Virginia, Military Operations in

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Virginia, Military Operations in

VIRGINIA, MILITARY OPERATIONS IN. Like Massachusetts, Virginia's Whigs took steps to prepare for possible armed conflict before the fighting actually began at Lexington. In late 1774 and early 1775 volunteer companies outside the militia system appeared. The first extra-legal Virginia Convention met from 20 to 27 March 1775 to take the place of the House of Burgesses when the royal governor (John Murray, the Fourth Earl of Dunmore) refused to call it into session. In spite of Patrick Henry's impassioned "liberty or death" speech, the convention rejected his call to raise troops. Then, on 20 April, Dunmore had a party come ashore before dawn and move the colony's gunpowder and store of arms from the Williamsburg magazine to the Royal Navy's schooner Magdalen in the James River. This action infuriated the Whigs and many of the volunteer companies quickly assembled in Williamsburg. Cooler heads avoided violence, but the political situation continued to deteriorate and on 8 June 1775 the Governor fled to the Magdalen, which was now anchored off Yorktown, and shifted his activities to Norfolk where Loyalist sentiment was stronger.

By the time the second Virginia Convention assembled in Richmond on 17 July 1775, the representatives knew that the war had started and that the Continental Congress had raised troops, including two companies of riflemen in Virginia. Two days later it voted to raise troops. By the time the convention adjourned on 26 August, it had expanded its military actions to include forming two full-time regiments to confront Dunmore and a number of separate companies to occupy frontier forts in case the Indians attacked. It had also taken control of the militia structure and supplemented the local defense force with a set of minute battalions to replace the volunteer companies. The minutemen undertook extra training, and provided a force that could mobilize quickly and move to a threatened location outside its own immediate area. Patrick Henry, despite a lack of military experience, became the colony's commander in chief.

Confrontation finally erupted in Hampton between 24 and 27 October. One of Dunmore's tenders had gone aground and was destroyed by the militia. In retaliation, Dunmore sent parties ashore to destroy several houses, and the troops who were camped in Williamsburg on the grounds of the college responded. A skirmish resulted, marking the first engagement of the war in Virginia. The following month a second area of confrontation developed on the south side of the James River, and both sides established outposts near Great Bridge, with more skirmishing on 15 November at Kemp's Landing. In his report to London on 6 December, Dunmore claimed that popular support for this minor engagement led him to "erect the King's Standard." This phrase describes a formal step in the suppression of rebellion, requiring all residents to assemble under arms to defend the Crown and making a refusal to comply an act of treason punishable by death. He also used his authority as the captain-general of the colony to raise two groups of Provincial forces—the Queen's Own Loyal Virginia Regiment and Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment. The latter unit consisted of slaves who had left their masters to join the British, serving under white officers and noncommissioned officers.

After some further skirmishing, Colonel William Woodford moved a force of the regulars (who would become Continentals on 28 December 1775) and minutemen. They defeated the governor's forces at Great Bridge on 9 December, and occupied Norfolk five days later. Crowded aboard ships in the Elizabeth River and unable to get provisions, Dunmore turned the guns of his small squadron on Norfolk on 1 January 1776. Destruction of the largest town in Virginia completed the polarization of the colony and eroded much of the remaining Loyalist support. Dunmore had to evacuate the lower Hampton Roads area and tried to set up a new base in Chesapeake Bay, but was driven from Gwynn Island on 8-10 July 1776. The forces that survived this defeat and a smallpox epidemic sailed further up the bay to the Potomac River. After burning several plantations and engaging militia from both Virginia and Maryland, Dunmore finally put out to sea on 7 August 1776.

BRITISH RAIDS, 1779–1781

Virginia was spared any further military action east of the mountains during the three years following Dunmore's departure. The state supported the 1776 defense of Charleston, South Carolina, but sent most of its Continentals north to fight in George Washington's main army. Then, on 4 December 1779, the Continental Congress (at Washington's suggestion) ordered the Virginia moved to the Southern Department, where it would spend the rest of the war. Meanwhile the Chesapeake Bay had emerged as a critical component of the American economy because the tobacco from Virginia and Maryland had become the cash export crop which propped up the foreign credit needed to import military supplies and manufactured goods. Destroying that trade played a very important role in George Sackville Germain's "southern strategy," which was adopted after the French entered the war. In addition to a loose naval blockade, General Henry Clinton undertook a series of raids as soon as he could spare the resources.

