Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 21: Mutiny Parried and Quelled; the Miserably Defective Structure of Congress; Lafayette Checks Cornwallis (November 1780 to July 1781) - The Life of George Washington
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CHAPTER 21: Mutiny Parried and Quelled; the “Miserably Defective” Structure of Congress; Lafayette Checks Cornwallis (November 1780 to July 1781) - John Marshall, The Life of George Washington 
The Life of George Washington. Special Edition for Schools, ed. Robert Faulkner and Paul Carrese (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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Mutiny Parried and Quelled; the “Miserably Defective” Structure of Congress; Lafayette Checks Cornwallis (November 1780 to July 1781)
Virginia invaded by Arnold.—He destroys the stores at Westham and at Richmond.—Retires to Portsmouth.—Mutiny of the Pennsylvania line.—Sir H. Clinton attempts to negotiate with the mutineers.—They compromise with the Government.—Mutiny in the Jersey line.—Mission of Colonel Laurens to France.—Congress recommends a system of revenue.—Reform in the Executive departments.—Confederation adopted.—Military transactions.—Lafayette detached to Virginia.—Cornwallis arrives.—Presses Lafayette.—Expedition to Charlottesville, to Point of Fork.—Lafayette forms a junction with Wayne.—Cornwallis retires to the lower country.—General Washington’s letters intercepted.—Action near Jamestown.
Nov. 1780The evacuation of Portsmouth by Leslie afforded Virginia but a short interval of repose. On the 30th of December 1780, a fleet of transports, having on board between one and two thousand men, commanded by General Arnold, anchored in Hampton roads, and proceeded next day up James river, under1781 convoy of two small ships of war. On the 4th of January, they landed at Westover, about twenty-five miles from Richmond, the metropolis of the state, and Arnold commenced his march the next day for that place at the head of about nine hundred men.
A few continental troops who were at Petersburg, were ordered to the capital; and between one and two hundred militia, collected from the town and its immediate vicinity, were directed to harass the advancing enemy. This party being too feeble for its object, Arnold entered Richmond on the 5th, where he halted with about five hundred men. The residue proceeded under Lieutenant-Colonel Simcoe1 to Westham, where they burnt several public buildings with military stores to a considerable amount, and many valuable papers which had been carried thither as to a place of safety. This service being effected, Simcoe rejoined Arnold at Richmond; where the public stores, and a large quantity of rum and salt belonging to private individuals, were destroyed.
The army returned to Westover on the 7th, and re-embarking on the 10th, proceeded down the river. It was followed by the Baron Steuben with a few new levies and militia. Near Hood’s, Colonel Clark drew a party of them into an ambuscade, and gave them one fire with some effect, but, on its being partially returned, the Americans fled in the utmost confusion.
Arnold reached Portsmouth on the 20th, where he manifested an intention to establish a permanent post.
The loss of the British in this expedition was stated in the New York Gazette at seven killed, including one subaltern; and twenty-three wounded, among whom was one captain. This small loss was sustained almost entirely in the ambuscade near Hood’s.
In the North, the year commenced with an event which, for a time, threatened the American cause with total ruin.
The accumulated sufferings and privations of the army constitute a large and interesting part of the history of that war which gave independence to the United States. In addition to these, the Pennsylvania line complained of grievances almost peculiar to itself.
When Congress directed enlistments to be made for three years or during the war, the recruiting officers of Pennsylvania, in some instances, instead of engaging their men definitively for the one period or the other, engaged them generally for three years or the war. This ambiguity produced its natural effect. The soldier claimed his discharge at the expiration of three years, and the officer insisted on retaining him during the war.
1781The discontents, which had been long fomenting, broke out on the 1st of January in an open and almost universal revolt of the line.2 On a signal given, the non-commissioned officers and privates paraded under arms, avowing their determination to march to the seat of government and obtain redress, or serve no longer. In attempting to suppress the mutiny, six or seven mutineers were wounded on the one side; and, on the other, Captain Billings was killed, and several other officers were dangerously wounded. The authority of General Wayne availed nothing; and the whole line, consisting of thirteen hundred men, marched under the command of their serjeants, with six field-pieces, towards Princeton.
The next day they were followed by General Wayne, accompanied by Colonels Butler and Stewart; and overtaken near Middlebrook. A sergeant was deputed from each regiment, on a written invitation from Wayne, with whom a conference was held; and, on the succeeding day, the soldiers proceeded to Princeton. At that place the propositions of the general and field-officers were communicated to them, and referred to a committee of sergeants, who stated their claims. But these could not be acceded to.
