless noted)
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.
A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America, by Banastre Tarleton, London: T. Cadell 1787. https://archive.org/details/historyofcampaig00tarl
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Cecere, Michael The Invasion of Virginia, 1781, Westholme Publishing, 2017.
Kranish, Michael Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War, Oxford Univ. Press, 2010.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.