Front Page Titles (by Subject) NOTES ON JEFFERSON'S CONDUCT DURING THE INVASION OF VIRGINIA, 1780–1 1 - The Works, vol. 10 (Correspondence and Papers 1803-1807)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
NOTES ON JEFFERSON’S CONDUCT DURING THE INVASION OF VIRGINIA, 1780–1 1 - Thomas Jefferson, The Works, vol. 10 (Correspondence and Papers 1803-1807) 
The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Federal Edition (New York and London, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904-5). Vol. 10.
About Liberty Fund:
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
NOTES ON JEFFERSON’S CONDUCT DURING THE INVASION OF VIRGINIA, 1780–11
Richmond, 1780, Dec. 31. At eight a.m. the Governor receives the first intelligence that 27 sail of ships had entered Chesapeake bay & were in the morning of the 29th just below Willoughby’s point (the southern cape of James river) their destination unknown.
1781 Jan. 2. At ten a.m. information received that they had entered James river, their advance being at Warrasqueak bay. Orders were immediately given for calling in the militia, ¼ from some, & ½ from other counties. The members of the legislature, which rises this day, are the bearers of the orders to their respective counties. The Governor directs the removal of the records, into the country and the transportation of the military stores from Richmond to Westham (on the river 7 miles above) there to be carried across the river.
Jan. 3. At eight p.m. the enemy are said to be a little below Jamestown; convenient for landing if Williamsburg is their object.
4. At five a.m. information is received that they have passed Kennon’s & Hood’s the evening before with a strong Easterly wind which determines their object to be either Petersburg or Richmond. The Governor now calls in the whole militia from the adjacent counties.
At five p.m. information that at 2. p.m. they were landed & drawn up at Westover (on the North side of the river & 25 miles below Richmond) and consequently Richmond their destination. Orders are now given to discontinue waggoning the military stores from Richmond to Westham, & to throw them across the river directly at Richmond.
The Governor having attended to this till an hour and a half in the night then rode up to the foundry (1 mile below Westham) ordered Capts. Brush & Irish, & Mr. Hylton to continue all night waggoning to Westham the arms & stores still at the Foundry, to be drawn across the river at Westham, then proceeded to Westham to urge the pressing the transportation there across the river, and thence went to Tuckahoe (8 miles above & on the same side of the river) to see after his family which he had sent that far in the course of the day. He arrived there at 1 o’clock in the night.
Jan. 5. Early in the morning he carried his family across the river there, and sending them to Fine creek (8 miles higher up) went himself to Britton’s on the S. side of the river (opposite to Westham) finding the arms &c. in a heap near the shore, & exposed to be destroyed by cannon from the North bank. He had them removed under cover of a point of land near by. He proceeded to Manchester (opposite to Richmond). The enemy had arrived at Richmond at 1 p.m. Having found that nearly the whole arms had been got there from Richmond, he set out for Chetwood’s to meet with Baron Steuben, who had appointed that place as a rendezvous & headquarters; but not finding him there, & understanding he would be at Colo. Fleming’s (six miles above Britton’s) he proceeded thither. The enemy had now a detachment at Westham, and sent a deputation from the city of Richmond to the Governor, at Colo. Fleming’s to propose terms for ransoming the safety of the city, which terms he rejected.
Jan. 6. The Governor returned to Britton’s, had measures taken more effectually to secure the books & papers there. The enemy having burnt some houses & stores, left Richmond, after 24 hours stay there, & encamped at Four mile creek (8 or 10 miles below) & the Governor went to look to his family at fine creek.
Jan. 7. He returned to Britton’s to see further to the arms there, exposed on the ground to heavy rains which had fallen the night before & then proceeded to Manchester, & lodged there. The enemy encamped at Westover.
Jan. 8. At half after 7 a.m. he crossed over to Richmond, & resumed his residence there. The enemy are still retained in their encampment at Westover by an Easterly wind. Colo. John Nicholas has now 300 militia at the Forest (6 miles off from Westover,) Genl. Nelson 200 at Charles city courthouse (8 miles below Westover), Gibson 1000 and Baron Steuben 800 on the South side the river.
Jan. 9. The enemy are still in camp at Westover.
Jan. 10. At one p.m. they embarked: and the wind having shifted a little to the North of the West, & pretty fresh, they fall down the river. Baron Steuben marches for Hood’s where their passage may be checked. He reaches Land’s mills in the evening, within 9 miles of Hood’s.
Jan. 11. At 8 a.m. the wind due West & strong they make good their retreat.
