The inhabitants of Alexandria, Virginia, awoke on April 11, 1781 to a disturbing sight. A flotilla of enemy ships that had spent the last ten days pillaging property on both sides of the Potomac River many miles to the south, had suddenly arrived off of Alexandria. One observer in Alexandria counted, “three Ships, two Brigs and two Schooners [and speculated that] two of the Ships appear to be of 18 Guns each, the other I cou’d not make out what number of Guns she mounted, but believe her to be a Frigate.”1 The enemy squadron consisted mostly of privateers (American Tories in the service of Britain) but included at least one British warship, the 16 gun sloop H.M.S. Savage. The main objective of this force, other than plundering, was to prevent General La Fayette and his 1,200 man light infantry corps from crossing the Potomac River and marching south.2
Two months earlier, General Washington had ordered La Fayette and his light corps to proceed from New York to Virginia to assist Virginia against the notorious turncoat and traitor, General Benedict Arnold (who raided the state in January with 1,600 men and was encamped at Portsmouth). By mid-March, La Fayette’s force had reached Annapolis, Maryland, but plans for their water transport down the Chesapeake Bay to southern Virginia were dashed when a large British fleet from New York (of which the flotilla in the Potomac was a part) arrived and seized control of the bay.
Anticipating that La Fayette’s force would continue south on foot, General William Phillips, the new British commander in Virginia, sent a squadron of vessels up the Potomac River to prevent La Fayette from crossing. The squadron was also given license to raid the shoreline of both Virginia and Maryland, which the privateers had actively done during the first half of April. One such raid upon Alexandria on April 2nd resulted in the capture of the tender’s 21 man crew.3 Peter Wagner of Fairfax County informed Governor Thomas Jefferson of the incident.
A small Vessel came up to Alexandria and attempted to cut out of the Harbour a Baltimore Vessel lying there loaded with Tobacco. They boarded the vessel and had confined the men but being discovered by another Vessel in the Harbour the Town was alarmed which prevented the Enemy from carrying off the Vessel they had boarded.4
The privateers on the tender, who had sailed far in advance of the flotilla, scrambled to return to their vessel and escape. They were pursued by two armed vessels that finally overtook them about 40 miles downriver. When it became clear that they could not outrun their pursuers, the privateers abandoned the tender and fled to the Virginia shore.5 Colonel Henry Lee Sr., the County Lieutenant of Prince William County, (and father of Light Horse Harry Lee) reported to Governor Jefferson that,
Sixteen of them were taken by the Inhabitants, eight of whom were sent to Fredericksburg from whence I hear they are sent to Winchester. The others were sent up in the Vessels that Pursued them to Alexandria and are Confined in that Goal.6
One of the prisoners informed Lee of their intentions had they escaped Alexandria undetected with the tobacco ship.
If the Enemy had Succeeded at Alexandria they intended; one of the Prisoners say, to have burnt Genl. Washingtons Houses, Plundered Colo. [George] Mason and myself and endeavoured to have made me a Prisoner.7
For over a week it appeared that the lone tender’s raid upon Alexandria was an isolated incident; the rest of the British flotilla stayed well south of Alexandria. But a change in the direction of the wind on April 10th allowed the squadron to sail upriver and it suddenly appeared off Alexandria the next day. The threat to the town was brief, however, and the flotilla slowly drifted downriver again on April 12th. The privateers lingered a few miles below Alexandria and directed most of their attention to the Maryland shore where they skirmished with local militia and burned a plantation that refused to provide them with fresh provisions.8
Across the river at Mount Vernon, General Washington’s cousin, Lund Washington, observed the smoke from the burning property in Maryland and realized that the general’s great estate was in grave danger. For nearly six years, Lund had served as the caretaker of Mount Vernon in General Washington’s absence. The commander-in-chief had complete faith in Lund’s stewardship of his property, but this faith was severely tested when General Washington learned of Lund’s actions to save his estate.
Lund Washington’s account of the incident, which reached General Washington on April 30th, appears lost to history, but it is possible to deduce what Lund reported to General Washington from an account of the incident by the Marquis de Chastellux, a French nobleman travelling in Virginia who discussed the incident at Mount Vernon with Lund and recounted that,
Mr. Lund Washington, a relation of the General’s and who managed all his affairs during his [long] absence with the army, informed me that an English frigate [the 16 gun H.M.S. Savage] having come up the Potomac, a party was landed who set fire to and destroyed some gentlemen’s houses on the Maryland side in sight of Mount Vernon, the General’s house; after which the Captain [Thomas Graves] sent a boat on shore to the General’s demanding a large supply of provisions, etc. with a menace of burning it likewise in case of a refusal.9
The Marquis failed to mention Washington’s loss of 17 slaves, who fled to the British upon their arrival. He instead recalled Lund Washington’s defiant reply to the British commander, Captain Graves. Lund informed the captain that,
When [General Washington] engaged in the contest he had put all to stake, and was well aware of the exposed situation of his house and property, in consequence of which he had given [Lund] orders by no means to comply with any such demands, for that he would make no unworthy compromise with the enemy, and was ready to meet the fate of his neighbors.10
This reply angered Captain Graves, and he positioned the Savage closer to shore as if to bombard Mount Vernon. At the same time, the British commander invited Lund aboard his ship to discuss matters further. In hopes of regaining General Washington’s slaves Lund accepted and brought with him, “a small present of poultry, of which he begged the Captain’s acceptance.”11 Lund told the Marquis that,
His presence [onboard the Savage] produced the best effect, he was hospitably received notwithstanding he repeated the same sentiments with the same firmness. The captain expressed his personal respect for the character of the General….12
Captain Graves shrewdly assured Lund that nothing but his misunderstanding of Lund’s defiant reply could have compelled him to, “entertain the idea of taking the smallest measure offensive to so illustrious a character as [General Washington].”13 In other words, Graves gave Lund a chance to reconsider his initial refusal to comply with Captain Graves’s demands. This time Lund acquiesced to the British commander. The Marquis recorded that,
Mr. [Lund] Washington, after spending some time in perfect harmony on board, returned [to Mount Vernon] and instantly dispatched sheep, hogs, and an abundant supply of other articles as a present to the English frigate.14
The gesture failed to gain the return of Washington’s slaves, but it did preserve General Washington’s home and buildings from destruction.
