George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Jefferson, 3 November 1780

From Thomas Jefferson

Richmond Novemr 3d 1780


Since I had the honor of writing to your Excellency on the 25th ult. the enemy have withdrawn their force from the north side of James river, and have taken post at Portsmouth, which we learn they are fortifying; their highest post is Suffolk where there is a very narrow and defensible pass between Nansemond river and the dismal swamp, which covers the country below from being entered by us.1 More accurate information of their force than we at first had gives us reason to suppose them to be from 25 to 3000, of which between 60 and 70 are cavalry. they are commanded by General Leslie and were convoyed by the Romulus of 40 guns the Blonde of 32, the delight Sloop of 16, a twenty gun ship of Jno. Goodrich’s and two row gallies commanded by Commodore Gayton. we are not yet assured that they have landed their whole force. Indeed they give out themselves that after drawing the force of the State to Suffolk they mean to go to Baltimore. Their movements here had induced me to think they came in expectation of meeting with Lord Cornwallis in this country, that his precipitate retreat2 has left them without a concerted object, and that they were waiting further orders. Information of this morning says that on being informed of Lord Cornwallis’s retreat and a public paper produced to them wherein were presented the several dispatches which brought this intelligence from Genl Gates, they unladed a vessel and sent her off to Charles town immediately.3 the fate of this army of theirs hangs on a very slender naval force indeed.4

The want of Barracks at fort Frederic as represented by Colo. Wood, the difficulty of getting waggons sufficient to move the whole convention troops at once, and the state of unreadiness in which the regiment of guards is, have induced us to think that it will be better to remove those troops in two divisions, and as the whole danger of desertion to the enemy & of correspondence with the disaffected in our southern counties is from the british only (for from the Germans we have no apprehensions on either head) we have advised Colo. Wood to move on the british in the first division and to leave the Germans in their present situation to form a second division and to be moved so soon as barracks may be erected at Fort Frederic. By these means the british may march immediately under the guard of colo. Crockets battalion,5 while colo. Taylor’s regt of guards remain with the Germans.6 I cannot suppose that this will be deemed such a seperation as is provided against by the convention, nor that their officers will wish to have the whole troops crouded together into barracks which probably are not sufficient for half of them. shoud they however insist on their being kept together, I suppose it woud be the opinion that the second division shoud follow the first as closely as possible, and that their being exposed to a want of covering woud in that case justly be imputable to themselves only. The delay of the second division will lessen the distress for provisions which may perhaps take place on their first going to the new post before matters have got into a regular train.7 I have the honor to be with very great respect & esteem your Excellency’s Most obedient & most humble sert

Th: Jefferson

P.S. by a letter from Colo. Wood received since writing the above I am informed the British Conventioners are 804 rank & file. he does not mention the present number of the Germans. in May last they were 1503 including officers.8

LS, DLC:GW; copy (letterpress), DLC: Jefferson Papers. The postscript appears only on the LS and is in Jefferson’s writing. Jefferson also wrote the complimentary closing and address on the LS. GW replied to Jefferson on 9 December.

1Suffolk, Va., is about twenty miles southwest of Portsmouth. Nansemond River, just under twenty miles long, empties into the James River a little north of Suffolk. Dismal Swamp stretches south from this area to the Virginia line (approximately fifteen miles away) and then continues into North Carolina.

Jefferson had advised GW on the movements of this British expedition to Virginia under Maj. Gen. Alexander Leslie in letters dated 22 and 25 Oct.; see also GW to Samuel Huntington, 17 Oct., n.2, and Nathanael Greene to GW, 31 Oct., n.4.

2Jefferson struck out “flight” on the LS and wrote “retreat” above the line.

3Jefferson refers to an unidentified newspaper, but for a report from Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates on the retreat of troops under Maj. Gen. Charles Cornwallis after the defeat at Kings Mountain, S.C., see Huntington to GW, 23 Oct., source note; see also General Orders, 27 Oct., and n.2 to that document. Cornwallis then wanted Leslie to bring his force to North Carolina for closer cooperation (see Francis Rawdon-Hastings to Leslie, 24 Oct., in Davies, Documents of the American Revolution description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends , 18:189–92).

4Except for a small detachment directed up Nansemond River to drive off “a Part of the Rebels & Seize on Some Publick Stores,” the British expedition sailed on 26 Oct. from Hampton, on the north bank of James River, to Portsmouth. Disembarking troops pushed inland against light opposition, and the invaders established themselves in Portsmouth over the next week (entries for 26 Oct.–3 Nov., in Newsome, “A British Orderly Book,” description begins A. R. Newsome, ed. “A British Orderly Book, 1780–1781 [presumably Alexander Leslie’s].” North Carolina Historical Review 9 (1932): 57–78, 163–86, 273–98, 366–92. description ends 9:163–70, quote on 163).

5For the availability of Lt. Col. Joseph Crockett’s command, see Jefferson to James Wood, 5 Oct., in Jefferson Papers description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 41 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends , 4:14–16.

Joseph Crockett (1742–1829), born in Albemarle County, Va., fought Indians under Andrew Lewis at Point Pleasant, Va. (now W.Va.), in 1774. He entered state service as lieutenant in 1775 and became captain in the 7th Virginia Regiment in April 1776. Crockett rose to major of the 11th Virginia Regiment in May 1779 but subsequently raised a Virginia state regiment (known as the Western Battalion) and served as its lieutenant colonel. He remained in the army until the end of the war, moved to Kentucky in 1784, and attained some prominence in state politics.

6Jefferson struck out “first” on the LS and wrote “Germans” above the line.

7For Jefferson’s earlier proposal to move the Convention Army from near Charlottesville, Va., to prevent the dispersal or rescue of these prisoners, see his letter to GW dated 26 October. GW agreed with the decision (see his letter to Jefferson, 8 Nov.). Congress had designated Fort Frederick, Md., as a suitable destination (see 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 , 18:842, and Huntington to Jefferson, 20 Sept., in Smith, Letters of Delegates description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends , 16:98–99).

8This letter from Col. James Wood, who oversaw the Convention Army, has not been identified, but Jefferson had written Wood from Richmond on 26 Oct.: “The Enemy invading us appearing now to be in force the Executive have determined that the Convention Troops be removed without delay. You will therefore take immediate measures for their removal to fort Frederick as directed by the Board of War.” Jefferson incorporated instructions for Crockett and Col. Francis Taylor of the Virginia state troops (Jefferson Papers description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 41 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends , 4:72–75, quote on 72; see also Jefferson to Wood, 28 Oct. and 1 Nov., in Jefferson Papers description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 41 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends , 4:79, 87–88). Representing the Virginia Council, Jefferson again wrote Wood on 3 Nov. urging him “to push off the British division instantly, because they will require but half the waggons and half the guards; the former of which we suppose you will have procured and for the latter Colo. Crocketts battalion is in readiness” (Jefferson Papers description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 41 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends , 4:95–96). For the departure of the British prisoners, see Jefferson to GW, 26 November.

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