- Historic Sites
“We was amazingly fortunate”
—OR—Through the American Revolution with Pluck & Cheek
October 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 6
”‘Indeed,’ replied this good girl, ‘my own fears being removed and my apprehensions of your using me ill totally vanished, gratitude obliges me to feel for the safety of so generous an enemy in return. You are much mistaken,’ continued this generous fair, ‘if you think your being in this river is a secret, for know, sir, it has been discovered ever since you entered it and the country some hours alarmed. My father, who is a colonel in the militia, is gone with several detachments down the river to cut off your retreat, and upwards of four hundred men are posted at MacKay’s Mills for the same purpose; and in hopes of your staying till daylight in the river, they do not mean to attack you till that time.’
“Whether this was an absolute fact or not, it was necessary for me to guard against its consequences; and having found also from this lady that there was a ship, brig and sloop at Suffolk, about four miles above us, and thanked her for her very friendly and seasonable information, I joined in the opinion of the different lieutenants I had then the honour to command that a precipitate retreat was absolutely necessary, having performed the service we came on. At half past three in the morning we was all in our boats and under way down the river and, agreeable to the information we had received from our female friend, were warmly attacked by the enemy at MacKay’s Mills, who kept a heavy and regular fire on us. The rapidity of the ebb tide and the extreme darkness of the night prevented the execution of the enemy’s fire and we passed the whole river as well as the town of Nansemond with no other accident than one man wounded and several shots through the boats.”
A few days later James visited Hampton under a flag of truce and came back “loaded with presents from Mrs. Jones and her amiable daughters with whom I spent the greatest part of the day.” In the next few weeks he paid the Jones household many more visits, never failing to come back “with the best of its produce.”
While James was ingratiating himself, Benedict Arnold was devastating Virginia, burning vast quantities of stores and tobacco at Richmond and elsewhere. James and his mates were busy with convoy and blockade duty all through the spring and summer of 1781 as the British poured more men into the Virginia campaign. There is not the slightest hint of oncoming disaster in James’ journal as he tells how the Navy helped move the Army to the sleepy port of Yorktown and joined with the soldiers in toiling on the exhausting work of fortifying the place. Then comes the entry which carries the seeds of events that would alter everything, both in James’ journal and in the history of the Revolution.
“30th August— The Guadeloupe and Bonetta [British frigates] returned again into port, having been pursued by a fleet of French ships, consisting of twenty-six sail of the line besides frigates, fire ships, bombs [ketches mounted with bomb-throwing mortars] and transports who chased them to the mouth of the harbour and took the Loyalist [another frigate] within three miles of the town, who engaged their advanced ships until all her masts went by the board. Three ships of the enemy’s line anchored at the mouth of the harbour, and the main body of the fleet anchored in Lynnhaven Bay [the roads at the mouth of the Chesapeake].
“September 1st—The enemy landed six thousand French troops up James River which joined the rebels at Williamsburg, and the same night I was sent to guard an express boat, which was sent to New York, until she had safely passed the advance ships of the enemy, which she accomplished at midnight, and I arrived on board at daylight in the morning.”
James saw nothing of the sea battle between the French and British off the Chesapeake on September 8. He only knew that “Admiral Graves having appeared off the Capes with about twenty sail of the line who after some slight skirmish with them [the French] was obliged from their superiority to retreat.”
James now proved his seamanship—and luck—once more as commander of a tender sent out to reconnoiter the enemy’s fleet. “The French fleet from Rhode Island having now joined their force by sea consisted of thirty-six sail of the line besides frigates, fireships, bombs, and transports. On this night I made signal to the garrison of the enemy’s remaining at anchor in Lynnhaven Bay, and stood off and on in sight of them all night.
”[September] 10th--Made the signal to the garrison of the enemy’s movements from Lynnhaven Bay, and soon after of their anchoring at the Shoe [the Horseshoe, a more sheltered portion of the Chesapeake].”
The next morning James had another of his hair-raising escapes.
—[September] 11th—Calm, moderate weather. At four o’clock in the morning the enemy began to advance from the Shoe, at which time the schooner lay becalmed about three miles from them, and by bringing with them a sea breeze, they came very near me before I could get any wind; at six o’clock one of the headmost ships fired a shot at me at which time, having received a wind, I cut away my boat and hopped off, with all I could drag on her, and fortunately escaped ‘Monsieur.’ At noon I made the signal for a further advancement of the enemy and at four o’clock ran up the harbour like a scalded cock, the French fleet having anchored in the mouth of the harbour.”