Mrs. Byrd’s “Affair at Westover”


June 3, 2013
by Wayne Lynch Also by this Author


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Mary Willing Byrd (1758). Click here to view a painting of Mrs. Byrd in 1773.
Mary Willing Byrd (1758). Click here to view a painting of Mrs. Byrd in 1773.

In traveling upriver on his raid to Richmond in early January 1781, General Benedict Arnold disembarked his army at Westover on the James River where they confiscated enough horses for the advance party and set up camp.  Westover was actually a large plantation owned by Mary Willing Byrd.  She was the widow of William Byrd III who died in 1777.  While known to sympathize with the loyalist cause, William Byrd had never committed an “open act of resistance to the Revolutionary government.”[i]   Up to the time of Arnold’s invasion, Mary Byrd was not thought to be disloyal.  Even though her mother was a Shippen making her first cousin to Benedict Arnold’s wife, the widow Byrd maintained active social connections to the likes of Governor Thomas Jefferson and Commander of Continental Army in Virginia, Baron Von Steuben.  During his few weeks in Virginia, the Baron had become a frequent guest at Westover and Mary Byrd would show no hesitance in calling upon his personal relationship and sense of chivalry.

A few days after landing, Arnold returned from raiding  Richmond with a good pile of plunder along with having confiscated the slaves from plantations between Westover and Richmond.  Once back in his base camp, Arnold sent a message to the population of Virginia.   He offered “such Negroes, Horses, & etc. as can be given up consistand with my duty shall be delivered to you if my conditions are agreeable.”[ii]   Arnold’s first thought was to have people come to Westover and bargain for the return of their property.  Unfortunately for him, there wasn’t time for such an arrangement and Arnold sailed south with his army to Portsmouth where they set-up a more permanent base.  Before leaving Westover, Arnold abandoned the horses but confiscated 49 slaves belonging to the Widow Byrd.

When first confronted with the question of ‘Flags’, Jefferson chose to allow the practice as long as it was “conducted on principles which are fair and general.”  A flag was actually a pass to cross lines for the purpose of transacting business with the enemy.  Having a flag represented legal authority to recover property taken from Arnold’s raid.  Jefferson was “not fond of encouraging an intercourse with the Enemy for the recovery of property, * * *” but if the same “property shall be restored to one which” is restored to others, he saw no harm in the practice.[iii]

Arnold had no intention of bargaining with the Virginians on an equal basis.  Quite the opposite.  He immediately began discriminating against any people “in Arms, or Office”.   Slaves and other property belonging to active Patriots would remain forfeited to Arnold.  Another problem presented itself quickly.  Steuben was inundated with requests for Flags “from many Inhabitants of this State” looking to recover their property.  Confusion resulted from too much traffic with the enemy making security measures impossible to control.  As a result, Steuben sent orders to the militia generals on both sides of the James River to “forbid any Flaggs going to the Enemy in future, on any pretext whatsoever.”[iv]  In total agreement with his move, Governor Jefferson and the Council passed an official proclamation on February 3 that, “no flag for the purpose of soliciting a restitution of plundered property from the enemy, shall be again permitted.”[v]

Mary Willing Byrd already possessed a Flag to request return of her slaves and other property signed by General Von Steuben himself.  Unknown to Steuben at the time of his order, Byrd had already contacted Arnold and made arrangements for return of her slaves.  On the same day Jefferson debated the restitution issue in the Virginia Council, General Nelson reported to Von Steuben that he would “strictly adhere” to the order concerning Flags.  In fact, “A Lieut. Hare from the Swift, British Man of War, has been detained at Hampton, who came ashore with a Flag, but without proper credentials.”[vi]  Several days afterwards, Thomas Jefferson got notice of Lt. Hare’s detention from young Major George Lee Turberville along with Hare’s request for a determination “in regard to the restitution of property.  Tis for that purpose he is come up.”[vii]

Hare remained at Sandy Point for several days “being informed that no partial return of any articles taken by the British should be received.”  Then on the 14th of February, Major Turberville allowed him to travel to Westover with Mr. Otway Byrd for a visit with the family.[viii]  While Hare traveled, Turberville  searched his ship and found suspicious ashes along with certain letters from Mrs. Byrd to Hare.  The letters themselves have not been found but it is clear that Mary Byrd had used her Flag to negotiate compensation for her losses on a basis not allowable under the Council’s proclamation.  Further, Hare’s ship contained no slaves to be returned.  Instead, Turberville found a cargo of china and other household goods plundered from Richmond and now intended for Mary Byrd as compensation for the slaves taken.

