The “Affair Near James Island”
(or, “The Battle of Green Spring”)
Charles E. Hatch, Jr.

Note: The following is taken from the July 1945 issue of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (volume 53), pp. 172–96.

(or, “The Battle of Green Spring”)
July 6, 1781

Late in June and early in July of 1781 the tide of battle in the Virginia Campaign of the American Revolution swept down the Peninsula, the historically famous area between the York and the James rivers. Lord Cornwallis, with his British army, was withdrawing from the Piedmont section to what he thought would be a more secure location in the Tidewater region while the Marquis de Lafayette, leading the American army, was conducting a close and cautious yet carefully planned pursuit. On July 6, 1781 the two armies collided momentarily just above the entrance to Jamestown Island, on the mainland, where a “spirited”, brief, yet bloody skirmish took place before a withdrawal of American troops could be effected.

The scene of the action covered an area of approximately two square miles in extent laying between Green Spring and the “ford” leading over to Jamestown Island and was fought along and around the old road connecting these two places. At the time the area was of a strictly rural character like much of the surrounding country. It was an area of plantations and small farms made up of marsh, woodland, and cultivated fields all of which played a part in the fighting. Only an occasional object remained visible to suggest the earlier and full history of the area as it had been made by the first settlers as they moved out from Jamestown, by Governor Berkeley who resided for many years at Green Spring, by Nathaniel Bacon, Junior, and his “rebel” army moving against Jamestown in 1676, and by others for almost two centuries.

A Secttion from the “Plan du Terrein a la Rive Gauche de la Riviere de James
vis-a-vis James-Town en Virginie ou s’est livre le Combat du juillet, 1781, entre
l’armée Américaine Commandée par le Mes de la fayttte et l’armée angloise aux ordres du Lord Cornwallis” by Colonel Desandrouins.

A—British pickets: B—Fartherest advance of the American riflemen: C—Wayne’s
force after crossing the causeway: D—Wayne’s force “en battaile”: E—British force concealed in ravine: F—British units moved around American left flank: G—British force “en battaile”: H—American troops that covered Wayne’s retreat. Note “Mr Harris (John Harris’s) residence between D and G.: “Mr Wilkesson” (William Wilkinsons) farm between D and G: “Humbler’s plantation” (John Ambler s plantation) below the “Camp des Anglois” and the “Church” just above the camp.

The action near Jamestown was not an isolated event even less so perhaps than many similar engagements. It was in reality a significant incident in the general campaign that began early in 1781 when the British dispatched Brigadier-General Benedict Arnold and later Major-General William Phillips to Virginia and gained momentum with Cornwallis’s entry into Virginia in late spring of the same year—the Virginia Campaign that ended so disastrously for the British at Yorktown.2

The arrival of Cornwallis at Petersburg on May 20 with his battle seasoned veterans of much campaigning in the south and the juncture of his army with that of General Phillips, now commanded by Arnold, gave the British a sizeable force in Virginia. The enemy was far superior to the small American army under Lafayette who had been doing what he could to hinder Phillips’s operations along the James.

Cornwallis paused at Petersburg where he took command of the entire British force in Virginia, surveyed his combined forces, selected an army to take the field, and dispatched his remaining force to Portsmouth, the then British base of operations in Virginia. His plan for making a field campaign he outlined in a letter to Clinton on May 26: “I shall now proceed to dislodge La Fayette from Richmond and with my light Troops to destroy any Magazines or Stores in the Neighborhood, which may have been collected, either for his use or for General Greene’s Army.”3 This was his reason as given to his commanding officer who was in opposition to such a move. Perhaps he thought it best to aim his sights low since the summer months, not considered favorable fighting weather, were just ahead. It is questionable, however, that these were the limits of his expectations despite the fact that his army was not exceptionally large. Lafayette’s army, it must be remembered, was decidedly smaller. He may have been, and it seems highly probable that he was without committing himself too much, beginning the offensive which he had strongly urged to Clinton: “I shall take the liberty of repeating, that if offensive War is intended, Virginia appears to me, to be the only Province, in which it can be carried on, and in which there is a Stake.”4

Lafayette, too weak to offer battle, had no choice other than retreat. His long awaited reinforcements were still expected. He planned to make every effort to avoid battle, keep his force intact until strengthened, protect American supplies, keep open communications with the north, and to retreat toward his source of reinforcements. Thus developed the campaign of “marches and counter marches” through Richmond and well up into Virginia. On June 7 Brigadier-General Wayne, followed by a substantial force from the Pennsylvania Line, joined Lafayette. This doubled the strength of the regular line troops under his command yet still did not give him an army equal to that of his opponent.5 Nevertheless, within a short time there was a complete change in the movement of the campaign. The British began to withdraw from inland Virginia and turned toward the coast.

Cornwallis had been successful in forcing Lafayette into a retreat and partially successful in the destruction of supplies. Beyond this, however, he had accomplished little. He had failed to force an engagement with Lafayette who was in fact stronger than when he first faced him.