Mathew-Collier raid, 1779. The first of these amphibious operations departed from New York on 4 May 1779 under Commodore Sir John Collier and Major General Edward Mathew. It was a relatively modest expedition, with three regiments (one each of Highlanders, Germans, and Loyalists) and several flank companies. The troops were on board 22 transports, escorted by one ship of the line, one frigate, four smaller warships, and four privateers. They entered Chesapeake Bay on 8 May and came to in Hampton Roads on the next day. On the 10th the expedition crossed over to the mouth of the Elizabeth River and took Fort Nelson before moving on to nearby Portsmouth. Over the course of several days the invaders captured or destroyed ships, supplies, and tobacco in the various communities within reach of the water, penetrating as far as Suffolk. They finally departed the Bay on 26 May, having inflicted major damage with almost no casualties, and reached New York on the 29th.

Leslie's raid, 1780. On 12 October 1780 Clinton issued orders to Major General Alexander Leslie to take a 2,500-man task force to the Chesapeake Bay and try to carry out a diversionary operation to take pressure off of Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis in North Carolina. While giving Leslie a free hand to pick the best way of accomplishing his task, Clinton recommended that he sail up the James River and destroy the magazines at Petersburg and Richmond, and then fall back to set up a base on the Elizabeth River. Once in the bay, Leslie's force would fall under Cornwallis's operational control. Leslie's key units were the Guards Brigade, the Eighty-second Foot, the Hesse-Cassel Regiment von Bose, and several Loyalist units. It put out from Sandy Hook on the 17th with two frigates and a sloop as escorts and quickly reached the Chesapeake, putting troops ashore at Portsmouth on the evening of 22 October. From there, raiding parties struck Hampton, Newport News, and Nansemond County. Meanwhile, Leslie received word from Colonel Francis Rawdon telling him that Cornwallis would prefer that the expedition move on to the field force in North Carolina. Up until this point, the limited state and Continental forces in Virginia under Brigadier General Peter Muhlenberg could only watch from a safe distance. Acting on Rawdon's information, Leslie embarked on 11 to 16 November and sailed south on 22 November, when winds finally permitted them to sail. The raid itself was more of a nuisance than a real threat to the state, but Leslie's report to Clinton set the stage for future actions. He said that he had left his fortifications at Portsmouth intact, and he recommended that future operations in the Chesapeake Bay employ shallow-draft craft to carry out economic raids throughout the bay's watershed.

Arnold's raid, 1781. The third attack on Virginia came as the result of Clinton's continuing desire to interrupt the state's support for Major General Nathanael Greene's operations against Cornwallis in the Carolinas. On 20 December 1780 Benedict Arnold, now a British general, sailed from New York with about 1,600 troops and supporting warships to conduct amphibious operations. On 30 December they reached Hampton Roads and found that the state authorities did not have the resources to put up much of a defense. Arnold moved up the James River with his remaining 1,200 men in captured American vessels. They destroyed the battery at Hood's Point on 3 January 1781 and occupied Richmond on 5-6 January. After destroying the important Westham Foundry, burning tobacco, supplies, and some buildings, Arnold withdrew to Westover. Lieutenant John Graves Simcoe broke up a militia concentration at Charles City Courthouse on the 8th, and then the force embarked and slowly worked its way back downriver. On 23 January, from a base at Portsmouth, Arnold sent word to Clinton that he and his subordinates believed that the ability to exploit their control over the Virginia waterways would enable a relatively small force to negate the huge manpower advantage of the American militia. They merely felt that there were better places than Portsmouth to use as the base.

Lafayette's expedition, 1781. Although Virginia itself lacked the resources to defend itself, and Governor Thomas Jefferson did not possess the expertise to deal with Arnold, Washington stepped in. While the prospect of capturing the traitor was appealing, the American leaders and their French allies in Newport, Rhode Island, saw the exposed nature of the Portsmouth base as an opportunity to crush an isolated British force. He picked Major General Lafayette (Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Montier) to lead an elite force south, and asked the French to provide a naval force to prevent Arnold's escape. On 19 February, Washington's main army's light infantry companies assembled at Peekskill as three regiments, commanded by Joseph Vose, Jean-Joseph de Gimat, and Francis Barber. The assembled force included four artillery companies under Lieutenant Colonel Ebenezer Stevens. With three light infantry regiments drawn from the New England and New Jersey Continentals, Lafayette's command was about 1,500 officers and men when it started south.

The companion French effort bogged down when it ran into a streak of bad luck. A storm scattered the British squadron watching Newport, enabling a ship of the line, two frigates, and a cutter to get to sea on 9 February 1781. These ships entered the Chesapeake Bay on 13 February. Although they captured eleven British vessels, including the forty-four-gun frigate Romulus, they could not trap Arnold because the French ships drew too much water to work their way up the Elizabeth River to Portsmouth. The task force returned to Newport on 24 February. A much larger task force, including nearly 1,200 troops, sailed under the command of Captain Charles Destouches on 8 March, five days after Lafayette reached Head of Elk on his overland march to Annapolis (the designated rendezvous point). Admiral Marriott Arbuthnot started out thirty-six hours behind the French, but actually arrived ahead of them. The French had seven ships of the line, two frigates, and an armed storeship; Arbuthnot had seven ships of the line, one fifty-gun ship, and three frigates. The squadrons engaged just outside the mouth of Chesapeake Bay on 16 March. Destouches emerged from this fight, which lasted an hour and Forty-five minutes, in slightly better shape than his adversary, but he abandoned the expedition because he could not put his troops ashore. Arbuthnot limped into the Chesapeake and made contact with Arnold.

