The “Affair Near James Island”
Charles E. Hatch, Jr.


1 This title is that used in Banastre Tarleton’s A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Provinces of North Carolina (Dublin, 1788), page vi. This action which has become known as the “Battle of Green Spring” was not thought of as such by the participants in the action. Neither the Americans nor the British considered it a battle for the numerous references to it in contemporary accounts mention it as a skirmish, action, affair, or L’escarmouche. The major part of the fighting occurred neither at Green Spring, nor the Green Spring Plantation, but between that plantation and Powhatan Creek and the head of Jamestown Island. A more accurate description of the location is near Jamestown or at the entrance to Jamestown Island. This is neither an attempt to distract from the significance of the action, nor an attempt to become academic. It is merely a statement of fact for whatever value it may have.

2 Special studies of the Virginia Campaign include Henry P. Johnston, The Yorktown Campaign and the Surrender of Cornwallis 1781 (New York, 1881) and H. L. Landers, The Virginia Campaign and Blockade and Siege of Yorktown 1781 (Washington, 1931).

3 Benjamin Franklin Stevens (ed.), The Clinton-Cornwallis Controversy, With Very Numerous Important Unpublished Manuscript Notes by Sir Henry Clinton . . . (London, 1888), I, 488.

4 Ibid, I, 489 and II, 13.
Lord George Germain, Secretary of State for the Colonies, favored essentially the same campaign and, on June 6, 1781, he wrote: “. . . I am welt pleased to find Lord Cornwallis’s Opinion entirely coincides with mine of the great importance of pushing the War on the side of Virginia with all the Force that can be spared until that Province is reduced, if it be possible to do it, before the Season become too intemperate for Action Operations there

5 James Graham, The Life of Daniel Morgan of the Virginia Line of the Army of the United States, With Portions of His Correspondence. (New York, 1856), 384–7: Elizabeth S. Kite and Sarah Redwood Lee (eds.), A Sidelight on History: Being the Letters of James McHenry, Aid-de-Camp of the Marquis De Lafayette to Thomas Sim Lee, Governor of Maryland Written During the Yorktown Campaign 1781 (Privately Printed by the Southampton Press, Long Island, New York, 1931), 18: Memoirs, Correspondence and Manuscripts of General Lafayette published by His Family (New York, 1837), I, 258–65, 517.

6 Johnston, Yorktown Campaign, 38–55.

7 James J. Graham (ed.), Memoir of General [Samuel] Graham With Notices of the Campaigns in Which He Was Engaged from 1779 to 1801 (Edinburgh, 1862), 52.

8 Charlemange Tower, Jr., The Marquis de La Fayette in the American Revolution With Some Account of the Attitude of France Toward the War of Independence (Philadelphia, 1895), II, 342–5.

9 Graham, Life of Daniel Morgan, 388.

10 This has become generally known as the “Battle of Spencer’s Ordinary” yet other than Lieutenant-Colonel John Graves Simcoe’s statements in reference to Spencer’s Ordinary the contemporary accounts, for the most part, describe it as the action, skirmish, or affair at Hot Water Plantation. Hot Water Plantation was in James City County about seven miles from Williamsburg and at one time was the property of Sir William Berkeley. It was evidently the same that was referred to in 1683 and 1720 as “hotwater land”, and “Hotwater dividend.” “Diary of Capt. John Davis of the Pennsylvania Line” in Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, I, 5, f.n. (July, 1893); “Patents Issued During the Regal Government” in William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine, 1st. Series, XII, 106, 189 (October, 1903 and January, 1904); “Historical and Genealogical Notes” in William and Mary Quarterly, 1st. Series, XXVII, 301 (April, 1919).

11 Lafayette had instructed Wayne to be prepared for several contingencies. He was to be on the alert to draw Tarleton into an “ambuscade”, to intercept Simcoe, and to harass Cornwallis’s rear. Lafayette to Wayne (letter) in Tower, Lafayette, II, 346.

12 Lafayette in Virginia: Unpublished Letters published as Cahier II by the Historical Documents Institut Français de Washington (Baltimore, 1928), 17; John Graves Simcoe, A History of the Operations of a Partisan Corps, Called the Queen’s Rangers Commanded by Lieut. Col. J. G. Simcoe, During the War of the American Revolution . . . (New York, 1844), 225ff.

