Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to the County Lieutenants of Montgomery and Certain Other Counties, 29 March 1781

To the County Lieutenants of Montgomery and Certain Other Counties

In Council March 29th. 1781


The Militia from this State with General Greene being entitled very shortly to a Discharge and it being absolutely necessary to support him to prevent the Danger of Lord Cornwallis’s turning on him again until the New Levies can be got into the field, you will be pleased to send immediately 1 of the Militia of your County under proper Officers to join General Greene, arming as many as possible with rifles and the rest with the best Arms that can be got for them by impressing or otherwise. I am with great respect Sir Your most obedt Servt,

Th: Jefferson

FC (Vi); at head of text: “To the County Lieutenants of Montgomery, Washington, Botetourt, Rockbridge, Henry, Pittsylvania, Bedford, Buckingham, Prince Edward, Charlotte & Halifax.” RC (Vi); in a clerk’s hand, signed by TJ; addressed: “The Commanding Officer of Militia of Montgomery County”; endorsed.

On 27 Mch. Richard Henry Lee and George Weedon wrote letters to TJ, qq.v., supporting Steuben’s plan to send a body of militia to Gen. Greene. The Council considered the plan on 29 Mch. and the following is their decision: “The Board taking under their most serious consideration the proposition of Major General Baron Steuben for sending immediately into North Carolina a Detachment of two thousand of the Militia now embodied on the south side of James river for the defence of this State against the enemy at Portsmouth are of Opinion that (altho the proposition seems to them to be founded upon very probable principles, yet the number of arms that such Detachment would necessarily carry with them bearing a very great proportion to what will afterwards remain in the State, it will be a measure unjustifiable in the present circumstances of Affairs the enemy having lately received a great reinforcement: that altho the Militia at present in service may be unable to resist the whole force of the enemy in any quarter yet being strangers to their certain Intentions the Militia may be able to repel the incursions of Detachments which might be otherwise rendered absolutely impracticable for the want of arms. The board are further of Opinion that all that can be done in the present exigency is to reinforce General Greene as speedily as possible with the fourth of the Militia from the Counties of … [as listed above] as there is reason to hope that such Militia may be able to furnish in great measure their own arms” (Va. Council Jour. description begins Journals of the Council of the State of Virginia, ed. H. R. McIlwaine description ends , ii, 322). This decision was a bitter blow to Steuben, who was present at the Council meeting armed with the letter of R. H. Lee and presumably with that of Weedon. On 30 Mch. he reported to Greene that, after writing him on the 27th, he had “immediately set out for Richmond, and on my way met Colo. Morris who informed me fully of your wishes and intentions and I was happy to find they so exactly agreed with the plan I was then going to propose to Government. In order to give more weight to this plan I had taken in writing the Opinions of the Marquis Genl Weedon and Colo. Gouvion who all agreed with me in sentiment. Yesterday Colo. Morris and myself waited on the Executive and laid the plan before them, and as Lord Cornwallis had already Marched, I insisted only that I march with 2000 men from Suffolk to Hallifax … Crossing the Roanoke below the falls. Colo. Morris did all in his power to second my proposition and further to persuade them of the necessity of it. I told them I was fully persuaded that the french had debarked at Cape fear and that by pressing on Cornwallis from three different points we should oblige him to retire towards Cambden. After a debate they came to the Resolution of which I enclose you Copy—and consequently I have not a word more to say on the subject. I immediately sent a copy of their Resolution to the Marquis at Annapolis and came here to fulfill the first objects for which I was left in this state” (Steuben to Greene, Chesterfield, 30 Mch. 1781, NHi; a copy of the Council’s resolution, dated 30 Mch. and in the hand of William North, is in Steuben Papers, NHi; Steuben probably forwarded to Greene the attested copy that Archibald Blair, Clerk of the Council, had given him on the 29th). To Weedon Steuben wrote on 1 Apr.: “My last informed you that Government had rejected my proposals; I heartily wish they may not repent it before it is too late”; Steuben therefore concluded there was nothing further for him to do but to “accelerate the departure of the new Levies for the southward” and announced his intention of going with the first detachment to join Greene and of leaving Weedon and Muhlenberg in command in Virginia (Steuben to Weedon, 1 Apr. 1781, NHi). Weedon was also bitter: “I was fearful our Scheme would be rejected by the Executive who have not an Idea beyond Local Security. We must therefore content ourselves till a force is raised with which they will have nothing to do in point of direction” (Weedon to Steuben, 1 Apr. 1781, NHi). Greene resented the decision on another plane: “I observe your project has failed. … One point is absolutely necessary to be settled by Congress which is whether the militia or state troops shall be under the orders of the Continental officers or not. If the views of a State are opposed to the general plan of operations, and the force in the field can only be employed at such points as they shall think proper, no officer can be safe in his measures: nor can the war be prosecuted upon a general scale, where partial views have an undue influence. However Dear Sir when you consider the critical and disagreeable situation I am in, the little prospect I have of acquiring glory and the almost certain disgrace that has and will accompany my manoeuvres from the nature and constitution of our Army and from the difficulties I have to combat and compare your situation with mine, you may think yourself happy that you are not in as perplexing a state as I am” (Greene to Steuben, 6 Apr. 1781, CSmH). Greene’s general comment was logical and valid, but in this particular conflict between military and civil authorities, events proved that the decision of the Virginia Council was more realistic and also more prudent than the course recommended by Steuben and others. The Steuben plan was based first of all on the assumption that Arnold’s force, together with its recent reinforcement, would not attempt a real invasion of the state: “I am not … of opinion that the Enemy will penetrate the Country on this side, otherwise than a few excursions in search of provisions,” Steuben wrote on 1 Apr. 1781. “I rather believe that in a few days they will carry the greatest part of their force round to the support of Cornwallis. I even doubt their intention of keeping Portsmouth. Should this be their plan we have much to fear for Genl. Greene” (Steuben to Weedon, 1 Apr. 1781, NHi). Weedon agreed with this: “It was ever my Opinion they would Indeavour to succour Lord Cornwallis by penetrating North Carolina; holding at the same time a strong Post in the lower parts of Virga. to keep us Diverted” (Weedon to Steuben, 3 Apr. 1781; nevertheless, Weedon had some reservations, for on the same day he wrote to Muhlenberg: “but … should they think this part of the Country and our two little Armies an Object worthy their Attention, it will be a bad excuse for us to say ‘who’d have thought it’ ”; both in NHi). The second assumption on which the Steuben plan was based was that this “project however extraordinary it may appear at first sight would have undoubtedly obliged the Enemy to have flown to the assistance of Cornwallis and thereby have removed the Seat of War from this State” (Steuben to Muhlenberg, 1 Apr. 1781, NHi). Weedon agreed with this also: “You are too well acquainted with war not to guard against the fatal consequences of a Superiority [of the enemy] in the South. If our friend Green is supported … and his operations successful, the work here will be easy. On the contrary, should the enemy predominate in that quarter, we shall be sadly pressed in Virginia” (Weedon to Steuben, 3 Apr. 1781, NHi). Greene’s decision to move into South Carolina was also based on the latter assumption. But the commanding officers underestimated Cornwallis, who declined to play their game. The events of April and May proved the fears of the Council to be well grounded: the enemy at Portsmouth invaded Virginia and Cornwallis, instead of following after Greene, allowed him to march off to South Carolina against a series of minor posts while he turned on Virginia, Greene’s chief source of supply. Despite this earlier miscalculation, Steuben still believed in early June that Cornwallis would follow him if he led forces away from Virginia and indeed proposed a similar plan under circumstances that would have made its adoption at that time sheer folly, as was delicately pointed out to him by one of his own officers (see Appendix I, Vol. 6).

