Wilton Northside of Jms River May 18th 1781
Having been directed by Genl Greene to take Command of the Troops in Virginia, I have also received Orders from him, that every Account from this Quarter be immediately transmitted to Congress and to your Excellency; in obedience to which I shall have the honour to relate our Movements, and those of the combined Armies of the Enemy.
When Genl Phillips retreated from Richmond, his project was to stop at Williamsburg, there to collect Contributions which he had impos’d; this induced me to take a position between Pamunky & Chickahominy Rivers, which equally cover’d Richmond & some other interesting parts of the State, and from where I detached Genl Nelson and some Militia towards Williamsburg.
Having gott as low down as that place, General Phillips seemed to discover an intention to make a Landing but upon advices received by a report from Portsmo. the Enemy weighed Anchor, and with all the Sail they could croud hastened up the River; this intelligence made me apprehensive that the Enemy intended to manoeuvre me out of Richmond, where I returned immediately & again collected our small force. Intelligence was the same day received that Lord Cornwallis (who I had been assured to have embarked at Wilmington) was marching thro’ N. Carolina. This was confirmed by the landing of Genl Phillips at Brandon So. side of Jms River—apprehending that both Armies would move to meet at a central point. I marched towards Petersburg and intended to have established a Communication over Appamatox & Jas River, but on the 9th Genl Phillips took possession of Petersburg, a place where his right flank being covered by Jas River, his front by Appamatox, on which the Bridges had been destroyed in the present Invasion, and his left not being attackable but by a long circuit through Fords that at this Season are very uncertain I cou’d not (even with an equal force) have gott any chance of fighting him, unless I had given up this side of Jas River and the Country from which reinforcements are expected.
It being at the Enemy’s choice to force us to an Action, while their own position insured them against our Enterprises I thought it proper to shift this situation, and marched the greater part of our troops to this place, about ten miles below Richmond-- Letters from Govr Nash, Genl Sumner & Genl Jones are possitive as to the arrival of Col. Tarleton, and announce that of Ld Cornwallis at Hallifax. Having received a request from N. Carolina for amunition I made a detachment of 500 Men under Genl Muhlenburg to escort 20,000 Cartridges over Appamatox, and to direct the Enemy’s attention Colo. Gimat with his Batn & 4 field pieces Cannonaded their position from this side of the River. I hope our Ammunition will arrive safe, as before Genl Muhlenberg returned, he putt it in a safe road with proper Directions. On the 13th Genl Phillips died and the Command devolved on General Arnold--General Wayne’s Detachment has not yett been heard of, before He arrives it becomes very dangerous to risk any Engagement whereof either of the British Armies being vastly superior to us, We shall certainly be beaten, and by the loss of Arms, the dispersion of Militia, and the difficulty of a junction with Genl Wayne We may loose a less dangerous chance of resistance.
These Considerations have induced me to think that with our so very great inferiority, and with the advantage the Enemy have by their Cavalry & naval superiority, there would be much rashness in fighting them on any but our Grounds, and this side of the River, and that an Engagement which I fear will be soon necessary ought if possible be deferred ’till the Pensylvanians arrive, whom I have by several letters requested to hasten to our assistance. No report has lately come from near Halifax tho’ a very active officer has been sent for that purpose but every Intelligence confirms that Ld Cornwallis is hourly expected at Petersburg, it is true there never was such difficulty in getting tollerable intelligence as there is in this Country, and the immense superiority of the Enemy’s Horses render it very pracarious to hazard our small parties. Arnold has received a small reinforcement from portsmouth. Dr General Your most Obedient Humble Servant
P.S. In Justice to Major Mitchell and Capt. Muir who were taken at Petersburg, I have the honour to inform your Excellency that they had been sent to that place on public Service. I have requested Genl Lawson to collect and take commd of the Militia south of Appamattox—local impediments was thrown in the road from Hallifax to Petersbe. and precautions taken to remove the horses from the Enemy’s reach. Shou’d it be possible to get arms some more militia might be brought in to the field. But Genl Greene & myself labour under the same disadvantage. The few militia we can with great pains collect arrive unarmed and we have not a sufficiency of weapons to putt into their hands.
DLC: Papers of George Washington.