This Day in History: Virginia Patriots make a stand at Petersburg
On this day in 1781, the battle of Petersburg is fought in Virginia. Some history books list the event as a “skirmish,” but it was surely more than that. The battle was fought by roughly 3,500 men and lasted for 3 hours!
The British had not really focused on Virginia for most of the Revolutionary War, but things changed in December 1780. The British Commander-in-Chief, Sir Henry Clinton, asked one of his new officers to gain a foothold in Virginia. That new officer was none other than the American turncoat, Benedict Arnold.
Arnold was aggressive! Maybe he thought he had something to prove? He promptly marched toward Richmond and burned it in January 1781. By April, he was working with Major General William Phillips. Together, their forces numbered between 2,300 and 2,500 British soldiers. Newly in charge of all the British forces in Virginia, Phillips decided to attack the town of Petersburg, Virginia, which held many military supplies and tobacco.
Fortunately, at least one American anticipated the plan. Remember Baron Von Steuben? He was the Prussian-born officer who helped train Washington’s men at Valley Forge. Von Steuben recognized the value of Petersburg as a target. There were no Continental Army regulars in the state, but he sent for Virginia militia to help defend Petersburg. He also began moving supplies away from the city.
The militia were led by a Lutheran minister turned soldier: Brigadier General Peter Muhlenberg. Muhlenberg had once stood in front of his congregation and declared: “There is a time to pray and a time to fight, and that time has come now.” He promptly removed his preacher garments to reveal a military uniform. Hundreds of men were recruited to the cause on the spot.
At this juncture, Muhlenberg led between 1,000 and 1,200 men. No one really expected the militia to defeat the more experienced British soldiers, but Von Steuben thought it was important to make a stand. Virginians would be demoralized if they gave up the town of Petersburg without a fight.
And make a stand, they did! Muhlenberg’s men held the British at bay for hours. Thomas Jefferson later reported to George Washington that although the “Enemy were 2300 strong [the militia] disputed the Ground very handsomely two Hours during which time the Enemy gained one mile only & that by inches.” Finally, after three hours of fighting, the Americans made an orderly retreat across the Pocahontas Bridge, close to Petersburg. They removed planks from the bridge as they left, complicating the British pursuit.
Benedict Arnold must have been super irritated. He never had an especially high opinion of militia, but now a motley crew of them were holding the experienced British soldiers at bay.
When the British finally entered Petersburg, they discovered that most of the military stores were gone. Maybe even better, Muhlenberg’s men delayed the British for an extra day, thus giving Americans time to better fortify the heights near Richmond. A second sacking of Richmond was prevented.
The Battle may not technically have been a victory, but Von Steuben had certainly achieved his goal.
P.S. In some places, the quote to Muhlenberg's congregation appears a bit differently: “There is a time to preach . . . .”
Benson John Lossing, The Pictorial Field-book of the Revolution (1852) (volume 2)
Henry Augustus Muhlenberg, The life of Major-General Peter Muhlenberg: of the Revolutionary Army (1849)
Henry B. Dawson, Battles of the United States (1858)
John C. Fredriksen, Revolutionary War Almanac (2006)
Letter from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson (May 9, 1781)
Terry M. Mays, Historical Dictionary of the American Revolution (2d ed. 2009)
The Revolutionary War Battle of Petersburg, Virginia (Lecture by Robert P. Davis to the Sons of the American Revolution, Richmond Chapter; April 2003)
Wayne Lynch, Grading British General Benedict Arnold (Journal of the American Revolution; Aug. 2, 2013)