John Simcoe’s Account of Point of Fork

Lt. Col. John SimcoeLt. Col. John Simcoe
1st American Regiment, Queen’s Rangers
British Commander at Point of Fork

pp. 212-223, Simcoe’s Military Journal, 1844

*This text was scanned using optical character recognition technology from a 160 year-old book. We have tried to prevent and correct spelling errors, and we apologize if any oddities have found their way in.

Early the next morning, Lt. Col. Simcoe marched towards the Baron Steuben, who was reported to be at the point of’ Fork, the head of’ James river: Lord Cornwallis informed him, that Steuben’s force consisted of three or four hundred men; and as the Queen’s Rangers were so debilitated by the fatigues of the climate, &c. as to have scarcely more than two hundred infantry and one hundred cavalry, fit for duty, his Lordship ordered the 71st regiment, under Capt. Hutchinson, consisting of two hundred rank and file, to join him: at Lt. Col. Simcoe’s particular request, a three pounder was annexed. The incessant marches of the Rangers, and their distance from their stores, had so worn out their shoes, that, on Lt. Colonel Simcoe’s calling for a return, it appeared that near fifty men were absolutely barefooted; upon assembling them, when they were informed that they were wanted for active employment, and that those who chose to stay with the army might do so, there was not a man who would remain behind the corps.

Lord Cornwallis ordered him, on his return, to join the army at Goochland Court-house, whether he should march to receive his detachment, and that of Lt. Col. Tarleton, which was to endeavour to seize on the assembly at Charlottesville; and then, if circumstances admitted of it, to fall back by the point of Fork. Lt. Spencer, with twenty huzzars, formed the advance guard: these were chosen men, and mounted on the fleetest horses. Capt. Stevenson, with the light infantry company, and the Hessian riflemen, under Lt. Beikel, followed: the 71st succeeded with the cannon, followed by Capt. Althause with his riflemen, and those of the Queen’s Rangers: the infantry and Capt. Shank, with the cavalry of the Rangers, closed the rear. In case of attack, the battalion in front (and the two battalions marched there alternately) was directed to form in line; that which followed, to close up into column ready to march to which ever flank it was ordered, as the cavalry under Capt. Shank was to the other. The whole of the cavalry preceded the march, till the detachment crossed the bridge over the South Anna: Lt. Col. Simcoe then proceeded with the utmost despatch, by Bird’s ordinary, towards Napier’s ford, the second ford on the Rivana, above the Fluvanna, the Junction of which rivers, at the point of Fork, forms the James river: not a person escaped who was in sight, and the advanced cavalry were so managed as totally to conceal the advance of the infantry.

At night the corps lay upon their arms, in the strongest position which could be conveniently found, on the principle of making a front each way; and having a strong reserve of infantry, as well as cavalry, within the circle, ready to support any part which might be attacked, and to sally from it if ordered: the guards and sentinels were, as usual, in ambuscade. After two days’ march, as the party approached Napier’s ford, some prisoners and letters were taken, and other intelligence obtained, by which it appeared, that the march had been hitherto undiscovered, and that Lt. Col. Tarleton’s detachment alone had been heard of; that Baron Steuben was about to march to oppose a patrole of Earl Cornwallis’ army, or, more probably, deceived in his intelligence of a detachment that had never been made; and, that the Baron’s force consisted of nine hundred effective men, exclusive of the militia who were assembling to join him. The troops had already marched that day nearly twenty miles, and the two preceding days not less than thirty each, when this intelligence was accumulated. Lt. Spencer was directed to proceed cautiously, gaining what intelligence lie could, to Napier’s house, which stood on a high and commanding ground; near which it was intended to halt during the night and to ambuscade the ford, it being the purpose to attack the enemy, by day break, the next morning. Lt. Spencer went to the house of a Colonel Thompson, which was surrounded with very high fences, and, alighting from his horse, approached that gentleman, who was accompanied by four of the militia, asking, in a familiar manner, the road to the Baron’s camp.