When General La Fayette arrived in Virginia in late April and heard about the incident, he immediately realized the shadow it cast upon General Washington’s character and wrote to the commander-in-chief to report the uncomfortable news.
When the Enemy Came to your House Many Negroes deserted to them. This piece of News did not affect me much as I little Value [slavery] – But You Cannot Conceive How Unhappy I Have Been to Hear that Mr. Lund Washington Went on Board the Enemy’s vessels and Consented to give them provisions.15
La Fayette speculated that as General Washington’s representative, Lund’s actions would, “certainly Have a Bad effect, and Contrasts with Spirited Answers from Some Neighbours that Had their Houses Burnt Accordingly.”16
General Washington received LaFayette’s letter on May 4th, five days after Lund’s letter reached him. Well aware of the poor example Lund’s actions had set, and the damage it had done to his own reputation, General Washington immediately sent a stinging rebuke to his cousin.
I am very sorry to hear of your loss; I am a little sorry to hear of my own; but which gives me most concern, is, that you should go on board the enemys Vessels, and furnish them with refreshments. It would have been a less painful circumstance to me, to have heard, that in consequence of your non-compliance with their request, they had burnt my House, and laid the Plantation in ruins. You ought to have considered yourself as my representative, and should have reflected on the bad example of communicating with the enemy, and making a voluntary offer of refreshments to them with a view to prevent a conflagration…But to go on board their Vessels; carry them refreshments; commune with a parcel of plundering Scoundrels, and request a favor by asking the surrender of my Negroes, was exceedingly ill-judged, and ‘tis to be feared, will be unhappy in its consequences, as it will be a precedent for others…Unless a stop to [the British raids occurs], I have little doubt of its ending in the loss of all my Negroes, and in the destruction of my Houses; but I am prepared for the event….17
Fortunately for General Washington, little else came of the affair. The enemy flotilla left the Potomac within days of the incident and Virginians soon turned their attention to central Virginia, where a contest for control of the state had begun. This contest would conclude six months later with an allied victory over the British at Yorktown.
On his way to lay siege to the British at Yorktown, General Washington stopped at Mount Vernon, his first visit in six years. One wonders if when he arrived, he still regretted Lund’s actions to save the estate. Probably so. But to the countless annual visitors to Mount Vernon, Lund Washington made a very good trade indeed.[Featured image at top: View of Mount Vernon today with its famous piazza and cupola (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association). Source: George Washington’s Mount Vernon]
1 Julian P. Boyd, ed., “Robert Mitchell to Governor Jefferson, 12 April, 1781,” The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 5, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952), 423.
2 William. Palmer, ed., “Capt. W. Thomas to Thomas Symonds, 20 March, 1781,” Calendar of State Papers, Vol. 1, (Richmond: James E. Goode, 1881), 583.
3 Boyd, ed., “Henry Lee Sr. to Governor Jefferson, 9 April, 1781,” The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 5, 393-94.
4 Boyd, ed., “Peter Wagner to Governor Jefferson, 3 April, 1781,” The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 5, 335-36.
5 Boyd, ed., “Henry Lee Sr. to Governor Jefferson, 9 April, 1781,” The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 5, 393-94.
6 Boyd, ed., “Henry Lee Sr. to Governor Jefferson, 9 April, 1781,” 393-94.
7 Boyd, ed., “Henry Lee Sr. to Governor Jefferson, 9 April, 1781,” 393-94.
8 J. Hall Pleasants, ed., “Joshua Beall to Governor Thomas Sim Lee, 15 April, 1781,” Archives of Maryland: Journal and Correspondence of the State Coucil from January 1, 1781 to December 31, 1781, Vol. 47, (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1930), 188.
9 Marquis de Chastellux, Travels in North America in the Years 1780, 1781, and 1782, Vol. 2, (London: G.G.J. and J. Robinson, 1787), 170.
10 Marquis de Chastellux, 170.
11 Marquis de Chastellux, 170.
12 Marquis de Chastellux, 170-71.
13 Marquis de Chastellux, 171.
14 Marquis de Chastellux, 171.
15 Stanley J. Idzerda, ed., “General La Fayette to General Washington, 23 April, 1781,” La Fayette in the Age of the American Revolution, Vol. 4, (Ithica and London: Cornell University Press, 1981), 60-61.
16 Idzerda, ed., “General La Fayette to General Washington, 23 April, 1781,” La Fayette in the Age of the American Revolution, Vol. 4, 60-61.
17 John C. Fitzgerald, ed., “George Washington to Lund Washington, 30 April, 1781,” The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 22, (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1937), 14-15.