January 5th, 1781

skirmish_at_richmond_jan_5th_1781By September of 1780 the plans of the brilliant commander Major-General Benedict Arnold to surrender West Point, New York to the British had been exposed. Heavily indebted, having spent the majority of his fortune on the War Effort, injured in battle, with his shattered leg set so crudely it was then two inches shorter than the other, forcing him to walk with a cane, and watching as others took credit for his victories and successes, investigated by the Continental Congress for corruption, court-marshaled, and passed up for promotion, he had lost faith in the colonial cause of independence. Fleeing to the British, he would receive a commission as a Brigadier-General and orders from General Sir Henry Clinton, Commander-in-Chief of North America: bring Virginia back into the Imperial Fold.

The January 5th, 1781 Raid on Richmond was not necessarily a surprise. Even as Arnold sailed his 1,600 Green Coats up the James River, destroying plantations, and laying waste to the towns along the route to Westover, he had his eye on the state capital 25 miles away. It was only a matter of time before he arrived at the heart of the defiant southern colony that was home not only to the author of the Declaration of Independence, but also the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, and take its premier city. Yet Governor Thomas Jefferson, he couldn’t raise the men necessary to defend the city, most of whom had believed that they had done their service to the cause of independence already. Only 200 militia men would take up arms to defend their homes against the force of a regular army comprised of infantry, dragoon and artillery that outnumbered them 8 to 1. Outgunned and outflanked, they didn’t stand a chance, especially against the more experienced British Commanders such as Lieutenant Colonel John Dundas of the Edinburg Regiment and Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe of the Queen’s Rangers. Even as Arnold quickly approached Richmond the only answer Jefferson could manage was to move the capital to Williamsburg, a stronger strategic location to defend, and the cities supplies to a foundry just outside of Richmond. Still, he remained, at least initially, for the defense of the city. But as the small militia, under the command of Colonel John Nicholas, stationed on Richmond Hill near the St. John’s Church, that place where Patrick Henry only a few years prior gave his famous ‘Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death ‘ address, broke after barely a volley of musket fire, Simcoe pursued, and the American Calvary, watching from a not so distant position fled. Jefferson knew the city was lost. He would order the immediate evacuation, ensuring the removal of any military supplies as well as the families of government officials before fleeing the city himself. By noon Arnold marched the streets of Richmond the conquering hero of the campaign but it wouldn’t be enough. Finding the supplies had been moved by Jefferson, he would dispatch a messenger to the Governor. The request would be simple, load the cities supplies on the British Ships and the city would remained unscathed. Perhaps, had it been anyone else commanding the British Forces, Jefferson might have been more open to the request, but to turn the cities stores over to the treacherous Arnold, the man who plotted the surrender of West Point, the man who betrayed the cause of Independence and turned his back on liberty, was a disgusting prospect that wouldn’t be even considered. When his response reached Arnold the next day, the Brigadier General was livid. He would ransack the city, burning houses, destroying government papers, and laying waste to buildings. Word would soon spread of the ransacking of Richmond, and Jefferson would ask for the help of Colonel Sampson Matthews and the Virginia Militia to put Arnold on the defensive even as General Washington dispatched the Marquis de Lafayette to route the British and capture the traitor turned British Commander and summarily execute him. Matthews would put Arnold on the defensive even as Lafayette would arrive with reinforcements in time to prevent the second raid on Richmond.

Though Arnold would escape and be hailed as a hero by the British for what would be his most successful campaign for their cause, the long-term effects hoped for by the English was not felt. They had hoped that Arnold’s exploits would rally Loyalists to rise up and force Virginia and then the South back into the fold. It did not. Though it increased the British ranks with former slaves who now enlisted in exchange for their freedom, the land campaign of the Revolutionary War would be over before the year ended with the Siege of Yorktown, Virginia, and America would secure its sovereignty as a free and independent nation, with Arnold sent into exile, settling first in the British Colony of Saint John, New Brunswick in present day Canada and then London. He would die penniless, and would be buried in his Continental Army Uniform at St. Mary’s in Middlesex in the city of London.


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