George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Jefferson, 10 January 1781

From Thomas Jefferson

Richmond Jany 10. 1781


It may seem odd considering the important events which have taken place in this State within the course of ten days past, that I should not have transmitted an account of them to your Excellency.1 but such has been their extraordinary rapidity & such the unremitted exertions they have required from all concerned in Government that I do not recollect the portion of time which I could have taken to commit them to paper.

On the 31st of December a Letter from a private Gentleman to General Nelson came to my hands, notifying that in the morning of the preceding day 27 Sail of vessels had entered the capes & from the tenor of the letter we had reason to expect within a few hours further intelligence whether they were friends or foes, their force, & other circumstances. We immediately dispatched General Nelson to the lower Country with powers to call on the Militia in that quarter or to Act otherwise as exigences should require, but waited further intelligence before we would call for Militia from the middle or upper Country.2 No further intelligence came till the 2d inst. when the former was confirmed, it was ascertained that they were enemies & had advanced up James river to Warrasquiak bay. All arrangements were immediately taken for calling in a sufficient body of Militia for opposition.3 In the night of 3d we received advice that they were at anchor opposite James Town. We then supposed Wmsburg to be their object. the wind however, which had hitherto been unfavorable, shifted fair, and the tide being also in their favor they ascended the river to Kennon’s that evening4 and with the next tide came up to Westover, having on their way taken possession of some works we had at Hoods by which two or three of their vessels had received some damage, but which were of necessity abandoned by the small garrison of 50 men placed there on the enemy’s landing to invest the works. intelligence of their having quitted the Station at Jas town from which we supposed they meant to land for Wmsburg and that they had got in the evening to Kennon’s reached us the next morning at 5. oClock & was the first indication of their meaning to penetrate towards this place or Petersburg. As the orders for drawing Militia hither had been given but two days no opposition was in readiness. Every Effort was therefore necessary to withdraw the arms & other Military Stores records &c. from this place. every Effort was accordingly exerted to convey them to the Foundery five miles & to the5 laboratory six miles above this till about sunset of that day when we learnt that the enemy had come to an anchor at Westover that morning. We then knew that this & not Petersburg was their object & began to carry cross the river every thing remaining here, & to remove what had been transported to the Foundery & Laboritory to Westham the nearest crossing seven miles above this place. which operation was continued till they had approached very near. they marched from Westover at 2 oClock in the afternoon of the 4th & enterd Richmond at 1 oClock in the afternoon of the 5th. a regiment of infantry & about 30 horse continued on without halting to the Foundery. they burnt that, the boring Mill the Magazine and two other houses, & proceeded to Westham, but nothing being in their power there they retired to Richmond. the next morning they burnt some buildings of public & some of private property, with what Stores remained in them, destroyed a great quantity of private Stores & about 12 oClock retired towards Westover where they encamped within the neck the next day. the loss sustained is not yet accurately known. As far as I have been able to discover it consisted at this place in about 300 musquets, some soldiers clothing to a small amount some quarter masters Stores of which 120 sides of leather was the principal article, part of the artificers tools & 3 waggons. besides which 5 brass 4 lbrs which we had sunk in the river were discovered to them, raised & carried off. At the Foundery we lost the qua[r]ter part of the papers belonging to the auditors office, & of the books & papers of the Council Office, about 5 or 6 tons as we conjecture of powder was thrown into the canal of which there will be a considerable saving by remanufacturing it. the roof of the foundery was burnt but the Stacks of Chimnies & furnaces not at all injured. the boring mill was consumed. Within less than 48 hours from the time of their landing & 19 from our knowing their destination they had penetrated 33 Miles, done the whole injury & retired. their numbers from the best intelligence I have had are about 1500 infantry & as to their cavalry accounts vary from 50 to 120. the whole commanded by the parrecide Arnold. Our Militia dispersed over a large tract of Country can be called in but slowly. On the day the enemy advanced to this place 200 only were embodied. they were of the town & its neighbourhood, and were too few to do anything. At this time they are assembled in pretty considerable numbers on the South side James river but are not all yet brought to a point. On the northside are two or three small bodies amounting in the whole to about 900 men. The enemy were at 4 oClock yesterday evening still remaining in their encampment at Westover & Berkeley neck.6 In the mean while Baron Steuben a zealous friend has descended from the dignity of his proper command to direct our smallest movements. his vigilance has in a great measure supplied the want of force in preventing the enemy from crossing the river, which might have been very fatal. he has been assiduously employed in preparing equipments for the Militia as they shd assemble pointing them to a proper object & other offices of a good commander. Should they loiter a little longer & he be able to have a sufficient force I shall flatter myself they will not escape with total impunity. to what place they will point their next exertions we cannot even conjecture The whole Country in the tide waters & some distance from them is equally open to similar insult. I have the honor to be with every sentiment of respect your Excelleny’s mo. ob. & mo. humble Servt

Th: Jefferson

LS, DLC:GW; Df (letterpress copy), DLC: Jefferson Papers; LB, DLC: Jefferson Papers; LB, Vi. GW replied to Jefferson on 6 February.

1Major General Steuben also reported the events of British brigadier general Benedict Arnold’s incursion up the James River (see Steuben to GW, 8 Jan.).

2For the dispatch of Virginia militia general Thomas Nelson, Sr., see 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.

3See Jefferson to Nelson, 2 Jan. 1781, 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 , 4:297.

4The plantation of the Kennon family in Charles City County, Va., was fifteen miles up the James River from Jamestown.

5Jefferson inserted this word on the LS.

6“Berkeley Neck” probably refers to the area of flat land between Herring Creek, a tributary of the James River, and that river. Both the Berkeley and Westover plantations were located in the area about twenty miles southeast of Richmond.

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