During this period time and place have been minutely cited, in order that those who think there was any remissness in the movements of the Governor, may lay their finger on the point and say when & where it was. Hereafter less detail will suffice.
Soon after this, General Phillips having joined Arnold with a reinforcement of 2000 men, they advanced again up to Petersburg, & about the last of April to Manchester. The Governor had remained constantly in and about Richmond, exerting all his powers for collecting militia, and providing such means for the defence of the state as it’s exhausted resources admitted. Never assuming a guard, & with only the river between him & the enemy, his lodgings were frequently within 4, 5 or 6 miles of them.
M. De Lafayette, about this time, arrived at Richmond with some Continental troops, with which, & the militia collected, he continued to occupy that place, and the North bank of the river, while Phillips & Arnold held Manchester & the South bank. But Lord Cornwallis, about the middle of May joining them with the main Southern army, M. de Lafayette was obliged to retire. The enemy crossed the river & advanced up into the country about 50 miles, & within 30 miles of Charlottesville, at which place the legislature being to meet in June, the Governor proceeded to his seat at Monticello, 2 or 3 miles from it. His office was now near expiring, the country under invasion by a powerful army, no services but military of any avail, unprepared by his line of life & education for the command of armies, he believed it right not to stand in the way of talents better fitted than his own to the circumstances under which the country was placed. He therefore himself proposed to his friends in the legislature, that Gen. Nelson, who commanded the militia of the state, should be appointed Governor, as he was sensible that the union of the civil & military power in the same hands at this time, would greatly facilitate military measures. This appointment accordingly took place on the 12th of June 1781.
This was the state of things, when, his office having actually expired, & no successor not yet in place, Colo. Tarleton, with his regiment of horse, was detached by Ld. Cornwallis to surprise Mr. Jefferson, (whom they thought still in office) and the Legislature now sitting in Charlottesville. The Speakers of the two houses, & some other members of the legislature were lodging with Mr. Jefferson at Monticello. Tarleton, early in the morning, (June 23, 1781) when within 10 miles of that place, detached a company of horse to secure him & his guests, and proceeded himself rapidly with his main body to Charlottesville, where he hoped to find the legislature unapprised of his movement. Notice of it, however, had been brought, both to Monticello & Charlottesville, about sunrise. The Speakers, with their Colleagues, returned to Charlottesville, and with the other members of the legislature, had barely time, to get out of his way. Mr. Jefferson sent off his family to secure them from danger, and was himself still at Monticello making arrangements for his own departure when Lieutt. Hudson arrived there at half speed, & informed him the enemy were then ascending the hill of Monticello. He departed immediately, & knowing that he would be pursued if he took the high road, he plunged into the woods of the adjoining mountain, where being at once safe, he proceeded to overtake his family. This is the famous adventure of Carter’s mountain, which has been so often resounded through the slanderous chronicles of federalism. But they have taken care never to detail the facts, lest these should shew that this favorite charge amounted to nothing more than that he did not remain in his house, and there singly fight a whole troop of horse, or suffer himself to be taken prisoner. Having accompanied his family one day’s journey, he returned to Monticello. Tarleton had retired after 18 hours stay in Charlottesville. Mr. Jefferson then rejoined his family, and proceeded with them to an estate he had in Bedford, about 80 miles SW where, riding in his farm some time after, he was thrown from his horse, & disabled from riding on horseback for a considerable time. But Mr. Turner finds it more convenient to give him this fall in his retreat before Tarleton, which had happened some weeks before, as a proof that he withdrew from a troop of horse with a precipitancy which Don Quixot would not have practised.
The facts here stated most particularly, with date of time and place, are taken from the notes made by the writer hereof, for his own satisfaction, at the time: the others are from memory, but so well recollected that he is satisfied there is no material fact misstated. Should any person undertake to contradict any particular on evidence which may at all merit the public respect, the writer will take the trouble (tho’ not at all in the best situation for it) to produce the proofs in support of it. He finds indeed that of the persons whom he recollects to have been present on these occasions, few have survived the intermediate lapse of four and twenty years. Yet he trusts that some, as well as himself, are yet among the living; and he is positively certain that no man can falsify any material fact here stated. He well remembers indeed that there were then, as there are at all times, some who blamed everything done contrary to their own opinion, althou’ their opinions were formed on a very partial knowledge of facts. The censures which have been hazarded by such men as Mr. Turner, are nothing but revivals of these half informed opinions. Mr. George Nicholas, then a very young man, but always a very honest one, was prompted by these persons to bring specific charges against Mr. Jefferson. The heads of these in writing were communicated thro’ a mutual friend to Mr. Jefferson, who committed to writing also the heads of justification on each of them. I well remember this paper, & believe the original of it still exists, and tho’ framed when every real fact was fresh in the knolege of everyone, this fabricated flight from Richmond was not among the charges stated in this paper, nor any charge against Mr. Jefferson for not fighting singly the troop of horse. Mr. Nicholas candidly relinquished further proceeding. The House of Representatives of Virginia pronounced an honorable sentence of entire approbation of Mr. Jefferson’s conduct, and so much the more honorable as themselves had been witnesses to it. And Mr. George Nicholas took a conspicuous occasion afterwards, of his own free will, & when the matter was entirely at rest, to retract publicly the erroneous opinions he had been led into on that occasion, & to make just reparation by a candid acknolegement of them.
