On this day in 1781, Benedict Arnold invades Richmond, Virginia. Only months before, he had been an American officer. Now he was a traitor to the Patriot cause, and he’d been given command of a force composed of British soldiers, Hessian troops, and Loyalists.
Arnold had a simple task: Prevent Virginia from sending supplies and reinforcements to American General Nathanael Greene, then in the Carolinas. Of course, the British weren’t altogether comfortable with Arnold just yet. Thus, British General Sir Henry Clinton put Arnold in charge of the expedition, but he also sent Lt. Colonels Dundas and Simcoe to make sure that things went smoothly.
The traitorous Arnold still had a lot to prove to his new superiors.
Arnold arrived in the area at the end of December. He began working his way up the James River, capturing vessels and plundering plantations along the way. When Governor Thomas Jefferson heard of Arnold’s arrival, he did not immediately issue a call for the militia to come to Richmond. He’d had previous false alarms in the past. Would this be another?
Only a year earlier, he’d written of the “difficulties which attend a general call of the militia,” and “the disgust it gives them more especially when they find no enemy in place.”
For now, he would simply try to get more information. He wrote to the Baron von Steuben: “I have this moment received information that 27 Sail of Vessels” have arrived, but he added that “No other circumstance being given to conjecture their force or destination, I am only able to dispatch Gen.l Nelson into the lower Country . . . .”
By the time Jefferson did finally call up the militia, it was too late. Arnold was too close. Jefferson sent his wife and children away, even as he spent all day January 4 preparing for the inevitable attack. Public documents were moved, as were arms and other supplies.
Jefferson later wrote: “I was never off my horse, but to take food or rest; and was every where, where my presence could be of any service.” He finally got away, however, and he joined his family at 1 a.m. on January 5.
It wasn’t enough. On the 5th, Arnold’s forces invaded Richmond, taking the town rather easily. In the end, the British and Loyalist forces found many of the public records and stores and destroyed them. They were in Richmond for about 24 hours, but they plundered, destroyed and burned public records, buildings and supplies while they were there. One Hessian officer later wrote of these events: “On the whole, this expedition greatly resembled those of the freebooters, who sometimes at sea, sometimes ashore, ravaged and laid waste everything. Terrible things happened on this excursion; churches and holy places were plundered.”
It was demoralizing for the country and demoralizing for Jefferson personally. Could things have turned out differently if he’d called out the militia more quickly?
Jefferson had learned a painful lesson. He could not then know it, but he was gaining experience that would later be useful as President of the United States.
Henry B. Dawson, Battles of the United States (1858)
Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal (Joseph P. Tustin ed., 1979)
Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Harrison (December 23, 1779)
Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee (May 15, 1826)
Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Steuben (December 31, 1780)
Letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Preston (June 15, 1780)
Michael Kranish, Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War (2010)