Cornwallis Moves South


While on the march to Portsmouth, Major General Phillips became violently ill with a high fever. Some believe it was either malaria or typhus. He received orders from Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis, then operating in North Carolina, ordering Phillips to hole up in Petersburg, and he would march his army northward and link up with him.
Phillips arrived at Petersburg on May 9th but was so ill he had to turn over command of his army to Benedict Arnold, his second in command. The next day, LaFayette, who had been pursuing, arrived with his Continentals and militia. He occupied the heights north of Petersburg, later renamed “Colonial Heights”, and immediately started bombarding the town. Phillips and Arnold made the mansion owned by Mrs. Bolling, known as Bollingbrook, their headquarters. He passed away there on the morning of May 13th. That evening he was buried in an unmarked grave in the cemetery at Blandford Church.



On April 24, 1781, as Major General William Phillips and Benedict Arnold were leading their twenty-five hundred men up the James River, having laid waste to Williamsburg, Cornwallis began moving his men out of Wilmington and toward Virginia. Ostensibly, Cornwallis hoped that Greene would pursue and the two armies might meet again, but he did not really believe that would happen.

Greene was 150 miles to the west, heading for Camden, South Carolina, by the time Cornwallis’s troops moved out. This left Cornwallis in a difficult spot. He knew that Clinton would have preferred him to march after Greene in support of the troops under Lord Rawdon. Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, and likely other officers under Cornwallis, felt they should concentrate on securing the Carolinas, and Cornwallis himself understood that Greene might well pick off the widely separated British outposts in the Carolinas one by one.

On the other hand, Cornwallis had come to realize that chasing Greene around the Carolinas was a losing proposition. He did not feel he had enough troops to take on Greene and the militia that would rally to him. Supplies were not to be had, and the many rivers presented a terrible obstacle to his movements. What was more, Cornwallis was just plain weary of marching after the elusive Americans. Rawdon and his garrisons would have to fend for themselves without the help of the earl’s sixteen hundred footsore men.

Cornwallis sent several express letters to Rawdon, who was then at Camden, warning him of Greene’s approach, but they were all intercepted by the rebels. Luckily for Rawdon, word reached him by other means, and he evacuated Camden before Greene could catch him there.

In preparation for marching north, Cornwallis sent Tarleton with an advance guard to “seize as many boats as possible on the north-east branch of the Cape-fear river” and bring them to a place about 15 miles above Wilmington. More boats were supplied by the Royal Navy. Cornwallis gave orders for the troops “to be in readiness to march as soon as the quarter-master-general’s wagons were loaded with an ample supply of rum, salt and flour.” When they were, the survivors of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, the 23rd and the 33rd Regiments, the Von Bose Regiment, the Brigade of Guards, the artillery, and the rest began their march toward Virginia.

Tarleton moved his advance guard across the Cape Fear River first, to cover the crossing of the rest. They took post until the “stores, wagons, cannon, and troops were brought over.” Cornwallis, who was now quite experienced with southern rivers, ordered two boats mounted on wagons to accompany the army.

The British troops once again marched through a country barren of provisions, and while they met no opposition, neither did they meet with any help. It was exactly the situation that Cornwallis had been encountering with the civilian population for the past year, the paucity of supplies and the prevailing lack of support for the king having led him to despair of ever effecting anything in the Carolinas. The troops lived off what they carried in the wagons, as provisions “could not be taken or bought from the inhabitants.” Cornwallis ordered local mills to grind for the army “under pain of military execution.”

Cornwallis moved cautiously. Letters were sent between him and Phillips, but like those to Rawdon, they were generally intercepted, so that neither officer knew what the other was doing. This created great anxiety for Cornwallis. He was well aware of his own weakness and the potential strength of the American forces under the Marquis de Lafayette in Virginia, both Continentals and militia. If he crossed the Roanoke River and found himself alone, unable to link with Phillips, his army might well be destroyed.

Soon after crossing the Wilmington River, Cornwallis sent Tarleton ahead with 180 dragoons and the light companies of two regiments, all mounted. It was Tarleton’s job to see that the way was clear for the army. No less than Cornwallis’s “honour and future happiness” was riding on his ability to do so, according to the earl himself. Cornwallis depended on Tarleton to determine the feasibility of crossing the Roanoke and meeting up with Phillips. He instructed the lieutenant colonel to “Send as many messages and notes as you can.” In deference to the danger of interception, they were all to be written in cipher.

Tarleton’s division moved out ahead of the army, and as they rode through the countryside they gave orders to civilians they encountered to collect provisions for Cornwallis’s troops, who would follow. Tarleton exaggerated the number of men who were coming behind in order to frighten the militia.

Soon after detaching from the main force, Tarleton’s horsemen passed the Tar River and continued north. The country was growing “more fruitful” as they approached the Roanoke, a relief for men who had been scrounging so long for supplies. Cornwallis sent word to Tarleton that he might move on to Halifax, a town on the Roanoke River less than 20 miles south of the Virginia border, “if it appears by your information that General Phillips is certainly within reach of joining.”

