"The British Raids in Virginia, 1781," Bert Dunkerly
On January 1, 1781 all was quiet throughout modern-day Virginia in terms of Revolutionary War fighting. There were no British combat troops anywhere on Virginia soil, and Virginia’s primary war contributions were sending troops and war supplies to military campaigns in other states. However, everything changed in a matter of days with the first of three major British raids against Central Virginia.
Park Service historian Bert Dunkerly reviewed these three raids at ARRT-Richmond’s November 2012 meeting. Dunkerly has served as a ranger for approximately 14 years in a variety of Park Service locations and is currently on the staff at Richmond National Battlefield Park. He is the author of several books on the American Revolution and teaches history courses at the Virginia Historical Society and the University of Richmond. Dunkerly is also a member of ARRT-Richmond and serves as chairman of the organization’s preservation committee.
The first 1781 raid which Dunkerly described was led by none other than the infamous Benedict Arnold. After the British navy sailed up the James River and landed his 1,600 troops at Westover Plantation, Arnold marched his troops toward Richmond via Darbytown Road and Main Street.
Since most Virginia troops were fighting in other states, only small numbers of militia were available to defend Richmond. The Virginia militia made a brief defensive stand on Chimborazo Hill but retreated and abandoned the City after firing a few shots against the much larger British army. Governor Thomas Jefferson and most of Virginia’s other elected officials also fled the City and tried to move and/or destroy important records and supplies before they could fall into British hands.
On January 5, 1781 Arnold’s troops entered Richmond. For 24 hours the British destroyed a foundry, powder magazines, military stores, tobacco and other warehouses and various mills. They also broke into private homes and stole stocks of liquor, especially rum. In just 24 hours Arnold’s troops marched approximately 15 miles, fought a skirmish, tore up Richmond’s industries, stole from Richmond’s residents and got drunk. The next day the British navy took Arnold’s troops to Portsmouth where they made their winter quarters.
The second British raid of 1781 took place in April. Approximately 2,300 troops under the command of William Phillips landed at what is now Hopewell. They marched along what is today Route 36 toward Petersburg where on April 25 they fought with Virginia militia on the east side of the City who were under the overall command of Baron Frederick von Steuben. The militia defended well and gave ground gradually but they eventually retreated across the Appomattox River and left Petersburg to the British.
Phillips’ troops burned Petersburg’s tobacco and later pushed north toward Richmond, getting as close as Manchester. Slowing the British advance were troops under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette. After burning warehouses in Manchester the British returned to Petersburg where Phillips became very ill with a fever and died. His body is buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Blandford Cemetery.
While Phillips’ troops were raiding the Petersburg area, Lord Charles Cornwallis was moving his army from Wilmington, NC to Petersburg. The new, much larger British army overwhelmed Petersburg and then Richmond after crossing the James River near what is today the Civil War battlefield of Malvern Hill. The British continued their march northward into Hanover County and camped at what is today the Civil War battlefield of North Anna.
Cornwallis detached his cavalry under the command of Banastre Tarleton on a series of raids that went as far north as the Rappahannock River near The Wilderness and as far west as the Lynchburg area. Tarleton also raided Charlottesville where Governor Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia General Assembly fled after evacuating Richmond. If not for the heroic 40-mile ride of Jack Jouett to warn Jefferson and the legislators of Tarleton’s plans, they would have been captured or killed. The elected officials escaped to Staunton but Tarleton’s cavalry seized over 3,000 muskets and considerable supplies of powder and shoes in the Charlottesville area.
After their raids to the north and west of Richmond the British returned to the Capital City. On June 21 they evacuated Richmond and marched toward Williamsburg, and later to Yorktown where they surrendered in October.
In closing, Dunkerly noted that school children in England and Canada who study the American Revolution are taught that the British lost the War as a result of the battles in America’s southern colonies. Certainly the year 1781 was a critical one for the Revolution and in the history of Virginia.
Dunkerly’s program was a substitute for the one originally planned by Tim McGrath on naval hero John Barry. Unfortunately McGrath’s New Jersey home was damaged by Superstorm Sandy and he was forced to cancel his trip to Richmond.