13 Simcoe has an excellent plan of the skirmish in his Military Journal (between pages 236–7) and he has considerable to say about the action. He describes it in detail, although decidedly from his point-of-view.

Green Spring at this time was owned by William Lee.

14 Lafaverte, Memoirs, I, 524—5; Stevens (ed.), Clinton-Cornwallis Controversy, II, 33; John B. Linn and William H. Egle (eds.), “Diary of the Pennsylvania Line, May 26, 1781–April 25, 1782” in Pennsylvania Archives, Second Series, XI, 680 (Harrisonburg, 1880); “Journal of Captain John Davis of the Pennsylvania Line” in Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, V, 294 (1881); Military Journal of Major Ebenzer Denny, An Officer in the Revolutionary and Indian Wars (Philadelphia, 1859), 36; Tower, Lafayette, II, 348–9; Simcoe, Military Journal, 236–7.

15 “Diary of the Penn. Line”, 680; Stevens (ed.), Clinton-Cornwallis Controversy, II, 33; Lafayette, Memoirs, 524–5; “Journal of Captain John Davis”, 294; “Itinerary of the Pennsylvania Line from Pennsylvania to South Carolina, 1781–1782” in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, XXXVI, 276-7 (1912); Tower, Lafayette, II, 347; Simcoe, Military Journal, 234.

16 Harry Emerson Wildes, Anthony Wayne: Trouble Shooter of the American Revolution (New York, 1941), 253; Lafayette in Virginia: Unpublished Letters, 18;
Tower, Lafayette, II, 348–9.

Lafayette was quite pleased with this action and praised McPherson and the riflemen for gallant action and “great execution.”

17 Lafayette, Memoirs, I, 524–5.

18 Military Journal of . . . , 36.

19 Simcoe, Military Journal, 237–8; D. B. Read, The Life and Times of Gen. John Graves Simcoe, Commander of the “Queens Rangers” During the Revolutionary War and First Governor of Upper Canada (Toronto, 1890), 104–5; “Journal of Lieut. William McDowell of the First Penn’a Regiment, In the Southern Campaign, 1781–1782” edited by William H. Egle in Pennsylvania Archives, 2nd. Series, XV, 300–301 (Harrisburg, 1890); “Itinerary of the Penn. Line”, 277; Wildes, Wayne, 253–4; “Diary of the Penn. Line”, 680–1, “Journal of Captain John Davis”, 294–5.

20 “Journal of Ebenezer Wild” in Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 2nd Series, VI, 143 (Boston, 1891).

21 Charles Campbell (ed.), The Bland Papers: Being a Selection from the Manuscripts of Colonel Theodoric,k Bland, Jr. of Prince George County, Virginia. To Which Are Prefixed an Introduction and a Memoir of Colonel Bland (Petersburg, 1843), II, 72.

22 Cornwallis brought with him to Virginia the Brigade of Guards (numbering 387), 23rd. Regiment (194), 33rd. Regiment (209), 71st. Regiment, 2 battalions (175), 82nd. Regiment, Light Company (36), German Regiment of Bose (228), The Provincial British Legion (173), and the North Carolina Volunteers, Light Company (33). Then, according to Tarleton, he added to his field army in Virginia a detachment of the Royal Artillery 76th. and 80th. regiments, 2 light infantry battalions, the Hessian Prince Hereditaire Regiment, Simcoe’s corps of cavalry and infantry, 100 Yagers, and Arnold’s American Legion. He also kept “with the Army”, from the reinforcements that arrived late in May, the 43rd. Regiment. The rest of the troops in Virginia he stationed at Portsmouth.

23 Stevens (ed.), Clinton-Cornwallis Controversy, I, 442–3, 448–9, 457; Tarleton, Campaigns, 298–302; Graham (ed.), Memoirs of General Graham, 49–51.

24 Lafayette’s force was made up of the troops that he had brought with him to Virginia early in 1781 consisting of Continental Line troops from Massachusetts (8 companies), Connecticut (5 companies), Rhode Island (1 company), New Jersey (5 companies); New Hampshire (2 companies) and Hazen’s Regiment (1 company) all organized in 3 regiments (approximately 800 men); the troops of the Pennsylvania Line (approximately 750); Virginia Continentals (about 425), an artillery detachment from the Continental Line (300 with 8 or 10 field pieces); Campbell’s riflemen (about 800); cavalry, part regular and part militia, (about 110); and Virginia militia (several thousands).

