Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Steuben, [11 February 1781]

From Steuben

[11 February 1781]


Immediately after my arrival in this State Colo. Senf represented to me the necessity of establishing a Battery at Hoods and some other trifling works in the vicinity of James River. His opinion appearing to me to be well grounded, I did not hesitate a moment to submit it to your Excellency. I am informed you laid it before the Assembly but that it was not taken into consideration.

The last Invasion and a more perfect knowledge of the ground convinced me still further of the necessity1 of erecting a Battery at the above place covered by a Redoubt with a Block house the whole to contain about 60 Men and to cost about 12 or 1500 Dollars Specie. I accordingly laid before your Excellency and the Council a plan of the Work proposed with an Estimation of the expence and the Articles necessary to finish it in Six Weeks and I was happy in finding it approved. The most important Article required was 40 Negroes and 10 Artificers and If I understood your Excellency these were to be furnished by the five nearest Counties and to be at the Spot the 7 Inst. I therefore orderd Colo. Senf to Hoods on that Day to receive the Workmen and tools and to begin the Work.

At my Return from Cabbin point I was much surprized at Colo. Senfs informing me that he had not been furnished with any workmen and that Government had declared they had it not in their power to furnish any and in consequence I orderd him to Return to Richmond.

Three weeks are now Elapsed Since the Enemy went down the River. In this time the Work could have been half finished. If Government think the Work unnecessary [or if] they have it not in their [power?]2 I have only to beg they would for my own Justification give me their Opinion in writing. I must beg your Excellency to consider that the shamefull opposition made to the last incursion of the Enemy falls in some measure on me as the Commanding Officer in the state and I cannot but reckon it among my misfortunes to have been here at the time. My wish is to prevent a Repetition of the Disgrace but as I can do nothing without the Assistance of the Government, I must beg your Excellency to give me Answer to this that I may have it in my power to Justify my own Conduct.

Dft (NHi); endorsed: “Copy to Gov Jefferson 11 Feby 81.” Original is faded and in places only semi-legible.

Steuben’s indignant letter on Virginia’s failure to fortify Hoods on the James has been cited more than once as an indictment of TJ’s competence as governor. For the history of the affair see TJ to Speaker Harrison, 30 Nov., transmitting Senf’s earliest and now missing plan for the fortification; Steuben to TJ, 15 Dec. 1780, inquiring what action had been taken by the Assembly; Senf to TJ, 29 Jan., submitting a revised plan; TJ’s answer to the present letter, 12 Feb.; TJ to Granville Smith, same date; Archibald Cary to TJ, 13 Feb.; TJ to Turner Southall and others, 15 Feb.; TJ to John Allen, 16 Feb.; John Allen to TJ, 12 Mch. 1781.

One of the reasons, undoubtedly, that Steuben felt angry over the failure to fortify Hood’s promptly was the fact that he had already told Washington that it would be done promptly. On 1 Feb. he wrote as follows: “The governor has called the Assembly who are to meet the 1st of March and I propose endeavoring to get some better Arrangements made with their Militia, tho’ from the very dispersed situation of the Inhabitants and their [being] almost wholly disarmed, this Country will always be more defenceless than any of the Northern states. I have proposed to have a Battery with a redoubt and blockhouse built at Hoods for the defence of the River. The Governor and Council have agreed to the proposal and it will be begun in a few days” (Steuben had first written “a short time” and then struck it out; Steuben to Washington, 1 Feb., NHi). A few weeks later Steuben again committed himself in advance by writing to Washington that everything was in readiness for Lafayette’s expedition. This of course was very far from being the case and in proportion as TJ’s efforts failed to meet the conditions already described by Steuben as accomplishments, his anger mounted.

1In a corresponding, but deleted, passage in Dft, Steuben employed the expression “absolute necessity.”

2Portion of text missing at foot of page; it may be that more than one word is missing.

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