The Revolution in Virginia, 1775-1783

These passages are quoted from:

Chapter 11: "British Strategy Shifts Southward"

The British soon gave Virginians a foretaste of their plans for the South when Major General Alexander Leslie at the head of an invasion force of over 2,200 men sailed into the Chesapeake Bay on October 20, 1780. A small fleet commanded by Commodore George Gayton consisting of three naval ships, the Romulus of 44 guns, the Blonde of 32, and the Delight of 16, along with one of the Goodriches' privateers and several smaller craft, escorted Leslie. James Parker, Hector McAlestor, and other tories from the Norfolk area were on board. The British divided their force, landing the next day at Portsmouth and two days later at Newport News and Hampton. Cavalry swept out to take Kemp's Landing and Great Bridge to the southeast of Portsmouth and moved northwest of Newport News about halfway to Williamsburg.

According to Leslie's instructions from the British commander in chief, General Clinton, the excursion was to provide "a diversion in favor of Lt. Gen. Earl Cornwallis." The latter had been beseeching Clinton to assist in his invasion of the Carolinas by distracting American defenders to the north. The best way, Clinton concluded, was for Leslie to establish a post at Portsmouth from which he could raid the major American supply depots at Richmond and Petersburg. Any effort of the rebels to rebuild their army in the South would depend upon men and materials flowing through those towns. It might even be possible for Leslie to push as far inland as Taylor's Ferry on the Roanoke River, via which reinforcements and stores crossed to Gates in North Carolina and from which Leslie would be in position to join forces with Cornwallis.

The tactic fell far short of the brilliant success of the Collier-Mathew expedition in 1779. Ordered to support Cornwallis, Leslie was uncertain what the earl wanted him to do, or even where Cornwallis was at the moment, as so moved cautiously while a packet boat sped to Charleston to find out. A report that the Virginians had fortified narrow stretches of the James River upstream and had raised a "formidable militia" to defend them apparently duped the British for a while. Leslie also could not find pilots to help navigate the James River, and the general unfriendliness of the local populace whom he had expected to be more tory in their sympathies put him off. Suffice it to say, the British commander found ample excuse not to move with the alacrity that had characterized the earlier invasion.

The Virginians had been expecting the attack because of early warnings from Washington's headquarters about British preparations in New York harbor. Jefferson had instructed William Eaton, the state commissary, to seize any supplies that might be of use to the enemy in the counties adjacent to Portsmouth. Aware of the strategic importance of Portsmouth, Gates had sent his chief engineer, John Christian Senf, a professional soldier from Scandinavia and a colonel in the South Carolina line, to coordinate the town's defense. Senf helped guide the American response when the British attacked.

As soon as Leslie's forces landed, Jefferson issued a call for 10,000 militia, but reduced the number to 6,000 once the authorities ascertained the enemy's strength. Working from a carefully prepared plan, Jefferson strove to orchestrate the state's reaction precisely so as to divert as little as possible from Virginia's support for the southern army. He summoned troops to defend Portsmouth from counties closest to the town and left men available in counties nearer to North Carolina should Gates need them. Because the British had numerous cavalry, the governor delayed the departure to the south of Col. Robert Lawson's 500 volunteer horsemen and prevailed upon Congress to assign Lighthorse Harry Lee's Continental troop to Virginia. Lee did not arrive until December, however. The militia gathered in two divisions, one at Pagan Creek near Smithfield under Generals John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg and George Weedon, and the other on the lower peninsula under Thomas Nelson.

The recent reduction of the Continental lines, which left many officers without assignment in Virginia, for once provided the militia with experienced leaders. On the other hand, militiamen were not used to the regulars' discipline. Edmund Pendleton said that Caroline County men would be reluctant to serve again because of "forced Marches and too Strict Attention to Order, not being allowed to break their Ranks, tho' to avoid Deep Ponds of water or to drink." Otherwise, observers were generally pleased with the way the militia turned out, except that the dearth of arms could have been crippling had fighting taken place. One company commander from Brunswick County wrote politely to the governor to report that he had only fifteen weapons for 225 men and asked, "should Be glad you would please to inform me in what manner We are to Be accuterd as I do not think it prudent to March any lower [downriver toward Portsmouth] with out arms."