In fact, Tarleton had received no intelligence concerning Phillips, only the various rumors that had reached Cornwallis, but, as was his wont, he chose to interpret Cornwallis’s cautious suggestion as a positive order to make a bold move. His mounted troops advanced north toward Halifax by the most direct route. Local militia turned out to stop them, making stands at Aswift Creek and Fishing Creek, but “their efforts were baffled, and they were dispersed with some loss.”

Tarleton pushed hard for Halifax, hoping to capitalize on any panic spread by the militia’s rout at the creeks. The British troops galloped to the outskirts of town before the local militia had a chance to organize any real defense or take advantage of a naturally strong position about half a mile south of town. Once again, Tarleton and his men sent the militia running for safety, “routed with confusion and loss.” Tarleton’s casualties included three men wounded and a few horses wounded or killed.

The only useful thing the militia managed to do was secure most of the boats in town on the north side of the river. There, a number of militia began to entrench and take potshots at any of Tarleton’s men who came near the south bank.

Tarleton immediately arrayed his men for the defense of Halifax. He sent spies across the river to keep an eye on the militia and to seek information about Phillips. He sent word to Cornwallis about the recent action and requested that Cornwallis send the light company of the guards to assist in the defense of the town.

Cornwallis, however, was unwilling to part with any of his men, and since he did not have enough horses to mount the light company, he did not see how they would be of any use to Tarleton. “I cannot venture to pass the Roanoke without some certain information of Phillips, or of the state of things in Virginia,” he wrote Tarleton. He gave the lieutenant colonel two or three days to remain in Halifax, if he thought it was safe. If in that time Tarleton received no news of Phillips, he was to rejoin the main army, which was still well to the south.

At the same time, Cornwallis once again wrote to Phillips in cipher. “I can learn no satisfactory accounts of you: some say you are embarked; others that you have passed the James river.” Once again, he begged Phillips for word of where he was and what he intended.

Cornwallis did have some good news to impart to his old friend. He had received word that Rawdon and Greene had fought outside Camden and that the British had routed the Americans. This fight, later known as the Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill, was indeed a brilliant victory for the outnumbered British and an enormous relief for Cornwallis. He would later write to Rawdon, “I cannot describe my feelings on your most glorious victory, by far the most splendid of this war. My terrors for you had almost distracted me.”

Any British victory would have been greeted as good news by Cornwallis, but this one was a particular relief. Cornwallis had likely guessed that Clinton would disapprove of his breaking off the fight with Greene and leaving North Carolina for Virginia. If Greene had beaten Rawdon, Cornwallis would have been blamed for abandoning his subordinates to their fate, which, in fact, he had. It was fortunate for Cornwallis that Rawdon had come out on top, but Rawdon was too weak to capitalize on his success. Soon after the battle, he withdrew his forces to Charleston, and Greene and his partisans began to systematically undo all of Cornwallis’s earlier victories in South Carolina and Georgia.

As Cornwallis inched his weary way toward Virginia, Phillips and Arnold continued their depredations around Richmond. On the last day of April, with Lafayette watching from the heights of Richmond, the British troops put the tobacco stores of Manchester to the torch. The next day, retracing their steps downriver to Warwick, they burned five hundred barrels of flour and the mill the flour had been ground in. They also torched “several warehouses with 150 hogsheads of tobacco, a large ship and a brigantine afloat, and three vessels on the stocks, a large range of public ropewalks and storehouses, and some tan- and bark-houses full of hides and bark.” The purpose of all this destruction was ostensibly to prevent supplies from reaching Greene, but there was still no word of Cornwallis.

For almost two weeks, Phillips and Arnold’s troops had been moving through the James River basin, burning and taking American matériel and skirmishing with American militia. But their primary mission had been to form a junction with Cornwallis, and that had not happened. As April turned to May and no word arrived from the earl, they began to pull back toward Portsmouth, marching their troops from Warwick to Osborne’s Landing and sending off the ships, boats, and considerable loot they had taken during their raid.

For the next few days, Phillips and Arnold continued downriver, finally arriving at Hog Island, near Jamestown, on May 6. Phillips was beginning to feel the effects of a fever that had come over him and was likely looking forward to getting back to Portsmouth, but that was not to be. On May 7, word finally arrived from Lord Cornwallis that he was marching for Virginia and hoped to rendezvous with Phillips at Petersburg. Phillips, who had been sleeping, awoke when the letter arrived and was informed of its contents. He ordered the troops to reembark for Petersburg and told Lieutenant Colonel John Simcoe and his men to ride cross-country to City Point and order the British troops still there to proceed to Petersburg as well. It was, according to Simcoe, “the last material order he gave.”

With the troops back on board, the fleet once again sailed up the wide, brown James River. The next day, as the wind whipped the river into a short, steep chop and rocked the ships at their anchors, the men went ashore at Brandon, on the south bank not far from Hood’s Fort. By this time, Phillips was too sick to sit a horse, so a post-chaise was located in which he could ride. From Brandon, the army moved unopposed to Petersburg, arriving on May 9 after a march of 30 miles in one day.

They still did not know where Cornwallis was.


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