A few days after my junction with the Marquis at Richmond we received the news of Lord Cornwallis’s being on his march for Virginia. About the same time also I received a Letter from General Green desiring me to press the Levy of the recruits of this state, to assemble as many as possible, especially Cavalry, and to Join him with them as soon as possible. This letter was dated the 1st of May and I immediately communicated it to Governor Jefferson and the Marquis in the Council Chamber at Richmond.
The Draft had before this been put off till the Month of March. This was therefore the very time when the Counties should have been delivering in their Quotas. About 300 Men were however all that were yet collected. These were at Manchester badly armed and worse cloathed.
The place of Rendezvous had been at Chesterfield Court House. The Barracks at that place had been burnt by the Enemy and the Situation was no longer proper for the purpose. I mentioned therefore to Government the necessity of fixing on some place less exposed where we might Collect the recruits, Equip and form them and with the consent of the Marquis Albemarle Barracks was agreed on for the place. As the Governor had said that those Counties which had Militia in the Field could not proceed to Draft I asked him to what number would amount the Recruits from those Counties who were not so circumstanced. He informed me about 1500 men. At this conference the Marquis was present.
I determined therefore that the 300 men already collected should march immediately to Albemarle to be cloathed and Equipped for the Field, that the other Recruits should Join them as fast as they came in, and that they might afterwards Join General Green or the Marquis as circumstances might require. Orders were accordingly given for them to march by way of Carters ferry. The day after I received a letter from Colo. Davis Commissioner of War for the State in which he represented to me that Albemarle Barracks was a very improper place on many accounts, that great difficulty would occur in transporting Provision there, that there was no wood near it, and that the Barracks were nearly destroyed. He pointed out the Forks of James River as the most proper place, many of the Articles for Equipping the troops were he said already there and he promised to make every necessary arrangement for the reception of the troops at that place. On this I Joined the Marquis at Wilton and he having no objection that place was determined on and the Marquis desired me to repair there to hasten the Equipment of the 1500 Recruits we expected and who were to Join either Genl. Green or the Marquis as I before said.
On my arrival at the Fork I was much surprised to find no more than 540 Men had yet come in and a great number of these not proper for the service. The whole were without cloathing and badly Equipped and were every day diminishing in number by desertion and sickness. They were also without arms and it was with some difficulty that I armed them with the Arms that just then arrived from Philadelphia.
Whilst I was thus occupied Lord Cornwallis crossed James River and the Marquis retreated up the Country.
The principal part of our Continental Stores were on the Southside the River at Prince Edward, Charlotte, and Halifax Court Houses. Those of the State were dispersed everywhere. A great part of them were at the Fork by order of Government. The Marquis’s retreat induced me to represent to Colo. Davis and Mr. Ross Agent for the State the necessity of removing them higher up in the mountain. I told them that the troops were by no means destined to Guard the Stores but that I should move them as circumstances might direct. Great part of the stores were accordingly removed and the enclosed memorandum of their Store Keeper will show that those which by the negligence of their own Officers fell into the Enemies Hands were very inconsiderable.
Such was the situation of affairs when I received a Letter of 3 June from the Marquis dated near Raccoon ford on the Rappahanock 80 miles from the place where Lord Cornwallis then was and about the same distance from me.
The same night I received intelligence that the Enemy were at Goochland Court House moving up the River. This seemed to indicate an intention against me, but as the intelligence was not positive I only repeated my orders for moving the remainder of the stores and collecting all the Boats on both Rivers above and below me in order to cross should there be occasion.
At Five next morning Major Call of Washingtons [Continental Dragoons] arrived and informed me that the Enemy had divided their force into two parties, one of which had taken the route by Louisa Court Ho. and the other by Goochland Court House, that he had seen both columns on their march [and] with difficulty escaped being taken. This removed every doubt of their intention. I therefore gave immediate orders for crossing over the Baggage of the Troops, placed a picquet of 80 men on the point opposite which I expected Cornwallis would soon appear in order to draw our attention whilst the other party crossed the North branch above us in order to catch us between the two Rivers. I then marched the Batallion on the Road by which the party who I expected would cross above must come and waited there till the whole of the Baggage had crossed. I then left a Picket of 50 Men on the Road and crossed the Remainder of the Batallion. The same day Genl. Lawson arrived and informed me he had 250 militia, whereof 15 were Horsemen who were on the other side the River. I ordered them to Join the Recruits who were at that time reduced to 420 men as will appear by the return signed by Colo. Gaskins and sent to Govr. Nelson.
That Evening Colo. Davis arrived to secure the State Stores in which I gave every assistance in my power. I unloaded the Waggons of the Regiments and sent them to bring away the stores, but this business was very illy executed by the State Officers.
The morning of the 4th I sent Lt. Verdier of Armands Corps with four Dragoons up the Road on the Point of Fork to give intelligence of the Enemy’s approach. Himself and party fell into their hands. About ten o’Clock I received intelligence that the Enemy were within four miles of the Point of Fork, on which I sent Mr. Fairlie one of my Aids to call in the Piquets which he did but was himself taken Prisoner.
