The greatest obstacle to the successful movement of an army during the Revolutionary War, either in campaign or on the field of battle, was the time required for the transmission of dispatches, intelligence, and orders. The best of roads were none too good; the worst were often impassable. Dispatch riders were subject to capture by hostile partisan groups; false intelligence reports were prepared to deceive the enemy; and in the theater of action poor roads and unexplored trails often caused confusion and delay fatal to the enterprise.
When several armies were directed from a general headquarters, the uncertainties of war increased tenfold. Cooperation of the fleet became necessary, and an unfavorable action at sea was immediately reflected in unsuccessful efforts on land. Dispatch boats carrying letters of instruction and reports of progress between general headquarters and the armies in the field were frequently captured or were delayed by unfavorable winds. The great length of time consumed in transmitting instructions and in receiving replies resulted in the situation changing so completely that orders could not be executed. Confusion and misunderstanding did not cease until the campaign ended, only to be followed by recriminations where failure had been the outcome.
There was no experience in the conduct of war over such vast areas to guide those in command, except as had been acquired in America. From Penobscot Bay, in Maine, down the Atlantic coast and around the Gulf of Mexico, to New Orleans, was a magnificent theater of operations; but its size was its greatest cause of weakness.
De Kalb, while leading his army through the southern provinces, wrote to a friend regarding the difference between warfare in Europe and warfare in the United States. He said that Europeans did not know what war was; that they "know not what it is to contend against obstacles." The obstacles which confronted a commander in chief located in New York, who attempted to conduct operations throughout the entire thirteen colonies, were indeed insurmountable.
It is problematic whether or not another general of the army would have met with success where Clinton failed. He became so involved in the winter of 1780-81 that a military genius could not have extricated him. Greater possibility for success would have been his had he possessed a straight-thinking military mind. He was too prosy in his diction; too prolix in his orders; and too vacillating in his decisions. These faults can be charged in a large measure to the individual, and in a less degree to the confusion occasioned by long delays in the transmission of intelligence and instructions.
It was through no prearranged plan that Virginia became the battle ground of 1781. The shifting of troops into that theater of action appears slow and deliberate until examined in conjunction with methods of communication; then it is seen that action follows action with lightning rapidity—the measure of this speed being in terms of express riders and dispatch boats. It was no mere matter of chance that every British general who campaigned in Virginia had the sea end of his communications firmly planted on the Elizabeth River. Leslie, Arnold, Phillips, and Cornwallis; all were ordered to establish a base at Portsmouth for the protection of the fleet, and it was only when the campaign drew to an end that some discretion in the matter was given to the man on the ground.
Leslie was sent into Virginia in October of 1780 for the purpose of cooperating with Cornwallis, who at the time was supposed to be leading a victorious army northward through North Carolina. Clinton did not know how completely Cornwallis's plans had been
upset at Kings Mountain on October 7. When he received information of this disaster, together with the later news that Leslie had joined Cornwallis in South Carolina, he sent Arnold into Virginia on much the same mission.
A French squadron followed Arnold's detachment for the purpose of blockading the British vessels at Portsmouth, and Washington hurriedly dispatched Lafayette to operate on land in conjunction with Von Steuben. In order to augment the Virginia army Clinton then sent Phillips at the head of a large detachment, with instructions to take command also of Arnold's corps. This junction of the two corps made the British Army so strong that, like a magnet, it drew to itself the army of Cornwallis.
Heretofore the several British armies in Virginia had had a limited objective, but with the accretion of the army from the Carolinas it became possible to attempt the occupation of all the tidewater and piedmont sections. The subjugation of the province of Virginia was a tempting enterprise. The State had a population of 700,000, which greatly exceeded that of any other colony. It furnished many military and political leaders in the revolution; its fields produced the sustenance needed to maintain an army; its magazines held a wealth of stores; its warehouses were filled with tobacco for trade with France; and its fair face had not been devastated by war.
Clinton had campaigned in the southeastern extremity of the State in 1776 and had ordered the construction of a fort on the Elizabeth River at Mill Point. This brief campaign had resulted in centering his mind on Portsmouth as the place best adapted for the protection of the fleet. He expected that a great part of the Virginia army would be free to engage in extensive operations, for he had no intention of "burying the élite of my army in Nansemond and Princess Anne." A campaign might be undertaken that would bring the rebels to their knees. The leadership of the best English, French, and American officers would be put to a test, and the valor of their armies and fleets determined.
Virginia became the Cockpit of the Revolution.