[1 ]Another paper, undated, relating to this matter is as follows: Saturday, December the 31st, 1780, eight o’clock a.m. Received first intelligence that twenty-seven sail were, on the morning of December the 29th, just below Willoughby’s Point. Sent off General Nelson with full powers. 1781. January the 1st. No intelligence. January the 2d, ten o’clock a.m. Information from N. Burwell, that their advance was at Warrasqueak Bay. Gave orders for militia, a quarter from some, and half from other counties. Assembly rose. Wednesday, January the 3d, eight o’clock, p.m. Received a letter from E. Archer, Swan’s Point, that at twelve o’clock that day they were at anchor a little below Jamestown. At five o’clock p.m., of the same day, I had received a letter from R. Andrews for General Nelson, that they were at Jamestown the evening of the 2d. Thursday, January the 4th, five o’clock, a.m. Mr. Eppes and family, &c., came and informed me from the Speaker, that they had passed Kennon’s and Hood’s the evening before; the tide having made for them at one o’clock, p.m., of the 3d, and the wind shifted to the east strong. They had not, however, passed Hood’s, but anchored at Kennon’s. Called whole militia from adjacent counties. I was then anxious to know whether they would pass Westover, or not, as that would show the side they would land. Five o’clock, p.m. Learned by Captain De Ponthiere, that at two o’clock, p.m., they were drawn up at Westover. Then ordered arms, and stores, &c., (which till then had been carrying to Westham,) to be thrown across the river at Richmond; and at half-past seven o’clock, p.m., set out to the foundry and Westham, and set Captain Brush, Captain Irish, and Mr. Hylton, to see everything wagoned from the magazine and laboratory to Westham, and there thrown over; to work all night. The enemy encamped at Four-Mile Creek. I went to Tuckahoe and lodged. January the 5th. Went early over the river with my family; sent them up to Fine Creek; went myself to Westham; gave orders for withdrawing ammunition and arms (which lay exposed on the bank to the effect of artillery from opposite shore), behind a point. Then went to Manchester; had a view of the enemy. My horse sunk under me with fatigue; borrowed one, went to Chetwood’s, appointed by Baron Steuben as a rendezvous and head-quarters; but finding him not there, and understanding he would go to Colonel Henry’s, I proceeded there for quarters. The enemy arrived in Richmond at one o’clock, p.m. One regiment of infantry and thirty horse proceeded, without stopping, to the foundry; burned that and the magazine and Ballendine’s house, and went as far as Westham. They returned that evening to Richmond. Sent me a proposition to compound for property. Refused. January the 6th. In the morning they burned certain houses and stores, and at twelve o’clock of that day left Richmond, and encamped at Four-Mile Creek. I went to Westham, ordered books and papers particularly from magazine. In the evening I went up to Fine Creek. January the 7th. I returned to Westham, and then came down to Manchester, where I lodged. The enemy encamped at Westover and Berkley. It had rained excessively the preceding night, and continued to do so till about noon. Gibson has one thousand; Steuben, eight hundred; Davis, two hundred; Nelson, two hundred and fifty. January the 8th at half-past seven o’clock, a.m. I returned to Richmond. The wind gets about this time to north-west; a good gale; in the afternoon becomes easterly. The enemy remain in their last encampment. General Nelson at Charles City C. N. Colonel Nicholas with three hundred men at the Forest. January the 9th, eleven o’clock. The wind is south-east, but almost nothing. The enemy remain in their last encampment, except embarking their horse. January the 10th, at one o’clock, p.m. They embark infantry and fall down the river, the wind having shifted a little north of west, and pretty fresh. Baron Steuben gets to Bland’s Mills to-night, nine miles short of Hood’s. January the 11th, eight o’clock, a.m. The wind due west, and strong.
