The Battle of Green Spring: A Footnote on the Road to Yorktown

The War Years (1775-1783)

November 10, 2022
by Conor Robison Also by this Author

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Ensign Ebenezer Denny calculated that he went from a green officer to a combat veteran in all of four minutes. Yet in those harsh two hundred and forty seconds he felt like anything but a leader of men in battle. Adrenaline alone was no match against hard marching amidst the brutal Virginia heat with a battle at the end of it. Having fortified himself with a handful of blackberries, the twenty-year-old Denny felt faint, keeping his place in line only “with difficulty,” and admitted to more than once thinking of tossing his espontoon away.[1] Anything to hasten his retreat would have been fine with Denny, for the vanguard of General Lafayette’s army was even then extracting itself from British encirclement. Three battalions of Pennsylvania Continentals had carried themselves forward under the sword of Gen. Anthony Wayne mistaken in the belief that only the British rearguard remained this side of the James River. Gen. Charles, Earl Cornwallis proved these notions false; as his redcoats even then pressed around the American flanks. Defeat in this the largest land battle of the war in Virginia was not the desired outcome, but at least Ensign Denny had not disgraced himself as he had feared, nor indeed had his comrades. In retreat the Americans had taken to their heels but could be satisfied in the knowledge that they had stared down the whole of Cornwallis’s army and come out of it ready to fight another day. The British, on the other hand, were left wondering if they had missed a golden opportunity of destroying their enemy in the battle of Green Spring.

Cornwallis Comes to Virginia

Green Spring, once home to a crown governor of Virginia, became a battlefield because of a major operational reorientation on the part of Cornwallis. Exasperated after months of chasing a Continental army under Gen. Nathanael Greene across the Carolina interior, his campaign culminated in the bloodletting of Guilford Courthouse. Though he came away the victor once again, this engagement left him without forage and many wounded, and lacking in the Loyalist support he had so desperately sought. Now, after a bitter march to Wilmington, North Carolina, which felt suspiciously like a retreat, Cornwallis sat “getting rid of my wounded and refitting my troops.” In a letter to Maj. Gen. William Phillips, he candidly asked, “my dear friend, what is our plan?” Cornwallis, apparently, was at a strategic crossroads. Thoroughly sick of “marching about the country in search of adventures” in the Carolinas, the Earl cast his gaze northward and in the Old Dominion sensed an opportunity.[2]

Virginia served as a natural conduit, by which Washington funneled troops to his southern army. British forces under Benedict Arnold had been in the region since January, and when reinforcements under Phillips arrived in the spring, these units carried the war back up the James River into the Virginian interior. Rendezvousing with Phillips would repair the damage done Cornwallis’s forces by Greene and enable him to carry on an offensive war in the richest of the American colonies. The benefits of “successful operations” in Virginia, he argued to Lord Germain, Secretary of State for the Colonies, “might not only be attended with important consequences there, but would tend to the security of South Carolina, and ultimately . . . the submission of North Carolina.”[3]

Knowing that an advance into Virginia without the consent of his immediate superior, General Sir Henry Clinton, was a bold step, Cornwallis nevertheless ordered Phillips to “make every Movement in your power to facilitate our Meeting, which must be somewhere near Petersburg.”[4] Arriving in May after an unmolested march through North Carolina to find Phillips dead from a fever, Cornwallis mourned his friend and subsumed his forces into his own, raising his numbers by several thousand men; more than a match for the paltry American army lingering across the James at Richmond.[5]

To the commander-in-chief, he wrote of taking Richmond “and with my light troops to destroy any magazines or stores in the neighborhood,” before proceeding to the “Neck at Williamsburgh” to await orders from Clinton.[6] If he could engage and defeat the major American forces in the area, it would propel British ambitions in Virginia. But the twenty-three-year-old Guilbert du Mortier, Marquis de Lafayette refused battle with the Earl, highly conscientious that a defeat would leave the American cause in Virginia in tatters, and “nail my name upon the ruins of what good folks are pleased to call the army of Virginia.”[7] Lafayette possessed fewer than a thousand Continentals—“chiefly all light infantry, dressed in frocks and over all linens”—the bulk of his forces made up of Militia, who were “not numerous, come without arms, and are not used to war.” Consequently, he moved north, evading battle until early June when a reinforcement under Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne brought to the fight three battalions of the Pennsylvania line, near eight hundred strong.[8]

