In December 1780, three months after Benedict Arnold failed in his traitorous mission to capture West Point, he launched an audacious new quest on behalf of the British: An invasion of Virginia, which was governed by his former ally, Thomas Jefferson.
Arnold left New York harbor with a fleet of 27 ships carrying 1,600 men. Governor Jefferson had moved the capital of Virginia from Williamsburg to Richmond partly on grounds that it would more protected from an invading force. Jefferson had no idea that the British were coming. A Virginia naval officer spotted the fleet but could not determine its origin, sending a messenger on horseback to deliver the vague news to Jefferson. The governor wavered, deciding he needed more information before calling out the militia. Crucial days passed as Arnold’s fleet made its way up the James River.
In the weeks that followed, Arnold terrorized Virginia. Jefferson, who years earlier had called Arnold a “fine sailor,” supported two plans to capture or kill Arnold, both of which failed. Arnold seized plunder and astonished his British superiors with the ease with which he had free reign over Virginia. Eventually, Arnold departed Virginia, replaced by other British commanders, some of whom later made the fateful decision to assemble in Yorktown. But the criticism of Jefferson’s handling of the invasion left a wound on his spirit that he said would only be cured by “the all-healing grave.”