Steuben’s Account of Point of Fork

Maj. Gen. Steuben, Continental Army
Continental Commander at Point of Fork

*This text was scanned using optical character recognition technology from The Jefferson Papers. We have tried to prevent and correct spelling errors, and we apologize if any oddities have found their way in.

Also see:

  • Burk-Girardin’s Account of the Affair at Point of Fork, 1816
  • The Legislative Inquiry into Steuben’s Conduct

Steuben’s Narrative of His Movements on Leaving Point of Fork, 1781

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.]


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