The War in Virginia

For years after the Dunmore raids, Virginia was quiet. This peace was broken in May 1779, when Clinton dispatched Major General Matthews and 1,800 men to raid the state. Landing at Portsmouth, detachments of Matthews' men spread out and captured several coastal towns, which were looted and burned. Before they returned to New York, the British destroyed or seized property worth £2 million, including 130 ships and 3,000 hogsheads of tobacco. The 1779 raid was a warning that the American forces did not heed. When the British returned, the Virginians were not ready to offer effective resistance.

Benedict Arnold in the Old Dominion

Following his unsuccessful attempt to betray West Point, Benedict Arnold took service with the British. Part of the reward for his treason was a commission as a brigadier general. One of his first acts as an officer in the British army was to lead a large-scale raid that wreaked havoc in Virginia.

Clinton sent Arnold south on December 20 with 1,600 men. A storm scattered the fleet carrying Arnold's force, and three transports with 400 men aboard never returned. Arnold and the remainder of his force arrived off Hampton Roads on December 30 and landed in early January. Governor Thomas Jefferson attempted to call out militia to oppose Arnold, without success. Arnold advanced to Richmond and burned much of the city. Loaded with spoils, Arnold's little army was able to march off to Portsmouth without any opposition. Arnold fortified the town and settled down for the remainder of the winter.

Arnold's operations almost cost Thomas Jefferson his political career. As governor of Virginia, he was criticized for the state's vulnerability to British incursions and the poor response of the militia. Being chased out of Richmond by the British did nothing for Jefferson's gubernatorial dignity.

A French fleet transporting an army of 5,500 troops commanded by Jean Baptiste Donatier, comte de Rochambeau, had arrived at Newport, Rhode Island, in July 1780. A British fleet promptly blockaded the French. Thus, the French stayed. Rochambeau and Washington waited for an opportunity to attack New York City that never came.

Washington recognized the vulnerability of British expeditionary forces cut off from their lifeline to the sea. He wanted to bag the traitorous Arnold, and asked for the cooperation of the French fleet. The French were able to comply because of a storm that disabled the blockading fleet. The French fleet sailed to the Chesapeake but was engaged on March 16 by a British fleet commanded by Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot and forced back to Newport. Washington thus lost the opportunity to put a noose around the neck of Benedict Arnold.

Lafayette to the Rescue

Washington sent the Marquis de Lafayette with 1,200 Continentals to bolster the Virginians and operate in tandem with the French. The failure of the French fleet left Lafayette facing a much larger British force. Clinton had sent Major General William Phillips with 2,600 troops to Portsmouth to reinforce Arnold and take command of operations in Virginia.

In April, Arnold sailed up the James River with 2,500 men, destroying property at will. Landing at City Point, Arnold marched to Petersburg. After brushing aside a force of militia, he burned some ships and captured 4,000 hogsheads of tobacco. Encouraged by this success, both Phillips and Arnold set out on further raids later that month. At the village of Osborne's on the James, Arnold destroyed or captured more than twenty-one vessels gathered to assist the French. Arnold and Phillips then joined forces and continued ravaging the state until May.

Lafayette reached Richmond on April 29. Phillips did not attack him, though he was operating nearby. Instead, the British fell back toward Petersburg. Lafayette soon learned the reason. General Cornwallis had arrived.

  1. Home
  2. American Revolution
  3. The Yorktown Campaign
  4. The War in Virginia
Visit other About.com sites: