The Blackpowder Journal

The Blackpowder Journal Icon

...for the blackpowder enthusiast

Ammunition Supply In Revolutionary Virginia; Part 3
Taken from the January 1965 issue of:
The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

The British were not unaware of Virginia's importance to the American war effort in the South. In May 1779 General Henry Clinton had sent General Edward Mayhew and Admiral Sir George Collier on mission to destroy stores intended for the southern army. So successful had the mission been that I December 1780 Clinton sent the traitor Benedict Arnold with 1,600 men to Virginia with a similar objective. The expedition sailed up the James River, and on January 4 Arnold disembarked his troops twenty-five miles below Richmond. The capital was taken bloodlessly on the fifth, and Arnold sent a detachment six miles up river to Westham, where it destroyed the laboratory, the state's only cannon foundry, and five or six tons of precious gunpowder. At Richmond the audacious Arnold directed the systematic destruction of buildings, property, and state records. Then, carrying with him a part of the weapons and munitions taken, he marched to Portsmouth to encamp for the winter.

Jefferson was much criticized for not better preparing the state for the British invasion. Such critics as Henry Lee blamed the governor for not heeding previous warnings by Washington of a possible invasion. Jefferson should have anticipated the British move and transferred the military stores and archives away from Richmond, out of Arnold's grasp, Lee insisted. Most of the criticism seems to have come from Jefferson's political enemies, however. And even Lee admitted that "the honorable and continued efforts to support the Southern States, had exhausted much of the resources of Virginia." A subsequent investigation of the Governor's official conduct, held by the Assembly at the Governor's request, clearly revealed that Jefferson had acted competently and with alacrity. He had even taken a personal hand in saving a part of the arms and munitions at Westham. One resident of Henrico County testified that the Governor had stopped him on the road and asked him to help remove the munitions at Westham. The same witness estimated that "a very considerable quantity (I suppose about fifteen tons) of Gunpowder and Ammunition . . . were transported as directed & thereby saved to the public." If this estimate is correct, only about one-fourth of the stores at Westham was destroyed by Arnold, and the rest was saved, at least partially through the efforts of Jefferson. The Governor was cleared of all charges against him.

A scapegoat for the state's embarrassment apparently was necessary, however, and George Muter, Commissioner of the War Office, was selected. Muter may have been somewhat lax as an administrator, though even this is uncertain. His letters demonstrate an intense patriotism and loyalty to the state, and a desire to improve the efficiency of his office. The commissioner's prime accuser was Baron van Steuben, whom Nathanael Greene, Gates' successor, had left in Virginia to raise arms and men for the southern army. In early March 1781 Steuben charged before the Assembly that Muter was responsible for the fact that "only four thousand stands of small arms, belonging to this State, are fit for service," and for "the disorderly situation in which the Ordinance, Ammunition, Bombs, Shells, and Cannon Balls appear to be." The House appointed a committee to investigate the charges.

Muter was stunned by Steuben's charges. Even before the Baron carried them before the Assembly, Muter, having been forewarned, indignantly asked Jefferson for a full investigation to prove his innocence. Jefferson replied that he had not heard the charges and personally knew of no instances of Muter's incompetence. The special investigating committee presented a different view in its report to the House on March 20:

In short the whole Business of the War Office appears to be entirely deranged arising from the following causes, the loss of Papers belonging to the Office, the want of a sufficient number of Assistants and the irregular manner in which the Business seems to have been conducted.

Resolved that George Muter Esqr. the present Commissioner of the War Office is not qualified to fill that important Office and ought to be discharged therefrom.

Muter resigned two days later and was replaced by William Davies, a friend of Steuben. One notes that in the committee's summation of the charges, the first accusation (the loss of records) applied to the other departments as well as Muter's, since Arnold burned all of the papers he could lay his hands on. The second charge (insufficient assistants) was completely unjustified. Only eight months before, Muter had strongly advocated the addition of more assistants to his department as a measure to prevent wastage in the manufacturing and storing of munitions. The third charge was an extremely general one.

It seems probable that Muter's dismissal represented a slap at the Jefferson administration, both by the legislature, which blamed it for Arnold's success, and by Steuben, who was convinced that he had been denied the glory of capturing Arnold by Jefferson's failure to co-operate with him.

