George Washington Papers

[Diary entry: 4 May 1781]

4th. A Letter of the Baron de Steuben’s from Chesterfield Court House Virga. dated the 21st. Ulto. informs that 12 of the Enemys Vessels but with what Troops he knew not, had advanced up James River as high as Jamestown—that few Militia were in arms and few arms to put into their hands—that he had moved the public Stores from Richmond &ca. into the interior Country.1

A Letter from the Marqs. de la Fayette, dated at Alexandria on the 23d., mentioned his having commenced his march that day for Fredericksburg—that desertion had ceased, & that his detachment were in good Spirits.2

1Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben (1730–1794), after an extensive military career in Europe, came to the United States bearing somewhat inflated European references in Dec. 1777. Joining GW at Valley Forge in Feb. 1778, he quickly proved his value to the Continental forces as an instructor in discipline and tactics, his “blue book”—Orders and Discipline of the Troops of the United States—becoming the manual of instruction in the U.S. Army for many years. On 5 May 1778 he was appointed inspector general of the army with the rank of major general (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 11:465). In Oct. 1780, when Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene replaced Horatio Gates as commander of the Southern Department, Steuben accompanied Greene in order to aid in the restoration of the army in the South. Setting up headquarters at Chesterfield Court House, Va., about 12 miles south of Richmond, he attempted to organize Virginia’s defenses and arrange for men and supplies for Greene in the Carolinas. In Dec. 1780 Sir Henry Clinton dispatched to Virginia from New York a fleet and over 1,500 British soldiers under the command of Benedict Arnold, now a brigadier general in the British army. The force landed at Hampton Roads 30 Dec. 1780 and, moving up the James River, took Richmond 5–7 Jan. 1781, then withdrawing to Westover. Steuben participated in the attempt to halt the British in Virginia in the spring of 1781 (see PALMER description begins John McAuley Palmer. General Von Steuben. New Haven, 1937. description ends , 237–72). In mid-April, Arnold and Maj. Gen. William Phillips, now in command of British forces in Virginia, moved against the Continental troops in Richmond and Chesterfield Court House. Lafayette arrived at Richmond 29 April with reinforcements in time to force Phillips’s withdrawal to the area of Jamestown Island. Steuben’s letter to GW of 21 April is in DLC:GW.

2The marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834) had been selected by GW in Feb. 1781 to lead a force of 1,200 light infantry to Virginia to halt Arnold’s advance. Lafayette was to cooperate with a French fleet under Admiral Destouches. The plan to capture Arnold’s forces failed, partly because the damage inflicted on Destouches’s fleet by a British naval force under Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot in an engagement on 16 Mar. had sent the French back to Newport, R.I. Arnold himself had been substantially reinforced by the arrival of British transports. Lafayette and his troops remained in Virginia, and on 6 April 1781 GW ordered him to march south to reinforce Greene (DLC:GW). On 21 April he reached Alexandria.

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