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ENGAGEMENT OF THE FLEETS.
already in the Chesapeake, he crossed the bay in an open boat to Virginia, and pushed on to confer with the American and French commanders; get a convoy for his troops, and concert matters for a vigorous co-operation. Arriving at York on the 14th, he found the Baron Steuben in the bustle of military preparations, and confident of having five thousand militia ready to co-operate. These, with Lafayette's detachment, would be sufficient for the attack by land; nothing was wanting but a co-operation by sea; and the French fleet had not yet appeared, though double the time necessary for the voyage had elapsed. The marquis repaired to General Muhlenburg's camp near Suffolk, and reconnoitred with him the enemy's works at Portsmouth; this brought on a trifling skirmish, but every thing appeared satisfactory; every thing promised complete success.
On the 20th, word was brought that a fleet had come to anchor within the capes. It was supposed of course to be the French, and now the capture of the traitor was certain. He himself from certain signs appeared to be in great confusion; none of his ships ventured down the bay. An officer of the French navy bore down to visit the fleet, but returned with the
Admiral Arbuthnot had in fact overtaken Destouches on the
astounding intelligence that it was British!
16th of March, off the capes of Virginia.
Their forces were
nearly equal; eight ships of the line, and four frigates on each side, the French having more men, the English more guns. An engagement took place which lasted about an hour. The British van at first took the brunt of the action, and was severely handled; the centre came up to its relief. The French line was broken and gave way, but rallied, and formed again at some distance. The crippled state of some of his ships prevented the
British admiral from bringing on a second encounter; nor did the French seek one, but shaped their course the next day back to Newport. Both sides claimed a victory. The British certainly effected the main objects they had in view; the French were cut off from the Chesapeake; the combined enterprise against Portsmouth was disconcerted, and Arnold was saved. Great must have been the apprehensions of the traitor, while that enterprise threatened to entrap him. He knew the peculiar peril impending over him; it had been announced in the sturdy reply of an American prisoner, to his inquiry what his countrymen would do to him if he were captured." They would cut off the leg wounded in the service of your country and bury it with the honors of war; the rest of you they would hang!"
The feelings of Washington, on hearing of the result of the enterprise, may be judged from the following passage of a letter to Colonel John Laurens, then minister at Paris. "The failure of this expedition, which was most flattering in the commencement, is much to be regretted; because a successful blow in that quarter would, in all probability, have given a decisive turn to our affairs in all the Southern States; because it has been attended with considerable expense on our part, and much inconvenience to the State of Virginia, by the assembling of our militia; because the world is disappointed at not seeing Arnold in gibbets; and above all, because we stood in need of something to keep us afloat till the result of your mission is known; for be assured, my dear Laurens, day does not follow night more certainly, than it brings with it some additional proof of the impracticability of carrying on the war, without the aids you were directed to solicit. As an honest and candid man, as a man whose all depends on the final and happy termination of
LETTER TO COLONEL LAURENS.
the present contest, I assert this, while I give it decisively as my opinion, that, without a foreign loan, our present force, which is but the remnant of an army, cannot be kept together this campaign, much less will it be increased, and in readiness for another. If France delays a timely and powerful aid in the critical posture of our affairs, it will avail us nothing should she attempt it hereafter. We are at this hour suspended in the balance; not from choice, but from hard and absolute necessity; and you may rely on it as a fact, that we cannot transport the provisions from the States in which they are assessed, to the army, because we cannot pay the teamsters, who will no longer work for certificates. * In a word, we are at the end of our tether, and now or never our deliverance must How easy would it be to retort the enemy's own game upon them; if it could be made to comport with the general plan of the war, to keep a superior fleet always in these seas, and France would put us in condition to be active, by advancing us money. The ruin of the enemy's schemes would then be certain; the bold game they are now playing would be the means of effecting it; for they would be reduced to the necessity of concentrating their force at capital points; thereby giving up all the advantages they have gained in the Southern States, or be vulnerable every where."
Washington's anxiety was now awakened for the safety of General Greene. Two thousand troops had sailed from New York under General Phillips, probably to join with the force under Arnold, and proceed to reinforce Cornwallis. Should they form a junction, Greene would be unable to withstand them. With these considerations Washington wrote to Lafayette, urging him, since he was already three hundred miles, which was half VOL. IV.-12
the distance, on the way, to push on with all possible speed to join the southern army, sending expresses ahead to inform Greene of his approach.
The letter found Lafayette on the 8th of April, at the Head of Elk, preparing to march back with his troops to the banks of the Hudson. On his return through Virginia, he had gone out of his way, and travelled all night for the purpose of seeing Washington's mother at Fredericksburg, and paying a visit to Mount Vernon. He now stood ready to obey Washington's orders, and march to reinforce General Greene; but his troops, who were chiefly from the Eastern States, murmured at the prospect of a campaign in a southern climate, and desertions began to occur. Upon this he announced in general orders, that he was about to enter on an enterprise of great difficulty and danger, in which he trusted his soldiers would not abandon him. Any, however, who were unwilling, should receive permits to return home.
As he had anticipated, their pride was roused by this appeal. All engaged to continue forward. So great was the fear of appearing a laggard, or a craven, that a sergeant, too lame to march, hired a place in a cart to keep up with the army. In the zeal of the moment, Lafayette borrowed money on his own credit from the Baltimore merchants, to purchase summer clothing for his troops, in which he was aided, too, by the ladies of the city, with whom he was deservedly popular.
The detachment from New York, under General Phillips, arrived at Portsmouth on the 26th of March. That officer immediately took command, greatly to the satisfaction of the British officers, who had been acting under Arnold. The force now collected there amounted to three thousand five hundred men. The
EXPEDITION OF GENERAL PHILLIPS.
garrison of New York had been greatly weakened in furnishing this detachment, but Cornwallis had urged the policy of transferring the seat of war to Virginia, even at the expense of abandoning New York; declaring that until that State was subdued, the British hold upon the Carolinas must be difficult, if not pre
The disparity in force was now so great, that the Baron Steuben had to withdraw his troops, and remove the military stores into the interior. Many of the militia, too, their term of three months being expired, stacked their arms, and set off for their homes, and most of the residue had to be discharged.
General Phillips had hitherto remained quiet in Portsmouth, completing the fortifications, but evidently making preparations for an expedition. On the 16th of April, he left one thousand men in garrison, and, embarking the rest in small vessels of light draught, proceeded up James River, destroying armed vessels, public magazines, and a ship-yard belonging to the State.
Landing at City Point, he advanced against Petersburg, a place of deposit of military stores and tobacco. He was met about a mile below the town by about one thousand militia, under General Muhlenburg, who, after disputing the ground inch by inch for nearly two hours, with considerable loss on both sides, retreated across the Appomattox, breaking down the bridge behind them.
Phillips entered the town, set fire to the tobacco warehouses, and destroyed all the vessels lying in the river. Repairing and crossing the bridge over the Appomattox, he proceeded to Chesterfield Court-house, where he destroyed barracks and public stores; while Arnold, with a detachment, laid waste the maga zines of tobacco in the direction of Warwick. A fire was opened