25 Campbell (ed.), Bland Papers, II, 71–2; Lafayette, Memoirs, I, 517–8; Graham, Life of Daniel Morgan, 387; Tower, Lafayette, II, 230, 328, 354–5; Henry A. Muhlenberg, The Life of Major General Peter Muhlenberg of the Revolutionary Army (Philadelphia, 1849), 262–3.

26 Lafayette in Virginia: Unpublished Letters, 15, 18–9, 20–1, 24, 26; Tower, Lafayette, II, 308–9; Stevens (ed.), Clinton-Cornwallis Controversy, II, 38.

27 These orders were canceled later in July, yet this in no way influenced Cornwallis’s move to Portsmouth as the news of the cancellation had not reached him at
the time.

28 Military Journal, 239; Tarleton, Campaigns, 362–3.

29 Stevens (ed.), Clinton-Cornwallis Controversy, II, 38. See also pages 15, 21, 26, 33, 36, 61, 64.

30 Colonel Febiger wrote on July 3 that despite superior forces, “. . . his lordship [Cornwallis] has not thought proper to attack, though to my knowledge he has had it in his power several times, and to advantage, as the Marquis, fond of enterprise, has repeatedly detached his army, apparently with a view to bring the enemy to
action . . .” Campbell (ed.) Bland Papers, II, 72.

31 Campbell (ed.), Bland Papers, II, 72; John Armstrong, “Life of Anthony Wayne” in The Library of American Biography edited by Jared Sparks, IV, 58 (Boston, 1835).

32 Tower, Lafayette, II, 350.

It should be remembered at this point, however, that Lafayette had not become suddenly reckless and neither had he lost his perspective. This is clear in his letter to Thomas Jefferson written from Tyree’s Plantation on July 1:

I confidentially will confess with you that I am terrified at the consequences
of a general defeat, you are not stranger to the political state of Europe every thing bears for the present to tolerable peace, New York threatened, Carolina reconquered, lord Cornwallis pushed into Williamsburg after a long retreat, such is the situation of affairs in America that may be laid before mediators—But should we be beat and should the loss of Virginia follow a defeat new obstacles will be raised against American independency.

Lafayette in Virginia: Unpublished Letters, 19.

33 “Itinerary of the Penn. Line”, 277; Denny, Military Journal of . . . , 36; “Journal of Ebenezer Wild”, 143; “Diary of the Penn. Line”, 680–1; “Journal of Lieut. Wm. McDowell”, 300–1.

34 Desandrouins, “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 6 juillet 1781. entre l’armée Américaine Commandée par le Mes de la fayette et l’armée angloise aux ordres du Lord Cornwallis” (Map), photostatic copy in the library of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown, Virginia; “Petitions of Leasees of the Governor’s Land” in Tyler’s Quarterly Historical and Genealogical Magazine, I, 181–2 (1920); Robert D. Meade, “Report on Green Spring” (dated January 15, 1935) and C. L. Coston, “Report on the Battlefield of Green Spring” (dated January 2, 1935) in the files of Colonial National Historical Park.

35 “An Unpublished Letter from the Wayne Papers: Major William Galvan to Richard Peters, Near Norrell’s Mill, July 8, 1781” in Gazette of the American Friends of Lafayette, Vol. I, No. 1 (February, 1942).

Some of the units sent back used this opportunity for cooking as the men had not eaten for 24 hours. “Journal of Ebenezer Wild”, 143.

36 Anthony Wayne to General Washington (letter) Chickahominy Church, July 8, 1781, in the Washington Papers in the Library of Congress. Galvan to Peters (letter), July 8,1781; Lafayette, Memoirs, 525–6.

37 Wayne to Washington (letter), July 8, 1781; Tarleton, Campaigns, 363; Galvan to Peters (letter), July 8, 1781.

38 These two dragoons have been reported as Bushrod Washington and Ludwell Lee. See Robert E. Lee (ed.), Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States by Henry Lee (New York, 1870), 433.

