The Correspondence of Thomas Jefferson

By Subject


You ask, in your letter of April the 24th, details of my sufferings by Colonel Tarleton. I did not suffer by him. On the contrary, he behaved very genteelly with me. On his approach to Charlottesville, which is within three miles of my house at Monticello, he despatched a troop of his horse, under Captain McLeod, with the double object of taking me prisoner, with the two Speakers of the Senate and Delegates, who then lodged with me, and of remaining there in vidette, my house commanding a view of ten or twelve miles round about. He gave strict orders to Captain MeLeod to suffer nothing to be injure4. The troop failed in one of their objects, as we had notice of their coming, so that the two Speakers had gone off about two hours before their arrival at Monticello, and myself, with my family, about five minutes. But Captain McLeod preserved everything with sacred care, during about eighteen hours that he remained there. Colonel Tarleton was just so long at Charlottesville, being hurried from thence by the news of the rising of the militia, and by a sudden fall of rain, which threatened to swell the river, and intercept his return. In general, he did little injury to the inhabitants, on that short and hasty excursion, which was of about sixty miles from their main army, then in Spottsylvania; and ours in Orange. It was early in June, 1781. Lord Cornwallis then proceeded to the Point of Fork, and encamped his army from thence all along the main James River, to a seat of mine called Elk-hill, opposite to Elk Island, and a little below the mouth of the Byrd Creek. (You will see all these places exactly laid down in the map annexed to my notes on Virginia, printed by Stockdale.) He remained in this position ten days, his own head quarters being in my house, at that place. I had time to remove most of the effects out of the house. He destroyed all my growing crops of corn and tobacco; he burned all my barns, containing the same articles of the last year, having first taken what corn he wanted; he used, as was to be expected, all my stock of cattle, sheep and hogs, for the sustenance of his army, and carried off all the horses capable of service; of those too young for service he cut the throats; and he burned all the fences on the plantation, so as to leave it an absolute waste. He carried off also about thirty slaves. Had this been to give them freedom, he would have done right; but it was to consign them to inevitable death from the small pox and putrid fever, then raging in his camp. This I knew afterwards to be the fate of twenty-seven of them I never had news of the remaining three, but presume they shared the same fate. When I say that Lord Cornwallis did all this, I do not mean that he carried about the torch in his own hands, but that it was all done under his eye; the situation of the house in which he was, commanding a view of every part of the plantation, so that he must have seen every fire. I relate these things on my own knowledge, in a great degree, as I was on the ground soon after he left it. He treated the rest of the neighborhood somewhat in the same style, but not with that spirit of total extermination with which he seemed to rage over my possessions. Wherever he went, the dwelling houses were plundered of everything which could be carried off. Lord Cornwallis' character in England, would forbid the belief that he shared in the plunder; but that his table was served with the plate thus pillaged from private houses, can be proved by many hundred eye-witnesses. From an estimate I made at that time, on the best information I could collect, I supposed the State of Virginia lost, under Lord Cornwallis' hands, that year, about thirty thousand slaves; and that of these, about twenty seven thousand died of the small pox and camp fever, and the rest were partly sent to the West Indies, and exchanged for rum, sugar, coffee and fruit, and partly sent to New York, from whence they went, at the peace, either to Nova Scotia or England. From this last place, I believe they have been lately sent to Africa. History will never relate the horrors committed by the British army in the southern States of America. They raged in Virginia six months only, from the middle of April to the middle of October, 1781, when they were all taken prisoners; and I give you a faithful specimen of their transactions for ten days of that time, and on one spot only. Ex pede Herculem. I suppose their whole devastations during those six months, amounted to about three millions sterling.

to Doctor Gordon, 16 July 1788