"The Traitor's Epiphany: Benedict Arnold in Virginia and His Quest for
Vindication," Mark Lender
Vindication," Mark Lender
“A genuine American ogre who was one of the best combat leaders during the American Revolution.”
That’s how historian Mark Lender summarized the military career of Benedict Arnold at the August 12 meeting of the American Revolution Roundtable of Richmond. Lender also described in detail the January 1781 British raid which Arnold led against Virginia, and Richmond in particular.
Shortly after Arnold turned traitor at West Point in September 1780, Sir Henry Clinton put Arnold in charge of an upcoming British raid against Virginia. For months Clinton had looked at the Chesapeake Bay, not for the purpose of conquering Virginia, but to disrupt American supplies headed to the Carolinas. Other than Lord Dunmore’s raid against the Norfolk area in December 1775 and a brief British landing at Portsmouth later in the war, British troops had never occupied Virginia. Clinton also wanted to send British and Loyalist troops to Virginia for the purpose of rallying more Americans to the British/Loyalist cause.
“Clinton hoped that an Arnold-led expedition could persuade Virginians to see the futility of the Revolution, and would encourage soldiers to desert American military units and join the King’s Army---the way Arnold did,” said Lender.
Since the British strategy for attacking Virginia had both military and political goals, Clinton’s orders to Arnold were to attack magazines and other military targets but to show restraint in dealing with private property. The orders also called for Arnold to establish a British base in Portsmouth. Arnold was ordered to avoid any risky military conflicts with the Americans unless his chief subordinates, Lieutenant Colonel John Simcoe and Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Dundas, agreed with his decision.
“Clinton was a good officer but a very cautious man,” said Lender. “He wondered whether Arnold might switch sides again as a double-agent. Therefore he instructed Simcoe and Dundas to seize command from Arnold if at any point they feared Arnold was committing treason. Arnold didn’t know anything about the orders, called dormant commissions, which Clinton had given to Simcoe and Dundas.”
Arnold’s troops sailed from New York City and reached the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay on December 30, 1780. Most of his fleet continued up the James River with approximately 1,200 troops.
Along the way Arnold tried to avoid conflict with enemy forces. On January 2, 1781 the British fleet drove ashore an American brig. Arnold sent a letter to the brig to cease fire and let his fleet pass, which the brig did.
Later at Hood’s Point, a defensive position overlooking the James River, Virginia militia fired on Arnold’s fleet. Once again Arnold tried to avoid a battle by ordering his fleet not to return fire. Instead he once again sent a letter to the enemy to cease fire. By the time the courier carrying the letter reached Hood’s Point, the Virginia militia had already abandoned it.
Arnold’s fleet proceeded up the James River to Westover Plantation where it docked. Arnold had breakfast with the owner of Westover Plantation, a widow named Mary Willing Byrd. She was a cousin of Peggy Shippen Arnold---his wife. On January 4 the British/Loyalists left Westover and began a 25-mile march to Richmond with approximately 800 troops.
“Richmond was all but undefended,” said Lender. “Everything was wide open to attack. Jefferson did the best he could with the time he had and moved many supplies out of Richmond to Westham, which is near today’s Huguenot Bridge. In fact Jefferson himself didn’t leave Richmond until only five hours before Arnold’s forces arrived. The City was in pandemonium.”
On January 5 Virginia militia made a brief stand in the City’s Church Hill neighborhood but soon dispersed. Arnold sent a public letter to the citizens of Richmond and Manchester which said that seizing supplies was a legitimate prize of war, however he was willing to pay half the market value for those supplies that were voluntarily surrendered by citizens to his troops. Any citizen caught with military supplies not voluntarily surrendered would receive no payment.
While in Richmond, Arnold’s troops also proceeded to seize and destroy military supplies and structures located on public property. There was some collateral damage to private property but Arnold’s troops tried hard to avoid destruction of tobacco and shipping. Arnold thought that Loyalists owned much of this private property, and also thought he might conduct a second raid on Richmond later that year and might need this property.
Arnold sent his cavalry under John Simcoe to seize and destroy the supplies at Westham. They also destroyed a foundry located in the area.
“Arnold’s command delivered a devastating blow to Richmond but he had deliberately tried to avoid private property destruction,” said Lender. “The written quotes from various Richmonders during that time period confirm this. In fact the Virginia militia and some city residents probably destroyed or stole more personal property during the aftermath of the raid than did Arnold’s troops.”
On January 6 Arnold’s troops left Richmond and marched back toward their ships docked at Westover. Along the way they stopped at Berkeley Plantation where they committed their only large-scale vandalism and theft of private property. Berkeley was the home of Benjamin Harrison, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and therefore regarded as a major political target. Arnold’s troops did not burn the house but they moved much of the furniture and wall hangings outdoors and set a large bonfire. They also burned barns, captured 40 slaves and seized horses and livestock.
Arnold’s men sailed from Westover on January 10 to Portsmouth where they established a British base of operations. When details on Arnold’s raid reached New York City, Clinton was very impressed with its success.
However, the raid failed on one major mission---the same one that plagued the British for most of the war. Virginia Loyalists did not flock to the King’s Army or publicly cheer the arrival of Arnold’s troops. Too many previous incidents where Loyalists publicly supported the British had resulted in persecution of Loyalists by their fellow Americans shortly after British troops marched out of an area they had raided or traversed.
By the middle of March 1781 while still camped in Portsmouth, Arnold concluded that Virginians and other Americans would never flock to the King in great numbers, and therefore he should strike at them as hard as he could. He also became aware of his public reputation of being regarded as a notorious traitor.
“Arnold had an epiphany,” said Lender. “He had tried hard to change the minds of Virginians but it wasn’t working. He finally realized that he would remain a traitor in their minds unless the British won the war.”
When British reinforcements arrived at Portsmouth in late March under the command of Major General William Phillips, he took the overall command from Arnold as the senior British officer. Arnold would continue to serve as a subordinate until June when Phillips died in Petersburg and Arnold took command for one week. When the British army under Lord Charles Cornwallis arrived, Cornwallis took overall command and Arnold returned to New York City.
“Arnold’s next command would be an attack on his home area of New London, Connecticut, “ said Lender. “New London would pay for Arnold’s epiphany.”
On September 6, 1781 Arnold led a British expedition which landed near New London and attacked Fort Griswold. When Arnold’s troops breeched the ramparts, the fort’s defenders tried to surrender but approximately 75 of them were killed. As for New London itself, Arnold’s troops set fire to its supplies, wharfs and warehouses. New London, located only a few miles from Arnold’s birthplace, was his last battle.
Mark Lender earned his PhD in history from Rutgers University, where he was a student under Dr. James Kirby Martin. Lender would later join forces with Martin to co-author the book entitled A Respectable Army. Lender has also authored Fatal Sunday, his forthcoming book on the battle of Monmouth. He and Martin are currently working on other studies which include Benedict Arnold.
Lender is a retired history professor and administrator from Kean University in New Jersey. He is a member of the American Revolution Roundtable of Richmond, and serves as chairman of its annual book award committee.
During the business portion of the August 12 roundtable meeting, the following topics were addressed:
1. Roundtable President Bill Welsch welcomed approximately 45 members of the University of Richmond’s Osher Institute as roundtable guests. He also provided the guests with a brief history of ARRT-Richmond.
2. Osher Institute Director Peggy Watson thanked the Roundtable for inviting Osher and for their hospitality. She also provided a brief history on U of R’s Osher Institute.
3. Other brief announcements were made.
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