Major Turberville immediately recalled Lt. Hare to Sandy Point for further inquiry into the matter.  Not only had Steuben and the Council issued a ban on flags but Lt. Hare’s cargo failed to qualify for the limited allowance of such commerce anyway.   Mary Byrd responded to Lt. Hare’s recall with a self-serving letter to Baron Steuben attempting to personally vouch for him and “answer for his having no intentions that are not perfectly honorable.”  Mary explained that Lt. Hare tried to bring her slaves back from Portsmouth but once they knew “a flag was to come up, [the slaves] hid themselves, and tho searched for, seven days, could not be found.”  She then tried to trivialize the property she expected from Hare.  “He sent my daughters riding horse; and a few articles, in return for some losses I have sustained, which if not agreeable to the Executive (Jefferson), I have not the least inclination to receive.”[ix]

The night after Mary Byrd posted her letter off to Steuben, Major Turberville showed up at Westover.  He believed Mrs. Byrd and Lt. Hare were engaged in illegal correspondence and trade.  He intended to search the plantation and examine her private papers.  Mary described the event, “Major Turberville with six Men, accompanyed, by a Company of Light Infantry, came Wednesday Morning before day to Westover, made prisoners of my whole family, including the Speakers Lady – Mr. Meade, who conducted him to my Chamber, which he instantly entered, notwithstanding my two eldest daughters were a sleep in one bed, and myself in another.  This surely can not be stile liberty.  It was Liberty that Savages would have blushed at -”  Turberville did find the papers he sought and confiscated them without trying to take Mary Byrd or anyone else in custody.[x]

On return to detention with his ship at Sandy Point, Lt. Hare protested his situation in abusive terms.  According to General Nelson, Hare cursed  all the various Virginians but was particularly disrespectful toward Governor Jefferson.  He even claimed that Jefferson “had received gold from New York” and was secretly in league with the British.[xi]   Despite his belligerent attitude with the men detaining him, Lt. Hare approached Steuben in a far more conciliatory tone.  First acknowledging the Baron’s “very polite and obliging Letter”, Hare lamented not knowing about the ban on Flags or he would never have left Portsmouth.  He explained that only “my esteem for Mrs. Byrd, and a wish to render that Lady some little service, induced me to come on this Duty.”[xii]

Within a few days, the Widow Byrd felt herself isolated and under attack from various directions.  She had damage to Westover and lost many slaves and horses to the British.  She had thought herself on firm ground in arranging restitution from Arnold but now her reputation was in tatters and “an attempt has been made to ruin me, by setting fire to my house.”  Mary also turned to General Von Steuben for help.  She laid the innocent widow routine on thick, “I dare address once more a Gentleman, whose judgment must be approved of by every Body.  One whose honor, impartiallity, and humanity, I shall with pleasure rely on.”  She admitted only knowing Steuben a few weeks but hoped “you will pardon this intrusion, and protect the helpless from insults they do not merit.”[xiii]

At the same time she contacted Von Steuben, Mary Byrd appealed to Governor Jefferson to intercede on her behalf in the matter and help restore her good name.  Mary’s approach to Jefferson was personal yet less flattering, “I mean to address you not only as the Governor, but as an acquaintance, whom I have experienced kindness and some friendship from.”[xiv]  Jefferson allowed Steuben to investigate the affair and accepted the Baron’s determination on the matter.  Steuben then sent an officer to Sandy Point to make inquiries.  He determined that “Mr. Hare was thought to have conducted himself with great Impropriety, yet a desire to afford no Colour of precedent for violating the sacred Rights of a Flag” induced the general to, “remit Mr. Hare and his vessel again to his Commander.”[xv]

Baron Von Steuben very pointedly restricted his decision to the disposition of Lt. Hare and the vessel which he deemed to be military matters.  Any prosecution of Mary Byrd would be up to Jefferson and the civil authorities.[xvi]  On the other hand, the military officers involved did fall under Steuben’s control and he sent an immediate rebuke to Turberville for taking the patrol to “Mrs. Byrd’s House for the purpose of seizing herself and papers.  This I cannot but disapprove.”[xvii]

