George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General Steuben, 8 January 1781

From Major General Steuben

Petersburgh [Va.] Jany 8th 1781


I have waited a moments leisure from the hurry & confusion of these eight days past to give Your Excellency a Detail of the Enemies Movements in this State.1

So early as the 31st of Decembr the Governor informed me of a Fleet of 27 Sail having arrived at Willoby point,2 in Consequence of which I immediately dispatched Col. Senf, & one of my Aids de Camp, down the south side of the River to procure intelligence of their Strength & destination.3

General Nelson was sent at the same time down the North side, to act as circumstances might require. Notwithstanding these precautions we did not receive the least intelligence till the 2d of Jany when the Governor informed me that 19 Ships, 2 Brigs, & 10 Sloops, & schooners, were in Warrasqueek Bay, and were geting under Way to proceed up the River, that they had a favorable Wind, & that some captured Sailors whom they had put on Shore, reported that their destination was for Petersburgh.4

I immediately waited on the Governor & council, & requested that 4000 Militia might be directly called in, Estimating the Enemies force at 2500.

The distressed situation of the Troops at Chesterfield Court Ho[use] would only permit 150 of them to be Ordered out,5 these I formed into a Battaln & sent to Petersburgh to cover the Public stores which I Ordered to be removed; and sent Col. Carrington there for that purpose, at the same time I took proper Measures for the removal of the Stores, & Hospital from Chesterfld in case the Enemy should move that way.

The next day “the 3d of Jany” we were advised of the Enemies arrival off Williamsburgh where Genl Nelson had collected about 150 Militia, here a flag was sent with a letter, a “Copy of which I have the Honor to inclose”6 to which Genl Nelson returned a Verbal Answer, That he would defend the Town. They landed a few Troops on James Town, but reembarked them again Immediately, and proceeded up the River. At Midnight, their foremost Ship passed Hoods,7 where we had a Battery of two Iron 18 pounders, & a Brass Howitz[er], three shot were fired, two of which struck the Vessell, on which the rest of the Fleet brought to, & a party landing below, the Militia about 70 evacuated the Battery, & the Cannon & Howitz fell into their hand⟨s⟩ they burnt the Carriages of the Guns, & Carried off the Howitz.

The 4th in the morning we recd intelligence that the Enemy’s fleet lay off Westover,8 & were preparing to disembark, it was then evident that their Object was Richmond, Orders were immediately Given for the removal of the Public Stores to Westham:9 As the Enemy had 25 miles to March before they reach’d the Town, I was in hopes a force would collect sufficient at least to check their progr⟨ess⟩ but to my surprize, only 100 Men could be Assembled, these were sent down under the Command of a State Major, to whom I gave Orders to Harrass the Enemy, by firing at them from every favorable piece of Ground. These Orders were however illy executed. The Enemy moved that evening to 4 mile Creek, where they halted about Eleven oClock.10

What few Continental stores were in Town I sent out to Westham having before Ordered Major Claibourne up the River to Collect Boats there to transport them across I also ordered the 150 Cont[inenta]l Troops to March from Petersburgh and take a position opposite Westham to protect them, should the Enemy attempt to Cross the River. And Col. Davis having sent all the stores, & Hospital from Chesterfield, was Ordered to the Same place with the remainder of the Troops.

The States Stores, of which Great Quantities were in town were under the direction of Colo. Muter, Commissioner of the Board of War of this State, by whose inactivity and downright negligence, great part were lost.11 Of their Artillery I secured my self five pieces which were mounted, the rest consisting of three Brass and a number of Iron pieces fell into the Enemies ha⟨nds⟩.

Not a single man, except those I had sent out, presenting himself to oppose the approach of the Enemy, I thought it prudent to cross the River in the Evening, and took my Quarters in Manchester.12 Next day about 12 oClo⟨ck⟩ the Enemy took possession of the Town, having March’d 25 miles, with 850 Men, & about 30 Horse, without receiv⟨ing⟩ a single shot. They left about 500 Men in Town & proceeded immediately with the rest to Westham, where they Burnt all the Public Buildings, consisting of a Foundery with a Boring Mill, a Powder Magazine, and several other small Buildings, and returned to Richmond the same evening, the Continental Stores had been all Sent across the River & some of the State Stores, but what part was left, I have not Yet learnt. About 300 Militia had arrived at Westham on their way down, & arms were Actually recrossing for them, but hearing of the Enemy’s Approach, & being without Arms they dispersed.

