Today, the Virginia State Quarter Coin remembers the burning of the small village that served to house the public offices 235 years ago.
In his 1852 Historical Collections of Virginia, Henry Howe included a description of the few days in early January 1781.
Richmond was invaded by the traitor Arnold in 1781. The subjoined account is from Tucker’s Life of Jefferson:
On the 3d of January the fleet came to anchor at Jamestown, and on the 4th it reached Westover, where about 900 men, but then supposed to be a much larger force, landed under the command of the notorious Arnold, and proceeded on their march towards Richmond.
Until then, it was not known whether that town or Petersburg was the object of attack.
The governor, [Jefferson,] on the same day, called out the whole of the militia from the adjacent counties; but having no means of present resistance, he endeavored to secure that part of the public property which could be removed, by having it transported to the south bank of James River.
Such of it as had been previously sent to Westham, six miles above Richmond, was also ordered to cross the river.
That night the enemy encamped at Four-mile creek, 12 miles below Richmond.
At half after seven o’clock at night, the governor set out for Westham, and, having stopped to hasten the transportation of the arms and stores, he proceeded to join his family at Tuckahoe, eight miles further, which place he reached after midnight.
The next morning, having taken his family across the river, and sent them to a place of safety, he rode down to Britton’s, opposite to Westham, and gave further orders concerning the public property, the transportation of which had been continued through the whole night, and part of the next day, until the approach of the enemy.
He then proceeded to Manchester, from whence he had a full view of the invading force.
They had reached Richmond at 1 o’clock in the afternoon of that day, at which time there were only 200 militia, including those of the town, embodied.
The governor wishing to advise with Baron Steuben, then commanding the new levies in the state intended for the south, and which then amounted to 200 recruits, went to Chetwood’s, his head-quarters, a few miles from Manchester, but learning he was at Col. Fleming’s, the governor proceeded to that place, where he continued that night.
While there, some of the citizens of Richmond waited on him, to tender an offer from Arnold not to burn the town, provided British vessels were permitted to come to it unmolested, and take off the tobacco there deposited. The offer was unhesitatingly rejected.
As soon as Arnold reached Richmond, he sent a detachment under Col. Simcoe to destroy the cannon foundry above the town — which having done, they advanced to Westham; but finding that all the public property sent thither had been transported over the river, they returned to Richmond the same day.
On the 6th, the governor returned to Britton’s, and having given orders respecting the public archives, rejoined his family in the evening at Fine creek.
The British, after burning some public and some private buildings, as well as a large quantity of tobacco, left Richmond about 24 hours after they entered it, encamped at Four-mile creek, and on the 7th, at Berkley and Westover; having thus penetrated 33 miles into the country from the place of debarkation, and completed their incursion, without loss, in 48 hours from the time of their landing.
On the 7th, the governor went to Manchester, where he remained that night, and the next day returned to Richmond.
The bare communication of the fact, that a force of 1,000, or at most 1,500 men, was able to invade a country containing at that time a population of more than half a million, and 50,000 enrolled militia — march to its metropolis — destroy all the public and much of the private property found there, and in its neighborhood — and to leave the country with impunity, is, at first, calculated to excite our surprise, and to involve both the people, and those who administered its affairs, in one indiscriminate reproach.
But there seems to be little ground for either wonder or censure, when it is recollected that these 50,000 militia were scattered over a surface of more than as many square miles; that the metropolis, which was thus insulted, was but a village, containing scarcely 1,800 inhabitants, half of whom were slaves; and that the country itself, intersected by several navigable rivers, could not be defended against the sudden incursions of an enemy whose naval power gave it the entire command of the water, and enabled it to approach within a day’s march of the point of attack.
The Virginia State Quarter Coin shows against a drawing of the skirmish on January 5, 1781.