British forces under the command of William Phillips (with Benedict Arnold) occupied Williamsburg from April 20 to April 22, 1781. By many accounts, they were treated well, even warmly, by many of the inhabitants, much to the chagrin of more committed patriots. As a result, a number of citizens were arrested and charged with “disaffection to the interests of their country,” prompting this remarkable statement from Phillips, written on April 29 to the Marquis de la Fayette. It is all the more notable because Phillips was well-known and respected by many Virginia leaders, including Thomas Jefferson, as a reasonable, even moderate, officer, from the time Phillips spent as a prisoner of war in Charlottesville as part of Burgoyne’s “convention army.” Clearly tensions on both sides were reaching a peak, given that the Revolution in Virginia was hanging increasingly in the balance.
When I was at Williamsburg, and at Petersburg, I gave several inhabitants and country people protections for their persons and properties. I did this without asking, or even considering, whether these people were either friends or foes, actuated by no other motive than that of pure humanity. I understand, from almost undoubted authority, that several of these persons have been taken up by their malicious neighbours, and sent to your quarters, where preparations are making for their being ill treated; a report which I sincerely hope may be without foundation. I repeat to you, sir, that my protections were given generally from a wish that, in the destruction of public stories, as little damage as possible might be done to private property, and to the persons of individuals. …I am obliged to declare to you, sir, that if any persons, under the description I have given, receive ill treatment, I shall be under the necessity of sending to Petersburg, and giving that chastisement to the illiberal persecutor of innocent people, which their conduct shall deserve. And I further declare to you, sir, should any person be put to death, under the pretence of their being spies of, or friends to, the British government, I will make the shores of James River an example of terror to the rest of Virginia.