The story should have ended at that point but Major Turberville refused to let go of Lt. Hare or the vessel.  In spite of Von Steuben’s order, the Swift remained at Sandy Point along with its commander and cargo.  Turberville appealed to Colonel James Innes at Williamsburg for support convincing him to go directly to Governor Jefferson for a ruling on Lt. Hare and the Swift.  Innes sent Jefferson a request for “your opinion and advice on the Subject of the Detention of Lieut. Hare for having violated the flag of Truce.”  He sent a long explanation to Steuben and then dispatched Major Turberville to personally discuss the situation with Jefferson.[xviii]

Of course the very passionate and fiery Baron Von Steuben went ballistic on the news his orders had been second guessed by Turberville and Innes.  He was already faced with General Lafayette’s presence in Virginia to take command of operations against Arnold at Portsmouth.  The older and more experienced soldier resented Lafayette and was probably in a bad state of mind to begin with.  He sent an indignant  letter to Jefferson complaining that the state militia officers “acted  without my orders and reported their proceedings to government alone.  The only order I gave to send Lt. Hare and the Vessell back, was disobeyed and an open letter of mine in answer to Mr. Hare is detained by Mr. Turberville.”  He went on to defend his own actions in the matter and then “solemnly declare that all the irregular and shamefull proceedings that have taken place have been without my knowledge and contrary to my orders.”[xix]

Already tired of the situation, Jefferson responded to Steuben with a letter of support trying to sooth the Baron’s wounded pride.  First wondering if the Widow Byrd might “not be more effectual working for our enemies than if she had pursued their original purpose.”  Jefferson then assured Steuben that he “concurred with you in Opinion that they (proceedings against Hare) should be dismissed.”  Unfortunately for them both, the Swift was now in the hands of the Judiciary and neither Steuben nor Jefferson had further control over the matter.  Jefferson agreed to rebuke Major Turberville for the “Impropriety of such a detention” but he did blame the mistake on Turberville’s sincere zeal for the cause.[xx]  As promised, Jefferson sent the rebuke along with instructions that Turberville send Baron Von Steuben an apology for his actions.[xxi]

Turberville sent the apology and followed it with a personal visit to the Baron hoping to appease him.[xxii]  The idea didn’t work out very well.  Instead of getting back in the general’s good graces, Turberville found himself on the wrong end of a Von Steuben tirade.  He relieved Turberville of his command and sent the young major home to Westmoreland expecting gratitude for the leniency.[xxiii]

Of all the emotions running through Turberville’s mind over the next couple of days, Gratitude simply wasn’t among them.  He accused the Baron of condemning him “unmeritedly” and then punishing him “undeservedly” before demanding that he list the “crimes that you have punished me thus severely for, that I may shew them to the Marquis (Lafayette) to whom I mean to apply for command.”[xxiv]  In response, Von Steuben curtly threatened to have Turberville arrested which raised tempers even further.  In his next letter, Turberville went too far and made a very thinly veiled suggestion of a duel between him and the Baron.[xxv]

Von Steuben quickly had Turberville “arrested on the following Charges”.  The list included allowing Hare to pass upriver to Westover and then for seizing the Swift and searching Hare’s papers.  He then accused Turberville of making false reports related to a flag of truce, searching Mrs. Byrd without proper authority, and not delivering a letter from Steuben to Hare.  The list of conflicting and contrived charges probably wouldn’t have been very damaging to Turberville except that Steuben added an accusation of “breaking his Arrest and for disrespectfull and provoking behaviour to his Commanding Officer.”[xxvi]  Within a week Steuben calmed down enough to release Turberville but the war was over for him.  The young major wrote a short and humble apology before returning home for the duration.

The events later known as the ‘Affair at Westover’ ended soon after the dispute between Turberville and Von Steuben.   The Virginia judiciary released the Swift back to Von Steuben.  Governor Jefferson briefed the Marquis de Lafayette on the details but the new Continental Commander in Virginia declined to get involved or try and rule on the situation leaving Von Steuben free to release Lt. Hare back to Arnold at Portsmouth.  Furious at his failure to establish any slave trade with the Virginia population, Benedict Arnold released a series of small punitive raids in the Portsmouth area designed to demonstrate that he was “not to be trifled with.”[xxvii]  His frustration did not move Governor Jefferson to reopen any illicit commerce.