Col. Thompson, suspecting his errand, though armed, retreated precipitately and made his escape, with three of his men; the fourth, seeing that two huzzars, who had accompanied Lt. Spencer, could not get over the fence, or assist him, presented a double barrel piece within five yards of his breast: Lt. Spencer, with great presence of mind, immediately threatened to have him flogged on his arrival at the Baron’s camp, and, pulling some papers from his pocket, told him, that they were his despatches from M. Fayette: at the same time he moved gently towards him, intending, if possible, to seize the muzzle of his firelock, but, as the one advanced, the other retreated, keeping his piece still presented, until, getting over a fence at the back of the house, he ran towards the river. At this moment, Lt. Spencer could have shot him with a pocket pistol; but having received intimation from Lt. Col. Simcoe, that it was expected the enemy had a post at Napier’s ford, two miles lower, he prudently permitted him to escape, rather than make an alarm: these people left five good horses behind them. He then proceeded to Napier’s ford, and leaving his party unseen, at a proper distance, he crossed the river, with three men: on the opposite side were two militia men well mounted, from whom he learnt that Baron Steuben was at the point of Fork; that he had sent the greatest part of his stores, and some troops, on the south side the river, and was superintending the transportation of the remainder with the greatest despatch. Lt. Spencer completely imposed on their credulity; they suffered him to relieve them with two of his own men, and accompanied him to Col. Napier’s house, whom he took prisoner.

On this intelligence, Lt. Col. Simcoe determined to march, with the utmost celerity, towards Baron Steuben, hoping to cut off his rear guard: Lt. Spencer preceded and occupied the road, and every point from whence the troops could be seen, as they forded the river; and, in order to prevent any intelligence from Col. Thompson. Within two miles of Baron Steuben’s encampment, a patrole of dragoons appeared; they were chased and taken: it consisted of a French officer and four of Armand’s corps. They confirmed Lt. Col. Simcoe in his belief, that Baron Steuben was ignorant of his approach, as they were destined to patrole twenty miles from the point of Fork to the place where, it afterwards appeared, Earl Cornwallis’s army had arrived the preceding night, and they were to have passed the Rivana at its lowest ford, Lt. Col. Simcoe’s circuituous march, to cross at the upper, having answered the expected purpose. The advanced men of’ the huzzars changed clothes with the prisoners, and dispositions were now made for the attack. The huzzars in the enemy’s clothing, were directed to gallop to the only house on the point, and where it was understood Baron Steuben was, at once to dismount and, if possible, to seize him: they were to be supported by a detachment of cavalry, the light infantry company and the cannon. Captain Stevenson was intended to fortify the house, and to place the cannon there as a point of reserve; Captain Hutchinson was to form the highlanders, on the left; and Lt. Col. Simcoe meant to occupy the wood on the right of the house.

The order was about to be given for the men to lay down their knapsacks, when the advance guard brought in Mr. Farley, Baron Steuben’s Aid du Camp: he mistook them for the patrole which had been just taken, and came to see whether it had set off. Serjeant Wright being near the size and appearance of Mr. Farley, was directed to exchange clothes with him, to mount his horse, and lead the advance guard; when that officer assured Lieut. Col. Simcoe, that he had seen every man over the Fluvana, before he left the point of Fork: this was confirmed by some waggoners, who, with their teams, were now taken. The cavalry immediately advanced, and the enemy being plainly seen on the opposite side, nothing remained but to stop some boats, which were putting off from the extreme point: this Capt. Shank effected, and took about thirty people who were on the banks, from which the embarkation had proceeded. Every method was now taken to persuade the enemy, that the party was Earl Cornwallis’s army, that they might leave the opposite shore, which was covered with arms and stores: Capt. Hutchinson, with the 71st regiment, (clothed in red,) was directed to advance as near to the banks of the Fluvana as he could with perfect safety, and without the hazard of a single man, from the enemy’s shot, who had lined the opposite shore: the baggage and women halted among the woods, on the summit of the hill, and, in that position, made the appearance of a numerous corps: the three-pounder was carried down, the artillery men being positively ordered to fire but one shot and to take the best aim possible, which they performed, killing the horse of one of Baron Steuben’s orderly dragoons.