Despite the fact that Cornwallis changed his tactics neither from fear, nor from compulsion, it had an important effect in Virginia for outwardly it seemed that he was abandoning an invasion of the State. Several obvious facts undoubtedly prompted his change of march. It seemed unlikely that he would be able to force Lafayette into an engagement; for the moment he had accomplished as much as possible in the destruction of supplies: he had found no great body of British supporters in the civilian population: and, his enemy was growing stronger while he grew weaker. With these things in mind he made an abrupt change of march, moved back to Richmond, and then headed down the Peninsula toward Williamsburg where he hoped to rest.6 As one of his men described it: “The army began to move towards Williamsburgh Neck for the sake of health at this season of the year, as well as because there was no chance of coming up with La Fayette’s corps[.] . . .”7

Lafayette reversed his tactics as quickly as did Cornwallis and changed from retreat to forward movement. He followed the British as closely as possible without bringing on a general engagement. As the march progressed Lafayette’s forces grew slowly in size and in confidence and spirit as well. The Marquis began, in fact, to think in terms of genuine offensive action if he could foresee reasonable security. This change of attitude is expressed quite clearly in his letter to Daniel Morgan (whom he was expecting to join him) written from headquarters on June 20, 1781:8

Your junction with us, my dear friend, is very important. If you bring us a large body, we may, I think, cope with their army. I am for the present following them, but agree in opinion with you, and unless a very favorable opportunity offers, will not risk a battle.9

In this bolder spirit Lafayette threw forward selected corps to strike at British detachments, to cut off enemy foraging parties, and to exert constant pressure on the British rear-guard. It was in keeping with this general plan that the first real skirmish of the Virginia Campaign took place on June 26 at “Hot Water Plantation” not far from Green Spring and six miles from Williamsburg.10 This skirmish did much to prepare the way for and to bring on the action near Jamestown Island.

Lieutenant-Colonel Simcoe, commander of the Queen’s Rangers (Volunteer Horse), protecting Cornwallis’s rear and right flank as he moved into Williamsburg, had been dispatched with a detachment to the Chickahominy River to destroy some enemy boats and stores, to “Collect all the cattle he could”, and to do general foraging. On June 26 as he was returning to the British base he was brought into action by an American advance force.11 Lafayette had described the plan of the attack, formulated in advance for just such an occasion, to Wayne the day before; and early on the 26th Wayne, with his detachment, had put the manoeuvers into operation. At the last moment Lafayette fearful that his light corps and Pennsylvanians become fully engaged felt it necessary to move down closer to the scene himself. He wanted a skirmish it is true, yet above all he did not want a general battle. Thus far Lafayette had not been able, as he wrote Thomas Jefferson “to do . . . [Cornwallis] any injury.” On this occasion, however, he had somewhat better success for his assault on Simcoe proceeded according to plan.12

After a swift pursuit for five or six miles the American detachment, under the immediate command of Colonel Richard Butler and consisting of four platoons made up largely of riflemen and a party of horse under Major William McPherson, came within striking distance of the British raiding party. McPherson’s 50 dragoons, with an equal number of the New Jersey light infantry mounted behind them, first overhauled and engaged Simcoe with his Queen’s Rangers strengthened by a detachment of Yagers. Within six miles of Williamsburg, about noon, the action began and continued near the junction of the Jamestown-Williamsburg Road and the highway leading from it to the Chickahominy River. For the most part the skirmish occurred north of the Jamestown Road and on both sides of the “way” to the Chickahominy with some fighting in the open fields, some along the fence lines, and some in the woods. McPherson moved to the west to interrupt the British horse then returning from foraging in the Green Spring area (known to Simcoe as “Lee’s farm”).13 As soon as possible Butler’s advanced infantry, riflemen mostly, under Major Richard Call and Major John Wyllys joined in the action supporting the light dragoons and at the same time moving east of the road to engage the British Yagers and those of the Queen’s Rangers then “in Halt.” For a short time there was a “smartt skirmish”. Having stopped McPherson, Simcoe swung his returning cavalry to join those resting along the road in order to block the American push down the Chickahominy Road while the Yagers attempted to flank the riflemen by circling the field between them. The Americans, however, broke off the action when Cornwallis, after sounding a general alarm, moved out from Williamsburg to relieve Simcoe. Despite the fact that Wayne had reinforcements ready to move up, he did not move them as he had been instructed not to bring on a general engagement. Certainly he had no intention of doing this without the full American force which was not organized within striking distance.14

Success in this skirmish apparently rested with the Americans. An attack upon a designated detachment of the British army had been made. Perhaps it did not accomplish as much as had been hoped for although it did inflict punishment on Simcoe’s corps, hastened his withdrawal into Williamsburg, and resulted in the capture of about 30 cattle and several horses. In listing the casualties Lafayette gave the American losses at nine killed, 14 wounded and 13 missing. The British, according to both Cornwallis and Tarleton, had approximately 30 killed and wounded. Simcoe listed his loss at 11 killed and 26 wounded. Lafayette, perhaps too optimistic or misinformed, magnified the British losses to 60 killed and 100 wounded.15

Whatever else the skirmish did, it was most effective in building up, or restoring, American morale in Lafayette’s corps and in the State as well. It brought confidence and dispelled some of the fears for the British “dragoons”. Lafayette phrased this concisely in a letter to Governor Thomas Nelson two days after the action when he said; “This little success has given great satisfaction to the troops, and increased their ardor.”16

Following the action Cornwallis withdrew into Williamsburg where he was established in a strong post of his own choice and close to his shipping. Lafayette took up a position with headquarters at Tyree’s Plantation about 20 miles from the British camp.17 In the interval from June 26 to July 4 Cornwallis remained camped and resting in Williamsburg although he sent out several parties down the Peninsula to various points along the York and the James. At the same time he kept patrols active in front of the town to “ascertain the enemy’s post” and to keep in touch with the American patrols. Simcoe made two scouting raids down the Jamestown Road only to be forced back by enemy patrols.

