Prior to September 1780, Benedict Arnold earned a great reputation among Patriots for his bold, brave actions at Quebec, Valcour and Saratoga. In return for his treason, Arnold received commission as a General in the British army but the question remained unanswered as to whether he actually possessed the formal military command skills expected of a British general officer.
In December 1780, shortly after becoming the most famous turncoat in history, newly commissioned British General Benedict Arnold remained an unknown quantity in the eyes of Sir Henry Clinton. Even though Clinton named Arnold to command the upcoming invasion of Virginia, he put strong controls in place to limit Arnold’s discretion. Unsure of either Arnold’s competence or his prudence, Clinton ordered all battle plans cleared with Lt. Colonels Simcoe and Dundas in whom Clinton expressed strong confidence. Arnold’s primary purpose was to establish a new post at Portsmouth but he also carried permission for raiding the countryside if it could be done “without much risque.”[i]
Clinton’s nervousness showed itself clearly. Patriot officers frequently obtained their rank without any special skills or experience with the military and Arnold’s reputation included the taking of huge risks in losing battles. In his written instructions, Clinton emphasized three times that Arnold should not do anything at all “unless they can be effected without the smallest danger to the safety” of Portsmouth. It was at that point that he also ordered consultations with Lt. Colonels Simcoe and Dundas prior to “undertaking any operation of consequence.”[ii] In fact, each Lt. Colonel carried a secret blank commission with authority to take command “in case of the death or incapacity of Brigadier General Arnold to execute the duties of the command which is entrusted to his direction.”[iii]
Arnold’s 2200 man force sailed on the 20th and included one regiment of British Regulars (the 80th), three battalions of Hessians, and several Provincial units.[iv] Captain Ewald of the Jagers (Hessian riflemen) maintained a detailed journal of the expedition. He says that several storms scattered the fleet on its short trip south but the majority made the rendezvous point near Cape Henry at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay.
Just as the British prepared to sail up river, “a small body of Americans appeared on the left bank of the James River at Warwick.” Arnold moved quickly and boldly in having the Jagers land immediately to disperse the rebel forces. Unfortunately, the event also left Captain Ewald of the Jagers with a sour taste in his mouth. He understood the rebels had no interest in fighting and ran away but, “this little trick left me with no great opinion of General Arnold’s judgment, ordering men without bayonets to land and attack an enemy equipped with bayonets, especially since the light infantry was just as close to them as I was.”[v] Perhaps sensing his mistake and its effect on his officers, Arnold did not demonstrate his reputation for aggressive fighting again in the campaign.
Two days later Arnold arrived at “Burwell’s Ferry, where two enemy vessels” were attacked and surrendered but one remained too close to the shoreline where Arnold couldn’t plunder the vessel due to militia activity.[vi] In frustration, he sent a note to the rebels on shore that reflected his priority on plunder. They were to “desist firing and suffer the Prise to be taken away with all her materials” or Arnold would feel it necessary to land troops and burn the village.[vii] The American officer responded that “he could not give up to a traitor. But if he were to get hold of Arnold, he would hang him up by the heels, according to the orders of the Congress.” On hearing the response, Arnold made a “very wry face” but left the area without his prize.[viii]
Arnold’s ships slipped past the now abandoned battery at Hood’s Point to anchor at Westover where they “immediately disembarked” and took control of the area. Reports came in from local citizens that militia were forming to defend Richmond. Since his orders were “not to undertake any enterprise that had much risk in it”, Arnold hesitated about whether to proceed to Richmond. This time Simcoe and Dundas rescued the decision to move forward “concurring that one day’s march might be made with perfect security” and Richmond presented an excellent opportunity for intelligence, etc.[ix]
The 800 man raiding party marched at night hoping to reach Richmond before the Patriots could respond. They halted to rest at Four Mile Creek just before morning but left again a few hours later. Ewald wrote that, “Toward two o’clock in the afternoon we reached the heights of Richmond, where several battalions of the enemy with cannon had taken up positions to the left of the town. To the right lay a very steep hill, overgrown with brushwood, which General Arnold thought was occupied by riflemen. The general pointed there with his hand – ‘That’s a task made for you!’ I deployed at once, formed two ranks well dispersed, and climbed up the hill. The enemy left after a volley which wounded one jager.”[x] Such was the defense of Richmond.
