Sold – Thomas Jefferson Manages the Revolutionary War Effort in Virginia

He organizes aid for prisoners of war and struggles to provision the southern Continental Army.

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As 1781 dawned, Virginia had been essentially out of the war as a theater of significant armed conflict, having experienced just a few nuisance raids in the Tidewater country early in 1776 and some raiding parties in 1779. However, the fall of Charleston in 1780 set in motion a significant expansion of...

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Sold – Thomas Jefferson Manages the Revolutionary War Effort in Virginia

He organizes aid for prisoners of war and struggles to provision the southern Continental Army.

As 1781 dawned, Virginia had been essentially out of the war as a theater of significant armed conflict, having experienced just a few nuisance raids in the Tidewater country early in 1776 and some raiding parties in 1779. However, the fall of Charleston in 1780 set in motion a significant expansion of the British southern offensive as a way to offset a stalemate in the Northern theater, and Virginia became a focus.

On the first of January 1781, the British sent an expedition into the Chesapeake Bay of Virginia under the command of their new general, Benedict Arnold. Arnold conducted a lightening raid up the James River to Richmond, severely damaging or destroying American logistics lines and supply capacity. He then returned to the Chesapeake, fortifying his army at Portsmouth. Knowing this force was too small to conduct any further operations in Virginia, Sir Henry Clinton, the British Commander in Chief in New York, sent a large reinforcement to Portsmouth that arrived in stages from March 20-26. Meanwhile, General Charles Cornwallis was advancing northward with his army. He managed to win a very costly victory over the southern American army under General Nathaniel Greene at Guilford Court House, North Carolina on March 15, 1781. As Cornwallis moved north, he would be dogged by Greene, whose primary task was to defend against the British invasion of the south.

American resources were meager, so Jefferson, Virginia’s governor, found himself facing serious problems at all turns. He called upon General Washington for reinforcements, knowing that even if they came, they could not provide the immediate relief he needed (in fact, in February, Washington dispatched the Marquis de Lafayette with some 1,200 men to Virginia’s aid). So Jefferson scrambled to raise state forces to resist Arnold’s ventures but found it difficult to enlist volunteers or even determine the number of militiamen available to him.

Moreover, county officials responsible for raising troops were seeking to fill their draft quotas by grabbing anyone who was willing, regardless of qualifications. Jefferson also had to obtain provisions and horses for his military forces, but couldn’t get the necessary cooperation from civilians, who were reluctant to contribute their assets. He was not only concerned about Virginia’s needs. He knew that without General Greene’s army, it would be impossible to defeat Cornwallis, so when Greene informed him that he badly needed horses for his cavalry, Greene received permission to impress (confiscate) them. This subjected Jefferson to criticism from his constituents, who objected to the government intrusion. In March, the Governor was directed by the Virginia Assembly to restrain this form of impressment.

On March 14, Lafayette arrived at Yorktown with just his advance party; the next day he met with Baron von Steuben, who was at nearby Williamsburg with a small militia force, attempting to constrain Arnold. French troops were also expected to take part, but on March 16 their ships were turned back, imperilling Lafayette’s entire mission. Thus, on March 26, 1781, Governor Jefferson was faced with British troops on his soil and many more on the way, while Continental Army reinforcements from the north were expected but had not arrived. He was struggling to build up and provision his state militia, while having also to worry about the needs of Greene (even while under instructions from the Assembly to rein in Greene’s impressment policies). And there was something else of importance for which Jefferson is not widely remembered. The conditions under which American prisoners of war were being held were awful and the story of efforts to negotiate relief for them is seldom told.

Jefferson was in the forefront of these efforts and, as reported in the article “Rebel Prisoners Detained in North America” by Paul J. Rastatter, managed to obtain British permission to send 5000 pounds of tobacco to be sold for the relief of American prisoners of war in Charleston, S.C. Moreover, besides tobacco, Jefferson was gathering other provisions to send, expecting to slip them in with the tobacco.

Governor Jefferson was required to send copies of the acts of the state Assembly to the county officers, and on March 26, 1781, he wrote and had typeset a circular letter to them. To the formulaic text enclosing the acts, he added discussions on militia enlistment policies and an appeal for aid for the prisoners of war. After this first version had been typeset, Jefferson decided to use the opportunity to also issue the instructions on impressment required by the Assembly. He had the letter typeset again, thereby creating two separate imprints for the same letter. Both of the imprints are extraordinary rarities; the Library of Congress has the first version in its “American Time Capsule;” we offer the second.

Printed Circular Letter Signed to the County Lieutenants, Richmond, In Council, March 26, 1781. “I enclose you by express three Acts of the last session of Assembly for ascertaining the number of militia in the State exempting Artificers employed at Iron works from militia duty and remedying the inconveniences arising from the Interruption of the Draught [draft] and the procuring clothes, provisions & waggons for the Army. On the approach of Lord Cornwallis to this State & a representation of the want of horses to mount our Dragoons two warrants were enclosed to General Greene for impressing Dragoon horses. The persons to whom these warrants have been entrusted having taken, as was said, horses of much greater value than have been allowed for that service, the General-Assembly directed that no further Impresses under them should be made of horses of more than the value of £50 Specie and that those of a higher price already Impressed should be returned to their owners. We have taken such measures as were in our power to carry the Resolution into effect, but as the Impressers passing continually from Place to Place may not be notified of the Resolutions of Government, I must beg the favor of you to take measures for making them known to any such who may be in your County and for effecting their execution. It is probable that most of the valuations have been made in paper money. From another Resolution from Assembly we are led to fix on £5000 paper, as the value above which no such horse shall be impressed or retained.

We expect to send a vessel shortly with a flag [of truce] from this Place to Charles Town with tobacco to be disposed of for our Captive Officers and soldiers there. Be so good as to give notice to the friends of any of them within your County that any articles that they may think proper to send for their Relief by that conveyance shall have a free passage if ready to be delivered here by the last of April, & not too much for the spare room of the vessel.

The number of deserters from the British army who have taken refuge in this State is now considerable & daily augmenting. These people notwithstanding their coming over to us, being deemed in Law alien Enemies and as such not admissible to be citizens, are not within the scope of the Militia and Invasion Laws, under which citizens alone can be embodied. I thought it necessary to observe this to you lest any Error in this point should creep into practice by incorporating those persons in the Militia of the State.”Thus, Jefferson instructs the lieutenants not to allow Greene’s men to confiscate good horses for its cavalry, invites them to aid American prisoners, and warns them not to try and recruit British deserters (who are enemy aliens). On the left of the letter, apparently in another hand, was added “Be pleased to send immediately the enclosed letter to the commissioners of the tax for your county.” This copy was addressed to the Lieutenant of Berkeley County. We have been unable to find record of another signed copy of this letter having been offered for sale in at least 30 years.

Virginia continued to be threatened for another seven months. On April 18 the British began a major campaign up the James River, striking at Yorktown, Williamsburg and the Virginia state naval docks on the Chickahominy River. In June, Jefferson stepped down as governor and narrowly escaped capture by the British at Charlottesville. In August Cornwallis and his large army arrived in Virginia, but his base at Yorktown turned out to be a trap instead of a springboard. The following month the combined Continental Army and French forces, with George Washington at the head, laid siege to the place. On October 19, 1781, Cornwallis surrendered, ending not merely the threat to Virginia but the entire British war effort.

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