In like manner Lafayette maintained a patrol and picket line well advanced toward Williamsburg to keep watch on Cornwallis. His army remained scattered within a close radius of his own camp and constantly on the move with “manouvers retrogate and many”. In the words of one soldier, Ebenezer Denny, “Pennsylvania troops retreat–advance again. See the Marquis’ light troops but seldom—know they are not far off. Kept constantly on the move”.18 With his troops manoeuvering, training, and keeping watch, Lafayette used the ten day interval to prepare as best he could for any eventuality. He moved to strengthen his artillery and ordered general supplies including spears, if swords were not forthcoming, as well as munitions, medicines, hospital stores, and such.19 On July 4 the American army paused for an observance of the day:

This being the anniversary of American Independence, the day was celebrated by a fu de joy [jeu de joie] fired by the whole army (except those on duty), after which the Light Infantry was manoeuvred by Major Read on a plain before the Marquis’s quarters.20

In this way the American and British armies rested and watched each other for more than a week. It was the next move of the British that brought on the action at the entrance to Jamestown Island in which each general hoped to outmanoeuver the other. At this stage of the Virginia Campaign the two armies were numerically equal although the British excelled in well trained troops, horse, and artillery. As Colonel Christian Febiger of the Second Virginia Regiment wrote on July 3, “. . . we have to oppose an enemy at least equal in numbers, and certainly superior with respect to discipline[.] . . .”21

The British army drawn up at Williamsburg was composed of approximately 4,000 troops. It included the corps that Cornwallis had brought with him from North Carolina (1,435), troops from General Phillips’s army which joined Cornwallis at Petersburg (approximately 2,000), and one regiment added from reinforcements that arrived shortly before Cornwallis moved out of Petersburg.22 During its march through Virginia the strength of the British army remained constant except for small losses from sickness and accident. The force at the beginning of July was essentially what it had been late in May. It was an excellent force with many troops “taken from the elite of . . . [the British] army” in America adequately supported by artillery and horse. Good though it was, Cornwallis’s army was, perhaps, tired from repeated marching, somewhat dull from a lack of action, and in need of some refurnishing, particularly in the cavalry. Lafayette it appears exaggerated the strength of his opponent.23

Unlike the British, the American force of 900 Continentals, 40 horse, and “a body of militia by no means considerable as they are reported to be” in May grew as the campaign had developed until before Williamsburg it was approximately 4,500 strong. Wayne had brought with him three regiments from the Pennsylvania Line, which doubled the strength of the Continental regulars under Lafayette’s command; as well as a detachment of artillery having about 100 men and six field pieces. Baron von Steuben had joined Lafayette with his militia collected in the western part of the State, and William Campbell had arrived with a body of riflemen. Other troops such as those under Daniel Morgan were daily expected. On June 24 Lafayette estimated that his army would soon be up to a strength of 5,570.24 On the eve of the action at Jamestown, however, this strength had not been reached. It numbered then, according to one detailed report, 4,656 men composed of 2,325 regulars and 2,240 militia including an artillery detachment, limited cavalry, light infantry, Continentals, riflemen, and militia.25

Lafayette was handicapped by a scarcity of mounted troops a department in which the British were strong and a fact that Lafayette stressed continually in his correspondence. Moreover, the Americans were not as well trained, equipped, and organized as the enemy. More than half of the army was militia and many of these had been in the service for a short time only. Despite these weaknesses, however, Lafayette had a respectable force and he intended to use it to the best advantage. He had with him men of proven merit already possessing a reputation even in the British camp—men such as Anthony Wayne, Baron von Steuben, Richard Butler, William Campbell and Peter Muhlenberg. Cornwallis was generally well appraised of Lafayette’s strength although at this time he slightly underestimated the number of Continental troops in the opposing army.26

On June 30 Cornwallis in a letter to General Clinton in New York outlined his plans to withdraw from Williamsburg, to cross the James River, and to move to Portsmouth. The decision was made while Cornwallis was in Williamsburg and after the receipt of several urgent requests (orders) from Clinton to the effect that he send a part of his force to New York.27 Portsmouth was to be the port of embarkation. On July 4 Cornwallis broke camp and moved toward Jamestown Island, the most convenient point for crossing the James. In the march Tarleton’s “legion cavalry” and two companies of mounted infantry covered the right flank and rear and swept out toward Tyree’s Plantation far enough to contact the American advance pickets of riflemen and to cause an alarm in the American camp. At Jamestown the shipping joined Cornwallis and Simcoe related that the “Queen’s Rangers crossed the river that evening, and took post to cover the baggage, which was passing over as expeditiously as possible.”28 The main body of the British army moved in and camped on the “Maine” a little beyond Glass House Point. Cornwallis inferred from the manoeuvers and closeness of the enemy that Lafayette hoped to attack his rear at some moment during his movement across the James. His answer to this was given in a letter to Clinton: “I hope, however, to put that out of his power, by crossing at James City Island; and if I can get a favourable opportunity of striking a blow at him without loss of time, I will certainly try it.”29

By July 3 it appears that Lafayette knew that something was afoot and about the 4th. he had Campbell with his riflemen move down as far as Byrd’s Ordinary, sixteen miles from Williamsburg, and send out patrols still closer to the British positions. His Virginia regulars he stationed back of the riflemen and back of the Virginians Wayne and Muhlenberg with a united Continental force of about 1,500. Back of the Continentals were the militia forces and artillery. He was poised to move as Cornwallis moved or as soon as the British plan became clear. When it was evident that Cornwallis was crossing James River at Jamestown, he siezed what he thought was an excellent opportunity for engaging Cornwallis’s rear guard. During some phase of the British crossing there might be a chance to attack with advantage. If so this would be the partial engagement that Lafayette was willing to risk. Optimism was growing although he still feared a general engagement.30 Perhaps he remembered that General Nathaniel Greene had warned against a full encounter. The possibility of surprise, growing confidence, the excellent spirit of the regular troops, the restlessness of the militia, and Cornwallis’s apparent hesitation, of late, to accept the challenge of a limited action, all played a part in persuading Lafayette to try again for a limited action.31 Lafayette’s point-of-view is well expressed in his letter to Washington on January 28, 1781.