A committee of Congress, united with the Governor and some members of the Executive Council of Pennsylvania, proceeded to Princeton for the purpose of endeavoring to accommodate this dangerous commotion.3
At his head quarters at New Windsor, on the North river,4 General Washington received intelligence of this alarming mutiny. Accustomed as he had been to contemplate hazardous and difficult situations, it was not easy, under existing circumstances, to resolve instantly on the course it was most prudent to pursue. His first impression—to repair to the camp of the mutineers—soon gave place to opinions which were formed on more mature reflection; and he thought it advisable to leave the negotiation with the civil power, and to prepare for those measures which ought to be adopted in the event of its failure. After sounding the disposition of the troops on the North river, and finding them to be favorable, a detachment of eleven hundred men was ordered to be in readiness to move at a moment’s warning. The militia of New Jersey were assembled under General Dickenson, and measures were taken to call out those of New York.
To avail himself of an event so auspicious to the royal cause, Sir Henry Clinton despatched three emissaries with tempting offers to the revolters, and instructions to invite them, while the negotiation was depending,5 to take a position behind the South river,6 where they could be covered by detachments from New York. Meanwhile, he kept his eye on West Point.
His emissaries were seized, and their proposals communicated to General Wayne, but they were not surrendered;7 nor could the revolters be induced to cross the Delaware, or to march from Princeton. Their former officers, except those already mentioned, were not permitted to enter their camp; and Generals St. Clair and Lafayette, and Lieutenant-Colonel Laurens, were ordered to leave Princeton.
Such was the state of things when the committee of Congress, and President Reed, with a part of his executive council, arrived in the neighborhood of the revolters. The former having delegated their power to the latter, a conference was held with the serjeants, after which proposals were made and distributed among the troops for consideration. The government offered—
1st. To discharge all those who had enlisted indefinitely for three years, or during the war, the fact to be examined into by three commissioners to be appointed by the executive; and to be ascertained, when the original enlistment could not be produced, by the oath of the soldier.
2d. To give immediate certificates for the depreciation on their pay, and to settle the arrearages as soon as circumstances would admit.
3d. To furnish them immediately with certain specified articles of clothing.
On receiving these propositions, the troops agreed to march to Trenton, where they were accepted, with the addition that three commissioners, to be deputed by the line, should be added to the board authorized to determine on the claims of soldiers to a discharge. The British emissaries were then surrendered, and were executed as spies.
While the investigation was depending, the serjeants retained their command. Under this irksome state of things, the business was pressed with so much precipitation, that almost the whole of the artillery, and of the five first regiments of infantry, were discharged on the oaths of the soldiers, before the enlistments could be brought from their huts. When they were produced, it was found that not many of those whose claims remained to be examined were entitled to a discharge; and that, of those actually dismissed, the greater number had been enlisted for the war. The discharges given, however, were not cancelled, and the few who were to remain in service received furloughs for forty days.
Thus ended a mutiny, of which a voluntary performance of much less than was extorted, would have prevented.
The dangerous policy of yielding even to the just demands of soldiers with arms in their hands, was soon illustrated. On the night of the 20th, a part of the Jersey brigade, which had been stationed at Pompton, many of whom were also foreigners, rose in arms; and, making the same claims which had been yielded to the Pennsylvanians, marched to Chatham, where a part of the same brigade was cantoned, in the hope of exciting them also to join in the revolt.
General Washington, who had been extremely chagrined at the issue8 of the revolt in the Pennsylvania line, ordered a detachment of the eastern troops,9 who were natives, to march against the mutineers, and to bring them to unconditional submission. General Howe, who commanded, was ordered to make no terms with them while in a state of resistance; and, as soon as they should surrender, to seize a few of the most active and execute them on the spot. These orders were obeyed, and the Jersey mutineers returned to their duty. This mutiny was crushed too suddenly to allow time for the operation of the measures taken by Sir Henry Clinton to avail himself of it.
The vigorous measures taken in this instance, were happily followed by such attention on the part of the states to their respective quotas, as, in some measure, to check the progress of discontent.
Although the resources of the government were inadequate to its exigencies, the discontents of the people were daily multiplied by the contributions which they were required to make, and by the irritating manner in which those contributions were drawn from them. Every article for public use was obtained by impressment, and the taxes were either unpaid, or collected by coercive means. Strong remonstrances were made against this system; and the dissatisfaction which pervaded the mass of the community was scarcely less dangerous than that which had been manifested by the army.
