Revolutionary Brothers: “Flattered by the Command”

Posted on November 22, 2019

by Tom Chaffin

In the first of five excerpts from Revolutionary Brothers, Tom Chaffin chronicles Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette as they plan a Virginia campaign in 1781.

Portrait of Gilbert Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette in 1791 as painted by Joseph-Désiré Court. (Image is in the public domain via Wikimedia {{PD-US-expired}})

On February 21, 1781, the day after being ordered to Virginia, Lafayette had penned the first of the many letters he would write over the coming years to Thomas Jefferson. The marquis’s delight with his new orders, he noted to the governor, were heightened by his earlier command of a Continental army division of Virginians. Due to those ties and the fact that Virginia was his adoptive father’s native state, “I Am the More flattered By the Command Which His Excellency General Washington Has Been Pleased to Intrust to Me.”

Responding in a March 2 letter—the first of many that Jefferson, in turn, would write to Lafayette—the governor delighted at the prospect “of lopping off this Branch of the British Force… It gives me great pleasure that we shall be so far indebted for it to a Nobleman who has already so much endeared himself to the Citizens of these States.”

Lafayette, as it turned out, reached Head of Elk by March 3—three days earlier than Washington had told Jefferson to expect him. Writing from there to Jefferson, he reiterated plans for his Virginia campaign and detailed a range of requests—from horses to militia troops, weapons to scows—that he hoped the governor could fill.

On March 8 Jefferson answered that while he hoped to muster the needed militia forces, he doubted that he could meet the other requests. Two days later, explaining that expected failure, he added, “Mild Laws, a People not used to war and prompt obedience, a want of the Provisions of War and means of procuring them render our orders often ineffectual.”

* * * * *

Virginia’s predicament worsened through the spring; moreover, for Jefferson personally, a darkening of another sort fell over his domestic sphere: At 10:00 a.m. on April 15, his and Martha’s infant daughter Lucy Elizabeth died. Just shy of six months old when she breathed her last, Lucy was the third child the couple had lost. A meeting of the State Council was scheduled for the following day, but Jefferson decided that circumstances required his presence at home. Beyond that, ill weather suggested that a quorum would be unlikely. “The day is so very bad that I hardly expect a council, and there being nothing that I know of very pressing, and Mrs. Jefferson in a situation in which I would not wish to leave her, I shall not attend today.”

Three days later, however, on the nineteenth—interrupting the couple’s mourning— a report reached Jefferson that eleven square-rigged enemy ships were advancing up the James River. Chastened by January’s British raid on Richmond and fearing the ships were Richmond-bound, he reacted immediately. Reminding militia officers of the consequences of their delay three months earlier, he called up units from all nearby counties: “Former experience will I hope induce a more prompt Attendance on this Occasion.” Jefferson also ordered department heads in the state’s government to remove records from the capital for safekeeping.

After his January raid on the capital, Benedict Arnold’s sixteen-hundred-man army had retreated to Portsmouth, at the mouth of the James River. And now, that April, his forces—combined with the two thousand soldiers under Phillips—were sailing toward Richmond.

TOM CHAFFIN is the author of, among other books, Giant’s Causeway: Frederick Douglass’s Irish Odyssey and the Making of an American VisionarySea of Gray: The Around-the-World Odyssey of the Confederate Raider Shenandoah; and Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire. His writings have also appeared in the New York Times, the Oxford American, Time, Harper’s, and other publications. He lives in Atlanta.

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