The ennemy have been so kind as to retire before us. Twice I gave them a chance of fighting (taking care not to engage further than I pleased), but they continued their retrograde motions. Our numbers are, I think, exaggerated to them, and our seeming boldness confirms the opinion.

I thought at first Lord Cornwallis wanted to get me as low down as possible and use his cavalry to advantage. But it appears he does not as yet come out, and our position will admit of partial affairs.32

Early on the morning of July 5 the Americans were ordered to move closer to the British position now that through new intelligence the intention of the enemy had become clear. Among the more advanced units moved up were troops of the Pennsylvania Line. These troops moved forward as far as Chickahominy Church and Norrell’s Mill “about nine miles from the enemy” camp. Here they remained during the night and slept on their “arms till sunrise.”33

The terrain between Jamestown and Green Spring, a distance of about three miles, is a combination of marsh, woods and cultivated fields. The same was true in 1781. In front of the Green Spring estate was a formidable strip of low marsh (a “morass”) approximately one quarter of a mile wide draining into Powhatan Creek on one side and into a small inlet emptying into the James River on the other. Directly in front of the mansion and extending across this marsh was a causeway—a rather narrow raised area—over which the road extended toward Jamestown. Beyond the marsh was the “Maine” an area of high ground between Powhatan Creek and the James. This area tapered on the southeast, as Powhatan Creek turned toward the river, to a point (Glass House Point) from which the way led over to Jamestown Island. The “Maine”, cut by several tiny inlets and marshes, was in 1781 the location of several plantations (that of John Ambler, John Harris, William Wilkinson, and a “Mr Lratchfeld” (?) ) and a church. It was crisscrossed by roads leading to Jamestown, Williamsburg, the Chickahominy, and north. The roads from the west and north entered the area from the northwest close to Green Spring and those from Jamestown and Williamsburg on the east and southeast. It was undoubtedly over the Williamsburg Road crossing Powhatan Creek near the church that the British army moved toward Jamestown. Cornwallis set up his camp on the east side of the “Maine” with his left flank toward the Williamsburg Road and his right toward the Jamestown Road above Glass House Point. It was the latter highway that he used in crossing to the Island. This position gave him good protection for his movements and when a small body of troops remained these could fall back across the “ford” to Jamestown Island and continue to hold off a superior force.34

On arrival at Norrell’s [Norvell’s] Mill Lafayette’s first intelligence report indicated that only a small British detachment remained at Jamestown and that the bulk of the force had already crossed the James. Early on the morning of the 6th. he dispatched a sizeable force of Continentals on a rapid march to attack that part of the enemy that remained. The march, however, was “considerably retarded by the uncertainty, variety, and contradition of the reports that were brought. The intelligence was so fatally delusive as to induce the General to Send back the whole of the Light Infantry and to leave behind the greatest part of the Pennsylvanians.”35

Lafayette, it seems, recalled the greater part of his force and left only a detachment under General Anthony Wayne whom he instructed to move down with “a view of reconnoitering the enemy’s situation.” Wayne moved forward cautiously with his corps made up of Major McPherson’s legion, Colonel Mercer’s and Captain Hill’s volunteer dragoons, 150 militia riflemen, and Colonel Walter Stewart’s battalion of Pennsylvanians, “. . . amounting in the whole to about 500 men, Artillery & Dragoons included[.] . . .” Wayne interpreted his instructions generally as simply “to come up with the enemy.”36

Early in the afternoon, about 2 o’clock, Wayne reached “the large brick house” at Green Spring where he halted to learn, if possible, the exact strength of the British still on the north side of the James. He felt it necessary, as he phrased it, “to reconnoitre with a Military eye.” The intelligence that had been coming in was conflicting and for a good reason. The British, especially Tarleton, had through money and “encouraging promises” been bribing messengers to convey false information. At least one negro and a young dragoon had been told to spread the word that the major part of the British force had crossed the river. Some of these messengers got through to confuse Lafayette and Wayne. It was probably at Green Spring that the negro sent out by Tarleton met up with the American army.37

At this juncture Lafayette arrived at Green Spring in person. Here he was informed that the British were withdrawing. “Two intelligent young dragoons” reported, after making observations near the river, that Cornwallis had sent over a large portion of his troops. This, however, did not completely satisfy Lafayette for other advices seemed to contradict this with the implication that “a very considerable part of the [British] army yet remained on this side.” Lafayette felt it necessary to order additional troops to move up. These, at the time, were about six miles away. It is evident from what has been said that the strength of the British was not known and opinions differed as to its probable strength. At length it was decided to continue with the scouting advance. Colonel Mercer, with ten or twelve volunteer horse, was sent to reconnoiter while the riflemen were thrown out in front with instructions to push forward carefully. Directly in front of Green Spring contact was made with a patrol of cavalry that gave way to the American advance. This was about 2 o’clock in the afternoon. The British cavalry patrol, with its leader, Lieutenant Grier, wounded, fell back over the causeway to the high ground of the “Maine”, withdrawing in favor of British pickets. The riflemen pushed ahead to, along, and across the causeway in pursuit and came up against the pickets stationed along the edge of the woods bordering on the marsh.38 This “began . . . a galling fire upon the Enemy which continued until five in the Evening[.] . . .”39