To relieve the United States from their complicated embarrassments, a foreign loan seemed an expedient of indispensable necessity; and from France they hoped to obtain it. Congress selected Lieutenant-Colonel Laurens for this interesting service, and instructed him also to urge the advantage of maintaining a naval superiority in the American seas. Before his departure, he received from General Washington, in the form of a letter, the result of his reflections on the existing state of things.
With much reason the commander-in-chief urged on the cabinet of Versailles the vital policy of affording powerful aids to the United States through the next campaign. Deep was the gloom with which their political horizon was overcast. The British, in possession of South Carolina and Georgia, had overrun great part of North Carolina also; and a second detachment from New York was making a deep impression on Virginia.
The restoration of credit was indispensable to their affairs, and the establishment of a revenue, subject to the exclusive control of the continental government, was connected inseparably with the restoration of credit. The efforts therefore to negotiate a foreign loan were accompanied by resolutions recommending to the several states to vest a power in Congress to levy for the use of the United States, a duty of five per centum ad valorem on all goods imported into any of them; and also on all prizes condemned in the courts of admiralty. This plan, though unequal to the public exigencies, was never adopted.
About the same time a reform was introduced into the administration, the necessity of which had been long perceived. All the great executive duties had been devolved either on committees of Congress, or on boards consisting of several members. This unwieldy and expensive system had maintained itself against all the efforts of reason and utility. But the scantiness of the public means at length prevailed over prejudice, and the several committees and boards yielded to a secretary for foreign affairs, a superintendant of finance, a secretary of war, and a secretary of marine. But so miserably defective was the organization of Congress, that the year was far advanced before this measure could be carried into complete execution.
About this time the articles of confederation were ratified. Much difficulty had been encountered in obtaining the adoption of this instrument. At length, in February 1781, to the great joy of America, this interesting compact was rendered complete. Like many other human institutions, it was productive, neither in war nor in peace, of all the benefits which its sanguine advocates had anticipated.
Such was the defensive strength of the positions taken by the adverse armies on the Hudson, that no decisive blow could be given by either. The anxious attentions of General Washington, therefore, were directed to the South. One of those incidents which fortune occasionally produces, presented an opportunity which he deemed capable of being improved to the destruction of the British army in Virginia.
Late in January, a part of the British fleet sustained so much damage by a storm, as to destroy for a time the superiority which Arbuthnot had uniformly pursued. To turn this temporary advantage to account, Monsieur Destouches detached a ship of the line with two frigates to the Chesapeake;10 a force which the delegation of Virginia had assured him was sufficient for the object.
Confident that the critical moment must be seized, and that the co-operation of a land and naval force was indispensable to success, General Washington had ordered a detachment of twelve hundred men under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette, to the head of the Chesapeake, there to embark for that part of Virginia which was to become the theatre of action, under convoy of a French frigate for which he applied to the Admiral. He immediately communicated this measure to the Count de Rochambeau and to Monsieur Destouches, with his conviction that no serious advantage could be expected from a few ships unaided by land troops. He recommended that the whole fleet, with a detachment of one thousand men, should be employed on the expedition.
His representations did not prevail. Monsieur de Tilley had sailed for the Chesapeake with a sixty-four gun ship and two frigates; and, as some of the British ships had been repaired, the Admiral did not think it prudent to put to sea with the residue of his fleet.
As had been foreseen by General Washington, De Tilley found Arnold in a situation not to be assailed with any prospect of success, and returned to Newport.
After the return of De Tilley, the French General and Admiral proposed in a letter to General Washington, to make a second expedition to the Chesapeake with the whole fleet, and with eleven hundred men. He hastened to Newport; and on the 6th of March met the Count de Rochambeau on board the Admiral, and it was determined that the armament should put to sea as soon as possible. The fleet did not sail till the evening of the 8th.
Two days after Destouches had sailed, he was followed by Arbuthnot, who overtook him off the capes of Virginia. A partial engagement ensued which continued about an hour, when the fleets were separated. The French Admiral called a council of war in which it was declared unadvisable to renew the action, and he returned to Newport.
Late in March, General Philips arrived in Virginia with two thousand men, and took command of the British forces in that state. After completing the fortifications at Portsmouth, he commenced offensive operations. Two thousand five hundred men spread themselves over the lower end of that narrow neck of land which is made by the York and James rivers, and after destroying some public property in the neck, and the vessels in the rivers, re-embarked and proceeded to City Point, where they landed in the afternoon of the 24th of April. The next day they marched against Petersburg, where immense quantities of tobacco, and some other stores, were deposited.