39 Wayne to Washington (letter), July 8, 1781; Galvan to Peters (letter), July 8, 1781; Tarleton, Campaigns, 363.

40 Stevens (ed.), Clinton-Cornwallis Controversy, II, 58–9; Denny, Military Journal of . . . , 36–7; Graham (ed.), Memoir of General Graham, 53.

41 Lafayette to Green (letter), July 8, 1781, in Lafayette, Memoirs, I, 525–6; “Itinerary of the Penn. Line”, 277–8.

Lafayette, perhaps, had had no reason to change his opinion of the intelligence available to him in Virginia. On May 23, 1781 he had written Col. Hamilton, “In this country there is no getting good intelligence.” Lafayette, Memoirs, I, 515.

42 Galvan to Peters (letter), July 8, 1781.

43 Ibid.

44 Wayne to Washington (letter), July 8,1781.

45 Stevens, Clinton-Cornwallis Controversy, II, 58–9; Tarleton, Campaigns, 364; Graham (ed.), Memoir of General Graham, 53–55.

46 His line was arranged around Stewart’s battalion in the center with another Pennsylvania battalion on each side. Light infantry continued the line to the right. Two pieces of artillery under Captain Duffy and Lieutenant-Captain Crossley of Pennsylvania and a third under Captain Savage of Massachusetts supported the line.

47 Wayne to Washington (letter), July 8, 1781.

48 “Diary of the Penn. Line”, 681.

49 Desandrouins, “Plan . . . Combat du le 6 juillet . . .” (Map); Wayne to Washington (letter), July 8, 1781; Galvan to Peters (letter), July 8, 1781; Lafayette, Memoirs, 265–6, 525–6; Denny, Military Journal of . . . , 36–8.

50 Denny, Military Journal of . . . , 37.

51 Graham (ed.), Memoir of General Graham, 54.

52 Tarleton, Campaigns, 364.

53 Wayne to Washington (letter), July 8, 1781; Galvan to Peters (letter), July 8,1781.

54 Galvan to Peters (letter), July 8, 1781.

One participant described the withdrawal rather picturesquely as a “retreat with
precipitation.” “Journal of Lieut. Wm. McDowell”, 301.

55 Lafayette, Memoirs, 525–6; Kite and Lee (eds.), Letters of James McHenry, 19–20; Tower, Lafayette, II, 359–64; “Journal of Lieut. Wm. McDowell”, 301.

General Wayne was very solicitious of his wounded even to the point of contracting to care for their treatment “if the Country will not pay it.” Charles J. Stillé, Major-General Anthony Wayne and the Pennsylvania Line in the Continental Army (Philadelphia, 1893), 275–6.

56 Stevens (ed.), Clinton-Cornwallis Controversy, II, 58–9; Tarleton, Campaigns, 364–5: R. Lamb, An Original and Authentic Journal of Occurrences During the Late American War, from Its Commencement to the Year 1783 (Dublin, 1809), 372–3.

57 “Journal of Lieut. Wm. McDowell”, 301.

58 Tarleton, Campaigns, 366–7.
On July 7 “an officer, surgeon, and a few men, sent with flags to bury the dead,
&c. This was done in company with an equal number of the enemy. Our wounded
who were prisoners, had been properly treated.” Denny, Military Journal of . . . , 38.

The fighting left marks and reminders in the area of Green Spring and the
“Maine”, for there is record that in September of 1781 it was considered necessary “to collect from the people the arms picked up after the action at James Town.” Well into the nineteenth century when Benson J. Lossing visited the scene of the
action he commented that John Coke’s house, possibly one of the Harris buildings of
1781, “has many bullet-marks, made there during the battle at Jamestown Ford, on
6th of July, 1781 . . .” The Green Spring estate suffered damage too, particularly from the foraging of British troops. This is shown in contemporary letters. Lossing, Pictorial Field-Book of the American Revolution (New York, 1860), II, 240–1; Calendar of Virginia State Papers edited by William P. Palmer, II, 409 (1881); “Some Notes on ‘Green Spring’ ” in Va. Mag. Hist. Biog., XXXVII, 300 (October, 1929); “Letters from Mrs. Ralph Izard to Mrs. William Lee” in Va. Mag. Hist. Biog., VIII, 24–5 (July, 1900).