It was through the cavalry foragers sent out in front of his encampment early on the morning of the 6th. that Cornwallis learned of the American movement toward Green Spring. Expecting some kind of attack and perceiving that Lafayette would not be drawn into a real action unless convinced that only a part of the British army stood ready to do battle, Cornwallis had developed plans to deceive him. He carefully executed these plans during the day. The transmission of false intelligence, the withdrawal of the outposts, and the stubborn resistance of the British pickets were all a part of this plan. This was designed to convince Lafayette that the British were not in force. Cornwallis, on the first contact with the enemy, set up a smoke signal to call in his troops, grouped his corps, and cleverly concealed the army at the head of a ravine with orders to remain out of sight. The pickets in the woods along the morass and causeway, supported by the cavalry on the left, kept the Americans from reaching the open ground from which the army was visible. This explains the stubborn persistence of the pickets made up largely of men from the 76th. Regiment of Colonel Dundas’s brigade and commanded by Lieutenant Balneaves of the 80th. Cornwallis “suffered . . . [his] picquets to be insulted . . .” and instructed them to hold out as long as possible. Before the pickets were finally ordered to retire their commander Lieutenant Balneaves was killed, his successor, Lieutenant Alston, severely wounded, and his successor, Ensign Wemyss, wounded. The activity between the American riflemen and the British patrols and pickets began about 3 o’clock and kept up for several hours—until “near sun-set.” Cornwallis waited patiently with his force drawn up in two battle lines.40

Lafayette still somewhat confused by his intelligence reports was impressed by the obstinancy of the British pickets. Having ordered up reinforcements and sent the advance party of riflemen ahead, he proceeded to a point along the river south of the Green Spring mansion to make observations of his own. What he saw convinced him that the enemy had not crossed in force but lay waiting for his detachment to get in range before making an attack. He saw the small British corps (Simcoe’s command) on the south side of the river obviously parading to give the impression of numbers which they did not have. This cleared up all the doubts in Lafayette’s mind for the British plan was now quite clear to him. The army was drawn up in front of Ambler’s Plantation under the protection of its shipping. He hurriedly left his point of observation and hastened back to Green Spring to withdraw his scouting party. He arrived too late, however, for the action was already on. The reinforcements had come up in his absence, among them the Virginia light infantry. He stationed two battalions of the Virginians (under Colonel Joseph Vose and Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Barber) in an open field in front of Green Spring at the west end of the causeway to cover Wayne’s retreat, and then went up to the scene of action. The other reinforcements consisting of two Pennsylvania battalions likewise went to the front to Wayne.41

Following the riflemen over the causeway Wayne’s detachment began to arrive on the east side of the causeway, on the “Maine”, about five o’clock. The advance guard under Major William Galvan, field officer of the day, led the way. He was attracted by an enemy field piece firing toward the American right. It was this field piece, placed as a decoy by the British, that set off the action. The cannon ceased firing and began “retreating” whereupon Galvan, by request, was ordered with his small group of light infantry troops, to effect its capture. The movement against this cannon was a signal to the British who now began to move up.

Expecting Major John Wyllys’s corps, supported by a field piece under Captain Savage, to follow, Galvan set out:

We soon came up with several parties of the riflemen from which I could learn nothing of the pretended retreating field piece, neither could they better inform me of the situation of the enemy, nor I see any part of their line; upon this I kept moving forward and met Col. Mercer whose horse had been killed and who, wounded himself, had the galantry to guide my little column till we came in full sight of the British line. I found their left extended as far as I could see, a wood preventing my discovering much of their right, but from my prepossession of the inconsiderable number they had on this side, and from the great extension of their left, I judged that the extremity of their right flank could not be distant and without further hesitation resolved to turn it. I therefore wheeled to the left and soon came to a large open field, where I perceived them drawn up and stretching out of my sight with a field piece opposite to me which had already begun to play.42

In this critical situation, within 300 yards of the enemy, Galvan saw that it would be “excessively dangerous” to retreat suddenly. Momentarily expecting Wyllys to come to his support he moved parallel to the British, using the system of columns which he strongly favored, until he came to “a skirt of wood” at the end of the field in which he was moving. There he wheeled to within 60 yards of the enemy “displayed and begun a smart running fire.” Reinforcements did not come up and after close firing for a matter of minutes, and with the British moving to encircle him, he was forced to retreat, but “in an order which does honor to the American discipline.”43

Wyllys with his light infantry instead of supporting Galvan was engaged by the advancing British and he found it necessary to move to his right, and not his left, delivering a devastating fire as he did so. As on the left, however, the British began to turn his flank and despite vigor and spirit he was “obliged to fall back.” Thus it was that the British moving down toward the marsh began to turn both flanks of the Americans. It was at this “Crisis” that Lieutenant-Colonel Josiah Harmer and Major Evan Edwards arrived across the morass with detachments from the 2nd. and 3rd. Pennsylvania battalions under Colonel Richard Humpton.44