Other than Major Turberville who was dismissed, Baron Von Steuben and Mary Willing Byrd probably felt the biggest impacts from the events.  The Baron’s relationship with authorities in Virginia went from bad to worse over the period.  His defense of Mrs. Byrd and failure to see that Lt. Hare deserved to be arrested for his attempt to circumvent the rules established by Jefferson was yet another step down a spiraling ladder.  His next episode would involve a refusal of the Virginia Council to allow the general to take Virginia’s militia out of state to Wilmington against Cornwallis.  The relationship never improved and then ended abruptly two months later in near disaster for the Baron.  As to Mrs. Byrd, her reputation was also permanently ruined.  Within a month she began running advertisements in the Virginia Gazette to sell the plantation of Westover.  This attempt failed when Cornwallis invaded and Mrs. Byrd tried again for a private flag to recover her slaves.  She remained frustrated in her attempts but kept up the effort still applying for compensation from London long after the war ended.  Just punishment for her attempt to gain illegal compensation from Benedict Arnold not offered to Virginia’s other citizens.


[i] Boyd, Julian, The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Vol 5, Boyd, Julian, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ (1951), p. 677, credit quote to Campbell, History of Virginia, Philadelphia, PA (1860), p. 712

[ii] John Nicholas to Thomas Jefferson, 10 January 1781, The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Vol 4, Boyd, Julian, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ (1951), p. 331 – reprinting letter from Arnold within the communication to Jefferson.

[iii] Jefferson to Nicholas, 10 January 1781, Ibid at 331

[iv] Steuben to Muhlenberg, 1 March 1781, Boyd Julian, the Thomas Jefferson Papers,Appendix I,  Vol 5, Boyd, Julian, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ (1951) p. 686 and also see: Steuben to Nelson, 1 February 1781, Ibid at 687

[v] Virginia Council Journal, 3 February 1781, p. 285 – information and quote taken from Julian Boyd’s text and footnotes to Appendix I in Volume 5 of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson cited above.

[vi] Nelson to Steuben, 3 February 1781, Ibid at 687

[vii] Turberville to Jefferson, 15 February 1781, Ibid in Volume 4 at 624; this letter references an earlier one of February 13 sent to Jefferson.  Ostensibly with more data on the situation then developing at Sandy Point but that letter has never been found.

[viii] Mary Willing Byrd to Steuben, 15 February 1781, Ibid in Volume 5 at 688

[ix] Ibid at 688

[x] Mary Willing Byrd to Steuben, 23 February 1781, Ibid in Volume 5 at 690

[xi] Nelson to Jefferson, 18 February 1781, Ibid in Volume 4 at 650

[xii] Hare to Steuben, 20 February 1781, Ibid in volume 5 at 688

[xiii] Byrd to Steuben, 23 February 1781, Ibid at 690

[xiv] Byrd to Jefferson, 23 February 1781, Ibid in Volume 4 at 690

[xv] Jefferson to Byrd, 1 March 1781, Ibid in Volume 5 at 31

[xvi] Steuben to Nicholas, 23 February 1781, Ibid at 692

[xvii] Steuben to James Innes, 25 February 1781, Ibid at 692

[xviii] Innes to Jefferson, 3 March 1781, Ibid at 48

[xix] Steuben to Jefferson, 8 March 1781, Ibid at 98

[xx] Jefferson to Steuben, 10 March 1781, Ibid at 118

[xxi] Jefferson to Turberville, 10 March 1781, Ibid at 121

[xxii] Turberville to Steuben, 14 March 1781, Ibid at 698

[xxiii] Turberville to Steuben, 15 March 1781 8o’clock, Ibid at 699

[xxiv] Turberville to Steuben, 15 March 1781 8 o’clock, Ibid at 700

[xxv] Turbervill to Steuben, 16 March 1781, Ibid at 701

[xxvi] List of Charges against George Lee Turberville, 17 March 1781, Ibid at 701

[xxvii] Arnold to Muhlenberg, 14 March 1781, Ibid at 699

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