* * * * * * *
When General Leslie sailed from Chesapeake Bay on the 24th of November, 1780, to join Cornwallis in South Carolina, Virginia was left without any British troops within her borders. The reasons which had prompted Clinton to send a detachment into the province still prevailed, and plans were being made, even before it was known that Leslie would abandon the State, to send Arnold with reenforcements. This disposition of the recent accession to the list of British general officers seemed the best way to handle a difficult situation. Lieutenant Colonels Dundas and Simcoe, officers of experience and much in the confidence of Clinton, were sent with Arnold, to insure that a possible repetition of treasonable acts by him would not jeopardize his command. Arnold's instructions were quite like those given to Leslie, with special emphasis upon the necessity of maintaining a well-defended base at Portsmouth.
This expeditionary force, consisting of 1,609 effectives, passed out of Sandy Hook on the 21st of December. A severe gale which was encountered on the 26th and 27th of the month caused the ships of the convoy to be widely dispersed, but on the 30th anchorage was made at Hampton Roads by all the vessels except three transports and one armed ship, which arrived some days later.
When the troops landed, Arnold, "'with incomparable activity and despatch" according to Simcoe, pushed up the James River, "the whole detachment showing an energy and alacrity that could not be surpassed." It was necessary to reach Richmond before Von Steuben could raise sufficient troops to render the James River impassable, as that town would be the center from which to operate against magazines of supplies. A weak battery which had been established at Hood's Point was taken and dismantled, and the expedition continued its ascent of the river until Westover was reached. Here the troops disembarked, as Colonel Byrd's plantation was the best situated camp site along the James, and frigates belonging to the State held the river beyond City Point.
Intelligence received at Westover as to the small number of militia at Richmond, and the weakness of their advance parties,
caused Arnold to march promptly to the capital, and on the 5th of January, 1781, he occupied the town after a sharp skirmish with the militia. Arnold remained in Richmond until the evening of the 6th, detaching troops to destroy the foundry and other public buildings at Westham, and the stores assembled in near-by magazines, by which time the Continentals and militia were in such strength on the south side of the James that he considered it prudent to withdraw to his shipping. The command returned to Westover on the 8th, and two days later Arnold dropped down the James River, finally landing at Hardings Ferry on the 14th for the purpose of marching to Portsmouth by way of Smithfield, and clearing the country of small parties of militia. Portsmouth was reached on the 20th, and for the next several weeks the British were busy preparing defenses for the army and fleet, and conducting raids into the adjacent country. On the 13th of February it became known that a small squadron of French ships had entered the Chesapeake Bay.
The British squadron employed in blockading the French Fleet at Newport was stationed in Gardiners Bay near the east end of Long Island. It consisted of nine ships of the line and several frigates anchored in line between Gardiners Island and Plum Island. On the night of the 22d of January a storm of great violence arose. When the morning dawned a sixty-four was discovered standing to the south of Montauk Point under jury masts. The Culloden, a seventy-four, was on a reef near Gardiners Island. The Bedford, a seventy-four, was off New London with all her masts carried away, and her upper tier of guns thrown overboard. The Culloden was finally lost, but her masts and guns were used to refit the other two ships. When information of the disaster to the British ships reached M. Destouches, who had assumed command of the French Fleet upon the death of M. de Ternay, he resolved to undertake an enterprise now possible because of the present naval inferiority of the British.
Some time before the Chevalier de la Luzerne had requested that a ship of the line and some frigates be sent into the Chesapeake
to blockade Arnold and cut of his communications by sea. The governor of Virginia had made an urgent demand upon the French minister for aid of this kind and Congress had supported the request. In view of the unexpected weakening of the blockading fleet, Destouches felt safe in sparing a corresponding detachment from his own fleet. A small squadron, consisting of a sixty-four and two frigates, under the command of M. de Tilly, sailed from Newport on the 9th of February. Count de Rochambeau considered sending a division of land troops, but finally concluded that such reenforcements were unnecessary and inexpedient, as the mission of the squadron was merely to cut off Arnold's communications by water. It was presumed at French headquarters that there were sufficient Continental troops and militia in Virginia to ad as a check upon extensive land operations by the British Army.
As soon as the plan to operate in Virginia had been partially developed, Rochambeau wrote to Washington on the 3d of February regarding it. The project was viewed with so much favor by the latter that he determined to effect a quick reassembling of the fight companies which Lafayette had previously commanded and send them to Virginia to aid in the operations. Unfortunately Rochambeau's letter was not received by Washington until the 14th of the month. Furthermore, it did not state definitely the size and the purpose of the naval expedition, other than that Destouches might go with all of his ships. Washington considered it likely that the admiral would want to employ the entire fleet in the enterprise, and that the general would gladly cooperate with a part of the French army, and replied to Rochambeau's letter accordingly.