LOSS SUSTAINED BY THE PUBLIC.
The legislature was sitting when the entrance of the enemy into James river was made known. They were informed, without reserve, of the measures adopted. Every suggestion from the members was welcomed and weighed, and their adjournment on the second of January furnished the most immediate and confidential means of calling for the militia of their several counties. They accordingly became the bearers of those calls, and they were witnesses themselves, that every preparation was making which the exhausted and harassed state of the country admitted.
They met again at Richmond in May, and adjourned to Charlottesville, where they made a house on the 28th. My office of Governor expired on the 2d of June, being the fifth day of the session; and no successor had been appointed, when an enterprise on the 4th by Tarleton’s cavalry drove them thence, and they met again at Staunton on the 7th. Some members attended there who had not been at Richmond at the time of Arnold’s enterprise. One of these, George Nicholas, a very honest and able man, then, however, young and ardent, supposing there had been some remissness in the measures of the Executive on that occasion, moved for an inquiry into them, to be made at the succeeding session. The members who had been present and privy to the transactions, courted the inquiry on behalf of the executive. Mr. Nicholas, as a candid and honorable man, sent me, through a friend, a copy of the topics of inquiry he proposed to go into; and I communicated to him, with the same frankness, the justifications I should offer, that he might be prepared to refute them if not founded in fact. The following is a copy of both:—
1st Objection. That General Washington’s information was, that an embarcation was taking place, destined for this State.
Answer. His information was, that it was destined for the Southward as was given out at New York. Had similar information from General Washington, and Congress, been considered as sufficient ground at all times for calling the militia into the field, there would have been a standing army of militia kept up; because there has never been a time, since the invasion expected in December, 1779, but what we have had those intimations hanging over our heads. The truth is, that General Washington always considered as his duty to convey every rumor of an embarkation; but we (for some time past, at least) never thought anything but actual invasion should induce us to the expense and harrassment of calling the militia into the field; except in the case of December, 1779, when it was thought proper to do this in order to convince the French of our disposition to protect their ships. Inattention to this necessary economy, in the beginning, went far towards that ruin of our finances which followed.
2d Objection. Where were the post-riders, established last summer?
Answer. They were established at Continental expense, to convey speedy information to Congress of the arrival of the French fleet, then expected here. When that arrived at Rhode Island, these expenses were discontinued. They were again established on the invasion in October, and discontinued when that ceased. And again on the first intimation of the invasion of December. But it will be asked, why were they not established on General Washington’s letters? Because those letters were no more than we had received upon many former occasions, and would have led to a perpetual establishment of postriders.
3d Objection. If a proper number of men had been put into motion on Monday, for the relief of the lower country, and ordered to march to Williamsburg, that they would at least have been in the neighborhood of Richmond on Thursday.
Answer. The order could not be till Tuesday, because we then received our first certain information. Half the militia of the counties round about Richmond were then ordered out, and the whole of them on the 4th, and ordered not to wait to come in a body but in detachments as they could assemble. Yet they were not on Friday more than two hundred collected, and they were principally of the town of Richmond.
4th Objection. That we had not the signals.
Answer. This, though a favorite plan of some gentlemen, and perhaps a practicable one, has hitherto been thought too difficult.
5th Objection. That we had not look-outs.
Answer. There had been no cause to order look-outs more than has been ever existing. This is only in fact asking why we do not always keep look-outs.
6th Objection. That we had not heavy artillery on travelling carriages.
Answer. The gentlemen who acted as members of the Board of War a twelvemonth can answer this question, by giving the character of the artificers whom, during that time, they could never get to mount the heavy artillery. The same reason prevented their being mounted from May 1780, to December. We have even been unable to get these heavy cannon moved from Cumberland by the whole energy of government. A like difficulty which occurred in the removal of those at South Quay, in their day, will convince them of the possibility of this.
7th Objection. That there was not a body of militia thrown into Portsmouth, the great bridge, Suffolk.
Answer. In the summer of 1780, we asked the favor of General Nelson, to call together the County Lieutenants of the lower counties, and concert the general measures which should be taken for instant opposition, on any invasion, until aid could be ordered by the Executive; and the County Lieutenants were ordered to obey his call; he did so the first moment, to wit, on Saturday, December the 31st, at 8 o’clock a. m., of our receiving information of the appearance of a fleet in the bay. We asked the favor of General Nelson to go down, which he did, with full powers to call together the militia of any counties he thought proper, to call on the keepers of any public arms or stores, and to adopt for the instant such measures as exigencies required, till we could be better informed.