The Next Morning I Ordered the Battln of Continental Troops to which I had attached two of the State field pieces, to Mancheste⟨r⟩ where there were about 200 Militia Collected, with these I intended to Oppose any attempts they might make to cross, they however did not Attempt it, but about eleven oClock began to set fire to the Public Buildings, & before One, had intirely Quited the Town; they burnt a Rope Walk, Workshops, & two or three Public Stores.

In the Morning two of the Inhabitants came out with propositions from Arnold, to pay for half the Tobacco, on their giving Hostages for the delivery of the Whole, to Vessells which would be sent for it; The Governor refused his Consent, & as they came out with a pass from Arnold, & not as a Flag I refused them permission to return. The Tobacco was however left unhurt. As most of the Inhabitants had left Town, the Houses in general were plundered.

The Enemy march’d that night to their former Position at 4 mile Creek, where they Encamped, & Yesterday got to Westover—On their return great Excesses were committed by the stragling parties.

As there were great Quantites of Grain, & Flour at Mills near Warwick, I marched my little force in the Evening of the 6th to that Place,13 Yesterday I advanced to Osbornes,14 & this day arrived here, where I find about 400 Militia collected under Col. Gibson—who I had Ordered to take the Command, in the absence of Generals Weedon & Muhlenburgh, to whom I wrote on the first intimation of the Enemys approach, but have not heard of them.

The public stores of which great Quantities were in this Town are all removed by the great Exertion of Col. Carringto⟨n⟩ assisted by Col. Gibson. & Yesterday Genl Smallwood arrived here on his way to Maryland, but stop’d, & has been so Obliging as to Afford us his assistance. Some Vessells of the Enemy were sent up this River Yesterday to take or destroy some Merchant Vessells laying there, but by the dispositions Genl Smallwood made with the Militia, & some Ship guns they were Obliged to desist from their Enterp⟨rise⟩.

Genl Nelson was during this time endeavouring to Collect the Militia on the North side of James River the 3d he was twelve miles above Williamsburgh with 175 men the Next day he moved 4 miles higher up, & wrote me that he expected to have 350 Men by the 5th at noon. on the 7th he wrote me from Long bridge on Chickahomonny River,15 that the Enemy were moving down to their Shiping, & that the Rain the preceedi⟨ng⟩ Night had rendered his Troops unfit for immediate action.

In fact the Enemy returned, as they went, without having a single shot fired at them, & have lain quietly at Westover in a scattered manner all this day.

As the stores are all removed from hence, & a considerable force of Militia Collected, I do not immagine the Enemy will attempt this Place. I have some hopes of being able to annoy them from Hoods, on their return, the River there is very Narrow, but we have no Guns. I have sent to have those which were there remounted, & shall march there myself with all the Militia I can arm, so soon as I hear the Enemy are on their return.

The greatest distress we now feel is the Want of Arms, great part of those belonging to the State were damaged by the Militia during the last Invasion,16 they were scattered at diff⟨er⟩ent places & never Collected, or repaired, Those which were at Rich⟨mond⟩ were on the Approach of the Enemy, sent of[f] in such disorder, that part of them are not yet found.

The Militia are now Coming in & no Arms to put in their hands, whilst on the Other side, Gen. Nelson has 1500 Stand of A⟨rms⟩ & not 500 men.

I cannot conclude without mention⟨ing⟩ to Your Excellency how much I am indebted to Col. Davis, & Lt Col. Carrington, for their Assistance on this Occasion. I have the Honor to be with the greatest Respect Your Excellencys Most devoted Hbl. Servt


LS, DLC:GW; copy, NHi: Steuben Papers. The copy does not include the final four paragraphs. For a similar letter, see Steuben to Nathanael Greene, same date, in Greene Papers description begins Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976–2005. description ends , 7:76–81.

For a contemporary map with many of the geographic locations and points mentioned in this letter, see Marshall and Peckham, American Revolution Manuscript Maps description begins Douglas W. Marshall and Howard H. Peckham. Campaigns of the American Revolution: An Atlas of Manuscript Maps. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1976. description ends , 116–17.