Hoping to give an exaggerated impression of his strength, Arnold ordered his men to “march as open and to make as great an appearance as possible”. With that done, he ordered Simcoe to lead a patrol down to Westham for the purpose of destroying the cannon foundry located there. Arnold then sent a communication to Governor Jefferson offering to spare the town if they were willing to pay a ransom. Jefferson immediately refused and Arnold responded by turning his men loose to plunder the city.[xi] “Terrible things happened on this excursion; churches and holy places were plundered.”[xii]
Arnold showed no hesitance or lack of confidence when it came to plundering the city of Richmond. By the time Simcoe had the foundry raiders ready for return to Westover, Arnold had 42 river vessels “loaded with all kinds of merchandise for the corps booty and sailed down the James River.”[xiii] Arnold would not be frustrated out of his plunder at Richmond the way he had been by the rebels downstream at Burwell’s Ferry.
About midday, the British marched for Westover leaving half of Richmond in flames. They moved downstream and crossed to the left bank of Four Mile Creek before camping for the night. A torrential rain made the roads difficult and marching miserable as they marched for base camp early on the morning of the 7th. The 14 mile trek turned out to be especially rough and costly as some 60 men disappeared. Ewald believed them “too fatigued to keep up – fell into the hands of the enemy.”[xiv]
Back at Westover, Arnold considered what to do with all the property plundered from the rebels. He sent notice out to the locals that he wished to “give every possible satisfaction in my power” to the peaceful inhabitants of Virginia. To prove his good intentions, Arnold offered to sell back the “Negroes, Horses, & etc. as can be given up . . . if my conditions are agreable.”[xv] He later discovered no room on the ships for additional horses and they were abandoned. However, the confiscated slaves were another item altogether. Arnold took them along with the army and continued negotiations with the owners.
The British ships loaded up on the morning of the 10th and began sailing back down the James River. While slipping past Hood’s Point, Arnold decided to make a move on the military works at Petersburg and arranged the army for a move inland. Irritated at Captain Ewald for a lack of aggressiveness earlier, Arnold placed Major Robinson at the head of the march. Major Robinson was the son of General Beverly Robinson who raised the Loyal American Corps for the Provincial Establishment. Rather than possessing any particular military ability, Arnold placed young Robinson in the advance position “to give him an opportunity to get his name in the Gazette.”[xvi]
Arnold’s column had only moved a short distance when “some twenty musket shots were fired at the head.” The bullets passed harmlessly but “instead of halting and searching the wooded area with reconnoitering patrols”, Major Robinson and General Arnold kept the army moving forward. And, as fate would have it, within a half-hour, they marched directly into a Patriot ambush. “A terrible fire fell out of the woods from the front and left among Robinson’s honorable Americans. Weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth arose, and one captain, two officers, and some forty men were either killed or seriously wounded.” Captain Ewald ran to the front and burst out with “So it goes when a person wants to do something that he doesn’t understand!” Apparently Arnold got the point as he simply turned to Ewald with “the most courteous expression” requesting that he “take command of the advanced guard.”[xvii]
It was late in the day before Arnold had the column ready to move again. This time Ewald led the way using small scouting parties followed by Simcoe and the Rangers. Their reserves stayed behind to drag the dead and wounded back to their ships. Within a very short time, Arnold changed his mind and turned the army back to the ships at Hood’s Point.[xviii] There would be no raid on Petersburg.
The fleet sailed to Jamestown on the 13th and then to Burwell’s Ferry overnight. Arnold crossed the James River the next day and marched to Portsmouth for the purpose of establishing the post needed to support Cornwallis’ invasion. Over the next several weeks Arnold divided his time between military duties and selling his captured slaves and plunder back to the Virginians. At one point, Lafayette arrived in the State hoping to trap Arnold between a French fleet and Virginia’s militia. Even though the fleet was beaten at Cape Henry, Arnold’s negligence in building defensive works around Portsmouth caused a brief period of nervousness in which Arnold himself broke out in a “cold sweat” worrying about the French.[xix]
In March General Philips came and took over the Virginia expedition leaving Arnold second in command and free to return to New York. During his time in command, Arnold made several tactical mistakes that soured his subordinates, cost dozens of lives unnecessarily, and emphasized Arnold’s lack of formal military command training. In addition, his constant display of greed for plunder demonstrated many of the same character traits that led to his treason in the first place. Perhaps General Clinton’s doubts were well placed after all.
[iii] Wallace, Willard M., Traitorous Hero, The Life and Fortunes of Benedict Arnold, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York (1954), p. 279 quoting from, Clinton to Dundas & Simcoe, 14 December 1780, Clinton Papers,
[vii] Arnold to the Officer Commanding the Party on Shore, 1 January 1781 (misdated), Arnold, Benedict letter reprinted in Ewald, Johann, Diary of the American War, a Hessian Journal, Tustin, Joseph, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, (1979), p. 262 – 263