Actually, the state administration seems to have done its best to help the Baron. On January 8, three days after Arnold had appreciably diminished the state's ammunition supply, a wagonload was sent to Steuben. When the Baron wrote Jefferson a brusque, imperious letter on January 14, in which he demanded the delivery of all ammunition then on hand and the immediate preparation of 60,000 cartridges, the governor answered with remarkable civility that every effort would be made to comply with Steuben's orders. A month later, when the Baron asked for 400 pounds of pistol powder, 2,000 pounds of lead, and 600 flints, Muter ordered it sent immediately.

Greene and Steuben never seemed to understand that Virginia had obligations other than those to the southern army. In early 1781 the projected George Rogers Clark expedition against Detroit awaited supplies of ammunition which Jefferson had promised months before. Four tons of powder were needed at Pittsburgh by March 1, so that the campaign could begin on schedule. Moreover, the state militia had to be furnished. Cries for ammunition came from all sides. On February 7 Colonel Arthur Campbell of Abington protested: "Not an ounce of the Powder, your Excellency formerly promised is come to hand, nor can I hear anything of it. The flints is much needed." Colonel George Corbin informed Jefferson from Accomac on February 28, that his command was "much in want of lead," and that its powder would have completely run out had he not used that on board several nearby gallies.

Nevertheless, the needs of Steuben and Greene continued to take precedence over those of a purely state nature. On March 5, the Baron asked that a supply of powder be sent to Yorktown, which had only one and a half barrels on hand. One day later 1,000 pounds of powder were sent to Yorktown and 6,000 more pounds were ordered put at Steuben's disposal by Muter, whom the Baron would, within a week, charge with gross inefficiency. Between the first of January and the end of March, Virginia issued at least 10,900 pounds of powder and 6,000 pounds of lead to the Continental forces within the state.

Throughout this period Jefferson and the Assembly made desperate efforts to add to their dwindling store of ammunition. In January, after Arnold's devastating visit, the Assembly, tired of writing fruitless appeals to Congress, sent Benjamin Harrison, Speaker of the House, to Philadelphia to make a personal appeal to Congress for aid. On February 12 Harrison wrote Jefferson that he had just been granted four tons of powder, half of which he had taken in musket and half in cannon powder. Part of the powder he sent to Clark at Pittsburgh, and the rest (about three tons) he arranged to send to Virginia.

Harrison's success by no means solved the state's ammunition problem. The Philadelphia shipment was merely a drop in the bucket compared to the need. And months passed before any other sizeable amounts came from the North. Jefferson and the Assembly had to find other sources if all the demands upon them were to be met. Efforts to import powder continued, but with less success than formerly. The capture of St. Eustatia by the British early in 1781 eliminated Virginia's best source of foreign munitions and forced the state to depend more on other West Indian islands. Moreover, the shift of British concentration from North to South and the absence of the French fleet for most of the year made it much more difficult for Virginia to import than had been the case from 1776 to 1778.

In March the Assembly drew up a pompous remonstrance, which expressed its bitterness at the lack of support given Virginia by her Northern brethren:

Ere the war began, we heard the cries of our brethren at Boston, and paid the tax due their distress . . .

But when we came to look for our Northern allies, after we had thus exhausted our powers in their defence, when Carolina and Georgia became the theatre of the war, they were not to be found . . .

Let it be remembered that Georgia and South Carolina are lost, that North Carolina, in a state of uncertainty from continual alarms, cannot furnish supplies, and that Maryland hath only sent those of men. Virginia, then, impoverished by defending the Northern department, exhausted by the Southern War, now find the whole weight of it upon her shoulders . . .

They [the Assembly] demand aids of men, money, and every warlike munition. If they are denied, the consequences be on the heads of those who refuse them.

The remonstrance, though sent privately to the Virginia delegates in Congress, was never adopted by the Assembly.

As it had done early in the war, the state government once again encouraged the manufacturing of powder. In February 1781, at the height of the shortage, two men named Thornton and Lewis offered to set up a factory capable of producing 800 pounds of powder a week. They promised to furnish the first ton at four shillings specie per pound. All powder produced above a ton they would sell to the state at five shillings. The price was reasonable (powder had long sold for six shillings throughout the colonies), but, in addition, Lewis and Thornton demanded that the state supply them with £20,000 to finance the operation. Earlier in the war Virginia had disdained such suggestions. But now, Jefferson eagerly agreed to these extravagant terms, reserving only the right to pay for the powder with tobacco.

