James Madison Papers

Richard Henry Lee to Virginia Delegates, 12 June 1781

Richard Henry Lee to Virginia Delegates

RC (LC: Rives Collection of Madison Papers). Endorsed by Joseph Jones, “June 12. 1781 R H. Lee.” The postscript, except for its signature, is not in Lee’s hand.

Chantilly,1 June the 12th. 1781

Dear Gentlemen

I am not informed who of our Delegates remain at Congress and therefore this letter is addressed to you2 whom I have good reason to suppose are yet there. The unhappy crisis of our countrys fate demands the closest attention of all her sons, and calls for the united wisdom and the strongest exertions of all others who may be affected by our ruin. I suppose you have been informed of the junction of the enemies forces on James river3 and of many of their subsequent movements—that they have quickly mounted a very formidable Cavalry by seising on all the fine horses in that part of our country where most they abound to the number of 5 or 600.4 Being thus provided, and greatly superior in numbers and quality of troops to the Marquis, they moved as if intending to cross the Country to Fredericksburg, our army keeping at a prudent distance advanced upon their left or western flank. The Marquis proceeding forward in daily expectation of being joined by Gen. Waynes long, very long delayed force, approached Rappahanock above Falmouth, when the enemy halted their main body in the forks of Pomunkey,5 & detatched 500 Cavalry with an Infantryman behind each to Charlottsville where our unformed Assembly was collecting by adjournment from Richmond. The two houses were not compleated, and Mr. Jefferson had resigned his office & retired, as some of our dispersed Delegates report, when the enemy entered Charlottsville this day Sennight and dispersed the whole6 taking Mr. Digges the Lieut. Governor, prisoner & some Delegates—Mr. Lyons the Judge & many others.7 I find that several of the Delegates have returned home dispersing the news of our misfortune & their disgrace without expressing a thought about any future collection of the Legislature. It seems that our Stores were collected in the North fork of James river, below Charlottsville & not above 40 miles from where the main body of the enemies army had placed themselves—that these Stores were under protection of Baron Steuben with 7 or 800 new Levies—these then being nearly between the enemies horse above & their army below which had moved towards the North fork, it remains extremely probable that the Barons force & the Stores are one or both e’er now destroyed.8 You will then judge of the situation of this country, without either executive or Legislative authority, every thing in the greatest possible confusion, the enemy far superior in force to that with the Marquis, and practising every thing that force and fraud can contrive. I do give it to you gentlemen as my serious opinion, uninfluenced by vain apprehensions, that if immediate and powerful interposition does not take place, commensurate to the certain danger, that all the country below the Mountains will be in the power of the enemy in a few months. It is true that we have in Virginia a number of Men much greater than the enemies force, but it is alas true that their dispersed, unarmed, and unadvised condition; without government, and without system of any kind, renders them an easy prey to the combined force and concerted system of our enemies.

Upon the principle therefore of duty to my country, and deep affection for the liberties of America I have ventured to give you this intelligence of our true state, and mean to close it with my opinion of the remedy best fitted, and most likely to baffle the designs of our enemies and to secure the liberty of this country. In the popularity, the judgement, and the experience of Gen. Washington we can alone find the remedy. Let Congress send him immediately to Virginia, and as the head of the Foederal Union let them possess the General with Dictatorial power until the general Assembly can be convened, and have determined upon his powers and let it be recommended to the Assembly when met to continue this power for 6, 8, or 10 months as the case may require. The General should be desired, on his arrival here, to call a full meeting of the Legislature where he shall appoint to consider of the above plan. Both antient and modern times furnish precedents to justify this procedure, but if they did not, the present necessity not only justifies but absolutely demands the measure. In the winter of 1776 Congress placed such powers in the General, and repeated the same thing (if I mistake not), with regard to Pennsylvania in 1777 after its new government was formed & organised.9 There is no time to be lost gentlemen in this business, for the enemy are pushing their present advantages with infinite diligence and art. The efforts of this country have certainly not been equal to its powers, but however feeble they may have been under republican government, you may be assured that when it shall come under the sword of a Conqueror, such resources and such power will appear from Virginia as to put the liberties of the rest of N. America in eminent peril. The inferiority of our Army here to that of the enemy renders it very necessary that 2 or 3000 regulars be sent with the General, or at least to follow him quickly, and if they are to be got, accoutrements for 1000 horse, with a good supply of Arms & Ammunition for Infantry. The better to distract us, and keep our force divided, the Armed vessels of the enemy are pushing vigorously into the rivers, and committing depredations on the shores both of Bay & rivers. Is it not possible, by any solicitation to procure a superior Marine force for these southern waters. It is reported here that Gen. Wayne has objections to Act under the Marquis’s command10—if there should be any disagreement, or any objection of this kind, the consequences are too obvious to escape your notice—And will furnish an auxiliary reason for the Commander in chief coming here, if any additional reason can be requisite, when the very being of the State certainly demands it.

