During the chilly late afternoon of Jan. 5, 1781, Virginia Gov. Thomas Jefferson stood at his vantage point in Manchester and helplessly watched as warehouses and workshops in tiny Richmond burned.
Traitorous Gen. Benedict Arnold, who hadn't received a satisfactory response to his demand for the surrender of the 1-year-old capital of Virginia, was torching the town.
About a month before, on Dec. 9, 1780, Gen. George Washington himself warned Jefferson that a fleet of British troopships had left New York, bound southward. Jefferson first heard of 27 vessels entering Chesapeake Bay on New Year's Eve morning. He idly thought that the French might finally be coming to the bogged Revolution's rescue. However, by dawn on Thursday, Jan. 4, 1781, Jefferson understood that the British were really coming to Richmond. He sent his wife and daughters away and oversaw the transportation of 15 tons of gunpowder and military stores out of Richmond.
Benedict Arnold had managed to land infantry, dragoons and light artillery at Westover Plantation, the ancestral estate of Richmond's founding Byrd family, 30 miles from the capital, with barely a defensive shot fired. Arnold and his green-coated "American Legion," made up of mercenaries and Continental Army deserters, arrived in Richmond by 11 a.m. on Jan. 5.
Only 200 Virginia militiamen hastily assembled, and many weren't armed.
Col. John Graves Simcoe of the Queen's Rangers sent dismounted soldiers up Church Hill to disperse the militia. The Virginians managed to fire at least one ragged volley before scattering into the woods, pursued by the British.
Arnold's men meanwhile ransacked Jefferson's house and cracked open his Madeira casks when the servants wouldn't reveal where the governor had gone. Nor had Jefferson responded to an ultimatum: Give me the tobacco stores, Arnold had declared in a letter, and I'll not harm the town. The governor didn't negotiate with turncoats.
Arnold then commenced to stealing the tobacco and selectively burning buildings, though he passed by the General Assembly building, a makeshift commercial structure at 14th and Cary streets, and the Governor's House, a rented place, probably near the southeast corner of today's Capitol Square. Simcoe's dragoons destroyed the Westham foundry. In the fire, many wartime Virginia documents were lost, including Jefferson's letters.
Arnold and Simcoe met that Friday evening at Gabriel Galt's tavern on the northeast corner of 19th and Main streets (now The Bottom Line Tap and Grill's concert area). Where Jefferson spent that terrible evening isn't known; Manchester lore claims he hid in a house owned by his relatives, possibly in the attic. Jefferson never said.
By noon that Saturday, Arnold had left the smoking city for Westover. Following him were numerous escaping slaves.
Through spring 1781, British generals William Phillips and Lord Charles Cornwallis again attacked and burned buildings in Manchester and Richmond, causing Jefferson and the state legislature to flee to Charlottesville in late May. Several days later, militiaman Capt. Jack Jouette happened to be in a tavern outside Richmond when he glimpsed Col. Banastre Tarleton's raiders in pursuit of Jefferson. Jouette furiously rode to Charlottesville to alert the Virginia leadership. Jefferson was saved and Monticello somehow spared.
Jefferson stepped down as governor that summer. The French eventually showed up. The British surrendered at Yorktown on Oct. 19, 1781. "Quitting office so close to the end of the Revolution only heightened Jefferson's humiliation" over being forced to flee and having his courage impugned, writes biographer Willard Stearne Randall.
Jefferson was criticized by members of the General Assembly for "pusillanimous conduct" in fleeing the British invasion of Richmond. Hanover County General Assembly members George Nicholas and Patrick Henry questioned when he knew the British were coming and why he failed to act more swiftly to stop them.
Jefferson testified for two days in December 1781 before the General Assembly, which unanimously absolved him. Jefferson never forgave Henry.
Of his war governor period, Jefferson's great biographer Dumas Malone remarked, "To say that [Jefferson] was a misfit as an executive would be to say too much. But there were other tasks he liked to do, and did, a great deal better."