Green Spring (Jamestown Ford, Virginia)

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Green Spring (Jamestown Ford, Virginia)

GREEN SPRING (JAMESTOWN FORD, VIRGINIA). 6 July 1781. Having failed to catch and destroy Lafayette and being ordered by Clinton to detach reinforcements to New York, Cornwallis abandoned his plan of holding Williamsburg and prepared to cross the James River. Lafayette followed cautiously and on 6 July started getting indications that he might catch Cornwallis astride the river.

The historian Henry P. Johnston has written,

Cornwallis had shrewdly conjectured that Lafayette would take the occasion to attack his rear, and when he learned of his approach he did everything to confirm his antagonist in the belief that at that time, the afternoon of the 6th, only his rear remained to cross. Simcoe's Rangers and the baggage alone had passed over (Yorktown Campaign, p. 61).

Anthony Wayne led a five-hundred-man advance guard to keep contact and feel out the enemy. When Lafayette joined Wayne at about 1 p.m., there were contradictory reports as to whether the British main body was still on the peninsula or whether only a rear guard remained. Under these circumstances Lafayette ordered the remaining Pennsylvania Continentals and all the light infantry to close upon Wayne's command at Green Spring Plantation. The militia stayed twelve miles to the rear.

While waiting for these reinforcements to advance the six miles from Norrell's Mills, Wayne spent most of the afternoon skirmishing with the enemy. Against the delaying tactics of Tarleton's outposts, the Virginia riflemen of Majors Richard Call and John Willis (about two hundred men), supported by John Francis Mercer, William Galvan, and William McPherson with their dragoons and light infantry, gained ground steadily. Walter Stewart's Pennsylvania Continental Battalion followed in reserve. From Green Spring Plantation (whose mansion had belonged to Governor Sir William Berkeley), the Americans had to cross four hundred yards of marshy ground to the main Williamsburg-Jamestown road. About a mile along this road the enemy camp, hidden behind some woods, was on the river bank opposite the north end of Jamestown Island. Although the American light forces performed splendidly, shooting down three rear guard commanders in succession, "the striking feature of this preliminary skirmishing," according to Johnston, "was the art practiced by Cornwallis in attempting to draw Wayne and Lafayette to destruction" (ibid., p. 61).

By the time the reinforcements reached Green Spring at about 5 p.m., Wayne was close to the main British army, although he apparently thought he had nothing but a rear guard on his hands. Lafayette, however, seems to have suspected that things were not as they appeared, and he held in reserve at Green Spring the veteran light infantry battalions of Francis Barber and Joseph Vose. Across the swamp to support Wayne went the light infantry battalion of Major John P. Wyllys and the two remaining Pennsylvania battalions, those of Richard Butler and Richard Humpton. Supported by three cannons, these reinforcements brought Wayne's total strength up to about nine hundred men. When Lafayette rode to a tongue of land on the river bank for a personal reconnaissance to see, if possible, whether the main body of enemy troops was still on his side of the James, he discovered the alarming truth and rushed back to keep Wayne from getting drawn into a general engagement. But it was too late.

Cornwallis could have attacked as early as 4 p.m. and crushed Wayne's advance guard, but he waited until he was sure that enough of Lafayette's corps was on the field to make his blow decisive. While the young marquis was making his reconnaissance, Major Galvan was ordered to lead his fifty or sixty light infantry in an attempt to capture an exposed cannon; after a spirited effort he had to fall back on the American left flank. Assured either by this attack or by other evidence that Lafayette's main body was now on the field, Cornwallis sprung the trap. Lieutenant Colonel Yorke's light infantry formed the British right, and the Forty-third, Seventy-sixth, and Eightieth formed the left under Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Dundas.

When Wayne suddenly found himself attacked by Cornwallis's entire force, he reacted with courage and also with good tactical sense: he attacked. In what he called "a choice of difficulties," he realized that under the circumstances an attempted retreat might turn into a panic. An attempted stand against such odds would be disastrous, particularly since the enemy line overlapped both his flanks. Wayne's solution also had the feature of surprise, and it showed an understanding—probably instinctive—of the human factor. There is a chapter of battlefield leadership in this decision.

"The movement was successful, though costly," Johnston has observed. Wayne's men charged through grapeshot and musket fire to within seventy yards of the enemy and stopped them in their tracks for fifteen minutes. Lafayette took a prominent part in salvaging the situation he had not quite been able to prevent. Retreating rapidly but in good order to the reserve line at Green Spring, the Americans remained there a few hours and then withdrew during the night to Chickahominy Church. Since Cornwallis did not attack until "near sunset," as he reported to Clinton, this left him only an hour of daylight for the entire action, and there was no pursuit.

NUMBERS AND LOSSES

Out of 900 engaged, Wayne lost 28 killed, 99 wounded, and 12 missing. Two guns were lost, one of them a piece captured at Bennington. British losses were 75 killed and wounded. As for numbers, about 7,000 British were on the field, since only Simcoe's Rangers and the baggage had crossed the James, but the Guards, the Twenty-third and Thirty-third Regiments, and Hessians were in reserve when Cornwallis launched his counterattack and participated little, if at all.

COMMENT

Although clearly defeated, Lafayette handled the action well. "The criticism that he exposed his army to destruction, when so much depended upon keeping it intact, is hardly supported by the facts," Johnston has said. His dispositions were such that not more than a third of his regulars could have been destroyed even under the worst possible turn of events. As for Earl Cornwallis, after all his skill in luring "the boy" into position for a knockout, he swung just a little bit too late. "One hour more of daylight must have produced the most disastrous conclusions," said "Light-Horse Harry" Lee. Cornwallis himself said another thirty minutes of daylight would have enabled him to destroy most of Lafayette's force. His military reputation would fare better in India, where he was not opposed to such generals as Lafayette and "Mad Anthony" Wayne.

SEE ALSO Virginia, Military Operations in.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Hatch, Charles. "'The Affair Near James Island' (or, 'The Battle of Green Spring'), July 6, 1781." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 53 (July 1945): 172-196.

Johnston, Henry P. The Yorktown Campaign and the Surrender of Cornwallis, 1781. New York: Eastern Acorn Press, 1981.

Lee, Henry. The American Revolution in the South. New York: Arno Press, 1969.

Marshall, S. L. A. Men against Fire. New York and Washington: Combat and Morrow, 1947.

Nelson, Paul D. Anthony Wayne: Soldier of the Early Republic. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969.

Picq, Ardant du. Battle Studies. New York: Macmillan, 1921.

                          revised by Harry M. Ward