James Madison Papers

Thomas Jefferson to Virginia Delegates in Congress, 18 January 1781

Thomas Jefferson
to Virginia Delegates in Congress

RC (NA: PCC, No. 71, II, 21–26). Docketed “Richmond January 18th 1781 Letter from Govr. Jefferson of Virginia to the Delegates of the State. so much as relates to a supply of ammunition & military stores Referred to the Board of War.” Only the complimentary close and signature are in Jefferson’s hand. A clerk’s copy of this letter is in the Executive Letter Book, Virginia State Library.

Richmond Jan. 18. 1781.


I inclose you a resolution of Assembly directing your Conduct as to the navigation of the missisippi.1

The loss of powder lately sustained by us (about 5 tons)2 together with the quantities sent on to the Southward have reduced our stock very low indeed. We lent to Congress in the course of the last year (previous to our issues for the Southern army) about ten tons of powder. I shall be obliged to you to procure an order from the board of war for any quantity from five to ten ton to be sent us immediately from Philadelphia or Baltimore, and to enquire into & hasten from time to time the execution of it. The Stock of Cartridge paper is nearly exhausted.3 I do not know whether Captn. Irish or what other Officer should apply for this.4 It is essential that a good stock should be forwarded & with out a moments delay. If there be a rock on which we are to split, it is the want of Muskets, bayonets & cartouch boxes. The occurrences since my last to the President are not of any magnitude.5 three little rencounters have happened with the enemy. in the first General Smallwood led on a party of two or three hundred Militia and obliged some armed vessels of the enemy to retire from a prize they had taken at Broadway’s,6 and renewing his attack the next day with a 4 lbr. or two (for in the first day he had only muskets) he obliged some of their Vessels to fall down from City point to their main fleet at Westover. The enemy’s loss is not known. ours was 4 men wounded. One of the evenings during their encampment at Westover & Berkeley their Light horse surprized a party of about 100 or 150 Militia at Charles City Courthouse killed & wounded 4. & took as has been generally said about 7 or 8. On Baron Steuben’s approach toward Hood’s they embarked at Westover; the wind whi[ch] till then had set directly up the river from the time of their leaving James Town, shifted in the moment to the opposite point. Baron Steuben had not reached Hood’s, by 8 or ten miles when they arrived there. They landed their whole army there in the night Arnold attending in person. Colo Clarke (of Kaskaskias) had been sent on with 240 men by Baron Steuben, & having properly disposed of them in ambuscade gave them a deliberate fire which killed 17 on the spot & wounded 13. they returned it in confusion by which we had 3 or 4 wounded. & our party being so small & without bayonets, were obliged to retire on the enemy’s charging with bayonets. They fell down to Cobham, from whence they carried all the tobacco there (about 60 hhds.[)] and the last intelligence was that on the 16th they were standing for Newports news.7 Baron Steuben is of opinion they are proceeding to fix a post in some of the lower Counties. Later information has given us reason to believe their force more considerable than we at first supposed. I think since the arrival of the three transports which had been separated in a Storm, they may be considered as about 2000 strong[.]8 their naval force according to the best intelligence is the Charon of 44 guns, Commodore Symmonds;9 the Amphitrite, Iris, Thames, & Charles town Frigates, the Fowey of 20 guns, 2 Sloops of war, a privateer Ship & 2 brigs. We have about 3700 militia embodied, but at present they are divided into three distant encampments: one under General Weedon at Fredericksburg for the protection of the important works there;10 another under General Nelson11 at & near Wmsburg; & a third under Baron Steuben at Cabbin Point.12 as soon as the enemy fix themselves these will be brought to a point.

I have the honor to be with very great respect Gentlemen Your most obedt. servt

Th: Jefferson

2Destroyed at Westham by the British troops under Benedict Arnold (JM to Pendleton, 16 January 1781, n. 3). This letter was read in Congress on 29 January and, as mentioned in the headnote, a portion of it was referred to the Board of War (Journals of the Continental Congress, XIX, 95).

3On 29 January 1781, Jefferson informed Benjamin Harrison that four of the “five to ten Tons” of powder asked of Congress must be at Fort Pitt by 1 March if they were to be of any use to George Rogers Clark in his expected expedition against Detroit (Boyd, Papers of Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (16 vols. to date; Princeton, N.J., 1950——). description ends , IV, 467; Motion of Virginia Delegates, 19 February 1781).

4Captain Nathaniel Irish (1737–1816), probably a Pennsylvanian (Pennsylvania Archives description begins Samuel Hazard et al., eds., Pennsylvania Archives (9 ser., 138 vols.; Philadelphia and Harrisburg, 1852–1949). description ends , 5th ser., III, 1085), and certainly a member of Benjamin Flower’s Artillery Artificer Regiment, had been on detached duty since August 1780 as continental commissary of military stores in Virginia, and for a month beginning 20 January 1781 he also acted for that state in the same capacity. Thereafter he remained in Virginia in charge of the “laboratory,” in or near Richmond, of the continental line (Boyd, Papers of Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (16 vols. to date; Princeton, N.J., 1950——). description ends , IV, 417, 518, 619, 658; V, 96, 232). A “laboratory” was an ammunition factory.

5Jefferson probably refers to his two dispatches to President Samuel Huntington on 15 January rather than to his brief covering note to him written two days later (Boyd, Papers of Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (16 vols. to date; Princeton, N.J., 1950——). description ends , IV, 366–70, 386).

6Broadway is on the Appomattox River, near its junction with the James River, while most of the other places mentioned later in this letter (City Point, Westover, Berkeley Charles City Court House, Hood’s Point, Jamestown, Cobham, and Newport News) are on or near the James River, between Richmond and Chesapeake Bay.

7Soon after Benedict Arnold’s troops landed in Virginia, Major General Steuben suspended his efforts to collect and forward reinforcements and supplies to General Greene and, in Jefferson’s words, “descended from the dignity of his proper command to direct our smallest movements” (ibid., IV, 298, 335). The episodes involving the militia under Major General William Smallwood have not been identified. If a British report can be believed, a small body of their troops on 8 January 1781 surprised a considerable force of Virginia militia making merry in the Charles City Court House tavern, killed or wounded “upward of twenty” of them, and took eight prisoners (Henry B. Dawson, Battles of the United States, I, 645–46). Colonel George Rogers Clark, soon to become a brigadier general of the Virginia state line, was in Richmond at the start of Arnold’s invasion, making plans to lead an expedition against Detroit (Boyd, Papers of Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (16 vols. to date; Princeton, N.J., 1950——). description ends , IV, 424).

8Even when the missing “three transports,” carrying some four hundred troops, succeeded in reaching Chesapeake Bay, the force under Arnold was only sixteen hundred strong. He had used about half that number in his raid on Richmond (Christopher Ward, War of the Revolution, II, 868; Benjamin F. Stevens, ed., The Campaign in Virginia, II, 228).

9In October 1781 Captain Thomas Symonds (d. 1793) was to sign the Articles of Capitulation at Yorktown, when the British ships of war surrendered because of their blockade by the French fleet. Symonds’ own ship, “Charon,” was burned on 10 October by French shells.

10The principal “works” at Fredericksburg were the iron foundry of Colonel James Hunter and the state “manufactory of arms,” which was then under the management of Major Charles Dick.

11General Thomas Nelson.

12Cabin Point is at the northwestern edge of Surry County, about three miles southwest of the James River.

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