Cornwallis kept his army concealed until the American riflemen across the marsh were being strengthened by Continentals. Then he left his hiding place in the ravine and “put the Troops under Arms & ordered the Army to advance in two Lines.” He detached two companies to move along the road leading just back of Mr. Wilkinson’s residence with instructions to move over to the edge of the marsh for a possible wide flanking movement on the American left. Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Dundas with his brigade consisting of the 43rd., 76th., and 80th. Regiments formed the left wing of the British first line. The 80th. Regiment was supported by Tarleton’s legion cavalry while light companies under Captain Champagne dismounted to reinforce the 76th. The right wing of the British first line was made up of the light infantry companies under Lieutenant-Colonel John Yorke while the second line was composed of the Brigade of Guards, Hessians and the 23rd. and 33rd. Regiments. Cornwallis wrote that “The attack was began by the first Line with great spirit.” It was the light infantry that Galvan had so gallantly attacked for a short interval before he was overpowered. Wyllys had come up against Dundas’s brigade. Despite the efforts of Wyllys and Galvan they both had to give way to the steadily advancing flanking attack and direct frontal pressure of the British line.45

At this point Wayne faced the major part of the British army with about 800 men, chiefly Pennsylvanians, and three field pieces,46 which had been advanced, as Wayne explained it, “to keep up the Idea of our being in form.” Lafayette had ordered Wayne to retreat, a thing that he saw himself that he must do since the British were not far away, especially on his flanks. To retreat with the British still advancing could easily lead to a rout as the way back was over the narrow causeway. If the
British could be checked momentarily then the extra time, small though
it would be, might prove extremely valuable. It would allow a more
orderly withdrawal. Perhaps a charge could accomplish this although a
charge itself might prove costly. This was what Wayne chose, and as it
turned out, it was a wise choice. As Wayne stated:

. . . it was determined among a Choice of Difficulties to advance & charge them, this was done with such vivacity as to produce the desired effect, i.e. checking them in their advance & diverting [them] from their first Manoeuver.47

The charge was ordered and Wayne’s men “ran to the rencontre.” Lieutenant William Feltman, wounded in the fighting, recorded that, “being then formed, brought on a general engagement, our advance regular at a charge, till we got within eighty yards of their whole army, they being regularly formed standing one yard distance from each other . . . We advanced under a heavy fire of grape-shot, at which distance we opened our musketry.”48 For perhaps fifteen minutes the Americans at close range (50 to 60 yards) locked in battle with the British first line particularly Dundas’s brigade of three regiments. The fighting for the most part took place on the open ground around the residence of the Harris plantation. With “close, warm, and well directed firing” they halted the British advance. The engagement was short, yet well contested as claimed by the Americans and readily admitted by the British. One soldier who visited the scene of the action later remarked that the line of the troops on each side could be traced easily by “empty cartridge boxes” on the ground. British field pieces opened up with grape and canister as did the American with grape. Wayne used one field cannon on his right, one on his left and, apparently, one in the center. Both Wayne and Lafayette were in the thick of the action and heedless of danger. Lafayette had one horse killed at his side while most of the field officers were dismounted. Galvan wrote that “not a man in the whole detachment was more exposed than” Lafayette.49

For at least one soldier in the American army, Ensign Denny, the intensity of the fighting was long remembered. In the thick of the engagement active command fell to his lot:

Saw the British light infantry, distinctly, advancing at arm’s-length distance, and their second line in close order, with shouldered musket . . . My Captain, Montgomery, received a shot in his foot and had hopped back in the rear; Lieutenant Bluer being absent, the charge of the company devolved on me; young and inexperienced, exhausted with hunger and fatigue, and like to have disgraced myself—had eat nothing all day but a few blackberries—was faint, and with difficulty kept my place; once or twice was about to throw away my arms (a very heavy espontoon). The company were almost all old soldiers. Kept compact close to our leading company . . .50

The British fought well too and the moments were tense as the fire from American field pieces and muskets stopped the British advance. Cornwallis ordered a charge of his own and moved up through the 76th. urging the men forward by a touch with his “cane.” It was at-this point that Major James Gordon of the 80th. moved out in front of his regiment exposing himself to the enemy in an attempt to renew the advance.51 Tarleton commented on this phase of the action:

Lieutenant-Colonel Dundas’s brigade, . . . with two six pounders, under Captain [Edward] Fage, sustained the weight of the enemy’s attack. The artillery and infantry of each army, in the presence of their respective generals, were for some minutes warmly engaged not fifty yards asunder.52

The charge was but a temporary expedient. When it had stopped the British and itself given out, Wayne ordered a retreat across the causeway where the light infantry, posted by Lafayette, waited to cover the movement. Wayne had no alternative since he was “enveloped by numbers”, had “many brave & worthy Officers & soldiers killed & wounded”, and had lost two of his three field pieces when the horses drawing them were killed. He did save his wagons and ammunition and Captain Savage extricated his single cannon. The wounded for the most part were left on the field unless they themselves were able to get away.53

The retreat was successful although it was not an orderly one, in fact, it turned into a precipitate rush before it was over. Most of the detachment except the killed and seriously wounded got away safely. Major Galvan, who joined the main body of the force after his retreat on the left, the day after the affair penned a graphic although perhaps unduly pessimistic picture of this, “. . . they began to move rapidly upon us and the right of the Pennsylvanians to give way, the left followed, and the enemy making a devil of a noise of firing and huzzaing (tho’ by the by they did not push on very fast) all on our side became a scene of confusion.”54

Order was restored, for the most part, at Green Spring where the light infantry stood ready to oppose any British move outward across the causeway. Lafayette paused here for several hours to pick up stragglers and wounded separated from their units. Later in the night he withdrew to Norrell’s Mill and Chickahominy Church where he arrived about 10:00 p.m. and met the militia moved up by Brigadier-General Robert Lawson for the purpose. The troops remained here for a time. The “officers’ wounds were dressed and all the privates who were wounded . . .” and the men were refreshed.55

