Story of Thomas Jefferson - J. W. McSpadden
"Ah, good morning, General." Governor Jefferson held out his hand to General Nelson, head of the Virginia state troopers who had just entered his office hurriedly. "I'm sorry to have to call you out so early. But you will grant I have an excuse," he explained, with his unfailing politeness. "Be seated, sir. I've just had word that a fleet of twenty-seven sail was seen yesterday morning below Willoughby's Point."
The General clenched his hand. "Twenty-seven sail! But could they be French, do you think?"
"I have no way of knowing. The messenger rode furiously to Richmond with the news—didn't even stop to find out what flag they bore; just jumped on a horse and set out. He's ridden over a hundred miles to warn us."
"Did he—but of course he didn't—have any way of discovering whither they were bound?"
"No, no. I fear it may be General Leslie again. And yet—perhaps the French—"
"It may be the expedition General Washington mentioned in his last circular. What was it he said? Something about an expedition fitting out at New York and that he thought likely might go southward?"
The Governor nodded.
"Yes. It may be that expedition, but the General was quite uncertain about it. We must find out where it is bound. They may content themselves with raiding along the shores of the lower river counties, or they may advance up the York, the James, the Potomac, or the Patapsco."
"Uncertainty! Uncertainty!" muttered General Nelson. "They may be moving on Baltimore, Governor."
"They may, or on Alexandria or Petersburg or Williamsburg or Richmond, my dear General. Now, sir, I wish you to go at once and find out. This paper will give you full authority to raise what forces you can, if the fleet is the enemy's. Can you start at once?"
The General sprang up and strode to the door, then, remembering the paper, came back to take it from the desk.
"I shall be on the road in a quarter of an hour, Governor," he said briefly.
"Good. Lose no time. Let me have an express from you as soon as you have news."
As General Nelson hurried away, the Governor turned to his desk to prepare orders calling out the militia so that, when he had the full information needed, he could act without delay.
The news spread through the little capitol with the speed of a cyclone. Twenty-seven vessels sailing up the Chesapeake! Could it be the French, come to help? Could it be Leslie, come again to plunder and destroy? Where were they going? What could be done? The day wore on feverishly. Would a messenger from General Nelson never come? Every clatter of hoofs along the street brought citizens rushing out to inquire what were the tidings. The residence of the Governor was watched eagerly and the capitol as well, so that no messenger could enter or leave without being seen and questioned. Richmond was in an agony of suspense.
But nothing further was heard until Tuesday morning the second day of January. All of New Year's Day was spent in uncertainty and dread.
On Tuesday the members of the legislature had not long been in session when a messenger came to them from the Governor announcing that he had received word that the fleet was British and that it had entered the James River.
Although the Governor had asked their advice, the legislators could suggest little or nothing. He had already signed orders calling out four thousand, seven hundred men, and directing that all public supplies and such property belonging to the state as could be removed should be taken to Westham, a little town beyond the rapids above Richmond.
The lawmakers, seeing that Governor Jefferson was doing all that could be done, hastily adjourned, some to hurry away with the orders to the militia in different parts of the state; but most to go to their homes and place their families out of the threatened danger.
Wednesday wore on to afternoon, with no further tidings, until three o'clock, when a man rode into the city to tell the Governor that the vessels had arrived and were anchored near Jamestown.
Williamsburg, then, must be their object. So everybody thought until the next morning, when, just before sunrise, another horseman came spurring into town calling out the news as he passed that the enemy had swept onward up the James to a point below the Appomattox.
"They're coming! The redcoats are coming!" shouted a man who had run into the street.
Windows had been raised and the flicker of candles began to light the houses along the street.
"Maybe they're bound for Petersburg," called a voice from a window.
A sound of footsteps running came down the street from the direction taken by the messenger.
"Who's that?" cried a woman's voice shrilly.
"It's Burwell," called the other. "Word has come that Benedict Arnold commands the redcoats!"
"Arnold! The traitor! Benedict Arnold! Arnold! Arnold come to murder his own!" were the cries that answered.
The thought was horrible. Arnold, who had betrayed his country for the gold of the enemy, who had tried to sell it to the British, was now a British commander coming to rob, ruin, and shoot down his countrymen. No wonder the dread and confusion of the time grew, as morning dawned and messenger after messenger was seen spurring this way and that, carrying orders for the militia to gather as fast as they, could, not to wait to come in companies, but each man to take what arms he could find and hurry to join a few others on the way.
In the afternoon came Captain De Ponthere with news that the British had drawn up their troops at Westover, only twenty-five miles from Richmond.
Governor Jefferson sent his wife and three small children up the river to a relative's house at Tuckahoe. He had already ordered that the taking of stores to Westham should stop, and that everything the enemy would be likely to seize or destroy should be taken across the river or even thrown into it, so that Arnold, the betrayer, should not be able to get hold of it.
These things attended to, Governor Jefferson mounted his horse and galloped along the road to Westham. Here he found that a quantity of arms and ammunition had been piled on the bank by the excited men who had carried them up the river. These he ordered taken to a safer place.
Many a sleepless household in small town or lonely plantation house heard the clatter of his horse's hoofs, as the anxious Governor galloped now here now there to command where he was needed most. At one o'clock in the morning he reached Tuckahoe, where Mrs. Jefferson and the children were waiting for him. He felt that they were not safe there so bundled them all across the river and sent them, in charge of a faithful friend, eight miles farther up the James.
Then, tireless, he galloped back to Westham to take charge again. From there he rushed on toward the little village of Manchester. But before he could reach it the noble and willing horse that had carried him so swiftly all through the long hours sank beneath him, dying upon the road.
With a heavy heart, Thomas Jefferson took the saddle and bridle, slung them upon his back and hurried on toward the next farm.
"I must find another horse there," he thought, striding along. "I must get on to Manchester to see to the public property, and I must see Baron Steuben."
Horses were so scarce that only a young, unbroken colt could be found at the next farm. Jefferson's skill as a horseman was now a blessing indeed as he sprang to the animal's back and galloped madly away.
Little could be done in Manchester, but that little he saw finished. He could view, too, from across the James, the little city of Richmond. The British had entered it. One regiment of their infantry and thirty cavalry were already there, and the smoke of the burning foundry and powder magazine was beginning to float upward from beyond the housetops.
Only two hundred of the nearby militiamen had gathered to resist the enemy, too few and too poorly armed to do any good.
Seeing that he could do nothing further at Manchester, the Governor rode to Chetwoods to consult with the great soldier whom Washington had sent to Virginia, Baron Steuben.
Benedict Arnold had chosen his time and place well. To be sure, Colonel Clarke and his militiamen killed thirty of the raiders, but the redcoats did a great deal of damage. Stores of tobacco, the chief product of this region and its greatest means of income, were burned—and not in pipes either. Worst of all, Arnold and his men threw into the river five tons of gunpowder which the Americans had stored, and ruined three hundred muskets.
As the American militia gathered in greater and greater numbers, the traitor and his red-coats found it best to make their escape. So they sailed away down the river, plundering and burning wherever the chance offered, and took up their position in the camp that General Leslie had left.
Governor Jefferson, worn out with eighty-four hours of riding, at last reached Richmond where he summoned an officer of the militia.
"Sir," he said, wearily, his eyes glowing and bloodshot beneath his down-drawn brows, "Arnold has retreated to Leslie's old camp. If you will take a small band of men and bring him into Richmond alive, I will undertake that five thousand guineas shall be your reward!"
But Benedict Arnold knew too well the temper of the people of Virginia to let himself be caught in any trap, however cunning. In his own evil time he sailed, unharmed and uncaught, out to sea.