I am dear gentlemen sincerely and affectionately yours

Richard Henry Lee

P.S. By the Delegates who have returned from Charlottesville it is supposed that the last remaining press in this Country has been taken by the Enemy as it was sent out of Town but a few hours before the light Horse entered. I reckon the want of a press here a most essential injury to our Cause & Country. Should the commander in chief come here upon the plan above mention’d he will find himself much distressed for want of a press thro’ which to communicate his desires to the People; I submit it to you therefore whether every nerve ought not be strain’d to get a press immediately removed to Winchester or Stanton in this State, even tho’ it should be furnish’d with but a moderate collection of Tipes it may answer the above purposes and furnish the public with a small Gazette to convey intelligence, the People being now destitute of information and left a prey to Tory lies and bad influences. What is become of Dunlap and his Press which ought to have been here long since?11 Be pleased to fill up the direction of the letters for Gen. Washington and forward them securely12R. H. Lee

1Lee’s estate of Chantilly was on the Nomini River in Westmoreland County, within sight of the Potomac.

2The cover of this letter has not been located, but Lee informed George Washington on the same day that he had written “to Colo. Bland and Mr. Jones our delegates in Congress” (James Curtis Ballagh, ed., The Letters of Richard Henry Lee [2 vols.; New York, 1911–14], II, 234). Although the letter was not addressed to JM, he was the delegate who preserved it, for on 9 February 1824 he wrote to Lee’s grandson that “My files, I perceive, contain a few letters from your Grandfather; the first of them to the Virginia Delegation in Congress … June 12, 1781.” In the same letter, JM also remarked that his “first acquaintance with [Lee] was subsequent to the close of the Revolutionary struggles” (Madison, Letters [Cong. ed.] description begins [William C. Rives and Philip R. Fendall, eds.], Letters and Other Writings of James Madison (published by order of Congress; 4 vols.; Philadelphia, 1865). description ends , III, 366–67).

3The armies of Cornwallis and Arnold united at Petersburg on the Appomattox River on 20 May.

4In his letter of 10 May 1781 to the speaker of the House of Delegates, Governor Jefferson remarked that, owing to the procrastination of owners in driving their animals to a safe place, the enemy had been able to seize “some of the most valuable Horses” and use them to create a troop of cavalry which might “become very formidable.” On 21 May Jefferson ordered the county lieutenants of at least six counties threatened by the British to compel all owners of horses of military value either to remove them at least twenty miles from the enemy or to have them taken to Lafayette’s headquarters; but on 28 May Lafayette complained to the governor that, because of the ineffectiveness of his order, the enemy’s seizure of “all the fine Horses in the Country … will in the end prove a ruin to this State” (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, 627; VI, 3–4, 26).

5Falmouth is on the north bank of Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg. The junction of the North and South Anna rivers to form the Pamunkey River is known as “the forks.” On 26 May Cornwallis’ headquarters was at Westover on the north bank of the James River below Richmond. After marching from Westover to Hanover Court House, five and a half miles southeast of the forks, he continued across the South Anna and North Anna rivers, seemingly having Fredericksburg as his objective. Learning that he was probably too late to prevent the union of Wayne’s forces with those of Lafayette (already effected on 10 June), and believing that Fredericksburg contained little of military value, Cornwallis detached the troops of Lieutenant Colonels John G. Simcoe and Banastre Tarleton to “disturb the Assembly” at Charlottesville, destroy whatever military stores they might find during their foray, and rejoin the main force near the Point of Fork in Fluvanna County. Cornwallis’ army then “moved by Richmond & arrived at Williamsburgh on the 25th” of June. During these operations, according to Cornwallis’ dispatch of 30 June to Sir Henry Clinton, Lafayette had kept at the “prudent distance” of about twenty miles. Cornwallis summed up his success by citing the destruction or capture of approximately 4,300 stands of arms, 600 barrels of powder, 23 brass cannon, “a great number of iron guns,” 2,000 hogsheads of tobacco, and other miscellaneous articles of military matériel. He might also have added 12 wagonloads of much needed clothing on their way to Greene’s army (Benjamin F. Stevens, ed., Campaign in Virginia, I, 487; II, 31–33). For Lafayette’s account of these events, see Louis Gottschalk, ed., Letters of Lafayette to Washington, pp. 196–204.

