James Madison Papers

Thomas Jefferson to Virginia Delegates, 10 May 1781

Thomas Jefferson to Virginia Delegates

RC (NA: PCC, No. 71, II, 109–10). Written by a clerk and signed by Jefferson. Directed to “The Honble The Virga. Delegates in Congress.” Docketed, “Letter from Govr Jefferson May 10 1781 Read 29 Referred to the board of War.” The file copy is in the Virginia State Library and a transcript in LC: Jefferson Papers.

In Council May 10th. 1781


A small Affair has taken Place between the British commanding Officer in this State (Genl. Phillips) & the Executive which as he may endeavour to get Rid of through the medium of Congress, I think it necessary previously to apprise you of it.1

General Scott2 obtained Permission from the Commandant at Charlestown3 for vessels with necessary Supplies to go from hence to them, but instead of sending the Original sent only a Copy of the Permission taken by his Brigade Major. I applied to Genl. Phillips to supply this Omission by furnishing a Passport for the vessel.4 having just before taken great Offence at a Threat of Retaliation in the Treatment of Prisoners he inclosed his answer to my Letter under this Address ‘To Thos. Jefferson Esqr. American Governor of Virginia.’5 I paused on receiving the Letter & for some time would not open it, however when the miserable Condition of our Brethren at Charlestown occurred to me, I could not determine that they should be left without the necessaries of Life while a Punctilio should be discussing between the British General & myself; & knowing that I had an Opportunity of returning the Compliment to Mr Phillips in a Case perfectly corresponding, I opened the Letter.

Very shortly after I received as I expected the Permission of the Board of War for the British Flag vessel then in Hampton Road with Cloathing & Refreshments to proceed to Alexandria.6 I inclosed & addressed it ‘To William Phillips Esqr. commanding the British Forces in the Commonwealth of Virginia.’7 personally knowing Phillips to be the proudest man of the proudest Nation on Earth I well know he will not open this Letter; but having Occasion at the same Time to write to Capt Gerlach the Flag master,8 I informed him that the Convention Troops in this State should perish for want of necessaries before any should be carried to them through this State till Genl Phillips either swallowed this Pill of Retaliation or made an Apology for his rudeness. And in this should the matter come ultimately to Congress we hope for their Support.9 He has the less right to insist on the expedition of his Flag because his Letter instead of inclosing a Passport to expedite ours, contained only an Evasion of the Application by saying he had referred it to Sir Henry Clinton & in the mean time he has come up the river & taken the vessel with her Loading which we had chartered & prepared to send to Charlestown & which wanted nothing but the Passport to enable her to depart.10 I would further observe to you that this Gentleman’s letters to Baron Steuben first & afterwards to the Marquis Fayette have been in a stile so intolerably insolent & haughty, that both these Gentlemen have been obliged to inform him that if he thinks proper to address them again in the same spirit all Intercourse shall be discontinued.11

I am with very great Respect & Esteem Gentlemen Your mo: obt. Servt

Th: Jefferson

1After hearing the letter on 29 May, Congress referred it to the Board of War. The Board seems to have made no recommendation, probably because General Phillips’ death on 13 May settled the matter at issue.

2Brigadier General Charles Scott (ca. 1739–1813) of Goochland County, Va., had served with distinction in the American army for nearly five years before being captured when Charleston, S.C., fell to the British in May 1780. Although he was soon released on parole, about two years went by before he was exchanged. In 1781 the British permitted him to receive supplies and money for the relief of his fellow prisoners from Virginia in Charleston. After moving in 1785 to Woodford County, Ky., he shared prominently in the campaigns against the Indians north of the Ohio River. He served as governor of Kentucky from 1808 to 1812.

3Lieutenant Colonel Nisbet Balfour (1743–1823) served through the American Revolution and was twice wounded. He became a major general in 1793 and a lieutenant general in 1798. From 1790 to 1802 he served in Parliament.

4Jefferson to William Phillips, 31 March 1781 (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 , V, 306–7). On 10 April 1781 Jefferson informed Baron von Steuben that between six hundred and nine hundred hogsheads were ready to be sent to Charleston. “It requires 100 Hogsheads of Tobacco a month to pay off the Virginia Line in Charles Town,” Jefferson commented, “and they are a twelve month in arrear, and the Debts that they have contracted are in Proportion to those arrears” (ibid., V, 400).

5William Phillips to Jefferson, 6 April 1781 (ibid., V, 363–64, 633–34).

6See Continental Board of War to Jefferson, 12 April 1781 (ibid., V, 414–15). The “British Flag vessel” was the “General Riedesel,” which had come from New York with clothing, other supplies, and pay for the convention troops. See Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (2 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , I, 279, n. 2, for the convention troops.

7Jefferson to William Phillips, 20 April 1781 (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 , V, 509–10).

8Jefferson to Heinrich Gerlach, 3 May 1781 (ibid., V, 595–96). Captain Gerlach (d. 1798), deputy quartermaster general of the Brunswick troops, was in charge of the supplies for the German captives in Virginia. Since they were still at Winchester and the British prisoners of war had been moved to Georgetown and Fort Frederick, Md., the “General Riedesel” was given clearance to proceed to Alexandria, Va., a port convenient to these places of internment.

9Less than two weeks after Phillips’ death, Cornwallis received from Lafayette the passport needed to permit the “General Riedesel” to proceed to Alexandria. The dispatch of supplies to the Virginia troops held captive in South Carolina was delayed until September (ibid., VI, 20; Calendar of Virginia State Papers description begins William P. Palmer et al., eds., Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Other Manuscripts (11 vols.; Richmond, 1875–93). description ends , II, 291, 437).

10On 18 April in a letter to Steuben, Phillips wrote that he felt obliged to refer the question to General Clinton. The brig “Alert,” the flag vessel designated to carry tobacco to the American prisoners at Charleston, was captured on 27 April by the British at Coxendale (Coxesdale, Cocke’s and Dale’s), a James River plantation about eleven miles southeast of Richmond, in Chesterfield County. Phillips justified this act on the ground that the crew of the “Alert” had fired upon British troops. He warned Lafayette on 29 April of his determination to “make the shores of James River an example of terror to the rest of Virginia” if Loyalists were executed by the Americans (Pendleton to JM, 23 April 1781, n. 2; 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 , V, 588–91, 634).

11For an exchange of sarcastic letters in April 1781 between Phillips and Steuben respecting the capture of a servant belonging to an aide-de-camp of the British general, see ibid., V, 556–57 n. On 4 May 1781 Lafayette sent Washington “copies of the strange letters I have received from General Phillips and the answers which if he does not behave better will break off our correspondence.” A few days later Lafayette felt somewhat appeased because his more recent dispatches had been received by Phillips “with a degree of politeness that seemed to apologize for his unbecoming Stile” (Louis Gottschalk, ed., Letters of Lafayette to Washington, pp. 188, 192).

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