At 3:00 in the afternoon on April 21, 1781 Virginia militia Colonel James Innes sat down to write a letter near Hickory Neck Church, just shy of the halfway point between Virginia’s old colonial capitol at Williamsburg and its new capitol at Richmond. Perhaps with a heavy heart and a weary hand, Innes picked up his pen to scrawl a letter to Governor Thomas Jefferson. The situation in Virginia was bleak. It had only been a year since, in apprehension of a British attack, the Virginia Assembly voted to move the seat of government from the Peninsula west to Richmond, and along with it the public stores for outfitting, equipping, and otherwise supporting Virginia’s patriot forces in the fifth and sixth years of the war with the British. The gamble hadn’t paid off. January 1781 saw Benedict Arnold’s forces sacking Richmond. Everywhere they went, it seems, a new combined force of British, Hessian, and Loyalist forces left destruction in its wake.
Sitting down to pen his letter to Jefferson, Innes feared they were about to do it again, but this time, much closer to home.
Innes was aware that not 24 hours before, forces under the command of Major General William Phillips had landed at Burwell’s Ferry, at the confluence of the Chickahominy and James Rivers, not 15 miles from where Innes was now holding his pen, intent on providing news to Governor Jefferson. Dipping pen in ink, Innes relayed:
“About 3 o’Clock Yesterday the Enemy landed at Burwell’s Ferry 500 Infantry 50
Horse and 4 Pieces Artillery, which with a seeming Intention of landing in force at
Jamestown or on some part of the River above us, obliged us to evacuate the Town,
and move up to Allens Ordinary six Miles above, about 12 o’Clock in the Night.
Major Armistead with 150 Men and Capt. Kelly with 50 Riflemen were ordered
down and had a Skirmish with the Enemy which terminated rather in our
That was some decent news, Innes may have thought. He continued:
“We have just now received Information that they are above Jamestown 14 Square
rigged Vessels, and 16 flat bottomed Boats are now in Chickahominy River within 3
Miles of the Shipyard, and in our present situation I think, there is no probability of
our obviating their Intentions without risqueing every thing.”
Innes tactfully voiced his concern at the enemy’s proximity to Virginia’s shipyard, a major cog in Virginia’s wheel of offensive and defensive action against the British. Formally established by the Assembly in June 1776, the works on the banks of the Chickahominy had grown competently under the direction of James Maxwell after 1777. The venture had fits and starts, and troubles to be sure—Maxwell routinely reported a shortage of men that left him no other choice but to hold sailors there “against their will.” Still, it was a successful operation that Maxwell was preparing for a busy campaign year as the British Army tightened her hold on Virginia.
Innes must have known that the British would eye the shipyard as a mark. Governor Jefferson definitely did. One month prior on March 20, Jefferson prophetically sent urgent word to Maxwell at the shipyard, imploring him to prepare for enemy attack. Innes must have known the dire consequences if the British made their way to the shipyard, yet, his present circumstance prevented him from doing anything about it. Perhaps he could give his salutations without saying much else about the matter:
“I am Sir yr. Excellency’s obedt. Servt,
We’ll never know how long the ink was dry on Innes’ letter before the news he may have expected finally arrived. Perhaps it arrived along with the same post rider Innes intended to deliver his letter to Jefferson. Alas, Innes returned to the letter, dipped his pen in ink once more, and added a postscript:
“P.S. Since writing the above we have received Information that the
“Enemy are in Possession of the Shipyard.“
Once again, British forces had set their sights on Virginia, and left destruction. It was April 1781—and no one knew what would happen next.