Potomac Raids: April 1781


Mike Cecere, 7th Virginia Regiment

Adapted From In This Time Of Extreme Danger: Northern Virginia In The American Revolution

Virginians were very anxious in the early months of 1781. The arrival of a British expeditionary force in January under the infamous American traitor, Benedict Arnold, shocked the state. Arnold's movements along the James River and his attack on Richmond, the new capital, were largely unchallenged and highlighted Virginia's weakness and vulnerability. In March it appeared that Virginia, with the help of a French naval squadron, would redeem its honor and capture Arnold and his force in Portsmouth. The plan was cancelled at the last moment when British reinforcements arrived by ship. The news only grew worse in April. Reports of British ships in the Potomac reached Governor Jefferson on April 10th. Edmund Reed, of Caroline County, informed Jefferson that,

The whole of the fleete amounted to two twenty four Gun Ships, two Eighteen [gun ships] and Six Transports and Tenders. They seem to be crowded with men.1

Reed speculated that Alexandria was their objective. He was apparently unaware that a British privateer visited the town a few days earlier. Henry Lee II gave Jefferson a detailed account of the visit:

On the first [of April] a Small Schoner...tender to the [British] privateer Trimer...with 21 Men...went up to Alexandria and in the Night, Attempted to Cut out before the town a Vessel belonging to Baltimore. Fortunately they were discovered and the wind Changing prevented their Succeeding. They immediately made off down the river and were pursued by two Armed Vessels and... was taken before they got to the Trimer which with the Supprise and another Sloop of War laid at Cedar point...As soon as the Schoner found she Must be taken the Men took to their boats and landed on the Virginia Side of the River.2

Lee reported that sixteen men were captured by local inhabitants. Half were sent to Fredericksburg and the other half to Alexandria. Colonel Lee informed Jefferson that upon word that more British ships were sailing upriver he,

Ordered all the [Prince William County] Militia that Could be Armed to rendezvous at the Mouth of Quantico and there have been these two days about forty there on duty.3

Colonel Lee also revealed disturbing news about British intentions:

If the Enemy had Succeeded at Alexandria they intended; one of the Prisoners say, to have burnt General Washingtons Houses, Plundered Colo. Mason and myself and endeavoured to have made me a prisoner.4

Fortunately for Colonel Mason and Colonel Lee, their property was untouched. General Washington was not so lucky. A number of his slaves were taken by a British raider. Lund Washington went aboard the ship and provided refreshments and provisions in an attempt to gain the return of the slaves and protect General Washington's property. Washington's buildings were spared, but his slaves were not returned. When General Washington learned of his cousin's actions he immediately wrote and scolded him:

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...5

Fortunately for Washington and the rest of northern Virginia, the British left the Potomac in late April. General Weedon informed Governor Jefferson of their withdrawal on April 21st:

Getting Intelligence of the Ships coming down [ river, I ] proceeded to Hollis's marsh where a body of Militia ware drawn together under the command of Colo. Richard Henry Lee... As they [the ships] came down they landed at Joetank, took off several of Mr. Washingtons Negroes and did him other damage, again they landed at Mr. Hooes Ferry, distroy'd Mr. Hooes Furniture, broak his Windows, and set his House on fire, which was happily Extinguished. They are now all gone down.6

British attention shifted to central Virginia and the American supplies at Petersburg.

To Be Continued...


  1. Julian Boyd, "Edmund Read to Thomas Jefferson, 10 April, 1781," The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 5, 399
  2. Boyd, "Henry Lee Sr. to Thomas Jefferson, 10 April, 1781," The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 5, 393-94
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. John C. Fitzpatrick, "George Washington to Lund Washington, 30 April, 1781," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 22, 14-15
  6. Boyd, "George Weedon to Thomas Jefferson, 21 April, 1781," The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 5, 529

Copyright © 2006 Mike Cecere. All rights reserved.