The British contented themselves with keeping the field of action and made no attempt to pursue the Americans that night. The woods, the morass, and the “obscurity of the night” prevented pursuit even by the cavalry. The action had been properly timed on the part of the Americans and when the retreat came it was already growing dark. Cornwallis wrote that had he had half an hour of daylight he would have taken “the greatest part of the Corps.” He was referring to Wayne’s detachment and not Lafayette’s full army although he did not know it at the time. He thought that he had engaged 2,000, not 800, of the enemy troops—a fact which speaks well for the manner in which the Americans fought.56

At day-break on the 7th. Tarleton, with 200 dragoons and 80 mounted infantry, was ordered to proceed across the swamp in pursuit of Lafayette while three companies of light infantry were posted beyond it, presumably in the Green Spring area. As he was crossing the marsh he picked up a number of wounded men and “deserters” who had remained near the field of action throughout the night. About four miles beyond the cavalry encountered a patrol of mounted riflemen which with some loss fell back toward the American main army. This was the end of the encounter, however, for Tarleton withdrew to the British camp. One American soldier commented, “The enemy came out about four miles, we lay on our arms ready for their approach, but they retired.”57 Cornwallis made no additional offensive move and Lafayette was content to let his troops rest.58

When it came time to count the losses, the intensity of the action on the “Maine” became apparent to both the British and the Americans, particularly to the Americans. The return as filed by Major William Barber, Deputy Adjutant General, listed 28 killed (including 4 sergeants), 99 wounded (with 11 commissioned officers59 and 7 sergeants) and 12 missing, the number of riflemen wounded was not ascertained.60 Galvan’s advance guard, the three detachments of Pennsylvanians, Wyllys’s light infantry, McPherson’s legion and Savage’s and Duffy’s artillery all suffered losses. The loss among the Pennsylvanians was so extensive that it necessitated regrouping several days later when two regiments were formed from the three that had come to Virginia. In addition to the costly casualty list, the Americans lost two field pieces and a number of horses both of which they needed badly. The British losses apparently numbered about 70 rank and file and 5 officers killed and wounded. To this must be added, however, the horses, supplies, and wounded left at Jamestown when they hurried across the river twentyfour hours later. It is interesting that both sides exaggerated the extent of their opponent’s loss. Cornwallis and Tarleton, in their estimates, more than doubled the actual American casualties while Wayne even exceeded this exaggeration by stating that the British loss in killed and wounded amounted to about 300.61

This action was not stressed as a defeat in the American camp even though the losses had been heavy and they had lost the field. In his general orders issued on July 8 from Ambler’s plantation, where Cornwallis had been encamped two days before, Lafayette acknowledged “the spirit of the detachment commanded by General Wayne, in their engagement with the total of the British army, of which he happened to be an eyewitness.” By specific reference he congratulated the riflemen, Major Galvan and his corps, the Pennsylvania officers, Major Wyllys and his light infantry, Captain Savage’s artillery, and Colonel Mercer’s “little corps.” He spoke of their bravery, destructive fire, brilliant conduct, and zeal. He was proud of his troops and rightly so. A detachment had, unknowingly, moved into a trap laid by a much superior force and had extricated itself by means of quick action and steady fighting. It was the demonstrated ability of the men to stand up to a superior force and not the rebuff that was stressed. The effect of this was important on troops and officers alike.62 Robert Morris summarized this feeling in a letter written to Wayne some time after the skirmish:

We have received, a full report of the action at Green Springs. It is very flattering to find our troops arrived at that degree of discipline which enables them to face with inferior numbers that proud foe who have heretofore attempted to treat our army with such contempt. It is still more agreeable to find that this handful of troops have been led to the conflict by officers revered for their public and esteemed for their private conduct through life.63

This feeling perhaps is the principal reason that so many congratulations and words of praise followed the action. Even the critics of the American and British tactics felt compelled to add a few words about the magnificent spirit shown by the troops.64

Actual military victory rested with the British. They drove back the American detachment inflicting heavy losses as they did so and remained in possession of the field where the encounter took place. They fought with courage and skill and in the statements describing the action there was much praise for the troops, especially Dundas’s brigade. Cornwallis wrote, “I cannot sufficiently commend the spirit & good behavior of the Officers & Soldiers of the whole Army; but the 76th & 80th Regiments, on whom the brunt of the Action fell; had an opportunity of distinguishing themselves particularly, & Lieut Colonel Dundas’s Conduct & Gallantry deserve the highest praise.”65 A British officer pointed out that many Americans were “wounded in the lower extremities, a proof that the young soldiers had taken good aim.”66

Cornwallis made no attempt to follow up his victory. He chose to let the matter rest and to proceed with his operation of crossing the James. His crossing was hurried more than he had originally planned. He lost no time in moving to Jamestown Island and on the next day, July 7, to Cobham south of the James. Lafayette took full advantage of this development and followed the British closely occupying the “Maine” and then the Island. General Muhlenberg, supported by a party of the Volunteer Horse, moved on to Jamestown. Here he found an American officer and 22 men who had been wounded in the action. These had fallen into the hands of the enemy “but not being able to carry them off, left them on parole.” In addition to the wounded the British left “many valuable horses” on the north side of the river. These were seized without delay for the Americans still stood in need of good horses. With the British now south of the James, Lafayette set up hospitals for his sick and wounded at Jamestown and at Williamsburg.67

