A few weeks back, you may have noticed a video on Emerging Revolutionary War’s Facebook page about the Marquis de Lafayette and his independent command during the spring and summer of 1781 in Virginia. Along with good pal, Dan Davis, we located a site of where Lafayette encamped while he maneuvers to protect the iron furnaces of the Fredericksburg area, keep a distance from British forces under General Lord Charles Cornwallis, and await reinforcements being sent south under General Anthony Wayne.
He continued to keep his commander-in-chief, General George Washington updated on affairs in the latter’s native state. From a camp in central Virginia the Frenchman penned the following letter.
“Camp Betwen Rappaahonock and North Anna June 3d 1781
My Dear General
Inclosed you will find the Copy of a letter to General Greene. He at first Had-Requested I would directly write to you, Since which His orders Have Been different, But He directed me to forward you Copies of My official Accounts. So many letters are lost in their Way that I do not Care to Avoid Repetitions. I Heartly wish, My dear General, My Conduct may Be approved of particularly By You. My Circumstances Have Been peculiar, and in this State I Have Some times Experienced Strange disappointements. Two of them the Stores at Charlotte’s Ville, and the delay of the [Pensylva] Detachement Have given me Much Uneasiness and May Be attended with Bad Consequences. There is great Slowness and Great Carelessness in this part of the world—But the Intentions are good, and the people want to Be Awakened. Your presence, My dear General, would do a Great deal. Should these deta[chments] Be Increased to three or four thousand, and the french Army Come this way, leaving One of our generals at Rhode island and two or three about New York and in the Jersays you Might be on the offensive in this Quarter, and there Could Be a Southern Army in Carolina. Your presence would do Immense good, But I would wish you to Have a large force—General Washington Before He personally appears must Be Strong enough to Hope Success. Adieu, My dear general, With the Highest Respect and Most Tender affection I Have the Honor to be Yours
If you persist in the idea to Come this Way you may depend upon about 3000 Militia in the field Relieved every two months. your presence will induce them to turn out with great Spirit.“
That letter may have been written somewhere around the terrain you see in the photos below. You never know what you can stumble into touring central Virginia!
On January 17, 1781, General Daniel Morgan and his mixed force of Continental soldiers and militia defeated the British under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. This victory for the patriots in northwestern South Carolina had major implications on the southern theater and the main British force under General Lord Charles Cornwallis. The battle, named after the use of the fields in which it was fought, Cowpens, also included one of the only instances in American history of a successful double envelopment.
On Sunday, at 7 p.m. EDT, Emerging Revolutionary War will be joined by American Battlefield Trust’s Kristopher White, Deputy Director of Education and Daniel Davis, Education Manager, in a discussion about the history and preservation of the Battle of Cowpens.
Round out your January weekend by joining us on our Facebook page for this live historian happy hour.
Writing over thirty years after the fact, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee summed up the events of February 14, 1780 with the line, “Thus ended, on the night of the 14th of February, this long, arduous, and eventful retreat” (190). Upon hearing of General Nathanael Greene’s exploits in this movement, General George Washington wrote, “You may be assured that your Retreat before Lord Cornwallis is highly applauded by all Ranks and reflects much honor on your military Abilities.” (198).
What Lee would remember as “eventful” and Washington and fellow military ranks “highly applauded” is remembered today as the “Race to the Dan.” This retrograde movement, undertaken by Greene’s forces from South Carolina to the Dan River in southern Virginia, is sandwiched between the engagements at the Battle of Cowpens in January 1781 and the British pyrrhic victory at Guilford Court House in March 1781. Yet, this retreat may be on the turning points in the southern theater that led the British, under Lord Charles Cornwallis to his eventual demise at Yorktown in October 1781.
Great historians, such as John Buchanan is his monumental work The Road to Guilford Court House have covered with broad strokes this period of time but a dedicated study was much needed in the historiography of the American Revolution. Insert Andrew Waters, writer, editor, and conservationist, whose name may be familiar from previous works such as The Quaker and the Gamecock: Nathanael Greene, Thomas Sumter, and the War for the Soul of the South. His latest book, To The End of the World, Nathanael Greene, Charles Cornwallis, and the Race to the Dan, captures this important military movement while providing an expose on the leadership of Greene woven in. The title of the book is pulled from a quote by Brigadier General Charles O’Hara, Cornwallis’s second-in-command during this campaign. With a background in land conservation with a focus on river corridors and watersheds, Waters found a connection with Greene, who studied the various waterways—or ordered subordinates—to study the various rivers, to better understand the topography for military campaigns.