For the sake of defense, Jefferson also had to end one of the most pleasant chapters of the war for him. The Convention Army composed of the British and German prisoners captured at Saratoga had been camped near Charlottesville since early 1779. From Saratoga the 5,000-odd captives had been marched to camp just north of Boston where they remained until November 1778. Then, when the arrival of Admiral d'Estaing's fleet strained the local economy, the prisoners were sent 700 miles through severe winter weather to Virginia, where they arrived early the next year.

The main body of the captives, who after exchanges and escapes numbered about 2,800, lived in barracks at Ivy Creek northwest of Charlottesville. Initially Continental troops under Col. Theodorick Bland and later state cavalry under Col. James Wood guarded them. The assignment was good duty, because to obscure the state's economic plight, standing orders called for both captives and guards to be "very liberally and sumptuously supplied." In addition, the prisoners supplemented their diet by planting crops and raising stock. A steady supply of specie from Europe which the men spent for extras benefited the local economy. At least one ship arrived under a flag of truce with new clothes, wine, and other amenities.

The Virginia government allowed officers of the Convention Army on parole to rent private quarters throughout the Charlottesville area. The British commander, Maj. Gen. William Phillips, established himself at Blenheim, Edward Carter's plantation, and the German leader, Friedrich Adolph von Riedesel, Baron of Eisenbach, accompanied by the baroness and their three daughters, occupied Colle, the home of Jefferson's Italian friend, Philip Mazzei, who had returned to Europe that summer on state business. Both commanders had been quickly assimilated into planter society. They dined with the Jeffersons, and during the summer Phillips ventured an amateur theatrical production, the traditional entertainment of a plantation weekend.

At time Jefferson became rhapsodic over the captives. When critics alleged that the state could not afford the prisoners, he retorted indignantly that the captives helped the economy. Furthermore, "the environs of the barracks are delightful. The ground cleared, laid off into hundreds of gardens each inclosed in its separate paling, these well prepared, and exhibiting a fine appearance. General Riedezel [s/z switch in this name is in Selby's text] alone paid out upwards of £ 200 in garden seeds for the German troops only ....Their poulty, pigeons, and other preparations of that kind present to the mind an idea of a company of farmers rather than of a camp of soldiers. The governor granted the officers passes for vacations at mineral springs farther west and to pick up supplies in Richmond and Hampton, apparently unmindful of warnings from fellow Virginians about letting the enemy wander around the state gathering intelligence wherever they could. For Jefferson the experience illustrated how gentlemen ought to wage war. Then, at Cornwallis's approach, the philosopher awoke from his reverie.

Besides the danger from the advancing British, tory conspiracies unearthed in the southwest of the state with disturbing frequency posed another threat that might liberate the Convention Army. At the time the history of the southwestern frontier belonged as much to that of North Carolina as of Virginia. The French and Indian War had prevented significant settlement until the mid-1760s, when a rapid influx occurred into the upper New River Valley near modern Blacksburg, where Col. William Preston led the whigs, and the upper Holston River Valley near modern Abingdon, where Colonels Arthur and William Campbell held sway. Throughout the war, reports, especially from Montgomery County where Preston lived, raised the possibility that half or more of the population might be supporters of the king.

The loyalists took encouragement from the extent of royalist sentiment in North Carolina, where it centered among Highland Scots who had fled the grinding poverty of their homeland in increasing numbers after the Seven Years' War. Through the mid-1770s several hundred landed at Wilmington each year and spread inland to the west-central portion of the colony along the Cape Fear and Yadkin river valleys. Scottish names appear on both sides of the struggle, and from the records it is impossible to distinguish one group from another. According to local lore, older settlers were whigs while more recent, less well assimilated arrivals, some of them refugees from New York and other colonies, tended to be tory. By 1778 marauding tory bands appeared in nearby southwestern Virginia, and the next year Carolina loyalists from the Yadkin River Valley joined sympathizers on the New and Holston rivers in an attempt to seize Chiswell Mines and capture Preston. Not entirely trusting the county court or militia in his own area, Preston called for aid from the Campbells, who had already hanged a number of tories in Washington County, and together they fended off the threat.