Wayne’s arrival coincided with Cornwallis’s abandonment of his pursuit of Lafayette. Returning to Richmond a month after his arrival in Virginia, the Earl satisfied himself by sending long-range raiding parties under Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton as far afield as Charlottesville, before heading down the peninsula to Williamsburg, as originally planned. Fresh correspondence from Clinton gave the Earl a new purpose. Fearful of a Franco-American assault against New York, Clinton urged Cornwallis in a letter dated June 11, 1781, to send him back what troops he could spare for the defense of New York. Dutifully, Cornwallis began to make for Portsmouth, with Lafayette following at a distance. The Marquis, however, as well as Wayne were growing eager for a confrontation.[9]

Wayne was an aggressive commander, whose arrival helped infuse Lafayette’s army with a renewed zeal for battle. To Wayne, Lafayette’s orders were clear: “whatever Road they take you will please proced on that Rout and if opportunity offers to attak them You will do for the best.”[10] But Cornwallis was not so easily assailed. His army withdrew, much to the consternation of the Americans, whose eagerness turned to sullen disappointment on June 23, as Capt. John Davis of the 1st Pennsylvania reported “the enemy within 1 mile of us . . . A Universal joy prevailed that certain success was before [us] . . . but to our great mortification [it] turned out to be a false alarm.” That night rain soaked the men through.[11]

The ardor of both armies was further tempered by the heat, which was so “unbearable that many men have been lost to heatstroke or their reason impaired,” Capt. Johann Ewald of the Hessian Jägers reported. “Everything that one has on his body is soaked as with water from the constant perspiration.”[12] Fighting a battle in such a climate, intermixed with rain and hard marching and counter marching was a difficult proposition, and the only significant fight was a sharp skirmish on June 26 at Spencer’s Ordinary between Cornwallis’s rear and Lafayette’s advance guard. Cornwallis made it to Williamsburg unimpeded on the last day of June and quit it four days later as the Americans celebrated their fifth Independence Day a few miles away. At Jamestown, Cornwallis began crossing the James River and preparing for battle. For a week, the Earl had pondered how best to bloody Lafayette’s nose; now, at the river he prepared a trap. By the morning of July 6, most of his infantry sat secure in a position Tarleton described as “equally strong and convenient” with the British right “covered by ponds; the center and left by [a] morass, over which a few narrow causeways connected it with the country and James island . . . in the rear.”[13] To their front, woods concealed their position, beyond which a morass, cut through by the main road from Williamsburg, made the advance of an enemy difficult. Cornwallis would be aware of Lafayette’s coming long before the Frenchmen had any clear understanding of what he was marching into.

“Advance and charge them”: Battle Erupts

Intelligence gathered the night of July 5 encouraged Lafayette in his ambitions, and the next morning he set his two Continental brigades in motion from their posts at Norrell’s Mills, some eight miles east of Cornwallis’s position. Almost immediately the movement was “considerably retarded by the uncertainty, variety and contradiction of the reports that were brought . . . [and] so fatally delusive,” Maj. William Galvan of the light infantry remembered “as to induce the General to send back the whole of the Light Infantry and . . . the greatest part of the Pennsylvanians.”[14] Wayne pressed on with a mixed task force of five hundred men, and a single cannon. He arrived near Green Spring farmhouse around 2pm and threw forward what little cavalry he had, supported by three hundred Virginia militiamen, almost universally referred to as “riflemen,” as a spearhead across the causeway, while keeping his one battalion of Pennsylvanians close to hand as a reserve. This advance triggered a sparring match with British picquets hugging the tree line.[15]