About noon being, on the bank of the River I perceived the Enemy arrive. As I afterwards Learnt Simcoe with about 4 or 500 Horse and foot. Tarleton was above him within supporting distance and Lord Cornwallis was on the other side James River about Six Miles below him.
As an instance of the dependence that could have been placed in the men I had under my Command, when the Enemy first arrived they fired only one shot from a three pounder they had with them and piquet of 50 men I had at the Landing left their Post and it was with much persuasion and threats they were brought back again.
Contrary to my orders a number of Canoes were still left in the North Fork and consequently fell into the Enemy’s hands and besides both Rivers are fordable at many places. I therefore determined retire towards Willis creek which I did as soon as it was dark.
I sent back an officer to observe the movements of the Enemy, who reported that the morning of the 5th the Enemy had constructed two Rafts each capable of crossing from 80 to 100 men and that they had thrown a Bridge across the North fork by which they communicated with Lord Cornwallis then opposite Elk Island.
I have already observed that all our Continental Stores were at Prince Edward, Halifax, and Charlotte Court Houses. I did not see what could hinder the Enemy from detaching a sufficient party to disperse my force and render themselves masters of those stores. I thought it absurd to be making a Bravado with a small number of bad Troops against such a force whilst the Marquis being near a 100 Miles off could make no diversion on that side. I therefore gave orders for dispersing the stores in such a manner that only part could fall into the Enemies Hands in any Rout they could take and I sent off three Officers successively to Acquaint the Marquis of my Situation. I wrote Circular Letters to the County Lieutenants to call out their Militia and leaving Genl Lawson at Charlotte Court House I marched the recruits to Coles ferry on Staunton. Here I collected all the Boats on that River and sent an Officer to Genl. Sumner to collect what force he could and Join me.
Genl. Lawsons Militia were yet hardly 500 men, when I was advised of the Marquis Junction with Genl Wayne. On this I immediately and without waiting for orders advanced in four days to Carters ferry where I received the first Letter from the Marquis desiring me to Join him if possible by the 18th at Colo. Dandridges, which I did with 408 Recruits and about 500 Militia.
It must be remarked that these 408 Recruits were all that were in the field of 3000 which the Assembly had voted in february last.
In hand of Major William North, endorsed: “Copy of a relation of the Barons Movements on quitting the Point of Fork.” Enclosure: There is a memorandum endorsed: “Memo of Stores lost at Point of Fork June 1781.” This is probably a copy of “the enclosed memorandum of their Store Keeper.” It reads as follows: “Memo of Cloathing supposed to have been lost at the Point of Fork June 4th 1781.
68 boxes of coarse cloths
60 pair leather breeches
1 small bale linen belonging to Colonel Washington’s Cavalry
2000 yards Canvas
1 Hhd Soldiers Hatts
1 Box containing some Linen, Checks and Coarse thread
2 small bales of Blankets containing about 75
2 Hogsheads of Coffee
1 small case of Tea
1 Box and 1 Barrell brown sugar
40 Hhds Tierces and barrens of rum and Whiskey.”
This memorandum does not quite agree with an inventory of clothing in the states stores at Point of Fork dated 24 May 1781. That memorandum reads:
180Yards russia Sheeting fit for Overhalls
1 Peice Ozens
80 pieces Irish linen
60 ready made shirts
20 pieces Bareskin 540 Yards
260 yards Plaid
60 pair yarn Stockings
70 yards white flannel
200 calf skins
50 soldiers coats
70 pair Leather breeches at Mr. Bollings Landing
1 ps spotted Flannell
5 ps Chec.”
Burk-Girardin’s Account of the Affair at Point of Fork, 1816
In the mean time Lord Cornwallis, bent on the execution of the predatory plan which he had lately formed, made two considerable detachments from his army. One of these, amounting to 500 men, partly of the Queen’s rangers, infantry and cavalry, and partly of the Yagers, he placed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Simcoe, a partizan, whose indefatigable activity and singular fitness for stratagem, surprize and intrigue, we have already had occasion to mention.
At the confluence of the two branches of the James, in the county of Fluvanna, is a point of land, known under the appellation of the Point of Fork, where, during the late incursions of Phillips and Arnold, a State arsenal had been formed, and military stores collected, especially with a view to the prosecution of the war in the Carolinas. The protection of this important post had been entrusted to Baron Steuben, who, in this critical posture of affairs in Virginia, had, by the joint orders of La Fayette and Greene, repaired there from the borders of North Carolina, with about 600 new levies, originally destined for the Southern army! To the Point of Fork, the militia under General Lawson, amounting nearly to the same number, had also been directed to march. The plan of La Fayette was, at first, to unite the whole with the Pennsylvania line and the body under his immediate command, and make a combined effort against the enemy. The orders which he issued to bring this scheme into effect, unfortunately were intercepted. Cornwallis altered his movements; and this change, together with unexpected delays in the meditated junction with the Pennsylvania line, overthrew the project.