In the spring of 1780 advance agents for Cornwallis recruited throughout the region but gave strict instructions for tories not to rise until the British arrived. Disregarding the advice, a number of exuberant loyalists gathered at Ramsour's Mill, North Carolina, where they suffered a devastating defeat in June. "This I trust will put an end to Toryism in this Country," Arthur Campbell predicted. Still, a tory band threatened Chiswell Mines throughout the summer, and the Campbells had to come to the rescue once more. The threat in the Southwest was not resolved until the battle of King's Mountain, where numbers from the Virginia - North Carolina border fought on both sides.

The unrest spread throughout Montgomery, Botetourt, Bedford, Washington, Pittsylvania, and Henry counties, and perhaps, Jefferson feared, as far east as Culpeper. Since convictions were difficult to obtain under the law on treason, to meet the threat the legislature in the spring of 1780 defined a variety of acts as lesser crimes, including to "wish health, prosperity, or success to the king of Great Britain," and authorities initiated prosecutions. Local patriots had more direct ways of dealing with suspects, and "to lynch," immortalizing Charles Lynch, the whig commander at Chiswell Mines, came into the language. Among lesser offenders, Preston reported, "some have been whipped and others, against whom little can be made appear, have enlisted to serve in the Continental Army. .... Some of the Capital offenders have disappeared whose personal Property ... the Soldiers ... insist on being sold and divided as Plunder to which the Officers have submitted, otherwise it would be almost impossible to get men on these pressing Occasions." Tory prisoners taken at King's Mountain, whom Gates sent to be imprisoned in Montgomery County under the mistaken impression that it was solidly whig territory, complicated the problem. Jefferson objected strenuously to Gates's order and said that he was going to keep the prisoners moving northward until Congress decided what else to do with them.

Within a week of Leslie's invasion Jefferson ordered James Wood to move the Convention troops to Fort Frederick in Maryland, warning him to be careful lest the British land a detachment at Alexandria to intercept him. Other problems developed. Jefferson learned that Frederick did not have enough barracks and that Wood had too few troops to escort all of the Convention Army at once. The governor scaled down his order to include only the 800 British among the prisoners; the Germans, numbering 1,500, he thought were less likely to join Cornwallis. In fact, the governor told Wood that he could let the Germans living around the countryside stay where they were rather than recall them to camp. Gov. Thomas Sims Lee of Maryland announced that his state could only afford to support a part of the prisoners, so Congress ordered Virginia to supply half their provisions. Jefferson responded that he considered Virginia "now acquitted as to them." Finally, on November 20, Wood had the British contingent on the road, and they arrived in Maryland early in December.

About a week after his initial landing, Leslie withdrew his troops from the Newport News-Hampton side of the James River and fanned out to take Suffolk on the southwest. Holding control of vital creeks and swamp passes, the British were in a strong position. All signs indicated that they planned to stay awhile. Loyalists who had come back with them from New York resettled in their former homes, and as if preparing for land operations, the British impressed as many horses and wagons as they could find. Then the packet ship returned from Charleston with orders that completely reversed the British plans. Because of the American victory at King's Mountain, Cornwallis told Leslie to forget the idea of a joint invasion of North Carolina for the moment and move directly to Charleston.

The British precipitantly abandoned Portsmouth during the night of November 15-16. Debating whether to attempt one last raid up the James River, Leslie hovered around its mouth for another week before finally putting out to sea on the evening of the 22nd. Hoping to use the fortifications that he had begun around the city later, he did not destroy them and left undamaged several vessels the Virginians found on the shipyard stocks. Leslie's departure left several hundred blacks who had fled to the British lines stranded because there was no room for them in the fleet.

Consistent with his precision planning, Jefferson immediately began to dismantle the defense he had erected and move as many men as were well enough equipped to North Carolina. Despite the dark clouds over the southern front and possibly insurmountable obstacles to rebuilding the southern army, the mood of the Virginia administration reflected a feeling of quiet satisfaction. The state's record of response to alarms over the past year had been good and seemed to be improving. As in the case of Collier, Virginians believed Leslie retreated because of the defenses he encountered rather than the British army's changing strategy.

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