Lead, like powder, grew extremely scarce in the spring of 1781. Charles Lynch, manager of the mines, reported in February that the principal vein of ore seemed on the verge of petering out. Jefferson realized that the military situation shortly would call for larger amounts of lead, and he took steps to increase production. On March 20 he reminded the superintendent of the mines, David Ross, that the supply on hand was small and the demand great: "I must therefore beg the favor of you to endeavor to engage as many Hands immediately as may be employed to advantage in order to push this most essential Work." Then he informed Lynch that he had decided to hire more hands and an assistant manager, and repeated his desire that the lead mines be worked "to the greatest extent they will admit." In the meantime Ross sought to alleviate the immediate crisis by purchasing all of the lead that he could find in private hands in the vicinity of the mines.

As he had so often done in the past, Jefferson once again turned to Congress for aid. In late March he wrote Samuel Huntington of the Battle of Guilford Court House (March 15, 1781) and observed that Greene's plan to resume action soon would call for increased amounts of lead and other munitions for the southern army. The governor also encouraged the Virginia delegates in Congress to use their influence to acquire munitions for the southern department:

It is impossible to give you an Idea of the Distress we are in for want of Lead. Should this Army from Portsmouth [William Phillips's troops] come forth and become active (and as we have no reason to believe they came here to sleep) our Affairs will assume a very disagreable Aspect.

Jefferson likewise asked the Marquis de Lafayette to use his influence to obtain lead from Congress.

As the governor had foreseen, General Greene sent a desperate request for lead on April 2. Typically, he sent it, not to Jefferson, but to Steuben. He urged his agent in Virginia to take many of the steps which the governor had already taken--write Congress for lead, purchase or impress any available lead, and urge the employment of more hands in the mines. He also rejected the Baron's request to leave Virginia (Steuben was still bitter about his inability to capture Arnold and over the rejection, by Jefferson and the Council, of his plan to lead 2,000 Virginia militiamen South to join Greene). At the same time, Greene sought to sooth the Prussian's ruffled ego:

If you leave Virginia all things will run into confusion . . . My greatest expectations of support are from Virginia, drawn forth under your regulations and arrangements. If you leave them State policy and partial views will counteract all the support we may expect from that quarter and we shall all fall together to the Southward.

In view of Jefferson's exertions on Greene's behalf during the preceding weeks, the letter to Steuben seems particularly unwarranted and ungrateful.

Jefferson's efforts to increase lead production brought results. The supposedly failing mines soon were rejuvenated by the increased labor force, and on May 4 Ross wrote the governor that forty or fifty tons of lead would be ready "in a Short time." Meanwhile over 7,000 pounds had been made available. Ross was probably overly optimistic. At any rate, the increasing demands of the army during the summer of 1781 perpetuated the lead shortage. Major John Pryor, in charge of military stores at Charlottesville, was even reduced to impressing lead from windows. Nevertheless, it is clear that Lafayette as well as Greene depended primarily upon Virginia for ammunition throughout the summer. It does not appear that any sizeable shipment of ammunition came from the North until the end of September. Not until October 1 could Pryor write from Yorktown that a long-expected shipment "from the northward" would now enable him to supply the whole militia.

Following Yorktown's capitulation in October, the state was relieved of the enormous responsibility of furnishing the southern army with ammunition. It must have been with relief that Jefferson's successor as governor, Thomas Nelson, read General Washington's letter dated November 4:

Sir: I have to inform your Excellency, that it is concluded to form a Deposit of all Arms and Ammunition for Musketry, bro't with me from the Northward and taken from the Enemy, at Westham in this State, or its Neighbourhood, from whence Supplies may be formed for the Southern Army, or issued to the State, in Case of another Invasion.

Thus, following the assumption of this burden by the Continental Congress and the virtual cessation of hostilities following Cornwallis's surrender, ammunition ceased to be a critical problem. Virginia had played a key role. In the early phases or the war she had been one of the most important importers of ammunition from the West Indies. In addition, her tobacco had bolstered United States credit abroad. And, as the only state producing a large amount of lead, the Old Dominion had supplied Washington's army with that vital metal in 1776, before importations eased the shortage.

But, although Virginia's early role was important, the state played its most vital part from 1779 to 1781, when the British sought to defeat America by shifting their offensive to the South. During that time Virginia constituted almost the sold support of the southern army. Probably no American state has ever been called upon to carry so great a proportion of a national war effort as Virginia in 1780 and 1781. The state's officials met the challenge admirably, although their efforts were not matched by similar ones on the part of Congress and were not generally appreciated by Greene and Steuben.