The obstinacy of their defense worried Lafayette, who had come up with Wayne as the action commenced. Prudently he ordered his Continentals to come forward in support, but as they were several miles back down the road it would take time. In the meantime, he chose to ride forward along the riverbank and “discovered that a very considerable part of their army . . . remained on this side of the river.” By the time he rode back, Wayne was in the fight of his life.[16]

For several hours the advance elements of both armies skirmished intermittently. British picquets, a mere twenty highlanders of the 76th Regiment of Foot, gamely held their position at the edge of the woods, with some of Tarleton’s cavalry in support. Their stand checked the Americans while Cornwallis kept his main body hidden a mile back. Paying for their obstinacy with heavy casualties, the highlanders were at last ordered to withdraw just as the first of Lafayette’s Continental light infantry came onto the field.[17] Their commander, Maj. William Galvan, zeroed in on the thunderous report of a cannon somewhere off to the right. He had brought one hundred light infantrymen with him at a rapid pace to join Wayne and now requested permission to seize the enemy’s gun. Wayne acquiesced. Upon entering the woods Galvan was led into position by Lt. Col. John Mercer of the Virginia Militia. A former Continental, like many of his men, Mercer directed Galvan’s advance to the left of his own position at the edge of the woods, where they proceeded “to fire long shot on the enemy’s army.”[18] The British gun was nowhere to be seen, but as the light infantry came on line, Cornwallis finally revealed his hand.

To Galvan’s eyes, the British left “extended as far as I could see,” while “a wood prevented my discovering much of their right.” Mistaken in the belief that naught but a rearguard lay in his front and assured that he would be supported, Galvan determined to turn the British right. Wheeling into the open field, he came under fire from British artillery just as Cornwallis ordered his main army to advance. All afternoon the Earl had kept his men hidden beneath the lip of a wooded ravine in front of his camp. The paltry skirmishing to his front against mere militia was not enough for him to reveal his main strength. But with the arrival of the Continentals, the best Lafayette had to offer, Cornwallis turned out his troops on a two-brigade front; the right wing consisting of the cream of his army: two battalions of light infantry, supported by the Brigade of Guards and several battalions of British and Hessian foot. On his left, Lt. Col. Thomas Dundas led on the 76th and 80th Regiments, highland and lowland Scots marching as one, with elements of the 43rd Regiment at their shoulders. To them went the honor of carrying the action against Wayne’s Pennsylvanians, who were now streaming onto the field, rapidly deploying from columns into lines of battle.[19]

A French plan of the Battle of Green Spring. Green Spring can be seen at the top. The advance of Wayne’s Continentals is shown with the blue bars, C and D, while the British flanking movement is shown at E, in pink, moving to the right. (Library of Congress)

The sudden British onslaught was enough to send Galvan rearward, along with most of the Virginia militia. He tied in with the left wing of the emerging Pennsylvania line, bringing his men forward once more. For forward was the direction Anthony Wayne was going. His three Pennsylvania battalions, buttressed by handfuls of Continental light infantry on either flank and several guns, were struggling forward through the morass and the woods beyond. They came on, Mercer remembered, “in such close order as to render it utterly impracticable to advance in line & preserve their order.” This rigid adherence to what Mercer dubbed “the German tactics” stood in stark contrast to the British “advancing,” as Ebenezar Denny recalled, “at arm’s-length distance” while their second line stood “in close order, with shouldered musket[s].”[20] Already they were wrapping round Wayne’s flanks.

Naturally an aggressive commander, Wayne once wrote “I would almost a soon face an Enemy with a good musket and Bayonet without ammunition—as with ammunition without a Bayonet for . . . I am confident that one bayonet keeps off an other.” To contemporaries, Wayne and his Pennsylvanians “were singularly fitted for close and stubborn action, hand to hand.” This spirit of the bayonet brought Wayne glory at Stony Point in 1779, and a sharp reverse and lampoonment in verse a year later at Bulls Ferry. But the old Pennsylvania line was no more; the mutiny of January had halved it numbers, and though Wayne brought many veterans with him to Virginia many more new men filled out the battalions. How they would stand up at the supreme moment was answered when Wayne “determined, among a choice of difficulties, to advance and charge them.”[21] An immediate headlong advance against greater numbers was audacious enough to fit Wayne’s style, and served, Wayne claimed “of checking their advance” albeit momentarily.[22]