The Baron Steuben was not in a condition to check their progress. The levies of Virginia had marched to the aid of General Greene; and the whole number of militia in the field did not much exceed two thousand men. One thousand of them were placed a mile below the town, for the purpose of skirmishing with the advancing enemy. They were employed two or three hours in driving this party over the Appamattox; on passing which the bridge was taken up, and farther pursuit became impracticable. The Baron retreated towards Richmond, and Philips took possession of Petersburg, where he destroyed a considerable quantity of tobacco and all the vessels lying in the river.
Arnold was then detached to Warwick against a small naval force which had been collected between that place and Richmond, for the purpose of co-operating with the French fleet; and Philips took the road by Chesterfield Court-house, the place of rendezvous for the new levies of Virginia, in order to destroy the barracks and public stores. Each party having effected its object, they reunited on the 30th, and marched to Manchester on the southern bank of the James river, opposite to Richmond, where the warehouses were set on fire and all the tobacco destroyed.
On the preceding evening, the Marquis de Lafayette, who had made a forced march from Baltimore, arrived in Richmond, and saved that place, in which a great proportion of the military stores of the state were then collected. His detachment was joined by about two thousand militia and sixty dragoons.
May 1781General Philips retired to Bermuda Hundred, where his troops reembarked and fell down the river to Hog island. At this place he received a letter from Lord Cornwallis, directing him to take his station at Petersburg.
General Lafayette, on being informed that Lord Cornwallis was marching northward, and that General Philips had landed at Brandon on the south side of the James river, was persuaded that a junction of the two armies was intended, and hastened to take possession of Petersburg. Being anticipated in this design by the British General, he recrossed the James, and used his utmost exertions to remove the military stores from Richmond.
Lord Cornwallis, after effecting a junction with Arnold, who had succeeded by the death of Philips to the command of the British forces in Virginia, determined on a vigorous plan of offensive operations. He crossed the James river at Westover, where he was joined by a reinforcement from New York, and attempted, by turning the left flank of the Marquis, to get into his rear.
Lafayette was not in a condition to risk an engagement. His objects were to save the public stores, and to effect a junction with the Pennsylvania line, which was marching southward under the command of General Wayne.
The fine horses found in the stables of private gentlemen enabled the British General to mount so many infantry, as to move large detachments with unusual rapidity. He was so confident of overtaking and destroying his enemy as to say exultingly, “the boy cannot escape me.” His hopes, however, were disappointed, and, after marching some distance up the northern side of Northanna, he relinquished the pursuit, and turned his attention to other objects.
June 1781Military stores had been collected, among other places, at the Point of Fork, the confluence of the Rivanna and Fluvanna, the two branches of the James river, which were protected by between five and six hundred new levies, and a few militia, commanded by the Baron Steuben. Colonel Simcoe was detached against this post at the head of five hundred men; and Tarleton, with about two hundred and fifty cavalry and mounted infantry, was ordered against Charlottesville, where the General Assembly was in session. Notice of his approach was given by a private gentleman, Mr. Jouiette, on a fleet horse, and nearly all the members of the legislature escaped, and re-assembled at Staunton. Tarleton, after destroying the stores, proceeded down the river to the Point of Fork.
The Baron Steuben, hearing of the expedition to Charlottesville, had employed himself in removing the military stores from the Point of Fork to the south side of the Fluvanna. On the approach of Tarleton and Simcoe, he withdrew precipitately in the night, and the stores which had not been removed, were destroyed by a few men who crossed the Rivanna in canoes.
To secure his junction with Wayne, Lafayette had crossed the Rapidan. The movements of the two armies had placed Lord Cornwallis between him and a large quantity of military stores, which had been transported up the river from Richmond, and deposited at Albemarle old court-house. To this place, Lord Cornwallis directed his march.
The Marquis, after effecting a junction with the Pennsylvania line, amounting to eight hundred men, advanced with celerity towards the British army, and encamped within a few miles of it. While upwards of a day’s march from its point of destination, Lord Cornwallis encamped at Elk Island, and advanced his light parties to a position commanding the road by which it was supposed the Americans must pass. Lafayette, however, in the night, discovered a nearer road, which had been long disused; and next morning, the British general had the mortification to perceive that the American army had crossed the Rivanna, and taken a strong position behind Mechunk creek, which commanded the route leading to Albemarle old court-house. At this place, a considerable reinforcement of mountain militia was received.
Lord Cornwallis, desirous of transferring the war to the lower country, retired first to Richmond, and afterwards to Williamsburg.
The Marquis followed, with cautious circumspection. On the 18th of June, he was reinforced by four or five hundred new levies, under the Baron Steuben, which augmented his army to four thousand men, of whom two thousand were regulars.
