Col. Josiah Parker of Virginia was at a loss at what to do. He had just arrived outside the British outpost at Great Bridge in early March 1781 with 300 Virginia militia hoping to take the enemy garrison of 120 men, but upon an inspection of the works he determined that an assault would be “too dangerous, and would be attended with no views of success.”1 His disappointment at this realization was not what troubled Colonel Parker, however. While he inspected the enemy works, he had noticed a gun-boat making its way downriver from the fort and ordered a party of his militia to attack it. They successfully did so, sinking the craft and capturing its occupants and most of their baggage.2 Although he was not aboard the gunboat, Capt. Francis Stevenson of the Queen’s Rangers had sent his baggage, including a number of letters, with the vessel. It was the contents of two of these letters that alarmed Colonel Parker.
Your well-formed plan of delivering those people now under your command into the hands of the British General at Portsmouth gives me much pleasure. Your next [letter] I hope will mention the place of ambuscade, and the manner you wish to fall into my hands.
A Mr. Ventress was last night made prisoner by three or four of your people. I only wish to inform you that Ventress could not help doing what he did in his helping to destroy the logs. I myself delivered the orders to him from Colonel Simcoe.
I have the honour of your acqua—[ the letter ended abruptly].3
Just months after the shocking treason of Gen. Benedict Arnold in New York, it appeared to Colonel Parker that yet another American officer, Gen. Isaac Gregory of North Carolina, was plotting to join the enemy. Prior to the discovery of the letters there had been no hint of treason from General Gregory, in fact, quite the contrary. An experienced militia officer from North Carolina, Gregory fought bravely at the Battle of Camden while most of the militia around him fled. Pinned under his horse, Gregory suffered two life-threatening bayonet wounds at the hands of Gen. Charles Cornwallis’s troops. Convinced that his wounds were mortal, Gregory was paroled by the British and allowed to return home to northeastern North Carolina where he surprisingly recovered and returned to the field in November 1780.4
General Gregory had only recently arrived outside Great Bridge in early March 1781 to reinforce Gen. Peter Muhlenberg’s Virginia militia in southeastern Virginia and was in fact, with Colonel Parker when Parker read the incriminating letters.5
Gregory forcefully declared his innocence, denying a correspondence with Captain Stevenson or any enemy officer, but Parker was rattled by what he read and confessed to his superior, General Muhlenberg, that the contents of the letters, “embarrassed me amazingly, the more so as General Gregory had furnished the guards for the night.”6 Parker expressed his hope to Muhlenberg of General Gregory’s innocence, but felt compelled to quietly post his own guard detachments to guard Gregory’s guards.7
Muhlenberg, who was in Suffolk and commanded all of the troops in southeast Virginia, was also disturbed by the contents of the letters and wrote to his superior in Richmond, Gen. Friedrich von Steuben, that, “I really do not know what to think of General Gregory; appearances are much against him.”8
Just five hours later, upon the return of Colonel Parker to Suffolk, Muhlenberg was more resolved on the matter and wrote again to Steuben, declaring that, “From [Colonel Parker’s] report, as well as from other circumstances, I am fully convinced that some treasonable practices have been carried on by General Gregory.”9 Muhlenberg added that, “the officers and men with General Gregory are so much dissatisfied that I was afraid the whole would disperse unless Gregory was removed.”10 Even General Gregory recognized the angst the letters had caused among the Virginia and North Carolina troops at Great Bridge and pressed Colonel Parker to assume command until the matter could be cleared up, but Parker had orders to return to Suffolk, so one of Gregory’s subordinates likely took command.11
Muhlenberg wanted Col. Richard Meade, an experienced continental officer who had been ordered by General Steuben to join the troops at Great Bridge, to take command of General Gregory’s troops, some 700 strong, but Meade deferred to Colonel Parker and both marched for Great Bridge with additional troops on March 9.12 What transpired in Gregory’s camp in the five days prior to Parker’s return is uncertain. It appears that Muhlenberg’s wishes that, “Gregory must give up his command until the matter is cleared up,” were implemented and that he was placed under arrest pending a court martial.13
In the British camp, Capt. Francis Stevenson, the author of the letters, and his fellow officers initially found amusing the turmoil they assumed the letters had caused in the American camp.14 However, upon learning that General Gregory had been placed under arrest, ‘Capt. Stevenson’s humanity was alarmed,” and he asked his commander, Lt. Col. John Simcoe, to intervene.15 Simcoe wrote to Colonel Parker explaining that the captured correspondence between Stevenson and Gregory was fictitious, composed by Captain Stevenson by way of amusement and boredom.16 Simcoe added with a bit of sarcasm that, “Upon the sacred honour of a soldier and a gentleman, that I have no reason to believe or suspect that Mr. Gregory is otherwise than a firm adherent of the French King, and of Congress.”17
Simcoe’s letter eventually reached Muhlenberg, who admitted to Steuben on March 11 that he was now unsure of Gregory’s guilt. “I confess myself at a loss to judge,” wrote Muhlenberg, “He may be innocent, and I hope he may prove himself so.”18
With no further evidence against General Gregory and Lieutenant Colonel Simcoe’s letter of assurance that the entire affair had been in jest, the question of Gregory’s patriotism was resolved in his favor. Events soon drew everyone’s attention back to Portsmouth, where Muhlenberg hoped to strike with the assistance of reinforcements under General LaFayette. Although General Gregory was deeply resentful at the doubt expressed of his patriotism, it did not seem to adversely impact his reputation in North Carolina, for upon his return to the Tar Heel state he served in the state legislature until 1795.19