It was against Baron Steuben, and the magazines under his protection, that Lieutenant Colonel Simcoe now directed his efforts. His instructions were, suddenly to fall on the Baron, annihilate his force, or, at least, to drive the whole beyond the Southern branch of James river, and to destroy the arms and provisions known to have been collected at the Point of Fork.
The expedition of Tarleton, who was detached with 180 cavalary of the legion, and 70 mounted infantry of the 23d regiment, headed by Captain Champagne, embraced the following objects. He received orders to surprise, take or disperse the members of the General Assembly, then convened at Charlottesville as we have before mentioned, to seize on the person of the Governor, who resided in the neighborhood, to spread on his route devastation and terror, sparing no military stores or other resources likely to enable the Americans to prolong the existing struggle, and perhaps, to end it witl-i success. He was ultimately to join Simcoe, and assist his intended operations.
With their accustomed eagerness and activity, the two indefatigable and dreaded partisans entered upon the execution of their respective tasks.
This double movement rendered Steuben’s situation unusually perilous. The extreme difficulty of obtaining prompt and correct information respecting the British and their schemes, the severe precautions which Simcoe took for securing every person met or seen on his route, effectually concealed his march from the Baron. The latter, however, became apprized of Tarleton’s rapid advance. Imagining himself the immediate object of it, he lost no time in transporting his stores to the South side of the Fluvanna, intending himself speedily to follow, with the whole division under his command. When Simcoe reached the Point of Fork, the American stores had been removed, and Steuben’s detachment crossed the river, except about 30 men, then awaiting the return of the boats, to embark and join their friends. These men unavoidably fell into the hands of the British cavalry. The river was deep and unfordable; and all the boats had been secured on the South side of it. Simcoe’s main object was, therefore, frustrated. Under the mortification arising from this disappointment, a singular stratagem occurred to his wily mind. It was to impress the Baron with the belief that the troops now at the Point of Fork were the advance of the British army, ready to overwhelm him; and thus to work upon his fears so far as to induce him to sacrifice most of the stores which had been transported over the Fluvanna. For this purpose he encamped on the heights opposite to Steuben’s new station, advantageously displaying his force, and by the number of his fires suggesting a probability of the main body, headed by Cornwallis, having actually reached the neighborhood. The Baron, who had been informed that the corps under Tarleton threatened his left, now fancied himself in imminent danger. Retreating precipitately during the night, he marched near 30 miles from the Point of Fork, abandoning to the enemy such stores as could not be removed. In the morning, Simcoe observing the success of his stratagem, and wishing to give it still further effect, procured some small canoes, and sent across the river Captain Stephenson, with a detachment of light infantry, and Cornet Wolsey with four hussars. The former was directed to destroy the stores and arms which the Baron had left behind in the hurry and confusion of his premature retreat; and the latter, to mount his hussars, who had carried their saddles over with them, on such straggling horses as be was likely to find, to patrole some miles on the route taken by Steuben; in short, to exhibit every appearance of eager and formidable pursuit. Both these orders were successfully executed. Stephenson performed without delay or annoyance, the task of destruction assigned to him; and Wolsey so confirmed the belief of Steuben, that the whole British army was close in his rear, that he accelerated his march, retiring still further from the river. His object was to resume his original destination and join General Greene; but he received fresh orders not to leave the State, so lon- as Cornwallis should continue there. On the militia under Lawson, a similar injunction was laid. British historians have greatly exaggerated the loss sustained by the Americans at the Point of Fork. Of their thrasonic accounts, undoubted evidence is in the hands of the author of this narrative.
Tarleton has magnified almost every circumstance. The official correspondence of Lord Cornwallis himself, is full of exaggerations of this sort. Stedman is not more correct-The evidence to which we allude has been furnished by persons on or near the spot, at the time. Much to that effect is also contained in the archives of the State.
The Legislative Request for an Inquiry into the Conduct of General Steuben
The situation in Virginia at the close of Jefferson’s administration as governor was such as to dispose the legislature to set on foot inquiries into the conduct of the executive and of those responsible for certain military events. Various documents in this and the preceding volume set forth the results of the inquiry into the conduct of the executive. Other documents printed in this volume under May and June, 1781, also take note of resolutions adopted by the General Assembly to influence military decisions directly, such as the action directing Jefferson to call on General Daniel Morgan to take the field. The notes and documents here presented belong to the same context. The editors feel justified in presenting them because of this fact and also because the affair at Point of Fork exhibits on Steuben’s part an apparently fixed determination to leave Virginia and to rejoin Greene regardless of the exigencies in Virginia. This determination became dominant when the Governor and Council rejected Steuben’s proposal of 29 March 1781 to lead the Virginia militia southward in an effort to trap Cornwallis. That proposal was a pivotal point in Steuben’s relationship with Jefferson and with Virginia, and Steuben’s behavior at Point of Fork seems related in greater or lesser degree to the animosities engendered when the proposal was rejected.