As the British army retreated, Lafayette pressed its rear with light parties. Colonel Simcoe, who covered the retreat, was overtaken by Colonel Butler, about six miles from Williamsburg, and a sharp action ensued. The approach of large reinforcements to the British, compelled the Americans to retire.
Although, from various causes, Lord Cornwallis had encountered less resistance in his bold and rapid march through Virginia than was to be expected, no disposition was manifested to join the royal standard, or to withdraw from the contest. The Marquis complained “of much slowness and much carelessness in the country; but the dispositions of the people,” he said, “were good, and they required only to be awakened.” This, he thought, would be best effected by the presence of General Washington. But Washington deemed it of more importance to remain on the Hudson, for the purpose of digesting and conducting a grand plan of combined operations then meditated against New York.
An express, carrying letters communicating to Congress the result of his consultations, on this subject, with the commanders of the land and naval forces of France, was intercepted in Jersey. The disclosure made by these letters alarmed Sir Henry Clinton for New York, and determined him to require the return of part of the troops in Virginia. Supposing himself too weak, after complying with this requisition, to remain in Williamsburg, Lord Cornwallis took the resolution of retiring to Portsmouth.
He marched from Williamsburg on the 4th of July, and a part of his troops crossed over into the island of Jamestown on the same evening. The two succeeding days were employed in passing over the baggage. Lafayette pushed his best troops within nine miles of the British camp, with the intention of attacking their rear, when the main body should have passed into Jamestown.
Suspecting his design, Lord Cornwallis encamped the greater part of his army compactly on the main, and displayed a few troops on the island, so as in appearance to magnify their numbers. Believing that the greater part of the British had passed over in the night, Lafayette detached some riflemen to harass their outposts, while he advanced on their rear with his continental troops.
The piquets were forced by the riflemen, without much resistance; but an advanced post, which covered the camp from the view of the Americans, was perseveringly maintained, though three of the officers commanding it were successively picked off by the riflemen. Lafayette, who arrived a little before sunset, suspecting that this post covered more than a rear-guard, determined to reconnoitre the camp. From a tongue of land, stretching into the river, he perceived that the enemy was in much greater force than had been supposed, and hastened to call off his men.
He found Wayne closely engaged. In the attempt to seize a piece of artillery, purposely exposed, that officer discovered the whole British army moving out against him, in order of battle. To retreat was impossible; and Wayne, with his detachment, not exceeding eight hundred men, made a gallant charge on the whole line of the enemy. A warm action ensued, which was kept up till the arrival of Lafayette, who ordered Wayne to retreat, and form in a line with the light infantry, which was drawn up half a mile in his rear. The whole party then saved itself behind a morass.
Lord Cornwallis, suspecting an ambuscade, would allow no pursuit; and in the night crossed over into the island, whence he proceeded to Portsmouth.
In this action, the Americans lost one hundred and eighteen men, among whom were ten officers. The British loss was less considerable.
The campaign in Virginia enhanced the military reputation of Lafayette, and raised him in the general esteem. That with a decided inferiority of effective force, and especially of cavalry, he had been able to keep the field in an open country, and to preserve a considerable proportion of his military stores, as well as his army, was believed to furnish unequivocal evidence of his prudence and vigor.
[1. ]John Graves Simcoe (1752–1806), Lieutenant Colonel in the British army, British commander of the Queen’s Rangers, an elite Tory (Loyalist) unit comprised of horse and foot troops.
[2. ]That is, a revolt of the Pennsylvania Continental regiments; this occurred in their winter camp of 1780–81 in Morristown, New Jersey, one of several winter camps for the Continentals that year.
[3. ]Joseph Reed was then President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania; Marshall refers to him here as the governor (which he was, in effect), though this was not his official title.
[4. ]I.e., the Hudson.
[5. ]Not yet concluded, in suspense.
[6. ]In New Jersey, east-southeast of Brunswick.
[7. ]That is, the sergeants in command of the mutineers seized the British emissaries, and notified General Wayne of the British stratagem. Marshall suggests the sergeants never turned over the captured emissaries to Wayne, but later historians report that initially they were surrendered and then the sergeants demanded their return.
[8. ]Ultimate consequence, final result.
[9. ]I.e., New England troops.
[10. ]Admiral Destouches was commander of the French naval forces in America from December 1780 to May 1781; given the superiority of the British fleet based off Long Island, commanded by Admiral Arbuthnot, the French squadron had remained bottled up in Newport, Rhode Island.