With the James River now between the two armies one phase of the Virginia Campaign was over. Lafayette withdrew some distance up the Peninsula to rest and await developments. He dispatched a limited force across the river with general orders to watch the British movements, to remain on the alert to take advantage of any favorable opportunities, and possibly, if later conditions permitted, to move on to the south to join General Greene. Cornwallis left Cobham and directed his course toward Portsmouth detaching Tarleton for a raiding expedition into Prince Edward and Bedford counties. These movements, however, as well as those leading to the occupation of Yorktown and subsequently to the surrender of Cornwallis’s army on October 19 are outside of the scope of this narrative.68

Considerable has been written regarding the “Affair near James island” including a number of contemporary accounts. Lafayette has been accused of ill-advised and hasty action, Wayne of gross recklessness, and Cornwallis of timidity.69 There are arguments of attack and arguments of defense. In all of this, however, there seems to be considerable exaggeration. Those most critical appear to have had a motive for their point-of-view, or to have been influenced by those having a bias. Despite claim and counter claim, it seems difficult to find anyone guilty of too great negligence, recklessness, or ill-advised action.

Lafayette, not adverse to a partial engagement, on reasonably equal terms, moved close to the British, as he had done previously on several occasions. He was not unmindful of the effect should he suffer a defeat. Having conflicting intelligence and needing to learn more before he would risk an engagement, he sent out a detachment to reconnoiter while he remained ready to move to its support if it became necessary. As James McHenry wrote on July 7, “This move toward the enemy became essential, to observe their motions, to penetrate their designs and for forstalling any favourable movements that might offer in their crossing the James river.”70 This prompted the move to Green Spring where Wayne paused while Lafayette weighed available intelligence and discussed the situation. It was obvious that he still did not know the truth about the British position and the British strength. It was at this point that Wayne was permitted to continue to push forward to gain further information. Lafayette ordered additional units to move up to be ready in case they were needed and then went over to the river bank to make personal observations.71

Credit should be given to the cleverness with which Cornwallis prepared his “trap” for Lafayette and confused the information leading out of his camp. Wayne proceeded across the causeway with his small detachment with orders to feel out the British, certainly not with orders to attack blindly. Perhaps his action in moving into the open against the enemy “decoy” cannon was a little hasty, yet certainly it was logical, for Cornwallis had concealed his plan well.72 Wayne characteristically courageous and aggressive did not avoid the fight once it had begun. The British came out to engage a major portion of the American army, as undoubtedly Cornwallis thought it was, not merely a detachment such as it actually was. In this Cornwallis himself appears to have been deceived.

Lafayette returned after his observations had informed him of the British objective. He intended to withdraw at once since a favorable moment of attack had not developed. He came on the scene too late, however, for the action had already begun. He then took steps to meet the situation. He stationed a part of the reinforcements, that he had ordered up, to cover Wayne’s withdrawal, sent the others to assist Wayne in making a retreat at the most favorable moment, and went to the front where the action was taking place. He found the fighting being done with spirit and skill. Wayne’s orders to charge the enemy proved to be wise and timely. It made possible the successful although costly retreat that saved the detachment. This ended the action.73

The British did not pursue the Americans across the causeway following the retreat because it was already growing dark and the terrain did not favor night movements. The lateness of the American movement toward the British undoubtedly was according to plan, for Lafayette and Wayne had ample opportunity to advance much earlier in the afternoon. During the night Lafayette withdrew to the same position he had held the previous night, joined a part of his militia, which had been advanced, and put out his pickets. On the following morning Cornwallis did not move out in force preferring to dispatch his cavalry instead. The facts gathered by his scouting party evidently convinced him that Lafayette was not particularly vulnerable. First of all Cornwallis was intent on moving to Portsmouth as he had planned, and secondly he had tried unsuccessfully on other occasions to engage Lafayette on British terms when Lafayette was much weaker than at this time. Moreover, a part of the British cavalry was across the river and he was not too well informed of Lafayette’s position and intentions now that he had broken up one of his moves. The Marquis felt, perhaps, that Cornwallis feared an ambuscade such as he had planned for the Americans.74

The action on the “Maine” had effected Lafayette’s striking power, it is true, but he was by no means helpless. Not more than half of his Continentals had been engaged, and, excepting some riflemen, none of his militia. Cornwallis had come to have some respect for these militia troops too. On June 30 he had written:

I will not say much in praise of the Militia of the Southern Colonies, but the List of British Officers & Soldiers killed & wounded by them, since last June, proves but to fatally that they are not wholly contemptible.75

On the basis of these facts before him, Cornwallis declined further action and broke contact with the American army when he crossed the James.

It is difficult to fix the significance of the “Affair near James island”. Its immediate effect was to hasten the withdrawal of the British army toward the coast and to end one phase of the Virginia Campaign. With the movement across the James, the British abandoned the Peninsula thereby giving additional support to the feeling then growing that Cornwallis had—at least for the time being—been forced to give up his projected “Conquest” of the State. Perhaps the most significant result growing out of the encounter was the stimulating effect generated by the bravery and courage manifested by soldiers and officers alike. A detachment of American troops had confronted Cornwallis’s army and fought well. This was a superb test of training and discipline. Both Wayne and Lafayette emerged with higher regard in the Continental army. As one of Lafayette’s biographers has written:

The behavior of La Fayette upon the occasion of this affair at Green Spring greatly enhanced his reputation in the Continental army, where his whole conduct of the Virginia campaign had attracted attention and won the approval of both American and French officers.76