George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General Steuben, 1 March 1781

From Major General Steuben

Richmond March 1st 1781


On Monsieur Tillys arrival in James River I began to prepare for an enterprize against Portsmouth, which preparations I fortunately Continued, although he informed me he should not stay in the River,1 I have it therefore in my Power to afford the necessary assistance to the affair now in agitation, much sooner than could be expected.

You need not My Dear General be under any apprehensions that Arnold will escape by Land, Let his retreat by James River be cut off, & I will answer for delivering him over to the Marquis.2

In four or five days, I hope to have, 4. 18 pdrs & two Mortars Mounted 800 shells ready, and indeed ev[e]ry other article that may be necessary, if Working Day, & Night will procure them.

Immediately on the reception of Your Excellencys letter of the 20th ulto, I reinfor⟨ced⟩ Genl Gregory, who is at Northwest landing, with a Detachment of 800 Men under the Command of Colo. Everard Mead.3

Notwithstanding the above force was taken from Gen. Muhlenbergs Command, he will in two days have 5 Regts 400 men each Militia, 120 Horse, 260 Rifle men, & 4 pieces Artillery, at Suffolk under his orders.

From the length of time which Gen. Weedon has had to form the two Regts which he was ordered, I expect his arrival in two, or three, days at Williamsburg.4

Seven or eight Marchant Vessels of 8, to 20 Guns are ready5 to transport, the 800 men under Gen. Weedon, the battering Cannon, or any other necessarys to Sewells Point, covered by the French Ships.6

This Corps will form a Junction with 1200 Men under Genl Gregory, somewhere near Norfolk, where Batteries may be established against the Enimies fleet, and at the same time against Portsmo. While the Troops the Marquis brings may land under Cover7 at Pig point,8 where I shall be with those under Genl Muhlenberg, at least this is the Plan I have proposed to the Marquis.

I am of opinion the attack on this Side Portsmo., should be made by a Coup de main favor’d by a Cannonade, & Bombardments from the Other. The Enemy’s works are of no importance at Present, a Redoubt with some open Batteries, and indeed the Troops Arnold has with him are not very formidable.

From the situation of the Ground very little is to be apprehended in a Retreat, the Right is covered by the Dismal Swamp, the left by Nansemund R. There is only one Road, & many advantageous positions on it.

If the honor of taking Arnold had been reserved for me, I should have adopted the Inclosed plan of attack which I have submitted to the Marquis for his approbation.9

Neither the presence of Arnold, nor the rapid approach of Cornwallis diverted ⟨me⟩ from the principal Object I had in view, which was to give some existance to the Virginia Line and that as soon as possible.

Arnold was kept in by a body of Militia not much superior in number to his own force and against Cornwallis I ordered the Militias of the Ne⟨a⟩bouring Counties, & was enabled to send off a Detachment of 450 Continental Troops on the 25th ulto, well armed, & equiped to reinforce Genl Greene,10 & am busy in preparing to send another of the Same force the End of this month.

I came here this morning to take the necessary measures with Govern⟨mt⟩ & shall set off to morrow for Williamsb⟨urg⟩, to be nearer the Marquis, & the fleet. The Pilots for Monsieur Tilly are Sent off, I have dispatch’d Capt. De Ponthier who will acquaint him with our situation and wishes.11 I have the honor to be with the greatest Respect and Esteem Your Excellencies Most Obedient Humble Servant

steuben Maj: G.

LS, enclosed in Lafayette to GW, 7 March (DLC:GW), DLC:GW; Df, NHi: Steuben Papers. GW acknowledged this letter when he wrote Steuben on 21 March (DLC:GW).

1For Captain de Tilly’s departure from Chesapeake Bay with his squadron, see Rochambeau to GW, 24 Feb., n.3; see also Rochambeau to GW, 12 Feb., and n.1.

2Brig. Gen. Peter Muhlenberg had written Steuben from Suffolk, Va., on 19 Feb. to report his favorable position in relation to Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold’s command based in Portsmouth, Va.: “I have a sufficient number of men to fight them anywhere, and shall confine them close to their works. We waited for Mr. Arnold yesterday three hours, within one mile and a half of the town, but they would not suffer a man to come out of their works, and a deserter who came out this morning informs me that they are in the utmost consternation” (Muhlenberg, Life of Peter Muhlenberg description begins Henry A. Muhlenberg. The Life of Major-General Peter Muhlenberg of the Revolutionary Army. Philadelphia, 1849. description ends , 227–28).

4The draft indicates that these two regiments were composed of “400 Militia each.”

5On the draft, “in James River” is written at this point.

6Sewells Point, a cape at the mouth of the Elizabeth River where it empties into the James River, is about eight miles north of Portsmouth.

7On the draft, “of the fleet” is written at this point.

8Pig Point is located on the eastern side of the mouth of the Nansemond River in what is now Suffolk.

9The enclosed drawing of the plan of attack, which is filed with the LS in DLC:GW, shows troops deployed south of Portsmouth and east of the Nansemond River. The front line of “Regular Lt Infantry” is divided into three battalions, two of 150 flanking one of 300 men. The second line is shown as one corps of 600 men and two cannon (one on each end). The third line is composed of four companies of 30 horsemen each. A fourth line consists of 1,200 militia organized into three battalions of 400 men each. A “Corps de reserve to cover the retreat” is diagramed as two battalions of 130 riflemen each and two battalions of 400 militia each, with two cannon in the center of the line.

10Steuben had written Muhlenberg from headquarters, presumably at Chesterfield, Va., on 25 Feb.: “I have been some time in doubt whether Lord Cornwallis was a great general or a madman: his late manœuvre proves him clearly to be the latter. His retreat is more rapid than his approach. General Greene crossed Dan River on the 21st, and is pursuing him. I shall set out this evening for Petersburg, and if circumstances make it necessary, for the place where the detachment which marched from this place to-day are ordered.

“I wish you to keep Mr. Arnold close within his lines until you receive further orders” (Muhlenberg, Life of Peter Muhlenberg description begins Henry A. Muhlenberg. The Life of Major-General Peter Muhlenberg of the Revolutionary Army. Philadelphia, 1849. description ends , 231–32).

11On the draft, this sentence reads: “I have dispatched the pilots for Mons. Tilly & have sent him a Letter by Mr Pontier who will acquaint [him] with our situation & Wishes.”

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