During the Revolutionary War, the individual states formed their own navies for local defense and military operations. These state navies existed simultaneously with the Continental Navy. Like many state navies, Virginia’s began when the war started and there was a need to defend the state’s coastline and waterways, just as troops were organized to defend its land. The Virginia State Navy patrolled the Chesapeake Bay, provided security on its rivers, and even went to Europe and the Caribbean to bring back supplies.
After several years of inactivity, by 1781 the war had returned to Virginia. British troops occupied Portsmouth and used it as a base for raids. Governor Thomas Jefferson scrambled to get the state’s defenses ready.
British forces under General Benedict Arnold capture the fledging capital of Richmond, where he dispersed local militia and destroyed supplies. Arnold withdrew to the British base at Portsmouth, but the redcoats would soon be back in the area.
Marching south with reinforcements from New Jersey was General Lafayette. By late April he reached Hanover Court House, and continued on towards Richmond.
On April 8 General Phillips from Portsmouth up the James River to City Point. From there they moved on to Petersburg. The town was an important crossroads, port, and supply base for the Continental army. Generals Friedrich Von Steuben and Peter Muhlenberg had been gathering militia here, and they made a stand just south of the town on April 25. The British drove the defenders back, and the Americans retreated to Richmond. Phillips followed, intending to again capture the state capital.
As part of the British advance, General Arnold with the 76th, 80th, and some Jaegers (German riflemen) and Queen’s Rangers moved towards Osborn’s Landing on the James River. They arrived on April 27 and incredibly, won a naval battle without a navy!
Osborn’s Landing was a wharf about a dozen miles south of Richmond on the west bank of the James River. Assembled here were several merchant ships and the entire Virginia State Navy- nine warships with severely understrength crews. Across the river on the eastern bank were local militia from Henrico County.
Arnold sent a message to the American commander (whose identity is not recorded), “offering one half the contents of their cargoes in case they did not destroy any part.” The nameless American commander sent word, in answer, “We are determined and ready to defend our ships, and will sink them rather than surrender.” With that Arnold took them up on their offer.
The Queen’s Rangers and Hessian Jaegers charged down to the wharf, while the two British infantry regiments provided covering fire. Arnold also deployed two 3-pound and two 6-pound guns, which opened fire on the American ships “with great effect.” The Tempest became a primary target, and the Jaegers advanced, “by a route partly covered with ditches, within thirty yards of her stern.” The rifle fire prevented the crews from properly manning their guns on deck.
British artillery fire severed the rigging of the Tempest, and she began to drift, so the crew abandoned the ship. The other warships were also taking fire, and their crews abandoned them as well. Along with the Tempest, the other large warships lost were the Renown and the Jefferson.
The British destroyed the entire Virginia State Navy, and captured twelve private ships with 2,000 hogsheads of tobacco, flour, rope, and other supplies- all without a single ship of their own in the fight.
Phillips arrived at the town of Manchester, opposite Richmond, and Arnold’s forces joined them after moving up from Osborn’s. The British prepared to cross the shallow river and take the capital for the second time in three months. Yet the arrival of Lafayette on the high ground above the river convinced the British to turn back.
There are few reminders of the Revolution in the Richmond-Petersburg area. Today the site of Osborn’s Landing is inaccessible. Across the river, on the eastern shore, is a county boat landing and picnic area, with historic markers about the engagement. Ironically, Governor Thomas Jefferson’s grandfather, also named Thomas Jefferson, was born at Osborne’s Landing in 1677.