59 Lieutenant-Captain Crossley of the Artillery, Captain Finney and Captain Doyle of the 6th. Pennsylvania Regiment, Captain Vanlear of the 5th., Captain Stake, Lieutenant White, and Lieutenant Feltman of the 1st., Captain McClellan and Lieutenant Piercy of the 2nd., Captain Montgomery, and Lieutenant Herbert (taken prisoner).

60 A number of the riflemen and, perhaps, some of the Virginia light infantry wounded in the action were from Augusta County as can be seen from the references listed in Dr. Earl G. Swem’s Virginia Historical Index (Roanoke, Virginia, 1934–6) under Green Spring, Hot Water Plantation and Jamestown.

61 Johnston, The Yorktown Campaign, 190–1; Tower, Lafayette, II, 366; Denny, Military Journal of . . . , 37; “Diary of the Penn. Line”, 681–2; “Return of the Pennsylvania Brigade of Foot Commanded by Colo Richd Humpton July 12th 1781” in the Washington Papers in the Library of Congress; Tarleton, Campaigns, 365; Stevens (ed.), Clinton-Cornwallis Controversy, II, 58–9.

62 Stillé, Wayne, 274; Johnston Yorktown Campaign, 67–8; “Itinerary of the Penn. Line”, 278.

63 Stillé, Wayne, 272.

64 John C. Fitzpatrick (ed.), The Writings of George Washington from Original Manuscript Sources 1745–1799, XXII (Washington, 1937), 431, 435–6.

65 Stevens (ed.), Clinton-Cornwallis Controversy, II, 58–9.

The 76th. Regiment was commanded by Major Francis Needham, the 80th. by Major James Gordon and the two companies of the 43rd. by Capt. Cameron. These units made up Dundas’s brigade. Graham (ed.), Memoir of General Graham, 55.

66 Graham (ed.), Memoir of General Graham, 53–5.

67 “Journal of Ebenezer Wild”, 144; Muhlenberg, Life of . . . Peter Muhlenberg, 262; Kite and Lee (eds.), Letters of James McHenry, 21–2; Lettres Inédites du Général de la Fayette au Vicomte de Noailles, Écrites des Camps de l’Armée Américaine durant la Guerre de l’Indépendance des états-unis (1780–1781) (Paris, 1924); Lafayette in Virginia: Unpublished Letters, 31; John Burnham, “Recollections of the Revolution” in Magazine of History, No. 54, Part II, p. 127–8 (1917); Tarleton, Campaigns, 367–8; Galvan to Peters (letter), July 8,1781.

68 Lafayette in Virginia: Unpublished Letters, 27; Kite and Lee (eds.), Letters of James McHenry, 24–5.

69 See account in Tarleton’s Campaigns and in Lee (ed.), Memoirs of Henry Lee.

70 Kite and Lee (eds.), Letters of James McHenry, 20.

71 At the moment Lafayette was not seeking a general action. As one member of his corps wrote, “The Marquis certainly had no idea of a general battle, as the rest of the army remained quietly in their encampment the whole day.” “A Narrative of la Fayette’s Movements and Operations in Virginia, in 1781[”] (extract from a pamphlet “A Narrative of My Life, for My Family” by the late Judge Brooke) in Virginia Historical Register and Literary Companion, VI, 201–3 (1853).

72 At the time Lafayette avoided any criticism of Wayne’s action in precipitating the engagement, yet later, in his memoirs, he intimated that Wayne had been, perhaps, too aggressive. Even this, however, was not given in a spirit of criticism for it was followed by a tribute to his courage. Tower, Lafayette, II, 368.

73 In this connection it is interesting to note the point-of-view of an “officer of rank” in the American army, as stated in a letter several days after the action:

The British officers, we are informed, are much displeased at the issue, and
acknowledged they were out-generalled; otherwise they must have cut to pieces our small detachment, aided as they were by five hundred horse, and a considerable body of infantry, mounted.

Tarleton, Campaigns, 413.

Wayne was justifiably deserving of the praise given him for the quick thinking, bravery, and courage shown when his detachment became engaged.

74 Lafayette, Memoirs, 266 f.n.

75 Stevens (ed.), Clinton-Cornwallis Controversy, II, 34.

76 Tower, Lafayette, II, 390.