Steuben thought he had good reason to feel resentful that a proposal enthusiastically approved by Lafayette, Weedon, Gouvion, Greene, Washington, Richard Henry Lee, and others should have been rejected by civil officers. Almost all historians, including such a careful and dispassionate scholar as Gottschalk, have agreed that Jefferson and the Council made an unfortunate mistake. Certainly the point that Greene and Washington made-that broad strategy could not be planned if soldiers were restrained by state boundaries and held in check by what these two generals described as local and partial views-was a valid one. The other principal point insisted upon by Greene-that such decisions as those affecting Steuben’s proposal should be left to the military and not determined by the civil authority-is less certain and involves a question that becomes perennial whenever the state has to call its military arm into active use. Jefferson never commented on Steuben’s proposal or on his conduct at Point of Fork further than appears in the reasons given in the proceedings of the Council for 29 March 1781. But those who have accepted the hypothesis that Steuben’s proposal was a good one and that the Executive’s decision was dominated by local views have overlooked two facts: (1) Jefferson always subscribed to the broad strategy of General Greene that it was good policy to keep the war at a distance from Virginia and that Virginia’s policy was to be purely defensive in order that she might give Greene every support possible; and (2) this concept of the war in the South carried with it the corollary concept of defense for Virginia as Greene’s source of supplies, whereas Steuben’s proposal was one that would have virtually stripped the state of all defense at a time when her waterways were commanded by an enemy whose forces would then have been free to invade the hinterland and destroy the sources needed by Greene.
Whether the decision influenced by these considerations was wise or not, it nevertheless strongly affected Steuben’s attitude toward the government of Virginia and in turn influenced Greene’s attitude also. It determined Steuben to leave Virginia at all costs and to rejoin Greene. By mid-April he himself was convinced that his usefulness in the state was at an end. He had become involved in many disputes and differences with officers both of the militia and of the Continental Line. Members of the legislative as well as the executive authority had been alienated by him. It is in this context, therefore, that his behavior at Point of Fork is to be understood and it is for this reason that documents relating to that episode are pertinent to the record of Jefferson’s administration.
On 1 Nov. 1781 Baron Steuben, about to depart for the northward, wrote a letter of farewell to Governor Nelson in which he expressed regret that neither he nor Lafayette had been able to strike the brilliant stroke in the late campaign that they had wished, but be was nevertheless glad to have “participated in the glorious conclusion of it” at Yorktown. He added that he had received letters from Washington, Lafayette, and Greene expressing “their approbation of my Operations since I have been in Virginia.” Almost as if it were an afterthought, he wrote: “I have to ask of your Excellency to inform me by an official Letter if Government have any complaint against me since I have had the honor of serving in Virginia that if there should be any I may Justify myself before my departure. A reputation acquired during 27 years service authorises me in this point of Delicacy.”‘ Nelson made no reply to this request. Six weeks later Steuben repeated the inquiry in a letter to Governor Harrison, saying that before he left Virginia he had heard “by accident that a Resolve had some time before passed the House of Assembly requesting the Marquis to make an inquiry into the Conduct of the Officers under his command relative to the loss of the stores at the point of Fork. To this Harrison replied briefly that the General Assembly had adopted such a resolution, that it had been forwarded to Lafayette, and that the Marquis had replied that he had been too much engaged to enter upon an inquiry. “There the matter rests,” Harrison concluded, “and I dare say will not be again taken up.” In this Harrison was correct. Steuben nevertheless, then or about that time, proceeded to draw up a defense of his conduct in Virginia (see Lafayette to Steuben, 26 Oct. 1781). But beyond this he apparently did not go in seeking vindication.
With Yorktown in the background, the Virginia legislature could afford to be more forgiving than it had been in the preceding June. At that time the House of Delegates had come to the following resolution: “It appearing that this State hath incurred great loss from the destruction of the public stores at the Point of Fork, on James River, by a small party of the enemy; and also from the shameful plundering the said stores by some of the adjacent inhabitants, and others: which loss, it is suggested, might have been prevented by the appointment of a small guard for their protection. Resolved, That the Honorable Major General Marquis La Fayette be requested to cause an inquiry to be made into the conduct of all persons under his command, who may be supposed, either by ne-lect or otherwise, to have been instrumental in the loss of the said stores.
The official language of this resolution concealed much of the disgust and fury which the legislators felt. Benjamin Harrison, Speaker of the House of Delegates, wrote earlv in June to Joseph Jones, a Virginia delegate in Congress: “We have 600 fine men under Baron Steuben which he will not carry into action. What are his reasons, I know not, but I can assure you his Conduct gives universal disgust and injures the Service much, the People complaining and with reason that they are dragged from their Families at a time when they are most wanted to make bread for them, whilst the Soldiers they have hired at very great expense lay idle. In short, My Dr. Sir, his conduct does great mischief and will do more if he is not recalled, and I think it behooves you to bring it about. I assure you it is the wish and desire of every man that this Event should take place. I believe him a good officer on the Parade but the worst in every other respect in the American Army. And the Speaker of the Senate, Archibald Cary had declared in a letter to Jefferson that three members of the Council one of them was John Walker who had served on Steuben’s staff in the spring of 1781 -“observe that Baron Steuben deserves to be hanged for his Conduct.”
