Battle of Petersburg

After a successful invasion from Portsmouth, Virginia up the James River in April 1781, the British army, under the command of Major General William Phillips, landed at City Point (now Hopewell) on 24th of that month. The Virginia militia, commanded by Brigadier General Peter Muhlenberg, which had been containing the British force at Portsmouth, had paralleled the British movement by marching along the south side of the river toward Petersburg.

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British Landing at City Point

On the day of the British landing at City Point, the American militia entered Petersburg, coming under the overall command of Major General Frederick Willhelm von Steuben. Von Steuben was certain that Phillips was planning to march overland to attack Petersburg and the following morning set the American lines to receive the British onslaught. Having no misconceptions about stopping the British, von Steuben's plan was to put up the heaviest resistance he could and then retreat northward into Chesterfield County, saving his army to fight another day..

First Attack

Shortly after noon on the 25th, Phillips' army arrived east of Blandford, a small community now part of Petersburg, and launched his first attack. The Virginia militia put up a strong resistance and, after three hours fighting and repulsing several British assaults, Von Steuben ordered a general retreat across the Pocahontas Bridge, on to the Heights (now Colonial Heights), and into Chesterfield County. His hope was to regroup his army and eventually join the American Regulars under Major General Marquis de Lafayette near Richmond.

Virginia Militia

Notably, the Virginia militia put up a heroic fight at Petersburg. Outnumbered by the British army of 2,500 to the militia strength of barely over 1,000 men, the Virginians denied the king's soldiers the opportunity of capturing the city without fighting for it. Most history books list the action at Petersburg as a minor battle or skirmish. However, the stand of the Americans against such an overwhelming force was a full-scale battle by any Revolutionary War standards. The battle actually bought a full day's time for Lafayette to entrench his army on the heights of Richmond, and ultimately prevented a second sacking of Richmond, as was seen in the previous January, when British Brigadier Benedict Arnold assaulted and burned much of that city.