Westover Plantation, the beautiful Georgian-style colonial home once owned by Virginia’s Byrd family, sits atop a high bank, overlooking the James River. Located in Charles City County, Westover is a mere 25 miles from the Virginia state capital of Richmond. It was here, on January 4, 1781, that a visitor would arrive who ultimately would set Richmond “on its ear”; he was the infamous traitor, Benedict Arnold.
Throughout January 2021, Richmond National Battlefield Park, in partnership with Historic St. John’s Church Foundation, will commemorate what has come to be remembered as Arnold’s Raid through a series of three virtual presentations that will premiere on the Facebook channels of both organizations as well as on YouTube. The presentations will air on January 5, 10, and 17, all at 1:00PM.
In his first assignment as a general officer in His Majesty’s service, the newly minted Brigadier General, Benedict Arnold, sailed south from New York in late December 1780, heading to the Chesapeake Bay. The force he commanded numbered around 1,600 and was quite impressive, being comprised of both regular and loyalist troops. Upon reaching the Chesapeake, Arnold seized smaller craft that would take his strike force up the James River. Ultimately, his target would be Richmond, the new state capital of Virginia. Thus far in the Revolution, Virginia had played a critical role in the war effort in terms of supplying men and material. Knocking Virginia out of the war, therefore, could greatly aid Britain in ending the conflict. The destruction of its capital city could hasten that end. On January 4, 1781, Arnold would land his troops at Westover Plantation and begin the 25-mile march to Richmond.
Back in the 21st Century, Rangers of Richmond National Battlefield Park came to the site of beautiful Westover Plantation on the frigidly cold morning of December 26 to begin filming the presentation called “The Raid”, which will air on January 10. This video will center on Arnold’s activities before, during, and after his visit to Richmond and feature several sites around the city that figured prominently in the story. Joining the Rangers at Westover, in the icy wind from off the river, was professional living historian, Beau Robbins, who would be portraying an officer of the 60th Regiment, Royal American Legion. As Robbins, joined by his wife, walked through the main gate of Westover, his scarlet cape fluttered about him in the wind like a comic book superhero. A few visitors roamed the site as well, at a distance; the sight of an officer in scarlet certainly turned a few heads.
Other sites involved in “The Raid” include Chimborazo Park, where around 200 or so local militia fired a volley and fled before Arnold’s troops on January 5, 1781, St. John’s Church, where a good portion of Arnold’s command bedded down that evening in the churchyard, and the corner of 19th and Main Streets, where once stood the prosperous City Tavern and where Arnold himself would quarter. Other living historians would likewise join us, representing the local militia, British infantry, and the German (Hessian) Jaeger Corps. Social distancing was certainly the order of the day for this specific filming.
It goes without saying that 2020 was an incredibly different and challenging year due to the appearance of the COVID-19 pandemic. Individuals and businesses alike have been hard-pressed to re-think how lives should be lived, and business conducted amid the ever-tightening restrictions on social gatherings and the importance of social distancing. The history/museum world is no different. What has changed, though, for many history-based organizations is a new dependence on virtual programming in order to meet the needs and interests of our audience. This comes as somewhat of a contrast with other years as, in the past, there seemed to be an aversion by some to utilizing virtual programs. For many, the idea persisted that visitors would choose to not visit a site in person if they had already seen that site virtually. “That’s hogwash.” Beau Robbins said as we discussed this topic at Westover. “Seeing a video of an historic site only whets my appetite to go there; to see that site for myself.” As a life-long student of American history, I tend to agree.
Honestly speaking, nothing can replace the personal touch and connection with visitors that in-person history programs provide. For those who are able to visit a battlefield, an historic building or home, walking along with a guide and hearing the stories of that site is certainly a wonderful form of education and, hopefully, an experience to be remembered. But, what about those people on the other side of the country perhaps; people who may long to see those sites but who, realistically, will never be able to make the trip? There, I think, lies the true niche of the virtual program. It allows an historic site to share its storytelling with all who are interested. In some cases, as well, virtual programming may mean the difference between reaching hundreds vs. perhaps thousands. It’s certainly something to think about as we move forward into whatever our new “normal” will be.