Colonel Davies attempted to soften the legislature’s action by assur. ing the baron that “The Assembly were at first much mortified at the losses we had sustained by the rapid incursions of the enemy, and in their discontent they were really clamorous. They moderate in their vexation as they have since found that the mischief done by, the enemy was inconsiderable compared with the plunder of the inhabitants, of whom we expect to recover a great deal, and the greater part of what was thrown in the water has been also recovered.”” Davies was genuinely fond of the baron and his attempt to ameliorate the Assembly’s blow does credit to his humane feelings. But he must have known that the legislature was aware of plundering by the public when its resolution was adopted. Moreover, in May, Davies had foreseen the danger to which the stores were being exposed and had made an eloquent plea to Steuben to give them more adequate protection, a plea that had its precedent a month earlier when both Jefferson and Greene had become concerned about the baron’s inattention to such matters. Others, though they were few, shared Davies’ sympathy for the baron: Captain John Pryor wrote to Davies on 15 June: “I think the Public Clamour seems to be rather against the Baron. Pray mention that subject in your next to me, as I have charity for that venerable characters But Davies’ charity did not keep him from writing frankly to Greene that “the Baron has unfortunately become universally unpopular, and all ranks of people seem to have taken the greatest disgust at him, and carry it to such length as to talk of applying to Congress for his recall. A very little however, has raised all their clamour; but at all events his usefulness here is entirely over.”
As for Lafayette, it is quite clear that he had no relish for such an inquiry as the legislature called upon him to make. “My respect to the Assembly,” he explained to Governor Nelson later, “made me extremely desirous to comply with their wishes, but our situation before being joined by General Washington put it wholly out of my power.” The reason given is scarcely adequate and suggests that the true explanation lies elsewhere, perhaps in Lafayette’s relationship with the baron.
From the afternoon of 14 March 1781 when Lafayette came ashore at Yorktown until he finally departed from Virginia some months later, his relations with Steuben were so delicate as to require all of the marquis’ well-known tact. Indeed, there is very good ground for supposing that Washington chose Lafayette for the Southern Department precisely because Steuben had angered Virginians so greatly and had built up such animosities. Almost the first thing Lafayette did on touching Virginia soil was to write Washington: “In your first letter to the Baron, I wish, my dear General, you will write to him that I have been much satisfied with his preparations. I want to please him, and harmony shall be my first object.” If the common cause and the exacerbated state of feelings in Virginia bad not required the “very conciliating temper” that Washington knew Lafayette possessed, the situation in which Lafayette found himself on confronting Steuben in March of 1781 would have made extraordinary tact essential. Here was a young French nobleman of twenty-three taking over the command from an officer who was more than twice his age, who was quite conscious of his own insubstantial claims either to nobility or to the distinguished service under Frederick the Great that had been the foundation for his preferment in the American army, and who, after months of disappointing service in Virginia, at last found himself facing the traitor Arnold with every reason to believe that he would soon achieve the glory of being his captor. And now the fame and glory would be Lafayette’s, not Steuben’s. The marquis met this situation in such a manner as fully to justify Washington’s opinion of his sober and accommodating disposition. After the failure of the expedition against Portsmouth, Lafayette approved Steuben’s proposal to lead the Virginia militia in a sudden enterprise against Cornwallis, just as he had thought Greene’s comparable movement into South Carolina a great piece of generalship.
How much of this was genuine approval and how much was the product of a “very conciliating temper” is difficult to tell.” But by late May Lafayette was perfectly willing to have Steuben depart from the state to rejoin Greene, as the baron had long wanted to do. To La Luzerne on 22 May the marquis confided that he did not regret losing Steuben because “the hatred of the Virginians toward him was truly hurtful to the cause.” Lafayette fully realized the importance of protecting the stores at Point of Fork and, even after he had consented to have Steuben rejoin Greene, asked the baron to undertake that duty with new levies and Lawson’s militia.”
After Steuben’s failure to prevent the loss of those stores, Lafayette, whatever he might have told Steuben later, was privately aghast at the older general’s behavior. On 18 June, the day before Steuben finally joined forces with him, Lafayette wrote a remarkable letter to Washington. Transmitting an account of military affairs in Virginia, he concluded this official part of his dispatch with the words: “So much I owe to my General, but with my friend I beg leave to be more confidential.” Then, as friend to friend and not as one major general reporting another’s delinquencies, he delivered himself of the following frank comment on Steuben: “The conduct of the Baron, my dear General, is to me unintelligible-every man woman and child in Virginia is roused against him. They dispute even on his courage but I cannot believe their assertions. I must however confess that he had 500 and odds new levies and some militia, that he was on the other side of a river which the freshet rendered very difficult to be crossed particularly by people that had no boats, that the greater part of the accounts make Simcoe 400 strong half of them dragoons, that our stores on the south side were destroyed by about 30 or 40 men-that the Baron went to Staunton River about 70 [sic] miles from the Point of Fork-that the militia abandoned him and I am informed the new levies deserted from him, because they did not like his maneuvre. General Lawson and every officer and soldier both in the regulars and militia are so much exasperated again[st] the Baron and cover him with so many ridicules that after I have obtained a junction with him I do not know where to employ him without giving offense.”