Greene evidently received prompt word of TJ’s action in calling upon these eleven counties, for on 1 Apr. 1781 his aide-de-camp, Nathaniel Pendleton, addressed a circular to the same county lieutenants asking them “to press the necessity of the immediate march of the militia … now ordered out by Government” and directing them to send the troops to Salisbury, N.C., “properly armed and accoutered” (Pendleton to “the County Lieutenants in Virginia,” giving dates and places of rendezvous, 1 Apr. 1781, CSmH). On 7 Apr. Greene wrote to Gen. Lawson: “Inclosed is an order for calling into the field 2200 [militia of the upper counties] which I beg you to take the command of. … How or in what manner the militia are organized or officered I am not informed. I beg you will write to the Governor upon the subject and get liberty to arrange them as you may think most proper. Let the militia collect at Charlotte and give orders for forwarding as much provision as you can. …CSmH; see also Greene to Stevens, same date, CSmH, and correspondence between TJ and Lawson under dates of 1, 4, 11, 16, and 21 May 1781).

1Blank in FC; the following numbers appear at the foot of the text to be inserted at this point: “Montgomery 187, Pittsylvania 181, Halifax 285, Washington 207, Bedford 384, Botetourt 175, Buckingham 156, Rockbridge 156, Prince Edward 115, Henry 251, Charlotte 156 [total] 2253.” The RC, above, has: “a hundred & eighty seven,” inserted in TJ’s hand.

2Complimentary close and signature have been supplied from RC.

Index Entries