The troops occupied the heights which covered the neck of the point, and their numbers were concealed in the wood. Baron Steuben was encamped on the heights on the opposite side of the river, about three quarters of a mile from its banks: the prisoners, and observation confirmed the information which had been received of his numbers. As night approached, and the men were somewhat refreshed, every precaution was taken to prevent any surprise which the number, and the character of the enemy’s general, might lead them to attempt. Lt. Col. Simcoe who, from his childhood, had been taught to consider the military as the most extensive and profound of sciences, had no apprehension from the talents of’ such men is had been educated in different professions, and whom accident had placed at the head of’ armies; and he had always asserted it as a principle, that, from the superiority of the King’s troops, and of the officers who led them, if he should ever have a command, in which he should be superior in one species of troops, whether cavalry or infantry, he would be totally unconcerned for the event of any action he might have with the enemy. Baron Steuben had no cavalry, yet, In the present situation, there was great room for anxiety, since the immediate ground of encampment was not favourable for the exertions of his few, but well trained, well officered, and invincible body of cavalry; and the enemy were led by a Prussian officer.

The very military instructions of his king were capable of forming better officers than any other theory could possibly do, or probably could be effected by the experience of ten campaigns under incompetent masters. In the exercise also which he had given the rebel army, the Baron Steuben had shown himself an able officer, and that he well knew how to adapt the science of war to the people whom he was to instruct, and to the country in which he was to act. He had passed the Fluvana; but he had done this in consequence of his orders to join General Green’s army: an express sent to countermand this order, Lt. Col. Simcoe knew had been taken a few days before by Lt. Col. Tarleton; and it was fair to suppose, that he might now have further intelligence; that he might be perfectly acquainted with the numbers of his opponents, and might possibly determine to attack Lt. Col. Simcoe, as well as the detachment which the intercepted letter mentioned, that lie was preparing to meet. Lt. Col. Simcoe was therefore apprehensive, lest Baron Steuben, having secured his stores which were of great value, over a broad and unfordable river, and, being in possession of all the boats, should repass his troops in the night, higher up the river, and fill on him, so that, if the British troops should be beaten, they would have no retreat, being shut up between two rivers, while those of the Americans, should they be repulsed, were preserved from the pursuit of the cavalry by the thick woods, which came close to their encampment, and, from that of the infantry, by the fatigues they had undergone in a march of nearly forty miles the preceding morning.

These ideas occupied the mind of Lt. Col. Simcoe, and he would have quitted his camp had he not thought the troops too much fatigued, to search for a more favourable position, which was not to be attained for some miles; and, partly, had he not hoped that Steuben would believe him to be the advance of Earl Cornwallis’ army, particularly, as the light troops had no soldiers among them clothed like the 71st regiment, in red. That regiment, and the Queen’s Rangers, occupied the roads, with rail fletches and other defences: Capt. Althause, with his company and the Yagers, were posted on a knoll, among the woods, between the main body and the Fluvana, the cavalry lay in the rear of the Queen’s Rangers, and small posts were extended so as to form a chain between the rivers. Capt. Shank had orders to send continual patroles of cavalry from river to river, about half a mile in front of the infantry; and the troops were acquainted with the probability of an attack, and were perfectly prepared for it. At night, the enemy were heard destroying their boats, with great noise: at midnight, Capt. Shank informed Lt. Col. Simcoe, that they were making up their fires, and that he supposed they were moving; with which he perfectly agreed, when it was seen that they were uniformly refreshed throughout their camp. Soon after, a deserter and a little drummer boy came from the enemy in a canoe, and gave information that Steuben had marched off on the road by Cumberland Court-house, towards North Carolina.

