Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 15 Time of Troubles

THERE had been alarms before of invasion, but aside from a brief raid on Portsmouth in May, 1779, none of them had actually materialized.1 This dine, however, the cry of wolf proved only too true. On the morning of October 20, 1780, a formidable British fleet appeared in Hampton Roads, packed with soldiery, part of whom were promptly debarked near Portsmouth.

An express arrived in Richmond with the news on October 22nd, and Jefferson put into motion the pitiful means he had to oppose them. Whatever scattered militia were on hand in the threatened area turned out; but they had, as usual, few arms and practically no cartridge paper, without which no bullets could be fired. And, even if properly equipped, the militia on foot was helpless against the enemy's horse. Fears were expressed that the British intended to press on to Richmond itself, and once again measures were taken to move the Convention prisoners further into the interior.

But by the middle of November, the seemingly overwhelming storm had blown over. Clinton had performed his share of the maneuver by sending an army down from New York; Cornwallis, however, poised in the South, had not moved. Even so, had the British force on hand acted energetically, it could have swept over a practically undefended Virginia. After seizing Portsmouth and raiding sporadically into the surrounding country, the enemy lost heart and re-embarked their troops on the night of November 15th; leaving behind them a large number of Negro slaves who had joined them in the hope of gaining freedom.2

Jefferson breathed a little more freely; but he realized that what had once happened could happen again, and with more determination. The dilatory Assembly had reconvened, and he demanded of them increased preparations for defense rather than congratulation on the enemy's retirement. They could well be expected to return, this time with a force "to which the southern states have yet seen nothing equal." The other southern states could do nothing to help; on Virginia alone would rest the total burden.

He was now ready to advocate a permanent army. The disastrous ventures with the militia convinced him that Washington had been right. Let the Assembly do something about it, and vote the necessary supplies as well. "The proposals herewith transmitted for raising a standing body of forces for the defence of this state," he added, "requiring conditions be­

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