Coolly closing with the British to the intimate range of eighty yards, “under a heavy fire of Grape shot” Capt. John Davis reported “we opened our musquetry at their line.” The ensuing firefight did not last long as the British could bring more guns to bear against the more compacted front of the Continentals. Amidst the withering barrage Ensign Denny found himself promoted to company command, his captain hobbling rearward with a British ball through his foot. Instantaneous command “devolved on me” he wrote, “young and inexperienced, exhausted with hunger and fatigue . . . and with difficulty kept my place.” Indeed, Denny kept his place until the British right threw back Wayne’s left, leaving his right wing vulnerable to a sudden onslaught from Dundas’s Scots.

The fatal blow came from Cornwallis himself. According to an officer of the 76th, the Earl rode forward and bellowed for the highlanders to advance. Drowned out by the cacophony all around him, Cornwallis utilized his cane, vigorously tapping it upon a highland shoulder before gesturing in the direction of the enemy. This apparently ignited a chain reaction that carried the highlanders forward, followed by the 80th, who would not be outdone.[23] Flanked and pressed by a steel-lined foe to their front, the Pennsylvanians prudently called it quits, abandoning their position and two pieces of artillery, to stream back towards Green Spring where Lafayette had aligned two battalions of his light infantry to cover their retreat. With darkness upon the field the British advanced only as far as the ground vacated by their enemies, satisfied in the knowledge, to use Cornwallis’s words, that they had given “the Pennsylvania line a trimming.”[24]

Darkness alone, the British claimed, saved Lafayette’s advance guard from annihilation. Tarleton later lamented Cornwallis’s unwillingness to send him in pursuit of the battered Americans the next day, confident that had he been unleashed to hound the defeated enemy the ultimate results “would have prevented the combination which produced the fall of York Town and Gloucester.”[25] Cornwallis demurred, and crossed over the James to Cobham the next day, resuming the march to Portsmouth in adherence to Clinton’s orders of June 11, seeing in a possible pursuit an unnecessary waylaying of the immediate goal of Portsmouth. The Americans had been chastened; the lesson delivered. That was enough for now.

For the Americans, Green Spring was indeed a bloody nose, but one covered with glory. Wayne’s advance guard never exceeded eight hundred men; they had come into the fight unsure of the size or true whereabouts of their enemy. Once engaged and Cornwallis’s true nature revealed they had marched forward steadily to meet him head on, delivering volleys at a mere eighty yards, even as their flanks were overlapped and faltering, and the horrifying knowledge that marshland lay at their backs. In staving off destruction against such odds these few hundred Continentals and militia had shown a professional competency rarely equaled anywhere else in the war, yet the action this day—for none who fought there ever referred to it as anything beyond a skirmish—would remain but a footnote in the looming shadow of Yorktown.

 


[1]Ebenezer Denny, Military Journal of Major Ebenezer Denny, an Officer in the Revolutionary and Indian Wars. With and Introductory Memoir (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & CO., 1859), 37.

[2]Charles Cornwallis to William Phillips, Wilmington, April 10, 1781, Correspondence of Charles, First Marquis Cornwallis. Three Volumes. Second Edition, ed. Charles Ross (London: John Murray, 1859), 1:88-89 (Cornwallis Correspondence).

[3]Cornwallis to George Germain, Wilmington, April 18, 1781, Cornwallis Correspondence, 1:90-91.

[4]Cornwallis to Henry Clinton, Wilmington, April 23, 1781, The State Records of North Carolina. Volume XVII- 1781-’85, ed. Walter Clarke (Goldsboro NC: Nash Brothers, 1899), 1018-1019; Cornwallis to Phillips, Wilmington, April 24, 1781, The State Records of North Carolina, 17:1019-1020.