Query. Why were not General Nelson, and the brave officers with him, particularly mentioned?
Answer. What should have been said of them? The enemy did not land, nor give them an opprotunity of doing what nobody doubts they would have done; that is, something worthy of being minutely recited.
Query. Why publish Arnold’s letter without General Nelson’s answer?
Answer. Ask the printer. He got neither from the Executive.
Objection. As to the calling out a few militia, and that late.
Answer. It is denied that they were few or late. Forty thousand and seven hundred men (the number required by Baron Steuben) were called out the moment an invasion was known to have taken place, that is on Tuesday, January 2d.
Objections. The abandonment of York and Portsmouth fortifications.
Answer. How can they be kept without regulars, on the large scale on which they were formed? Would it be approved of to harass the militia with garrisoning them?
To place me on equal grounds for meeting the inquiry, one of the representatives of my county resigned his seat, and I was unanimously elected in his place. Mr. Nicholas, however, before the day, became better satisfied as to what had been done, and did not appear to bring forward the inquiry; and in a publication, several years after, he made honorable acknowledgment of the erroneous views he had entertained on those transactions. I therefore read in my place the inquiries he had proposed to make, and stated the justifications of the Executive. And nearly every member present having been a witness to their truth, and conscious all was done which could have been done, concurred at once in the following resolution:
‘The following resolution was unanimously agreed to by both houses of the General Assembly of Virginia, December the 19th, 1781.
‘Resolved, That the sincere thanks of the General Assembly be given to our former Governor, Thomas Jefferson, Esquire, for his impartial, upright, and attentive administration whilst in office. The Assembly wish in the strongest manner to declare the high opinion they entertained of Mr. Jefferson’s ability, rectitude, and integrity as Chief Magistrate of this Commonwealth, and mean, by thus publicly avowing their opinion, to obviate and to remove all unmerited censure.’
And here it is but proper to notice the parody of these transactions which General Lee has given as their history. He was in a distant State at the time, and seems to have made up a random account from the rumors which were afloat where he then was. It is a tissue of errors from beginning to end.
The nonsense which has been uttered on the coup de main of Tarleton on Charlottesville is really so ridiculous, that it is almost ridiculous seriously to notice it. I will briefly, however, notice facts and dates. It has been said before, that the legislature was driven from Charlottesville by an incursion of the enemy’s cavalry. Since the adjournment from Richmond, their force in this country had been greatly augmented by reinforcements under Lord Cornwallis and General Phillips; and they had advanced up into the country as far as Elk Island, and the Fork of James river. Learning that the legislature was in session in Charlottesville, they detached Colonel Tarleton with his legion of horse to surprise them. As he was passing through Louisa on the evening of the 3d of June, he was observed by a Mr. Gouett, who, suspecting the object, set out immediately for Charlottesville, and knowing the byways of the neighborhood, passed the enemy’s encampment, rode all night, and before sunrise of the 4th, called at Monticello with notice of what he had seen, and passed on to Charlottesville to notify the members of the legislature. The Speakers of the two houses, and some other members were lodging with us. I ordered a carriage to be ready to carry off my family; we breakfasted at leisure with our guests, and after breakfast they had gone to Charlottesville; when a neighbor rode up full speed to inform me that a troop of horse was then ascending the hill to the house. I instantly sent off my family, and after a short delay for some pressing arrangements, I mounted my horse; and knowing that in the public road I should be liable to fall in with the enemy, I went through the woods, and joined my family at the house of a friend, where we dined. Would it be believed, were it not known, that this flight from a troop of horse, whose whole legion, too, was within supporting distance, has been the subject, with party writers, of volumes of reproach on me, serious or sarcastic? That it has been sung in verse, and said in humble prose, that forgetting the noble example of the hero of La Mancha, and his wind-mills, I decline a combat against a troop, in which victory would have been so glorious? Forgetting, themselves, at the same time, that I was not provided with the enchanted arms of the Knight, nor even with his helmet of Mambrino. These closet heroes, forsooth, would have disdained the shelter of a wood, even singly and unarmed, against a legion of armed enemies.
Here, too, I must note another instance of the want of that correctness in writing history, without which it becomes romance. General Lee says that Tarleton, in another enterprise some time after, penetrated up the south side of James river to New London, in Bedford county. To that neighborhood precisely, where I had a possession, I had carried my family, and was confined there several weeks by the effects of a fall from my horse; and I can assure the readers of General Lee’s history, that no enemy ever came within forty miles of New London.