The details of this proposed capital operation were quickly arranged at the American headquarters, and in a letter dated the 15th Rochambeau was informed of them. Lafayette's detachment of 1,200 men was under marching orders at the time, and in a few days it would advance toward the Head of Elk, whence the remainder of the journey would be made by boat. In order to give
a certainty to the enterprise Rochambeau was requested to embark about 1,000 men, together with a proper amount of siege artillery, to accompany the expedition. Washington said he would not delay the march of Lafayette's detachment until a reply could be received to his letter, as not a moment was to be lost in forwarding the light infantry.
For some reason this letter was not dispatched at once. It contains a postscript dated the 19th to the effect that the destruction of the corps under the command of Arnold was of such immense importance to the welfare of the Southern States that Washington had resolved to attempt it with the American detachment now being sent, in conjunction with the militia, even though none of the French Army should join the expedition. There was one proviso added, however, which indicates that Washington was not to be again disappointed in the conduct of joint land and naval warfare: M. Destouches was to protect the operations by such a disposition of his fleet as would give the allied land and sea forces command of Chesapeake Bay and at the same time prevent reenforcements reaching Arnold from New York.
No sooner had this letter to Rochambeau been dispatched than a communication was received from Destouches conveying information that a squadron of three ships, unaccompanied by any part of the army, had sailed on the 9th of February for the Chesapeake. The intelligence caused temporary uneasiness and disappointment at Army headquarters, but soon a spirit of optimism became prevalent, and Washington decided to go through with his plans. Explicit instructions were given to Lafayette for the conduct of his detachment, and he was earnestly enjoined to do no act, in dealing with Arnold, that might screen him from the punishment which he merited for his treason and desertion. Should Arnold become his prisoner, he was to execute punishment upon him "in the most summary way." If Lafayette should receive intelligence of the enemy having left Virginia, or that the ships under De Tilly were unable to give any effective cooperation, he was to return at once with the detachment , as the enemy cannot be affected by it while
they have the command of the waters; but the detachment may be capitally injured by committing itself on the water."
M. de Tilly returned to Newport on the 24th of February, having been absent only 15 days. Near the entrance of Chesapeake Bay he captured a frigate, took two privateers, sent four prizes to Yorktown, burnt four other prizes, and captured about 500 prisoners. Arnold had been advised of the approach of the French squadron and had withdrawn his frigates to a position of safety in the Elizabeth River. The shallowness of the water made it unsafe for the French ships to ascend the river nearer than within about four leagues of the British frigates; and as De Tilly could not bring about their destruction, and his own squadron ran the risk of being blockaded, he abandoned the enterprise and put to sea.
As soon as De Tilly returned to Newport and reported the partial success of his enterprise, the decision was made at the French headquarters to engage at once in the capital operation which Washington had suggested. "The great consequence, that your Excellency seemed to attach to the establishment of Arnold at Portsmouth," Rochambeau, wrote on the 25th of February, "has determined M. Destouches to sacrifice every other object to this one." The captured British frigate, together with the French frigates, would be utilized near the mouth of the Elizabeth River to blockade the port. A detachment of 1,120 men under the command of Baron de Viomesnil would be sent with the expedition. This letter reached Washington at New Windsor in the evening of the 27th, and an express was immediately dispatched to Lafayette directing him not to leave the Elk River until he had information that the French squadron was again in the Chesapeake. Preparations for the enterprise were expedited. The detachment was ready to embark by the end of February, but 8 or 10 days more were necessary before the fleet would be ready to sail.
Meanwhile two of the British ships damaged in the storm of January 22 were made seaworthy, and another which had been driven out to sea returned to Gardiners Bay. Once again did the British
ships of the line outnumber those of the French. In order "to level all difficulties and be in the way to improve circumstances," Washington made a hurried trip to Newport, arriving there on the 6th of March. No thought was given to the abandonment of the enterprise because of the British having recovered their naval superiority; instead it was the purpose of the French admiral to gain the shelter of the Chesapeake and fight for control of those waters. The fleet went out with a fair wind the evening of the 8th of March, every soldier and sailor exhilarated now that the long period of inaction was at an end.
Two days after the French Fleet sailed the British put out to sea, and on the 16th the two met of the capes of Virginia. Each fleet had a strength of eight line-of-battle ships and three or four frigates, and in the engagement which ensued they suffered equally. The honors of the affair went to the English, however, as Arbuthnot got possession of Chesapeake Bay, and Destouches returned to the harbor of Newport, where he arrived on the 26th of March after an absence of 18 days.