6Contrary to Lee’s statement, the Virginia General Assembly had a quorum on 28 May. A week later, with the attending delegates much reduced in number, and with a British mounted force some 250 strong close at hand, the Assembly adjourned. Reconvening on 7 June at Staunton in Augusta County, west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it continued in session there until adjournment sixteen days later (Journal of the House of Delegates description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of Virginia, March 1781 Session in Bulletin of the Virginia State Library, XVII, No. 1 (January 1928). description ends , May 1781, pp. 4, 10, 30–32; Jefferson to Virginia Delegates, 14 May 1781, n. 3). Lee wrote the present letter on the day that the General Assembly elected Thomas Nelson, Jr., governor of the Commonwealth to succeed Jefferson, whose term of office had expired on 3 June (Pendleton to JM, 14 May 1781, n. 4).

7Following a decade of service as a judge of the General Court and Court of Appeals of Virginia, Peter Lyons (1735–1807) of Studley, Hanover County, was named by the General Assembly in 1789 to the newly reorganized state Court of Appeals and succeeded Edmund Pendleton as its president in 1803 (David J. Mays, “Peter Lyons, 1734(?)–1809,” Proceedings of the Thirty-seventh Annual Meeting, Virginia State Bar Association … 1926 [Richmond, 1927], pp. 418–25; Virginia Gazette, or, the American Advertiser [Richmond, Hayes], 9 October 1784). On 14 May 1781 Dudley Digges had resigned from the Council of State, and thus from the lieutenant-governorship (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, 644). The British also captured seven members of the General Assembly (Banastre Tarleton, History of Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, pp. 303–6).

8General Steuben, with five or six hundred continental recruits and a small contingent of militia, was at the Point of Fork (above, n. 5), guarding a sizable state military depot. He had moved the stores across the Fluvanna River when Colonel Simcoe appeared on the north bank with the Queen’s Rangers. Believing that his small force was menaced by Cornwallis’ entire army, and conceiving his primary mission still to be the reinforcement of Greene (orders to the contrary had been intercepted by the enemy), the Baron hastily retreated and left a considerable quantity of military matériel to be captured by Simcoe. Destroying most of the stores, Simcoe took with him what he could use, including ten French artillery pieces in excellent order (John G. Simcoe, Journal of the Operations of the Queen’s Rangers, p. 157). An uproar of angry criticism, meanwhile, marked Steuben’s retreat southward for some seventy miles to Coles Ferry on the south side of the Staunton River in Halifax County (John McAuley Palmer, General von Steuben [New Haven, Conn., 1937], pp. 276–81). Even Lafayette found the Baron’s strategy “unintelligible.” Writing to Washington on 18 June, he advised the commander-in-chief that “every man woman and child in Virginia is roused against” Steuben, who had so “exasperated” the soldiery, both regular and militia, that “I do not know where to employ him without giving offense” (Louis Gottschalk, ed., Letters of Lafayette to Washington, pp. 201–2).

9Congress made Washington temporarily a virtual dictator on 27 December 1776 and again on 17 September 1777 (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , VI, 1045–46; VIII, 751–53). Lee wrote in a similar vein to Washington on 12 June 1781 (above, n. 2). Washington replied on 15 July from his Hudson River headquarters that he was “fully perswaded however (and upon good Military principles) that the measures I have adopted will give more effectual and speedier relief to the State of Virginia than if I was to March thither with dictatorial power at the head of every Man I could draw from hence without leaving the important posts on the North river quite defenceless, and these States open to devastation and ravage” (Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, from the Original Sources, 1745–1799 (39 vols.; Washington, 1931–44). description ends , XXII, 383).

10No contemporary evidence supporting this rumor has been found. For Wayne’s delay, see Pendleton to JM, 26 March, n. 11, and 28 May, n. 6; Virginia Delegates to Jefferson, 17 April 1781, n. 10.

11The last issue of Dixon and Nicolson’s Virginia Gazette was apparently published at Richmond on 19 May, when it reported British operations near the capital. James Hayes, Jr., a partner of John Dunlap of Pennsylvania and Maryland, had reached Virginia in April but was unable to establish his Virginia Gazette, or, the American Advertiser in Richmond until 22 December 1781 (Virginia Delegates to Jefferson, 20 March 1781, n. 8; Clarence S. Brigham, History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, II, 1145, 1150).

12The enclosures were Lee’s letter to Washington and probably a copy of one to James Lovell, both dated 12 June 1781, and a letter to Lee, approving his suggestions, from one of Washington’s brothers. The first two are printed in James C. Ballagh, ed., Letters of Richard Henry Lee, II, 233–38. Joseph Jones, in a dispatch of 20 June to Washington, wrote that a letter for him from Lee was enclosed, having been “just received” with Lee’s letter to the Virginia delegates. Jones added that he intended to reply to Lee “as soon as an opportunity offers” (Worthington C. Ford, ed., Letters of Joseph Jones of Virginia, 1777–1787 [Washington, D.C., 1889], pp. 80–83).

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