Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to James Maxwell, 16 February 1781

To James Maxwell

Richmond Febry. 16. 1781.


The arrival of a French naval force will render it necessary for us to put into immediate order for service and to man every Vessel we have capable of rendering any service. You will therefore be pleased to have this done, and to have the Vessels kept in readiness to move at a moment’s warning. You are also desired, having left this matter in a proper train, to proceed yourself and examine the different armed Vessels in James River which in your opinion might be of service in an enterprize on the British fleet in Elizabeth river, to report to us their condition and to endeavour to engage them to enter into that Service.

I am with much respect Sr. Yr. &c &c.,


FC (Vi).

On 15 Feb. TJ received word “of the arrival of a 64 gun ship and two frigates in our bay, being part of the fleet of our good ally at Rhode island” (to Huntington, 17 Feb.; see further details in letter to Gates, 17 Feb.). This small squadron, detached from the French fleet at the moment it achieved a temporary superiority over the British naval force in North America (see Theodorick Bland to TJ, 9 Feb.), was commanded by Capt. Arnaud Le Gardeur de Tilly in the Eveillé. Its mission was to destroy the British vessels supporting Arnold’s forces at Portsmouth, but as TJ told Huntington in the letter quoted above, the French line-of-battle ship could not get into the Elizabeth River, into which the British vessels had withdrawn. De Tilly did not dare to stay long in Virginia waters, for fear of being bottled up in his turn; and in a letter to TJ of 19–20 Feb., Gen. Nelson reported that the French squadron had sailed. It returned to Rhode Island but soon came back with the larger force under Destouches and Viomesnil that was assigned to support Lafayette in the effort to destroy the British army and capture its commander. Destouches’ fleet, however, never reached its destination, for it met a British fleet under Arbuthnot off the Virginia Capes, fought an inconclusive engagement on 16 Mch., and retired northward. These events are the subject of a great deal of the correspondence that follows in February and March; see also My Campaigns in America: A Journal Kept by Count William de Deux-Ponts, 1780–81, ed. Samuel A. Green, Boston, 1868, p. 21–8. On De Tilly specifically, see Contenson, La Société de Cincinnati de France, p. 213.

Index Entries