Burk-Giradin’s Account of Point of Fork

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.

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