Story of Thomas Jefferson - J. W. McSpadden

Governor Jefferson,
and the Perils of War

Patrick Henry was Virginia's first American governor. When his third term was completed, who should be the rival candidates for the high post but John Page and Thomas Jefferson! It was the friendliest of contests and, though John Page had to step aside for his old college-mate, he was, twenty-three years afterward, to take his seat in turn as the chief of the great state they both loved.

Governor Jefferson found Virginia in danger. Several thousand prisoners of war, English and German, were settled in Albemarle County not far from Monticello. This, in itself, was a danger, for no one knew when they might plan to escape to the British.

New York was in the hands of the enemy, and General Washington's, army, doing all it could in the North, was in the greatest need of men, money, guns, and provisions of all kinds. Governor Henry had been sending help. Governor Jefferson in turn sent all that it seemed possible to supply, but it left Virginia with almost no money, and guns enough for only about one-fourth of the militia in the state.

The coast of Virginia was open to the English, whose great war frigates with their tiers of cannon could never be driven off by its tiny navy of four small ships. As for forts to withstand an attack, there was none of any value in a time of need.

In the West, too, were threatening foes.

The Virginia of that day stretched to the Mississippi River and included the states we now call Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky, with much of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. This great region held many an Indian village whose "braves" were always ready to follow the war path.

Knowing this, and that the western border was almost without American soldiers to protect it, the British commander sent his aide, Colonel Hamilton, to bribe the Indians to fight against the Virginians. Gold, beads, scarlet cloth,—all these were used by the wily Hamilton to hire the tribes to a bloody war. Only too well, as the smoke of many a burning cabin told, did he succeed.

This, then, was the condition of Virginia when Thomas Jefferson took the reins from the hands of Patrick Henry. This, and worse than this, for just before Governor Henry left the office, a dozen enemy ships had anchored and landed two thousand soldiers on the soil of Virginia. For several days they had raided, burned, and laid waste the country around, while the few men the state had kept to defend it were unable, through lack of guns, to protect the people, and fled in despair. When the enemy had done all the mischief they wished, they went on board their ships and sailed grimly away.

It was three weeks after this that Governor Jefferson took office.

Amid all these troubles the first cheering news he received was that Colonel George Rogers Clarke, of Albemarle County, whom Governor Henry had sent into the western wilds against the British and Indians, had reached and captured Kaskaskia on the Mississippi, and from there fought successfully against his and his country's enemies.

It was in April, 1780, not long after the capital of Virginia had been moved from Williamsburg to Richmond, that Governor Jefferson sat one day at his desk glancing over a letter that seemed to have been read and reread a good many times. As he looked it over, a shadow seemed to darken his face,—the shadow of the troubles that its writer, James Madison, summed up.

The Governor laid the letter on the desk and began to walk up and down with long, hasty strides.

"Washington!" he murmured. "His army almost falling to pieces! Short of bread and nearly out of any kind of meat! Neither money nor credit; paper money almost worthless! What are we coming to? What can Virginia do?"

He paced awhile with his head down, thinking, his eyes on the floor.

"Georgia conquered," he went on presently, "the British ravaging and raging in South Carolina; Virginia crippled—poor in men and guns, and with so much that must be done! We must manage to get some help for them all somehow!"

He stopped at his desk to look down at the letter. At that moment a loud knock on his door was followed by the entrance of a young man in torn, mud-spattered clothing and without a hat, his long hair untied and hanging around his face, his eyes bloodshot with weariness and strain. The Governor turned calmly toward him.

"News?" he asked quickly, his eyes full of anxiety.

"Your Excellency," said the man, "I've ridden post-haste to bring it. A British fleet and army under Cornwallis are attacking Charleston! Virginia must send help at once!"

"It shall be attended to," said the Governor with quiet determination.

How Governor Jefferson stepped into the breach is a matter of history. He was really torn between two appeals—that of Washington's army in the North, and Gates's army in the South. Mrs. Jefferson set an example by giving her jewelry, and other brave women did the same. Blacksmiths were set to work forging weapons; and Jefferson sent agents through the state ransacking it for supplies. Meanwhile the state militia was reorganized. It looked as though Virginia was soon to be the storm center—as events afterwards proved.

Then came the tidings of the disastrous defeat of Gates at the hands of Cornwallis, and the latter's advance north. 'When advance scouts from the American Army came to Richmond they found the little capitol full of tumult. Messengers from the Governor galloped into and out of town bringing and taking news and orders. Noble Virginia was again doing her best to stem the dreadful tide of defeat. The harvest soon to be gathered must be bought with promises to pay for it later; what cattle could be found must be driven south for the soldiers; the blacksmiths must make more axes; men must go into the western settlements and get at least a hundred more wagons, for General Gates was forming a new army in North Carolina, where Lord Cornwallis and his "hunting leopard," the terrible and pitiless Tarleton, were being held in check by the bold soldier-farmers of that hard-pressed state.

In the midst of this stirring time there came, like a clap of thunder, the news that a fleet of British vessels, sixty strong, were landing troops at Portsmouth!

Governor Jefferson at once sent messengers to General Gates in the South and General Washington in the North. Virginia had so few men left for her own defense, that she could do nothing more.