Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest author Drew Gruber.
Since Arnold’s raid in January the situation for Virginians in the Spring of 1781 was deplorable and growing worse. Keeping soldiers shod and fed (besides properly armed and equipped) proved difficult. For example, Gen. Baron von Steuben noted that despite receiving 100,000 cartridges the Virginians simply lacked cartridge boxes to store them or even an adequate number of muskets to fire them. In Virginia, a colony defined by its deep waterways finding vessels to move men and supplies was also a major piece of the puzzle.
The Chesapeake Bay and navigable rivers provided quick access into the interior of Virginia and both sides vied to control them. Previous campaigns in Virginia and along the Bay highlighted why towns like Portsmouth, near the confluence of the James River, and the Chesapeake Bay could help armies control large swaths of the largest and most prosperous colony. Of course, access to vessels of a variety of sizes was necessary to ensure the control of not only Virginia but Coastal North Carolina and Maryland.
Thankfully by March 1781 Virginians had an upper hand over their adversaries not only in the number of boats but the means to outfit, repair, and support an ad-hoc navy. It was the culmination of years of effort and ingenuity which began just after Virginia declared its independence.
Alongside Virginia’s establishment of a system of public stores and the creation of a standing army a shipyard was on the short-list of priorities for the fledgling independent state. In June 1776 the Virginia Committee of Safety empowered shipbuilder John Herbert to “examine all such places upon the James River or its branches…proper and convenient for erecting ship-yards…”1 Herbert selected a bend in the Chickahominy River just a dozen miles west of Williamsburg.
The Virginia State Navy appears to have been amorphous and inconsistently armed between June 1776 and the spring of 1781. At various points it consisted of about a dozen ships, although the term ‘ship’ may be generous descriptions for some of these vessels.2 According to Charles Paulin’s Navy of the American Revolution despite Virginia leadership’s zeal to fund additional ships, marines, and infrastructure to support coastal defense, the vessels were largely undermanned and poorly armed. To our modern sensibilities and perhaps to the men and women of the Revolutionary era the names of the “armed boats” which comprised Virginia’s navy are less than inspiring. For instance, the ships Experiment and the Dolphin don’t give off an air of martial prowess but still sound better when compared to my personal favorite, the Fly.
Still, the Virginia General Assembly pushed to create and maintain a more effective naval system and in 1777 appointed James Maxwell as Superintendent. He apparently oversaw the operation at the various shipyards, rope works, foundries and all the materials and men needed to create and maintain an effective navy. Maxwell’s base of operations at the Chickahominy yard included over 150 acres of stores, barracks, and other infrastructure essential to the maintenance and creation of a vast flotilla.
Although the Chickahominy yard was ably led and with copious old growth timber at their disposal the lack of manpower persisted. Maxwell reported to Virginia’s Gov. Jefferson that in outfitting two vessels they relied on volunteers.3 In the same letter to the governor, Maxwell noted that the term of service for the crew of the Jefferson expired and he was “detaining them Against their will.” Despite setbacks and the shortage of able bodies the shipyard kept Virginia float.
The information available in the papers of Williamsburg Public Store and the Calendar of State Papers provides a snapshot into the day-to-day operations in the naval yard.4 However, a letter written in February 1781 provides the best insight into the effectiveness of the operation. Capt. Beesly Edgar Joel wrote Gov. Jefferson from Williamsburg commenting that the Dragon (a much better name) was under water rendering it, obviously, unfit for service. Within five days it was floating and on day six was sailing down the James River.5 In an era obviously devoid of pneumatic lifts this quick turnaround speaks volumes as to the facility’s capabilities despite its handicaps.
Maxwell’s operation at the Navy Yard grew slightly by March 1781 as the state prepared for what was certain to be an intense spring campaign. Maxwell reported that he had 96 guns with the majority being four pounders but lamented that his full compliment of sailors should be 590 whereas he had 78 men to staff 7 ships. Two additional ships were ready but had no crew to speak of while 4 of his operable boats had less than 10 men serving on them.6 This would have to suffice.
That same month, reports flooded into Richmond from various points near the Chesapeake Bay that British reinforcements had arrived in Portsmouth to support Arnold. Within a few short days various Virginia arsenals, warehouses, and even shipyards were being instructed to police up their men and materials and move them west out of the possible path of destruction. Virginia could not afford another disastrous raid like the one they experienced in January.
As predicted, British Gen. Phillips left Portsmouth on April 18th, with over two dozen boats and approximately 2,000 men. It happened quickly. Virginian Rodham Kenner recalled their retreat as Phillips combined force sailed west up the James River.
“the whole of our little fleet which was in this part of the Bay was driven up James River a much Superior British force, and into the Chickahominy River to what was called the Ship Yard: whilst our little fleet composed of the following Vessels to wit the Ship Dragon, the Brigg Jefferson and the Thetis a 36 gun Ship”7
The following morning, on April 19, British Col. John Simcoe landed at Burwell’s Ferry with a force of Jagers, light infantry and the Queen’s Rangers. The Ferry, located at the confluence of the James and Chickahominy rivers sat scarcely a few miles from Maxwell’s shipyard. Phillips ordered Simcoe to “beat up any party who might be in ambuscade there.”8 Finding no ambush this elite force quickly marched across the Virginia Peninsula towards Williamsburg.
