Loyalists in Virginia and enslaved people seeking to escape to British lines were pleased when Major General Alexander Leslie sailed into the Chesapeake Bay with 2,200 men on October 20, 1780.
The last British forces in the state had both arrived and departed in May 1779. That raid, led by Commodore George Collier and Major General Edward Mathew, destroyed supplies at Suffolk and the Gosport Shipyard at Portsmouth, but left after two weeks. Without a permanent British base in Virginia, the rebels dominated the region and suppressed their opponents.
The purpose of Leslie's raid was similar to that of the Collier-Mathew Raid. Virginia was a source of men and supplies to the Continental Army fighting in New York and in the Carolinas. Around New York City, George Washington and General Henry Clinton were in a stalemate. In the Carolina's, however, Lord Cornwallis was struggling to establish Loyalist control. Whenever his soldiers left an area, rebels regained control over the countryside and threatened his outposts. Lord Cornwallis lacked the resources to implement the "southern strategy." He could conquer the region, but he needed to occupy it in order to maintain British control.
General Leslie was supposed to sail up the James River and capture Petersburg and Richmond, destroying the central supply depots and diverting reinforcements headed to General Nathaniel Green in North Carolina. After landing at Portsmouth, Leslie discovered that the Loyalist support in Virginia was weaker than expected, while the Virginia militia was stronger than expected.
He also realized that sailing up the James River required a local pilot, and could not get one. Leslie decided to ignore the plans developed in New York City, and to use the mobility provided by his warships to raid just coastal areas.
Governor Thomas Jefferson still feared a raid deep into the interior of Virginia, in order to free 800 British soldiers who had been captured at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. They were imprisoned in the Albemarle Barracks near Charlottesville, so Jefferson shipped them further away from the coastline to Maryland. He left the Hessian prisoners in their Albemarle Barracks, assuming General Leslie would not risk a long-distance raid to free them.
Jefferson also moved supplies inland, though Leslie was able to seize and destroy significant amounts of material at Suffolk, Newport News, and Hampton. General Henry Clinton could have chosen to reinforce Leslie and enable him to move inland, but their plans were shaped by the march of the Overmountain Men to Kings Mountain. After they defeated Patrick Ferguson and his Loyalists, Clinton directed Leslie to leave Virginia and go to Charlestown, South Carolina.
The Virginians who succeeded in forcing General Leslie to abandon his raid after less than a month (October 30-November 22, 1780) were not the Tidewater militia. Instead, it was Colonel William Campbell and his volunteers from southwestern Virginia, united with Tennessee patriots, who won at Kings Mountain and triggered the British to alter their plans.1
Clinton quickly arranged for another invasion of Virginia. He sent Benedict Arnold south from New York in December, 1780. There was a British army in Virginia for the next 10 months, commanded first by Arnold, then by General William Phillips, and finally by Lord Cornwallis.