With the sea routes now open, Clinton sent Major General William Phillips with 2,000 more troops to reinforce Arnold and to assume command. His orders, issued on 10 March, gave Phillips the task of holding a Chesapeake base (Portsmouth, or some other port) and destroying American magazines at Petersburg, Appomattox, or along the James River. Phillips's convoy anchored in Hampton Roads on 25 March, bringing the total Crown force in Virginia to at least 3,000 men, and he assumed command two days later. Major General Frederick Steuben was the Continental army commander opposing Phillips, having been assigned to the state by Greene to organize the flow of replacements and supplies to the south. While there were relatively few Continentals available, mostly green troops, Brigadier Generals Muhlenberg, Thomas Nelson, and George Weedon had built up some 4,000 militia and state troops in the general area. This mix could not pose a threat of assaulting Portsmouth, but they were strong enough to limit the ability of the British to penetrate very far inland. Lafayette's far more dangerous light infantry command was still in Maryland, more than 150 miles from Richmond.

Meanwhile, Phillips did not sit idle. As soon as he felt the defenses of Portsmouth were completed, he started sending out raiding parties. The first departed on 18 April and went up the James River; Arnold led one division ashore near Williamsburg, while a second party landed above. The goal was to trap the Americans occupying the town, but the force failed in that object and pushed on into Yorktown on the other side of the Peninsula, where it destroyed the abandoned American defenses. A brief skirmish took place at Burrell's Ferry. The British then resumed their movement upriver, with the objective of confronting the Americans who had concentrated at Petersburg. Phillips landed at City Point on 24 April and, despite brief resistance by Steuben, took Petersburg on 25 April. Phillips then took part of the force on to Chesterfield Courthouse, while Arnold detoured to destroy the remnants of the Virginia state navy at Osborne's on 27 April. The columns reunited and continued on to Manchester on the south bank of the James opposite Richmond. Arriving in the morning of the 30th, they discovered that Lafayette had arrived in Richmond the evening before with his Continental light infantry.


The inability of the French Rhode Island squadron to reach Virginia, combined with Phillips's expedition, altered the nature of Lafayette's expedition. Instead of waiting for transports, he moved overland with the mission of keeping the British from interfering with the southern army's lines of communications. In Baltimore Lafayette borrowed £2,000 from the merchants to buy material for summer clothing to replace the winter uniforms of his troops. Expecting the British to head for Richmond, Lafayette left his tents and artillery to follow at their own pace and, moving by forced marches; he left Baltimore on 19 April, moving through Alexandria, Fredericksburg, and Bowling Green to reach Richmond the evening of the 29th, a few hours ahead of Phillips. Surprised by this speed, Phillips withdrew to the vicinity of Jamestown Island. Learning on 7 May that Cornwallis was moving to join him at Petersburg, Phillips re-entered that place on the 10th. Cornwallis arrived on the 20th, seven days after Phillips died of a sudden illness. Later, additional troops (the Seventeenth and Forty-third Foot and the two Anspach-Bayreuth regiments) from Clinton landed at Portsmouth.


British strategy in Virginia failed in one of its main objectives: to help Cornwallis hold the Carolinas and Georgia. In complete defiance of Clinton's instructions to make the security of South Carolina and Georgia his primary mission, Cornwallis had chosen to invade Virginia, leaving Rawdon to try and keep Greene at bay. After assuming command at Petersburg, Cornwallis controlled about 7,200 British, German, and Loyalist troops, of whom some 5,300 were rank-and-file soldiers that Clinton considered fully fit for duty.

Lafayette, meanwhile, had assumed command from Steuben as the senior Continental officer in Virginia. His troops consisted of his three light infantry regiments, 500 eighteen-month-service Virginia Continental recruits assembled by Steuben into provisional battalions, the remnants of Armand's First Partisan Corps, some Virginia state troops, and two companies of volunteer horsemen under John Mercer and Nicholas Moore. Working to assemble and hold together several thousand militia were Muhlenberg and Weedon (both Virginia Continental officers), state Brigadier Generals Robert Lawson and Edward Stevens (two former Continental colonels), and Thomas Nelson, the brigadier general who had just succeeded Thomas Jefferson as governor. Riflemen from the western counties were requested, but they did not arrive until relatively late in the campaign. The critical reinforcement whose delayed arrival shaped Lafayette's strategy was the body of Pennsylvania regulars under Anthony Wayne.