A small force of Virginians, apparently under the command of Maj. Armistead briefly skirmished with Simcoe’s men as they pushed east towards Williamsburg.9 Simcoe’s men continued east along the old Yorktown road as various Virginia militia units melted away before them eventually arriving in Yorktown itself. As this was unfolding British Lt. Col. Robert Abercromby (Ambercombie) with his light infantry paddled up the Chickahominy towards the shipyard. Over a dozen flat boats, supported by perhaps as many as a dozen additional vessels turned into the mouth of the Chickahominy River from the James River – a few miles of the shipyard.
Although few primary source accounts describe the British attack on the shipyard Virginia pensioner Joseph Saunders provided the best description so far. Although he was recalling the event almost fifty years after the fact, his deposition has a surprising amount of detail.
“They sent a number of gun boats up to our shipyard to destroy what was there. I had filled my galley with naval stores to take up the River to conceal them but wind and tide being against me could not go on, came to, put a spring on my cable, and awaited their arrival. It was not long before they came in sight and as soon as near enough I discharged my cannon at them, sunk my vessel, and made my escape to shore…”10
Arnold’s report to Henry Clinton is rather vague as was Virginia’s Lt. Governor David Jameson when he wrote James Madison seven days later on April 28. “When they went into Wbg some of their Vessels with the flat Bottomed Boats moved up to Chickahominy—while there they destroyed the Ship Yard, the Thetis, the Stores &c. &c.”11 Besides untold stores, and raw and finished materials, at least two large vessels were destroyed, either at the hands of their own crew or Ambercromby’s amphibious infantrymen. Besides the limited contemporary reports from soldiers, sailors, and Virginia legislators, myriad archaeological reports highlight the effectiveness of the British raid.
The inferno of the burning yard, ships, stores, and supplies was so large that it could be seen several miles away later that evening. James Innes, commanding Virginia militia who were fleeing west towards New Kent County, recalled in his letter to Thomas Jefferson that, “They possessed themselves of the Ship Yard about 4 o’Clocke yesterday, and I am apprehensive from the fire discoverd in that Quarter last night they have totally destroyed it.”12
According to William Lowrie, the Dragon was “burnt by the British at Chickahominy Ship yard.”13 Both Lowrie and Saunders have ties to the Dragon and it must have been difficult to watch the ship which had served the cause of liberty for almost five years slip beneath the surface. In fact, The Dragon was approximately 81 feet long and roughly matches the size of a one of the two vessels still sitting in the bottom of the bottom of the Chickahominy River today.14 The second vessel which has also been surveyed in myriad cultural resource reports is substantially shorter and has been hypothesized to be either the Lewis or Safeguard.15 In fact, on March 20th 1781 Saunders was placed in command of the Lewis which he scuttled almost a month later a few yards from the wharf at the shipyard.16
Today the site of the shipyard is on private property and the underwater resources are protected by the Code of Virginia § 10.1-2214 which empowers the Virginia Marine Resources Commission with the authority to permit underwater archaeological investigations and makes recovery of underwater archaeological materials illegal without a permit. Trespassing on both land and water is unlawful which helps protect the known and unknown archaeological resources. Without stronger primary source materials like pensions, maps, and letters from soldiers and citizens artifacts become the key to understanding many Revolutionary War events like this one. Every button, nail, and cannonball when professionally recovered and systemically documented will provide us with the best chance to fully understanding how this shipyard contributed to the war for American independence.17
Maxwell’s shipyard never recovered however the Virginia State Navy has escaped wholesale destruction and would live to fight another day. As Phillip’s soldiers and sailors moved west up the James River, with the smoke from the Shipyard bellowing another naval showdown was brewing closer to Richmond.
- Naval Document of the American Revolution, Page 342
- Paullin, Charles O., Navy of the American Revolution. (1906). Page 413
- “Capt: Jas: Maxwell to the Governor, January 1, State Ship Yard.” Calendar of Virginia State Papers. Vol. 1., Page 409.
- Williamsburg Public Store records, transcribed by Katherine Egner Gruber. Unpublished.
- “B. Edgar Joel to the Governor, February 9, Williamsburg.” Calendar of Virginia State Papers, Vol. 1., Page 501. A day later, after hiring a pilot the Dragon ran aground and sat on the bar for three days and returned to the ship yard.
- “To Thomas Jefferson from James Maxwell, 26 April 1781,” Founders Online, national Archives, last modified November 26, 2017
- Rodham Kenner S1228 transcribed by Will Graves http://revwarapps.org/s1228.pdf
- “Simcoe’s Military Journal…By John Graves Simcoe.” Bartlett and Welford, NY, 1844. Page 191
- This may refer to William Armistead.
- Joseph Saunders 217073 Transcribed by Will Graves. http://revwarapps.org/s17073.pdf
- “To James Madison from David Jameson, 28 April 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-03-02-0044.
- To Thomas Jefferson from James Innes, 22 April 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-05-02-0658
- William Lowrie VAS986 transcribed by Will Graves. http://revwarapps.org/VAS986.pdf
- American War of Independence At Sea. Accessed on April, 5, 2020. https://awiatsea.com/sn/va/Dragon%20Virginia%20Navy%20Ship-Galley%20%5bCallender%20Markham%20Singleton%20Travis%20Chandler%20Joel%5d.html
- National Register of Historic Places. Nomination. 6/28/79. https://www.dhr.virginia.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/047-0078_Chickahominy_Shipyard_AE_Site_1979_Final_Nomination_REDACTED.pdf
- A letter from Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Harrison on April 22nd notes the two ships in the Chickahominy as the Lewis and Safeguard.
- To find out more about underwater archaeology check out the Maritime Heritage Chapter of the Archaeological Society of Virginia. https://maritimeheritageva.org/