[5]Cornwallis brought just under 1,500 men into Virginia, consisting of the Brigade of Guards, the 23rd, 33rd, both battalions of the 71st, the light infantry company of the 82nd, the German Regiment von Bose, Tarleton’s Legion, and the North Carolina Volunteers, for a total of 1,425 officers and men. Memoir of General Graham with Notices of the Campaigns in which He was Engaged from 1779 to 1801, ed. James J. Graham (Edinburgh: R&R Clark, 1863), 50. This force was joined at Petersburg by Phillip’s troops consisting of two battalions of light infantry, detachments of the 76th and 80th Regiments, and the Queen’s Rangers, all of which had been in Virginia since at least March. Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal, trans. Joseph P. Tustin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 258, 294.

[6]Cornwallis to Clinton, May 26, 1781, Cornwallis Correspondence, 1:100-101.

[7]Lafayette estimated Cornwallis’s army on May 23, 1781 at “Between 4 and 5,000 men.” Marquis de Lafayette to Alexander Hamilton, May 23, 1781,founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-02-02-1175.

[8]James McHenry to Thomas Sim Lee, June 19, 1781, A Sidelight on History: Being the Letters of James McHenry, Aide-de-camp to the Marquis of Lafayette to Thomas Sime Lee, Governor of Maryland, Written during the Yorktown Campaign, 1781 (Southampton NY: Privately Printed, 1931), 17-19. Letter from Christian Febiger, “Camp 20 Miles from Williamsburgh,” July 3, 1781, in The Bland Papers: Being a Selection from the Manuscripts of Colonel Theodorick Bland, Jr. of Prince George County Virginia. Two Volumes, ed. Charles Campbell (Petersburg: Edmund & Julian C. Ruffin, 1840), 1:71-72. Febiger stated Lafayette’s army on the eve of Green Springs consisted of “Campbell’s brigade of militia [780 men], two brigades of regulars under Wayne and Muhlenberg [750 and 800 men respectively], five pieces of artillery . . . Stephens’ and Lawson’s brigade of militia [650 and 750 men]” besides Febiger’s 2nd Virginia at just over four hundred men strong. The greatest deficiency was in cavalry which barely exceeded one hundred riders in all.

[9]Clinton to Cornwallis, New York, June 11, 1781, in Banastre Tarleton, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America (London, 1787; reis., New York: New York Times, 1968), 406-408.

[10]Lafayette to Anthony Wayne, June 21, 1781, Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution. Selected Letters and Papers, 1776-1790. Volume IV, April 1, 1781-December 23, 1781, ed. Stanley J. Idzerda (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), 205 (Lafayette Selected letters).

[11]John Davis and Jos. A. Wadell, “Diary of Captain John Davis of the Pennsylvania Line,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 1, no. 1 (July 1893): 1-16.

[12]Ewald. Diary of the American War, 314; Denny, Military Journal, 36; “Diary of Captain John Davis,” 5.

[13]Tarleton, History of the Southern Campaigns, 363.

[14]“An Unpublished Account of the Battle of Green Springs, Between Lafayette and Cornwallis, 1781, by a Participant: Major William Galvin to Richard Peters, Near Norrell’s Mill, July 8, 1781,” Gazette of the American Friends of Lafayette 1, no. 1(February 1942), ldr.lafayette.edu/concern/publications/gh93gz89g.

[15]Wayne to Washington, July 8, 1781, Correspondence of the American Revolution; Being Letters of Eminent Men to George Washington, from the time of His Taking Command of the Army to the End of His Presidency. Four Volumes, ed. Jared Sparks (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1853), 3:347 (Correspondence to Washington); “An Unpublished Account of the Battle of Green Springs,” ldr.lafayette.edu/concern/publications/gh93gz89g.

[16]Wayne to Washington, July 8, 1781, Correspondence to Washington, 3:347-348; Lafayette to Nathanael Greene, Amber’s Plantation Opposite James Island, July 8, 1781, Lafayette, Selected Letters, 237-239.

[17]“Extract of a letter from an Officer in the 76th Regiment, dated onboard the Lord Mulgrave transport, Hampton Road, Virginia, July 23,” The Caledonian Mercury, October 10, 1781, archive.org/details/sim_caledonian-mercury_1781-10-10_9380/mode/2up; Tarleton, Southern Campaigns, 363; Memoir of General Graham with Notices of the Campaigns in which He was Engaged from 1779 to 1801, ed. James J. Graham (Edinburgh: R&R Clark, 1863), 53.