When Steuben joined him next day, Lafayette presumably learned at first hand the baron’s own account of what had happened at Point of Fork. In a public letter to Greene, a copy of which lie sent to Congress, Lafayette did not hint at the private conviction I-le held, though as Gottschalk remarks, “one could read between the lines of his matter-of-fact account of events since the beginning of June that he did not approve of Steuben’s behavior. But again his private views, as expressed in another communication to Greene, differed markedly from those destined for public consumption. “Had the Baron held 24 hours,” Lafayette remarked, “every one of the articles might have been carried up as high as Albemarle Old Court House where they [the British] did not venture. Instead of it lie went to Staunton River 15 miles from the Point of Fork and crossed it. General Lawson with the militia left him. The enemy laughed at him, and I cannot describe to you what my surprise has been. Holding these views, Lafayette would seem to have been obligated to prefer charges against his subordinate even if the Assembly had not requested in investigation. But he wisely refrained from doing so, since the state of military affairs demanded harmony and united action. It was a delicate situation, relieved in part by Steuben’s urgent desire to rejoin Greene and, later, by his illness. Late in October, only a week after Steuben had taken the honors that properly belonged to Lafayette, he transmitted to the marquis a flattering letter that he had received from General Greene and at the same time asked him to validate by signing his own narrative of events at Point of Fork. This Lafayette refused to do for cogent and obligatory reasons. Nevertheless, he wrote the baron a generous and-except on one point-somewhat equivocal letter of commendation. The unequivocal exception was Lafayette’s flat assertion: “I was happy in your reunion with me.” This was stretching magnanimity to the point where it collided with truth -is revealed in Lafayette’s confidential and private communications to Washington. (See Greene to Steuben, 17 Sep. 1781; Lafayette to Steuben, 26 Oct. 1781, both printed below.)
The loss of the stores at Point of Fork was not as severe as it seemed at first to be, but the uproar of the Virginians against Steuben was directed only partly at his failure in that matter. What angered the legislators and others quite as much was that Steuben had never for a moment given up his intent to leave Virginia at the first possible occasion, to rejoin Greene, and to take with him such arms and men as he could gather. Gottschalk, in describing Lafayette’s feeling in mid June that Steuben’s recent abandonment of the stores at Point of Fork and his tardiness in coming up despite frequent requests were perhaps in need of investigation, charitably remarks that Steuben was not altogether to blame and that the state of the mails, the frequent capture of dispatches, and the difficulty of communicating with Greene left him in some uncertainty as to whether the commander of the Southern Department wished him to stay in Virginia or not.
It is true that communication between Greene and Steuben was slow and hazardous, but this would scarcely justify a soldier of the baron’s experience in persisting stubbornly in his determination to follow a course of action that had obviously outlived its own purpose. Greene’s decision in March to proceed into South Carolina and Steuben’s proposal late the same month to move 4,000 (later reduced to 2,000 of the Virginia militia against Cornwallis in cooperation with Greene were both parts of the same strategy-to keep the war at a distance from Virginia, Greene’s chief source of supplies. Cornwallis, however, left the American commander to march off against a series of minor posts and turned his own attention to Virginia. His primary aim in doing so was not to capture the forces under Lafayette and Steuben but to destroy such manufactories as Hunter’s and such stores as Simcoe had destroyed at Petersburg and Manchester. Thus it was the British general who, in the final analysis, paid one of the highest tributes to the effectiveness of Jefferson’s administration as governor, for it was the accumulation of supplies already made and potential resources available that caused him to drive toward Virginia. Greene and Steuben had repeatedly called upon Virginia for arms, supplies, and men to support a strategy designed to keep the war at a distance from the state. This was a strategy to which Jefferson had given support, despite criticism from both Greene and Steuben to the effect that Virginia policy was dictated by local and partial views. But it was a strategy that became meaningless on 20 May when Cornwallis joined forces with the army of the late General Phillips at Petersburg: on that date the theater if war in the south shifted to the heart of Virginia and threatened Greene’s source of supplies. This was an invasion far more serious than those of January and April that had been sufficient to keep Steuben from rejoining Greene. Confronted with this fact, which altered the whole basis of Greene’s strategy, Steuben should have known without further communication with his commander that his presence was required more urgently with Lafayette than with Greene.
