The Destruction of Richmond, Virginia

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The Destruction of Richmond, Virginia

January 5 and 6, 1781

This article is a transcript of Chapter LXXX of Henry B. Dawson's Battles of the United States, Volume I, New York, 1858, pp. 641-644.

The defection of Benedict Arnold was followed, as usual, in such cases by the display of an inordinate zeal in the cause of his new master; and, although he had been authorized to raise a regiment of malcontents, his countrymen had no confidence, either in this "Address"[1] or his "Proclamation,"[2] and all his efforts proved perfectly abortive[3]. Disappointed with this unfavorable result, and impatient for more active service, he was, soon afterwards, appointed to the command of a predatory expedition against Virginia, which was intended not only to cripple the cause of the young republic, in that State, and prevent her troops from marching to the aid of General Greene, but, at the same time, to create a diversion in favor of General Cornwallis, and, if necessary, to furnish the means to strengthen his command.[4]

In pursuance of the orders which he had received, General Arnold sailed from Sandy Hook on the nineteenth of December, 1780[5], with the Eigtheenth or Edinburg regiment, under Lieutnant-colonel Dundas; the Queen's Rangers, under Lieutenant-colonel Simcoe; a detachment from the New York Volunteers, under Captain Althause; and about two hundred men, whom the General had enlisted into his own corps, in New York, [6], the whole force embracing a force of sixteen hundred men.[7]. The troops were among the best in the service, and General Arnold might reasonably have felt proud of his command, had not the commander-in-chief, with commendable caution, manifested his distrust of the traitor, not only by the strictness of his orders, but by the appointment of "two officers of tried ability and experience, and possessing the entire confidence of their commander"--Colonel Dundas and Lieutenant Colonel Simcoe, --to accompany him, and to share, with him, the honors and responsibilities of the command. A violent gale, which occurred on the twenty-sixth and twenty-seventh, separated the fleet, but the scattered vessels, except three transports, on board of which were four hundred men, and one armed vessel, rejoined it off the Capes of the Chesapeake, and entered Hampton Roads on the thirtieth.

On the thirty-first, without waiting for the arrival of the transports, which were still at sea, the troops--about twelve hundred in number--were transferred to small vessels and boats, adapted to the navigation and proceeded up the James River under convoy of the Hope and Swift, two small armed vessels. Late in the evening of the third of January, 1781, the expedition came near Hood's Point, on which a small party of fifty men had been stationed with three eighteen-pounders, one twenty-four pounder, and one brass eight-inch howitzer. When the vessels approached the Point this little force gallantly opened a heavy fire on them; and, as it was quite dark, the enemy had no means of knowing the strength or position of his opponents, he cast anchor until the next morning. While it was still dark, General Arnold ordered Lieutenant- colonel Simcoe to land with one hundred and thirty of the Queen's Rangers, the light-infantry, and the grenadiers of the Eightieth regiment, and to attack the battery. With the greatest possible secrecy a landing was effected at about a mile from the Point, and, by a circuitous route, the troops were led to the attack; but the little garrison having heard the movement had retired, and the Rangers and their commander found no laurels in their victory. After spiking the guns, Lieutenant-Colonel Simcoe returned to the vessels, carrying with him the brass howizter, and the expedition moved up the river. On the next day (Jan. 4th) it anchored at Westover, about twenty- five miles below Richmond, where the troops were landed; and at two o'clock in the afternoon, the line of march to the latter place was taken up.

This descent of the enemy appears to have been entirely unexpected, and no provision had been made to guard against the contingency. When the fleet arrived, the State had no immediate means of defense, and the people appear to have been comparatively helpless. It is true that Governor Jefferson sent General Nelson to "the lower country" as soon as the presence of the fleet had become known, and had vested in him full "powers to call on the militia in that quarter, or act otherwise, as exigencies would require;" and it is no less true that General Steuben, supposing the stores at Petersburg were the objects of attack, employed about two hundred Continental troops, which he had under his command, to remove them beyond the reach of the invader. It is equally true, however,--and it was the source of evident mortification to the patriotic leaders in Virginia,--that the enemy moved into the heart of the country, accomplished his work, and retired with, comparatively no opposition, while every foot of his progress was susceptible of an obstinate and successful defence. The causes which have been assigned--the numerous impassable rivers which intersect "the lower country," and the thinness of the population--in fact, furnish reasons against the surprise and disgrace with which she was then overtaken, and Virginia can never wholly excuse the apathy which was apparent throughout the entire extent of her central and lower counties.