[18]Gaillard Hunt, Fragments of Revolutionary History (Brooklyn: The Historical Printing Club, 1892), 49. Many of the Virginians at Green Springs had battle experience as recent as Guilford Courthouse in March against Cornwallis, where militia brigades under Gen. Edward Stephens and Robert Lawson formed the bulk of Greene’s second line. Both brigades were at this point serving with Lafayette, and many of Wayne’s riflemen were likely drawn from their ranks. Lawrence E. Babits and Joshua B. Howard, Long, Obstinate, and Bloody. The Battle of Guilford Courthouse (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 65-66.

[19]Tarleton, Southern Campaigns, 364; Graham, Memoir, 53.

[20]Denny, Military Journal, 37; “Diary of Captain John Davis,” 5-6; The Journal of Lieut. William Feltman, of the First Pennsylvania Regiment, 1781-82 (Philadelphia: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1853), 6-7.

[21]Wayne to Richard Peters, February 8, 1778, in Charles J. Stille, Major General Anthony Wayne and the Pennsylvania Line in the Continental Army (Philadelphia: J. B. Lipponcott, 1893), 118; Wayne to Washington, July 17, 1779, ibid., 208-210; Wayne to Washington, July 22, 1780, Correspondence to Washington, 38-41; Henry Lee, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States (Washington: Peter Force, 1827), 92; Correspondence to Washington, 348.

[22]Correspondence to Washington, 348.

[23]Graham, Memoir, 54; Caledonian Mercury, October 10, 1781.

[24]Cornwallis to Alexander Leslie, July 8, 1781, Cornwallis. Correspondence, 106

[25]Ibid.; Tarleton, Southern Campaigns, 365.

4 Comments

  • Good use of primary material. One minor point. The “sharp skirmish on June 26 at Spencer’s Ordinary” was not between Cornwallis’s rear and Lafayette’s advance guard. Simcoe was on a foraging excursion that day, he was not acting as a rear guard. Cornwallis was already safe at Williamsburg.

  • Thanks, Conor. Very nice article. I have a question about end note 16. You offer that Lafayette rode forward along the riverbank and discovered the bulk of the British army in the rear. You use the Wayne quote “discovered that a very considerable part…” Lafayette doesn’t mention a river reconnaissance in his letter to Greene, although Stanley Idzerda does mention it in the footnote to the Greene letter in Lafayette’s letter volume IV.

    I’ve led a number of Green Spring tours and, given the shore line, I’m not convinced that Lafayette actually did this. Did you find any other contemporary accounts confirming the recon? Or anything in Lafayette’s writings? But I admit to not knowing how the Americans discovered the British army in hiding, until it was almost too late. Thanks again.

    1. Hello Bill. I appreciate your observations, and that you know the lay of the ground better then myself. Lafayette’s family published his correspondence and Memoirs in two volumes in the 1830s, and on pg 265 of Volume I, under a section titled ‘The Historical Memoirs of 1779, 1780 & 1781’ his personal reconnaissance is discussed. To contextualize, the battle is underway and many of the Americans believe that they have only a rearguard to their front, but “Lafayette…suspected the deception, and quitted his detachment to make observations upon a tongue of land, from whence he could more easily view the passage of the enemy.” See also the note on pg 265-266.

      Lafayette, had after all been evading Cornwallis for weeks before Wayne arrives in Virginia, and remarks upon his own poor intelligence gathering apparatus. This had not improved by the time of Green Spring. That morning a number of reports come to him that our confusing and contradictory. He remains cautious of Cornwallis, and justifiably so, which is why I believe he did ride forward to a spot along the river to view the other bank.

      Where specifically this “tongue of land” was I do not know. Why Lafayette doesn’t report this, but Wayne does, only to wait until a later memoir is anybody’s guess. Also, is the course of the James the same as it was in 1781? Thank you for your observations!

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