On 12 June Steuben wrote General Jethro Sumner a letter in which he seemed to give support to these considerations. He declared that he had had no word from Greene since I May and that Greene, in a letter bearing that date, had given him positive orders to move southward “with all possible dispatch with all the levies I could collect.” However, Steuben added, “a change of circumstances” had determined him to halt at Cole’s Ferry “till I could hear further from him or receive orders from the Marquis. This appears to support the generally accepted explanation and justification for Steuben’s behavior as being due to his failure to receive Greene’s letter of 14 May authorizing him to remain with Lafayette. But Steuben’s letter to Sumner must be read in the context of other letters and actions of a few days earlier.
On 3 June Steuben knew that Tarleton was at or near Charlottesville. Early the next morning, Major Call reported that Simcoe was approaching Point of Fork. Steuben thereupon crossed to the south side of the James, transporting and dispersing such stores as he had time to move. About noon on the 4th he observed the British move into Point of Fork. The next day at his “Camp near Forks” he dispatched an urgent letter to Governor Nash which was altogether different in tone from the one written a week later to General Sumner: “In the present situation of affairs here and by orders from General Greene to me, I find it expedient to march directly for North Carolina. Steuben also asked Governor Nash to see that shirts, overalls, and shoes be provided for the Virginia levies under his command, for which, he said, “I will be answerable that the State of Virginia replaces every article North Carolina shall supply their troops with.” The baron dispatched Captain Kirkpatrick to deliver this letter to Governor Nash, and then marched rapidly southward on his way to join Greene.
Captain Kirkpatrick arrived in Granville on Friday, 8 June. He found that Governor Nash had gone to New Bern about 150 miles away and therefore applied instead to General Sumner. Sumner was accommodating and ordered a commissary to lay in a supply of provisions for Steuben, along a route to be specified through North Carolina. Having thus discharged the real object of his mission, the intelligent captain braved Steuben’s wrath by pointing out as delicately as he could that a movement southward under Greene’s obsolete orders of 1 May was not a prudent military measure: “General Sumner,” he began, “Shew’d me his last Orders from Genl Greene which directed him to march his new rais’d troops into Virga if Cornwallis should go into that State, which is the case. The Gentlemen here think it Very extraordinary that Troops should march out of Virga. at a Time when almost all the enemys force is there and Genl Greenes forces more than adequate to their Task in South Carolina, for at this time the Enemy dont hold any post in that State but Charlestown and I think he will not attempt anything against it. Besides, General Greene has more Troops than he can support and twill be only adding to the distress of both troops and inhabitants. The Gentlemen here think that in this state and the upper part of South Carolina there is not so much grain as would average at one peck per man. . . . The country has been much laid waste and Virga. at the same time full of provisions Especially flour and daily falling into the Enemys hands.” This argument, ascribed to the “Gentlemen here,” had undeniable force. “But, my Dear Genl,” Kirkpatrick concluded, “I don’t mean to Dictate, but only to draw a true picture of the distresses of this Country. Carolina would I believe rather send Men out than any should come into it. I shall however proceed to see the Govr. and execute the remaining part of your orders.
Captain Kirkpatrick was no doubt inwardly relieved that he had orders obliging him to proceed 150 miles further on his journey after delivering himself of these opinions. Even so, he must have braced himself for the inevitable blast from his general. It came on 12 June. “It is the fate of a Genl in a republic,” the baron began ominously, to have his actions judged of by every person without their knowing either his reasons, or Orders. however, this we must submit to. I am happy that my conduct will bear a scrutiny. . . . My reasons for marching Southward, as I find a General must give reasons to every citizen for his conduct, were positive orders from Gen Greene, my own hopes that my moving this way would alarm Cornwallis and induce him to detach a part of his army after me, which would be of more essential advantage to the Marquis than if five times my number of recruits should join him. I shall risque disobeying my orders if the militia will enable me to cover this part of the state I shall stay in it. My reasons for altering my plan the people will not wish to know, it is sufficient for them that I act as they desire. Despite this sarcasm, Steuben’s actions showed that he had paid heed to the sensible counsel Captain Kirkpatrick had had the temerity to advance. For on the same day he wrote to Governor Nash explaining that Greene’s orders to Sumner had given him an intimation of what Greene wished and therefore he had halted to gather militia and to form an opposition; to Sumner he wrote that he was very happy to hear “you are ordered to bring your levies this way-the sooner you can join me the better.”
The fact that Steuben did not depart precipitately from Point of Fork solely because of Greene’s orders of I May is proved both by the logic of the situation on 5 June and by his own previous letters to Greene. In his defense here printed the baron gives no intimation that on that date his intention was to move straight through to Greene in South Carolina. He states only that he thought “it absurd to be making a Bravado with a small number of bad Troops against such a force” and he conveys the impression that it was his intent to retire from Point of Fork, gather the militia together, and reinforce the marquis. But his letter to Nash on 5 June proves otherwise, and his letters to the county lieutenants were not sent out until II June, perhaps after he had received Kirkpatrick’s letter reporting the thoughts of the gentlemen in North Carolina. Moreover, a full month earlier he had assured Greene that he would remain in Virginia to assist the marquis as long as there was a probability of coming to action, “but when the Operations carry on too far from the Rendezvous, I shall think myself obliged to fulfill your instructions in accelerating by my presence the departure of the Levies for the southward.” He added that he had already informed Lafayette of this course of action and had obtained his consent to it. On 5 June when he set out toward Greene, however, the operations of the enemy were not carrying on “too far from the Rendezvous,” but at it. Steuben had forgotten then the condition attached to this decision and, on the doubtful premise that Greene’s orders of 1 May were fixed and immutable regardless of circumstances, departed precipitately.