1For the departure from New York City of the expedition under the command of British brigadier general Benedict Arnold and its difficult voyage to Chesapeake Bay, see GW to Greene, 2 Jan., n.2. Arnold’s fleet, carrying 1,200 troops, reached Hampton Roads, Va., on 30 Dec. 1780. On 4 Jan., an additional 400 troops, whose transports had been scattered in a gale, arrived to reinforce the expedition. For Arnold’s report of the expedition, see his letter to Henry Clinton, 21 Jan., 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 , 20:40–43; see also Ewald, Diary description begins Johann Ewald. Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal. Translated and edited by Joseph P. Tustin. New Haven and London, 1979. description ends , 255–75; Simcoe, Operations of the Queen’s Rangers description begins John Graves Simcoe. Simcoe’s Military Journal: A History of the Operations of a Partisan Corps, Called the Queen’s Rangers, Commanded by Lieut. Col. J. G. Simcoe, during the War of the American Revolution . . .. 1844. Reprint. New York, 1968. description ends , 158–72; and GW to Samuel Huntington, 27 Dec. 1780, and n.2 to that document.

2See Thomas Jefferson to Steuben, 31 Dec. 1780, 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 , 4:254–55.

Willoughby Point, a cape north of Norfolk, Va., forms the south side of the entry from Chesapeake Bay into Hampton Roads and the James River.

3Steuben refers to the James River.

John Christian Senf (c.1754–1806), a native of Sweden, served with the German auxiliary forces early in the war and was taken prisoner with the other British and German troops who surrendered at Saratoga, N.Y., in October 1777. Senf soon became an engineer in the service of South Carolina and was appointed chief military engineer of the state in 1779 with the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1780 and 1781 he served in Virginia as an engineer in the southern army (see Jefferson to Benjamin Harrison, 30 Nov. 1780, 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 , 4:168–69). Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates described Senf as “the best Draughtsman I know, and an Excellent Engineer” (Gates to Jefferson, 24 Sept. 1780, 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 , 3:662–63). He returned to Europe after the war but came back to the United States in 1785, settling in South Carolina, where he served as chief engineer on canal and fortification projects in the 1790s. In 1799, Senf was considered for appointment as chief of the army’s Corps of Engineers (see GW to James McHenry, 13 May and 6 June 1799; and McHenry to GW, 19 May, in Papers, Retirement Series description begins W. W. Abbot et al., eds. The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series. 4 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1998–99. description ends 4:70–73, 78–80, 103–6).

4See Jefferson to Steuben, 2 Jan., 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 , 4:298.

Warrasqueak (Warrisquack) Bay, now Burwell Bay, on the James River is located west of Newport News, Va., near the mouth of the Warwick River.

5Chesterfield Court House, Va., was about 12 miles south of Richmond and about the same distance northwest of Petersburg.

6The enclosed letter from Arnold to “the Officer commanding the posts on shore,” dated 2 Jan. “On Board His Mty’s Ship Hope,” reads: “Having the honor to Command a Body of his Majesty’s Troops, Sent for the protection of his Loyal Subjects in this Country, I am surprized to observe the hostile Appearances of the Inhabitants under Arms on Shore, I have therefore Sent Lieut. White, with a Flag of Truce, to be informed of their Intentions. If they are to offer a Vain Opposition to the Troops under my Command, in their Landing, they must be answerable for the Consequences.

“At the Same Time I think it my Duty to declare I have not the least Intention to injure the peaceable inhabitants in their persons, or property, but that Every thing Supplied the Troops by them shall be punctually paid for” (DLC:GW).

7The artillery battery at Hood’s Point, Va., about eighteen miles east of Petersburg, guarded the south point of a bend in the James River.

8Westover plantation, the estate of William Byrd III until his death in 1777, was about five miles upriver from Hood’s Point and twenty miles southeast of Richmond. GW had visited the plantation in 1773 (see Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 3:214–15).

9Westham, Va., was about five miles west of Richmond.

10Fourmile Creek, in Henrico County, Va., flows into Bailey Creek just before the latter creek empties into the James River about twelve miles southeast of Richmond.

11From June 1778 to April 1781, Col. George Muter commanded the eight companies of the battalion of Virginia state troops raised to garrison the forts and batteries defending harbors in the tidewater region.

12Manchester, Va., was directly across the James River from Richmond.

13Warwick, Va., was about four miles south of Manchester.

14Osborn, Va., on the south shore of the James River, was about nine miles south of Warwick and about twelve miles northeast of Petersburg.

15The Long Bridge over the Chickahominy River was about twenty-two miles southeast of Richmond.

16Steuben refers to the British raid on Portsmouth, Norfolk, and Suffolk, Va., in May 1779 (see William Maxwell to GW, 3 May 1779, n.2).

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