Once again the clouds of frustrated effort hung like a pall over the American headquarters. Washington's thoughts turned to the elite corps under Lafayette, now halfway to Virginia, and on the 5th of April orders were dispatched for its immediate recall. Washington wrote:
As matters have turned out it is to be wished that you had not gone out of the Elk.
To this expression of regret he added a comment which, more than any other of his military maxims, typifies those qualities of mind that made him a great soldier:
But I never judge of the propriety of measures by after events.
The next day the clouds had lifted and the sunshine of reason showed the way. Washington dispatched another letter to Lafayette ordering him to continue south. Had this decision been inspired it would not have been fraught with more vital consequences. For the Americans, it was the beginning of the end of
the revolution. Its complement was the decision made 17 days later by Cornwallis to march from North Carolina into Virginia.
Since my letter to you of yesterday—
Washington wrote on the 6th of April—
I have attentively considered of what vast importance it will be to reenforce General Greene as speedily as possible; more especially as there can be little doubt, but the detachment under General Phillips, if not part of that now under the command of General Arnold, will ultimately join or in some degree cooperate with Lord Cornwallis.
Lafayette was directed to turn his corps to the southward and inform Greene that he was marching to join him. The junction with Greene was never made, but the presence of Lafayette's small army in Virginia drew into the same theater of operations the armies of Washington and Rochambeau, and the ships of De Grasse and De Barras.
* * * * * * *
In the early part of March the British commander in chief instructed General Phillips as to his mission in Virginia. As soon as possible after his arrival he was to unite his corps with that of Arnold and take command of the whole. The principal object of the expedition was the security of Arnold's command and the posts which he had established on the Elizabeth River. After strengthening these posts and putting them in a better condition of defense, so that they could be held by a small garrison, Phillips was to render indirect service to Cornwallis in North Carolina by destroying all magazines in the region of Richmond and the James and at Petersburg. Posts were to be established along the James to insure the safe passage of that river by British vessels, following which rapid incursions were to be made into the region of the upper James River for the purpose of interrupting the course of supplies to Greene's army in the Carolinas.
Some discretion was allowed Phillips as to how much reliance should be placed in the posts around Portsmouth. Reports had already come from Arnold to the effect that Portsmouth was poorly
fitted to serve as the base of the expedition, and Phillips was told that if the admiral did not favor Portsmouth as a fortified station for large ships, he was to inspect Yorktown and Old Point Comfort. Under any circumstances, however, a post at Portsmouth was to be held, and Mill Point, where Clinton had ordered a fort to be built in 1776, was pointedly referred to as a suitable place.
All of the many instructions given to both Arnold and Phillips were based on the assumption that not more than 600 men would be needed to defend the forts established for the protection of the fleet, leaving the remainder of the troops free to engage in extended operations. Clinton had no intention, as was mentioned before, of "burying the élite" of his army in "Nansemond and Princess Anne." Unfortunately for the execution of this plan, the successive commanders were never able to furnish protection for a safe anchorage with so small a force. It was this fact, more than any other, which later caused Cornwallis to become involved in a web of circumstances from which he could not escape.
General Phillips arrived at Portsmouth on the 27th of March, 1781, and spent the next three weeks improving the defenses of the harbor. When this work was completed to his satisfaction he embarked his command, which now included Arnold's corps, and on the 18th of April proceeded up the James River, reaching Burrells Ferry the following day. Here the troops were landed and on the 20th detachments were sent to the Chickahominy River and to Yorktown, while part of the army marched to Williams, burg. Phillips encountered small bodies of militia which offered but little resistance, and after dispersing them he proceeded to Barrets Ferry at the mouth of the Chickahominy and on the 22d reembarked. A detachment of light infantry, which went about 12 miles up the Chickahominy, destroyed shipyards and several armed vessels belonging to the State. At 10 o'clock that night the fleet weighed anchor and continued up the James River to within 4 miles of Westover. On the morning of the 24th the tide carried the boats to City Point, where the army went ashore, as it was proposed to make the movement from City Point to Petersburg by
land. The boats were to follow as soon as the shores were cleared of hostile troops. Setting out from City Point at 10 o'clock on the morning of the 25th, Phillips encountered no opposition until within a mile of Petersburg, where a body of militia under General Muhlenberg was posted. After a sharp conflict the Americans retired to the north side of the Appomattox River and partly demolished the bridge.