It is remarkable this boy belonged to the 71st regiment: he had been taken prisoner at the Cow-pens, enlisted with the enemy, and now, making his escape, was received by the piquet which his father commanded. When day-light appeared, there was not an enemy to be seen. Sergeant John M’Donald, of the Highland company of the Queen’s Rangers, swam over to the enemy’s shore, and brought off a large canoe: two or three smaller ones were found on the Rivana. The cannon and riflemen were sent down to line the bushes on the banks of’ the Fluvana; and, under their protection, Captain Stevenson, with twenty of the light infantry, passed over to the opposite banks, which he found covered with the enemy’s stores. Cornet Wolsey was then sent over with four huzzars, with their saddles: he was directed to get some of the straggling horses which had been left by the enemy, to post himself upon the road on the summit of the hill, and then, if he should meet with an enemy’s patrole, to make a great shout and every demonstration of pursuing them, to impress them with an idea that the whole corps had passed. Capt. Stevenson was employed in sending off such things as might be useful to the troops, and destroying the remainder. As the detachment met with plenty of provisions and forage at the point of Fork, Lt. Col. Simcoe determined to halt there the whole of the day; but, that his return to Earl Cornwallis’ army might not be in the least delayed, he was attentive to the building of a float, by which he might pass the Rivana at its confluence with the South Anna: this would save him a day’s march, which he must have made in case he should repass it at the nearest ford.

He also meant to use this float in carrying down the cannon and mortars which the enemy had left, to Earl Cornwallis, at Goochland Court-house. In the middle of the day a patrole from Lt. Col. Tarleton, who was on the opposite side of the Rivana, communicated with him; the float was completed and launched towards noon, and Capt. Stevenson, having effectually done his business, returned in the evening. Cornet Wolsey had very fortunately executed his orders, for a patrole of the enemy had approached to the place where he was posted, and, on perceiving him, fled with the utmost speed. It was afterwards understood, that on this patrole joining Baron Steuben, in consequence of their report, he immediately proceeded twenty miles farther, though he had already marched thirty miles from the point of Fork. He must have believed that the whole of Earl Cornwallis’ army were in pursuit of him, or lie would have scarcely abandoned such a quantity of stores: a guard of twenty or thirty men would have effectually prevented the Rangers from destroying them, and they would have been in perfect safety in that case, had Earl Cornwallis adhered to his first intention, of halting at Goochland Court-house. The army arriving near the point of Fork on the 7th of June, Lt. Col. Simcoe passed the Rivana, and rejoined it. The Fluvana being a larger river than the Rivana, at its confluence forces back the latter and it becomes as still as a mill pond. The water was fenced, as it were, with spars and canoes, so as to make a lane, and the horses swam over between them: the infantry passed on the float, which held, with ease, a hundred and thirty men, and had been made in four hours; and the artillery, some of which had been brought over from the opposite shore in a smaller boat, made by the junction of two canoes, were carried over on it, and put into empty waggons sent by Earl Cornwallis for that purpose.

There were destroyed at the point of Fork, two thousand five hundred stand of arms, a large quantity of gunpowder, case shot, &c., several casks of saltpetre, sulphur, and brimstone, and upwards of sixty hogsheads of rum and brandy, several chests of carpenters’ tools, and upwards of four hundred entrenching tools, with casks of flints, sail cloth and waggons, and a great variety of small stores, necessary for the equipment of cavalry and infantry: such linen and necessaries, as would be of immediate service, were divided among the captors. There were taken off, a thirteen-inch mortar, five brass eight-inch howitzers, and four long brass nine pounders, mounted afterwards at York Town: all French pieces and in excellent order. Lieut. Col. Simcoe, on the 9th of June, was detached with his cavalry to destroy some tobacco in the warehouses, on the northern bank of the Fluvana: he passed at the lowest ford, and proceeding to the Seven islands, destroyed one hundred and fifty barrels of gunpowder, and burnt all the tobacco in the warehouses on the river side, returning with some rebel militia whom he had surprised and made prisoners.

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