Cornwallis left Petersburg on 24 May, crossed the James River at Westover, and camped at Hanover Junction on 1 June. (Arnold left for New York on the 6th, taking two Loyalist regiments.) Lafayette fell back from Winston's Bridge, eight miles north of Richmond, on 28 May, and covered 70 miles in seven days. To keep in a position to be reinforced by Wayne and Steuben, he retreated north through the wilderness to Ely's Ford on the Rapidan River, 20 miles above Fredericksburg. Cornwallis pursued only 30 miles, stopping on the North Anna River. Unable to catch the Americans and force them to give battle, he now turned his attention to destroying materiel. General Banastre Tarleton led a raid to Charlottesville on 4 June, and Simcoe led another to Point of Fork on 5 June. Meanwhile, Cornwallis moved slowly toward Point of Fork, about 45 miles up the James River from Richmond, and established a camp at Elk Hill after brushing aside Steuben's token resistance. His raiders joined him here on 9 June, and he prepared to send Tarleton to raid the supply point at Albemarle Old Courthouse (on the James, 20 miles west of Elk Hill).

Cornwallis cancelled this new operation when he learned that Wayne had finally joined Lafayette and that their combined forces were moving toward Elk Hill. Wayne's departure from York, Pennsylvania, had been delayed by lack of supplies and unsatisfied payrolls. He was about to start when his troops, most of whom had been reorganized after the mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line, showed signs of another mutiny. (This time they were dissatisfied about being paid in Continental currency without the depreciated value added.) Wayne showed no leniency, and executed seven ringleaders of the rebellion. Leaving York the morning of 26 May, Wayne's troops marched into Lafayette's camp on 10 June. Wayne himself had ridden ahead to meet Lafayette about three days earlier. Numbering about 1,000 good troops, Wayne's corps consisted of three provisional Pennsylvania infantry regiments under Richard Butler, Walter Stewart, and Richard Humpton, supported by a detachment of the Fourth Continental Artillery, with six guns.

While this reinforcement did not increase Lafayette's strength enough to risk a major battle, it did enable him to move closer and thereby stop the unopposed raiding. As soon as the forces joined, the Americans moved south from Raccoon Ford on the Rapidan River and, by the morning of 12 June, Lafayette held an excellent defensive position behind Mechunck Creek. There he blocked any British move on Charlottesville (13 miles to the west) and Staunton, where the Americans had moved the stores from Albemarle Old Courthouse. There he was joined by 600 of the frontier riflemen led by William Campbell. Meanwhile, Cornwallis had begun getting letters from Clinton demanding that he pull into a defensive shell and return 3,000 troops to help protect New York City from the Franco-American attack that Clinton was convinced was coming. Although not immediately apparent, the tide had turned. On 15 June Cornwallis left Elk Hill and fell back, reaching Richmond on the 16th. Four days later he started down the Virginia peninsula to Williamsburg, with Lafayette cautiously following and looking for chances to nibble away at the rear guard.

Cornwallis reached Williamsburg on 25 June and remained there until 4 July. The first skirmish between the Marquis de Lafayette and the Earl of Cornwallis came on 26 July at Spencer's Tavern (called Spencer's Ordinary in the eighteenth century), seven miles from Williamsburg. A more serious engagement came when Cornwallis left Williamsburg and began crossing to the south side of the James River near the site of the Jamestown settlement. Cornwallis deliberately tried to lure Lafayette into a trap at Green Spring on 6 July, but the Americans fell back after some heavy fighting. Lafayette withdrew to Malvern Hill; Cornwallis continued east to Suffolk. He then moved to the Portsmouth base, which he didn't like. (The 3,000-man detachment he expected never was sent.) Tarleton's Virginia Raid, which took place from 9-24 July 1781, was a dramatic cavalry operation, but it was meaningless. The stage was now set for the Yorktown Campaign.


Governor Thomas Nelson summarized the impact of the war's Virginia campaigns in a letter he sent from Richmond to Washington on 27 July 1781. He wrote that they (the campaigns) "have made Whigs of Tories." By this, Nelson meant that each appearance by the Crown's forces prompted Loyalists to reveal themselves; and each time, when the British left, the Loyalists had to leave as well, or suffer the wrath of their neighbors. Other sympathizers turned against the king's men when they saw indiscriminate destruction and plundering. By the summer of 1781, very few Loyalists remained in the Old Dominion. Nelson also pointed out that each invasion saw a sea-borne force arrive and strike at areas which were lightly defended and then withdraw as the Americans assembled troops. It became clear that, sooner or later, British luck would run out.

SEE ALSO Arnold's Raid in Virginia;Chesapeake Bay; Great Bridge, Virginia; Hampton, Virginia; Henry, Patrick; Lafayette, Marquis de; Murray, John; Virginia, Mobilization in.


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                         revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.

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