The British destroyed 4,000 hogsheads of tobacco, a ship, and a number of small vessels before marching from Petersburg on the 27th of April. Part of the army under Phillips proceeded to Chesterfield Court House where they burned a range of barracks for 2,000 men, and 300 barrels of flour. Arnold conducted the remainder of the command to Osborne's, at which place he learned that a considerable number of vessels were in the James River about 4 miles farther up stream. The commodore of the fleet was called on to surrender, and upon his refusal to do so Arnold disposed his troops for attack. The fleet was soon obliged to strike its colors, and 2 ships, 3 brigantines, 5 sloops, and 2 schooners, loaded with tobacco, cordage, and flour were taken. Four ships, 5 brigantines, and a number of small vessels were sunk or burned. The stores taken included about 2,000 hogsheads of tobacco, all of which was destroyed.
Phillips joined Arnold at Osborne's and the army lay there on the 28th in order to give the British boats time to come up the James River to that point. On the 29th the commanding general put the troops in motion, and on the following day the army marched into Manchester, where, greatly to the surprise of every, one, it was seen that the opposite side of the river was held by a considerable body of men. Lafayette had arrived the day before, and had now assembled on the heights of Richmond not only his own army but the groups of militia which the British had dispersed at Williamsburg and Petersburg.
The impatience of Lafayette to reach some destination where his command might become engaged had caused him to march with the utmost haste. Reaching Baltimore on the 18th of April, he
obtained a loan of $10,000 on his own credit from the merchants of that city to be used in the purchase of clothing for his men. On this day he wrote to Washington that—
The importance of celerity, the desire of lengthening the way home, and immense delays that would stop me for an age, have determined me to leave our tents, artillery, etc. under a guard, and with orders to follow as fast as possible, while the rest of the detachment, by forced marches, and with impressed wagons and horses, will hasten to Fredericksburg or Richmond.
He did not expect to reach Greene in North Carolina without first encountering the British Army at some point in Virginia.
The marquis's corps left Baltimore on the 19th of April; it was in Alexandria on the 23d and arrived at Richmond on the 29th. His presence in the Virginia capital was not expected by the British and Phillips decided that it would be unwise to attack. Lafayette's letter to Washington written on May 4 is an enthusiastic report on this initial advantage gained at the very beginning of his campaign.
The leaving of my artillery appears a strange whim, but had I waited for it, Richmond had been lost. It is not without trouble I made this rapid march. General Phillips has expressed to a flag officer the astonishment he felt at our celerity; and when on the 30th he was going to give the signal to attack, he reconnoitered our position, Mr. Osborn, who was with him, says, that he flew into a violent passion, and swore vengeance against me and the corps I had brought with me.
The British, seeing themselves forestalled at Richmond, retired down the river from Manchester after destroying 1,200 hogsheads of tobacco. That evening they stopped at Warwick and burned a magazine of 500 barrels of flour, several mills, some warehouses, 5 vessels, and other property. Continuing down the James, the army reached Bermuda Hundred, where it embarked on the 2d of May with the intention of returning to Portsmouth. On the 7th of the month, when part of the fleet was at Hog Island, General Phillips received a letter from Lord Cornwallis upon the perusal of which he issued orders for the fleet to return up the river. Writing from Wilmington on the 24th of April, Cornwallis informed
Phillips that he had resolved to march into Virginia and suggested a rendezvous for the armies at Petersburg, which lay on the main highway from Wilmington through Virginia.
Orders were immediately issued for Simcoe's command, consisting of the light infantry and the Queen's Rangers, to proceed up the river to City Point. The rest of the army marched to Petersburg early on the morning of May 9, and arrived outside the town late that night after a march of nearly 30 miles.
When the British Army embarked at Bermuda Hundred Lafayette moved rapidly in the direction of Williamsburg and crossed the Chickahominy at Long Bridge. Upon learning that the fleet had turned about and was again ascending the river, Lafayette retraced his steps and by forced marches hastened to Osborne's, where he arrived on the 8th and then continued in the direction of Petersburg. An advance party was sent ahead to that town to seize the bridge and take possession of the boats on the river. This small force was encountered by the British when they approached Petersburg on the evening of the 9th, and many of its numbers were captured.
On the 10th the marquis made his appearance on the opposite side of the river with a strong escort, but after observing the strength of the army which occupied Petersburg he returned to Osborne's. Owing to the serious illness of General Phillips, which terminated in his death on the 13th of May, the command of the army devolved upon Arnold. Intelligence was received by him that the advance of Cornwallis's army had reached Halifax on the 7th of the month, and several expresses were dispatched to his lordship informing him that the Virginia army would retain its position at Petersburg until his arrival.
Lafayette fell back to Wilton and later returned to the vicinity of Petersburg. News of the march of the Pennsylvania line was eagerly awaited, for until these reenforcements arrived his small army could not afford to jeopardize its safety by engaging the British at Petersburg.
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