January 5, 1781 — A British naval expedition led by Benedict Arnold burned Richmond, Virginia today.
Known as the Richmond Campaign (a group of British military actions against the capital of Virginia), it was considered one of Arnold’s greatest successes while serving under the British Army — and one of the most notorious actions that he ever performed.
Here’s how it played out:
January 1-3: Arnold’s fleet sailed up the James River, laying waste to plantations and settlements along the way.
January 4: The British reached their destination of Westover Plantation and by afternoon, Arnold and his men were on their way by foot to Richmond.
January 5: The city was unprotected as most Virginia militiamen had not bothered to defend the capital because they thought that their duty was up. When Virginia’s Colonel John Graves Simcoe, of the Queen’s Rangers, realized what was happening, he ordered a detachment of soldiers to confront Arnold and his men.
Thomas Jefferson — who was the governor of Virginia at the time — ordered the mass-evacuation of military supplies from the city; he then fled in his carriage, along with the rest of Virginia’s government officials. By noon, Arnold’s forces were marching triumphantly through the city.
Arnold sat at his headquarters at Main Street’s City Tavern and wrote a letter to Jefferson, saying that if he could move the city’s tobacco stores and military arms to his ships, he would leave Richmond unharmed.
January 6: Arnold received Jefferson’s response today — a livid note refusing to turn anything over to a turncoat. Arnold was enraged, and ordered Richmond to be set to the torch.
Words of Wisdom
Let me die in this old uniform in which I fought my battles. May God forgive me for ever having put on another.