For this Greene must bear a part of the responsibility. The orders that he sent Steuben on I May-issued partly at Steuben’s urgent insistence, partly because of news that both Lafayette and Wavne were moving south-contained evidence of his inner feeling that the strategy of moving into South Carolina on the hope that Cornwallis would follow had not, after all, worked: “I know not in what light our movement will be viewed, but it was dictated by necessity and the only plan that promised any advantage. It is true it was hazardous, and I wish it may not prove unfortunate.” To this was prefaced the lines that must have comforted Steuben in the midst of the torments he was experiencing in Virginia: “I find myself so beset with difficulties that I need the Council and assistance of an officer educated in the Prussian school, and persuade myself that I shall have in you both the friend and the General I want. But in the orders of 14 May that Steuben did not receive, Greene still proceeded (though without conviction on the assumption that Cornwallis might turn southward. He therefore expressed the hope that Steuben, Lafayette, and Wayne would prevent a junction of Cornwallis and Phillips, and if Cornwallis should then turn southward, the Pennsylvania line, the North Carolina regulars, and the Virginia levies should “follow him and form a junction with us,” with Steuben taking command of these forces. But Greene expressed it as his opinion that Cornwallis would stay “to the Northward.” “If he should,” Greene advised Steuben, “as soon as I have put things in a train here I propose to set out to join that Army, and leave this to compleat the reduction of the remaining posts.” This was certainly a proper position for the commander of the Southern Department to take, but Greene nevertheless continued what was in effect a mopping-up exercise in the partisan-ridden Carolinas while the great issue was being determined in the area where lay his chief hope of sustenance. More, he continued to demand that Virginia send militia to his support even in the face of the altered situation; the letter that he addressed to Jefferson on 27 June was a severe denunciation of the government for countermanding the order for militia to march southward.
On 19 July Greene sent Steuben a copy of the orders of 14 May and added: “I am happy to hear Lord Cornwallis has retired into the lower Country. I hope the new Governor and Council of Virga. will take more effectual measures for the defence of that state than has been. As soon as you can be spared from that quarter, I wish you to join me here, even if you should not be able to bring a man with you.”, This letter came to Steuben early in August as he was emerging from illness, weakened by “an irruption of the-blood which has covered my whole body.” If it had pleased God, my dear General, that this order had reached me four months sooner,” Steuben concluded, “it would have saved me a great deal of pain and chagrin. What I have to say on that subject, I will reserve ’till I shall have the pleasure to see you.” But again Steuben was denied his wish to join Greene. Early in September he reported: “The whole country are flying to arms; at such a time as this I have reason to apprehend that my departure would be made to operate to my disadvantage by persons who seek to destroy the reputation of an honest man.” De Grasse on 30 August had arrived at the Virginia capes, commanding a fleet of 28 line-of-battle ships and 6 frigates, with over three thousand marines. Lafayette bad urged him to “hasten to his assistance.” These facts altered the situation. Steuben declared that Greene’s orders and his own wishes inclined him to proceed southward, but he begged his general’s permission to join in the expedition then being mounted against Cornwallis. Six weeks later Greene complied, but by then the surrender of Cornwallis had taken place.
It was ironic that Steuben’s detachment should have occupied the trenches while negotiations for surrender were in progress, but it was quite in character that Steuben should have refused to quit his post when it came his turn to be relieved, claiming that under the laws of war his men were entitled to remain until the close of negotiations and that they might thereby plant their divisional flags in the conquered town. Thus the honors that should technically have gone to Lafayette’s troops (he had been on duty when negotiations were begun and had been relieved by Steuben) went instead to the general who had spent several months trying desperately to keep away from Cornwallis. But these were empty honors.
With Cornwallis captured, Steuben suddenly lost interest in going to Greene’s support. He announced that it was necessary for him to go northward instead in order to settle his accounts with Congress and to find out on what footing he stood. Thereafter his chief goals were lands and money. Lafayette generously withheld his own private feelings and gave “full approval of the baron’s conduct during the entire campaign,” a feat of magnanimity which indicates to what degree Washington was correct in describing the marquis as possessing “a very conciliatory temper.” Greene also expressed complete confidence in the baron. His own difficulties, he reported in 1782, were much greater than could be imagined: “You had many in Virginia, but far less than we had. You made a short work of your business at last, ours continues. You got great glory, we only avoided disgrace. If ever we have the happiness to meet I have much to say to you. Your triumph over your enemies in Virginia afforded me great pleasure.