After a stint in Salisbury, North Carolina, Waters became fascinated with the Race to the Dan story and decided to plunge in to understanding this period of the American Revolution. He found that “the Race to the Dan is a remarkable tale, fit for cinema or an epic novel, and not only for its accounts of four narrow escapes across its four rivers” (xv). He was drawn “to its story” (xx) and any reader of the book is the beneficiary of that discovery.
Along with weaving in the innate leadership qualities of Greene, Waters brings to light the importance of military leaders not as well-known such as William Lee Davidson, William R. Davie, and Edward Carrington with more household names of Lee, Daniel Morgan, and Otho Holland Williams. Throw in the names of Cornwallis, O’Hara, and Banastre Tarleton, and the pantheon of American Revolutionary personas is complete.
In this approximate month-long retreat, Greene saved the American Revolution in the southern theater and set in motion the events that led to the climactic victory at Yorktown. Waters, with his 2020 publication, has now helped save the story of the Race to the Dan from its unintended lapse into obscurity.
Published: 2020 (Westholme Publishing)
264 pages, including index, footnotes, images, and maps
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
Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Kevin Pawlak
On October 15, 1781, British General Charles Cornwallis penned a note to his superior officer General Sir Henry Clinton. Cornwallis told Clinton that American and French forces seized two redoubts, 9 and 10, along the York River the previous night. “My Situation now becomes very critical,” he glumly said. Before his army, entrenched outside of Yorktown, “shall soon be exposed to an Assault in ruined Works,” Cornwallis desperately sought to break the Allied stranglehold slowly bleeding his army. The general turned to Lt. Col. Robert Abercrombie to break the Allied lines anyway he could.
Mention the following words to any casual student or enthusiast of the American Revolutionary War and we can almost guarantee what the first word(s) or topic out of their mouths will be.
If you are thinking, Yorktown, or Siege of Yorktown or Surrender of Yorktown, then our rhetorical question above is correct.
Most people know about the Siege and Surrender at Yorktown, but Virginia was a hot spot of activity the summer leading up to Yorktown. With British troops, led by the likes of Benedict Arnold, William Phillips, Alexander Leslie, and lastly by Lord Charles Cornwallis in the Old Dominion throughout the year and American leaders like the Marquis de Lafayette and Baron von Steuben, Virginia saw very active campaigning ranging through most of the central and eastern parts of the colony.
That is why you need to tune in and Join Emerging Revolutionary War this Sunday, on our Facebook page, at 7p.m EST for the next “Rev War Revelry” as we discuss the events leading up to Yorktown in October 1781.
We will cover actions such as Spencer’s Ordinary, Green Spring, Gloucester Point and of course Yorktown.
ERW will be joined by historians J. Michael Moore, Kirby Smith and Drew Gruber. All three live and work in the “Historic Triangle” of Virginia. The three gentlemen all have researched, led tours and have written published works about this important period of the American Revolution.
This will be a precursor to ERW’s annual fall trip, when we will visit Gloucester Point, Spencer’s Ordinary, Green Sping and Yorktown (which we invite you to follow along with on our Facebook page).
Benedict Arnold, the mere mention of the name seems permanently intertwined with the word “treason.” His name has even made it into popular vernacular, being called a “Benedict Arnold” as an insult. Yet, there is more to the man than just that infamous moment along the banks of the Hudson River in West Point, New York in 1780.
Prior to that turning point, Arnold was one of the greatest battlefield leaders the Americans had at that rank. His inspiring leadership on the field of battle at Saratoga led to a climactic charge and one of the greatest monuments to a leader on any hallowed ground. He survived the cold and assaults in Canada in the winter of 1776 as well.
After being a turncoat he was a menace in Virginia in 1781, raiding in Richmond and the Tidewater of Virginia. One of ERW’s historians will discuss Arnold’s role in the state capital of Virginia.