The march of the enemy from Westover to Richmond was entirely unopposed,--the few militia who had responded to the orders which had been issued, being too weak to offer any effectual resistance, having fled as he approached,--and at one in the afternoon of the fifth of January, he entered the town.

About two hundred men had assembled, under Colonel John Nicholas, on the heights of Richmond Hill, near the venerable meeting-house of St. John's Church; and Lieutenant-colonel Simcoe was ordered to dislodge them, but, without firing a shot, they fled in confusion when he reached the summit of the hill. A small body of cavalry, near the site of the capitol, on Shockoe Hill, who had been watching the movements of Colonel Dundas, also fled when they were approached.

Without halting at Richmond, after the dispersion of the militia, Lieutenant-colonel Simcoe, with his Rangers and the flank companies of the Eightieth regiment, pushed forward to Westham, six miles above, where were a fine foundry, laboratory, and workshops; while General Arnold and the main body remained at Richmond. As no resistance was offered, the expedition was perfectly successful, and, after destroying the greater part of the papers of the auditor's office, and the books and papers of the council office--which had been removed thither for safety-- together with five or six tons of gunpowder, the boring mill, workshops, public store, and foundry; knocking off the trunnions of some iron field pieces; and carrying off a few muskets, and some other articles, it returned to Richmond, where it arrived the same night.

In the mean time the main body, at Richmond had not been idle. With characteristic impudence the enemy had sent two citizens to Governor Jefferson, with an offer that he would not burn the city, provided the British vessels were allowed to come up the river and remove the tobacco from the warehouses without molestation. This proposition was instantly rejected; and, on the morning of the sixth, the public property and large quantities of private property, together with some buildings, both public and private, were destroyed.

The public loss was much less than has been generally supposed. Besides the destruction of the roof of the foundry, --the furnaces and chimneys of which remained uninjuried, -- the magazine, boring-mill, four workshops, the public store, and quartermaster's store, the public loss appears to have been confined to the books and papers of the council, the papers of the auditor's office; five brass field pieces; one hundred and fifty stand of arms, from the loft of the capitol; the same number taken in a wagon; a small quantity of linen, cloth, &c.; some quartermasters' stores, including one hundred and twenty sides of leather; the tools in the workshops; and three wagons. The loss to private individuals was much greater.

About noon, on the sixth of January, the enemy retired from the city, and the next day he reached Westover, without the loss of a man.

Notes:

  1. The Address of Gen. Arnold, "to the Inhabitants of America," dated "New York, Oct. 7, 1780," can be found, at length in Rivington's Royal Gazette, No. 421, N.Y., Wednesday, Oct. 11, 1780., and in Hist. Of Civil War in America,, iii. Pp. 378-380.
  2. This "Proclamation" was published in Rivington's Royal Gazette, N.Y., from No. 425 (Wednesday Oct. 25, 1780) to No. 437 (Wednesday Dec. 6, 1780)
  3. Spark's Life and Treason of Benedict Arnold, p. 318.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Marshall's Washington, iv., p. 444. Lieut. Col. Simcoe (Jour. , p. 159) says it sailed on the 21st of December.
  6. Hist of Civil War in America, iii. P. 174.
  7. Spark's Benedict Arnold, p. 318; Marshall's Washington, iv., p. 444; Stedman, ii. P. 382. The author of Hist. Of Civil War in America (iii. P. 174) says the force numbered 1700, and Dr. Gordon (Am. Rev. iv., p. 59) says it was more than 1900.