Revolutionary War in Virginia

Virginia, with great generosity, had sent her best troops to assist the Carolinians in their attempts to throw off the yoke of the oppressor. To prevent this movement, or to call back the Virginians to the defence of their State and so aid Cornwallis in his subjugation of the Carolinas, Arnold the traitor was sent with a marauding party of British and Tories, about sixteen hundred in number, with some armed vessels, to plunder, distress, and alarm the people of that State. In no other way could Arnold be employed by his master, for respectable British officers refused to serve with him in the army. The traitor appeared in Hampton Roads, with his motley host, at the close of December, and, ascending the James River in armed vessels and transports, he landed, with about a thousand men, at Westover, on the 2nd of January, 1781. The Baron de Steuben had been left in Virginia by Greene, as we have observed, to gather up and discipline the levies voted by that State for the Southern army; and on the appearance of this new danger, the militia flocked to his standard. Believing Petersburg to be Arnold's chief object, the Baron kept his small force on the southern side of the James River; but Arnold pushed on toward Richmond from Westover, to plunder the tobacco warehouses there. He offered to spare the town if his vessels might be permitted to carry away his plunder unmolested. The proposition was rejected with scorn by Governor Jefferson, when the invader applied the torch and laid the village and stores, public and private, in ashes. Then he withdrew to Westover, and re-embarked for a marauding raid down the river. He was pursued by Steuben and General Nelson, with Virginia militia; and having been warned by Admiral Arbuthnot, that French vessels from Rhode Island were on their way to the Chesapeake, Arnold fled up the Elizabeth River and made his headquarters at Portsmouth, opposite Norfolk.

Great efforts were made by the Americans to capture and punish Arnold. Jefferson offered five thousand guineas for his arrest, and Washington detached Lafayette, with twelve hundred troops drawn from the New England and the New Jersey levies, to march to Virginia to assist in protecting that State and catching the traitor. For the same purpose some French war-vessels were sent to the Chesapeake from Rhode Island in March, but as they could not go up the Elizabeth River, they soon returned to Newport.

Late in March, General Phillips, who had been sent from New York to Virginia with two thousand picked men, joined Arnold, and took the chief command. They went up the James River to plunder and ravage, and to attempt the subjugation of the State. They carried away or destroyed a vast amount of stores, and they also plundered the plantations of slaves and sent them to the West Indies to be sold. This formidable invasion caused widespread alarm. Lafayette was on his way, and Wayne was preparing to follow with Pennsylvanians. By a forced march of two hundred miles, the marquis reached Richmond at the close of April, twelve hours before Phillips and Arnold appeared on the opposite side of the river. He had just been joined by militia under Steuben, and they held the invaders in check. Two weeks later Phillips died at Petersburg of a malignant fever, when the command developed upon Arnold a few days, until the arrival of Cornwallis, who, abandoning North Carolina, had marched into Virginia, hoping by that movement to draw Greene away from Lord Rawdon, then encamped at Camden. The earl so heartily despised Arnold that he could not endure him in his camp, and he sent him to New York. During the few days that the latter was in command he wrote an official letter to Lafayette, who returned it unopened, for he would have no communication with a traitor. One day Arnold found an intelligent young man among his prisoners, and questioned him respecting the feelings of his countrymen. "If the Americans should catch me, what would they do with me?" he asked. The prisoner promptly replied: "They would bury, with military honors, your leg wounded at Quebec and Saratoga, and hang the rest of you."

Cornwallis determined to make the Virginians feel his power. He seized all the fine horses he could find along the James River, with which he mounted almost six hundred cavalry, whom he sent after Lafayette, then not far distant from Richmond, with three thousand troops, waiting for Wayne and his Pennsylvanians. The vigilant marquis fell slowly back, keeping north of the earl. He crossed the South and North Anna rivers, and at Raccoon's Ford, on the Rapid Anna River, he met Wayne with eight hundred men. Cornwallis had pursued him as far as Hanover court-House, from which place the earl sent Lieutenant-Colonel Simcoe, with his Queen's Rangers, to capture or destroy stores in charge of Steuben at the Point of Forks, at the junction of the Rivanna and Fluvanna rivers. Steuben, warned of his approach, had taken most of his stores beyond the Fluvanna, which Simcoe's horses could not ford. Tarleton had been detached at the same time with orders to capture Governor Jefferson and the members of the Virginia legislature at Charlottesville, whither they had fled from Richmond. Only seven of the law-makers were captured. Jefferson narrowly escaped by fleeing from his house on horseback, accompanied by a single servant, and hiding himself in the mountains. He had left his dwelling only ten minutes before one of Tarleton's officers entered it.

Cornwallis was now at Jefferson's Elk Hill plantation, near the Point of Forks, where he committed the most wanton destruction of property, cutting the throats of young horses not fit for service, slaughtering the cattle, burning the barns with the crops of the previous year, and destroying the growing ones, laying all the fences on the estate in ashes, and carrying away about thirty slaves. The agile Lafayette had now turned upon the earl. The latter supposing the forces of the marquis to be much greater than they really were, turned his face toward the sea-coast and retreated down the peninsula to Williamsburg, making his pathway a black line of desolation. It is estimated that during this invasion of Virginia, from the advent of Arnold in January, until Cornwallis reached, Williamsburg late in June, property to the value of fifteen million dollars was destroyed, and thirty thousand slaves were carried off. The British had been closely followed by Lafayette, Wayne and Steuben, and were allowed to rest at Williamsburg. They were there reinforced, and were protected by shipping.

A few days after reaching Williamsburg, Cornwallis received an order from Sir Henry Clinton to send three thousand of his troops to New York, then menaced by the combined American and French forces. Clinton also directed the earl to take a defensive position in Virginia at some healthy location, and fortify it. This order greatly irritated the earl, for he regarded it as an intentional frustration of his own plan for an active campaign in Virginia. He aspired to Clinton's place, and was a favorite of Germain. Clinton knew that, and for a long time the two commanders had been excessively jealous of each other.

Cornwallis, satisfied that after he should send away so large a detachment of his army he could not cope with Lafayette, determined to cross the James River and make his way to Portsmouth. This movement was accelerated by the bold attitude of the republican troops, who were pressing close upon him. On the 6th of July, a detachment sent out by Wayne to capture a British field-piece, boldly resisted a large portion of Cornwallis's army, as the former fell back to Lafayette's main force near the Green Spring plantation, the estate of Governor Berkeley, where a sharp skirmish occurred, in which the marquis had a horse shot under him, and each party lost about a hundred men. The blow was so severe that Cornwallis hastened to cross the river, which he did on the 9th of July, and marched without further molestation to Portsmouth. Disliking that situation, he went to Yorktown, on the York River, and there, upon a high and healthful plain, he established a fortified camp. he also threw up strong military work at Gloucester, on the opposite side of the river. Here we will leave the earl, while we take a brief survey of military events in the Carolinas.

Return to Our Country, Vol II