A lot to unpack and that is why this Sunday, at 7pm, live on our Facebook page, Emerging Revolutionary War historians will be joined by Dr. Powell, who spoke on the French and Indian War with us back in June, to discuss Benedict Arnold. So, bring those pre-conceived notions but an open mind to fully appreciate Arnold. This “Rev War Revelry” will discuss the before reasons for, and the after of his switching allegiances.
Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Dan Davis
Like my last post at Emerging Revolutionary War on the “Race to the Dan”, the origins of this post lie in a conversation with blog co-founder, Phill Greenwalt. The topic of our discussion revolved around the aftermath of the British victory at the Battle of Camden. The engagement ultimately brought two American officers to the Southern Theater: Nathanael Greene and Daniel Morgan. Greene accepted the position as the new head of the Southern Department’s co two months to the day after the battle while commanding the post at West Point, New York. Morgan’s story, however, is much more fascinating.
In the spring of 1779, George Washington created a light infantry corps within the Continental Army. Such a command fit Morgan’s skillset. He previously commanded the army’s provisional rifle corps. Additionally, Morgan, then a colonel, had compiled a record that arguably warranted elevation to brigadier general. After fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord, Morgan led a rifle company to the aid to the American army besieging Boston. Morgan participated in Col. Benedict Arnold’s Canadian Expedition and was captured during the assault on Quebec. He also played a critical role in the Battles of Saratoga. Morgan’s home state of Virginia, however, had met its quota for general officers and a vacancy was not available.
On June 30, 1779, Morgan learned Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne received command of the new corps. With his pride devastated, Morgan traveled to Philadelphia. There, on July 19, Congress read his resignation.
Mention the words “artillery” and “American Revolution” and what name instantly pops into your mind? Henry Knox.
Yet, like George Washington, Knox needed competent officers under him to successfully organize, train, lead, and develop the artillery arm of the Continental Army.
Enter John Lamb.
Born on the first day of 1735 in New York City, he was destined to rebel. The reason he was even born in New York City was due to the fact that his father, a convicted burglar had been sentenced for deportation to the colonies in the 1720s.
His early upbringing saw him become a prosperous wine merchant and he quickly ingratiated himself into the burgeoning patriot movement by becoming an integral part of the Sons of Liberty in New York City. Continue reading “The Other Great Artilleryman”→
On June 12, 1781, William Pitt, referred to as the “Younger” to differentiate from his father, Lord Chatham, William Pitt, and former prime minister of Great Britain during the Seven Years’ War, stood up in the House of Commons.
Like his late father, Pitt spoke on a war, this time not in favor of a conflict but in opposition. Also like his father, he spoke with a passion and eloquence that marked him for future roles of higher prominence. He also stood to correct his father’s legacy in regards to the Americans which that day was referred to by other members in Parliament. His view on the current war, the American Revolution, is quite evident.
“A Noble Lord who spoke earlier has in the warmth of his zeal called this a holy war. For my part, although the Right Honorouble gentleman who made the motion, and some other gentlemen, have been more than once in the course of the debate reprehended for calling it a wicked or accursed war, I am persuaded, and I will affirm, that it is a most accursed, wicked, barbarous, cruel, unnatural, unjust, and most diabolical
The expense of it has been enormous, far beyond any former experience, and yet what has the British nation received in return? Nothing but a series of ineffective victories or severe defeats–victories only celebrated with temporary triumph over our brethren whom we would trample down, or defeats which fill the land with mourning for the loss dear and valuable relations, slain in the impious cause of enforcing unconditional submission. Where is the Englishman who on reading the narrative of those bloody and well-fought contests can refrain from lamenting the loss of so much British blood shed in such a cause, or from weeping on whatever side Victory might be declared?”
Approximately a year and a half later, in December 1783, the 24-year old William Pitt became the prime minister of Great Britain. His tenure as prime minister, which lasted into the 19th century, would like his father’s, be marked with a war against France.
Yet, for a brief moment, in late spring, in London, William Pitt, the Younger, stood up, without preparing, as he did not intend to speak that day, and gave a passionate but reasonable response to the issue of the war with America. His closing words ring through the centuries.
Who (in Pitt’s case Englishmen but substitute whomever you’d like) “can refrain from lamenting the loss…or weeping on whatever side Victory might be declared.”