“I was brought to bed with a disappointment. Another [Bull's Ferry] blockhouse affair. Madness! Mad Anthony, by God, I never knew such a piece of work heard of – about eight hundred troops opposed to five or six thousand veterans upon their own ground.”
Doctor Robert Wharry
In the summer of 1781, British General Lord Cornwallis occupied the city of Williamsburg for ten days, planning his next move. A British force had been in Virginia since January, having occupied Norfolk, burned Richmond, scuttled the Virginia State Navy on the Chickahominy River, and defeated a force of Virginia militia at Petersburg before Cornwallis had even entered Virginia from North Carolina. The British campaign in Virginia continued, with Crown forces destroying supplies at Point of Fork (modern day Columbia), and skirmished with American forces just days before entering the former capitol sixteen miles from Williamsburg at a place called Spencer’s Ordinary.
Cornwallis was looking for a base of operations in Virginia, where the Royal Navy could resupply him easily and receive reinforcements from General Clinton in New York. At the same time, he had to contend with a combined force of Continentals and Virginia militia under the command of General Lafayette, who had been in Virginia since April. For the time being, until a suitable base of operations could be found, Cornwallis decided to retire to Portsmouth, and to do so, cross the James River at the northwest tip of James Island – an area known as Green Spring, named after the 17th century plantation of Governor Berkeley.
With the British crossing the river, Lafayette saw an opportunity to strike Cornwallis and have a reasonable chance of defeating at least part of his army. His plan was to allow a portion of the British army to cross the river and then attack the remaining force. Cornwallis however saw an opportunity for a trap. Realizing Lafayette may capitalize on the opportunity to strike, Cornwallis sent only his baggage across the river, to be protected by the Queen’s Rangers and the North Carolina Volunteers. He positioned the rest of his army in a wooded area and in a deep valley, masqued from Lafayette’s view, which would spring on the young Frenchman when he moved his forces in.
The battle occurred on July 6, 1781. Lafayette had moved cautiously from his encampment at New Kent Courthouse the previous day and marched to Bird’s Tavern, some sixteen miles from Williamsburg, with the Continentals continuing to Chickahominy Church, or Norrell’s Mills, eight miles from Jamestown, where they slept in the open, lying on their arms throughout the night.
On the morning of the 6th, further intelligence came in to confirm that Cornwallis was moving his army across the James and that only the rear guard remained on the Jamestown side. Lafayette then sent General “Mad Anthony” Wayne with five hundred men including the 1st Pennsylvania Regiment under Colonel Walter Stewart, along with an advance guard of light infantry under Major Galvan, Virginia rifle companies under the command of Majors Richard Call and John Willis, and a volunteer company commanded by Lt. Colonel John Mercer. Wayne’s force marched to within half a mile of the British pickets, and Mercer had been told by a local slave that both Cornwallis and Colonel Bannistre Tarleton were still on the north side of the river. Lafayette, who had accompanied Wayne in his advance, sent back for the 2nd and 3rd Pennsylvania Regiments and the remaining light infantry, who were still six miles back at Norrell’s Mills. The Virginia Continentals and Militia were held in reserve, twelve miles to the rear at Bird’s Tavern.
The British camp was positioned on the banks of the James and Cornwallis was doing everything he could to convince Lafayette that this was just the rear guard. Wayne’s advanced guards exchanged musket fire with British pickets throughout the afternoon and a patrol comprised of the British Legion were driven back along a road which cut through the marshy area around the river bank. Late into the afternoon the two sides continued to skirmish, Wayne waiting until his reinforcements arrived, Cornwallis waiting until the Continentals committed to a general action.
Wayne’s entire advance force began to cross the morass, with the rifle companies and light infantry keeping up a steady fire along the front, supported by McPherson’s light cavalry which was comprised of Armad’s Legion and the 1st Continental Light Dragoons, with Colonel Stewart and his Pennsylvanians held in reserve. Tarleton’s pickets continued to fall back, attempting to give Wayne the impression they were unsupported and fighting a delaying action. When the British reached a wood line, they held, under orders to conceal the main army that was directly behind them.
Wayne had no idea how close he was to Cornwallis and the main British force. The 2nd and 3rd Pennsylvania Regiments under Colonels Butler and Hampton as well as Continental artillery soon arrived, along with several battalions of light infantry. The Pennsylvanians and Gimat’s battalion of light infantry joined with Wayne’s advance guard. Two other battalions of light infantry, Vose’s and Barbers, formed a line behind Wayne as a reserve. Lafayette himself decided to ride forward along the river bank and saw that Cornwallis was presenting a rouse. He rode back to order Wayne to withdraw, but it was too late. Cornwallis ordered his main force to join the action.
The ensuing battle is known today as the battle of Green Spring. It is fortunate that several detailed first-hand accounts of the battle survive. Several of these accounts are presented below. The scope of the action was such that it could be comprehended fairly well by many of the participants, so the accounts corroborate each other nicely. Of particular interest are the comments on the types of tactics used by the opposing forces.
Photos from 225th Reenactment
Video from 225th Reenactment of the Battle of Green Spring
Ensign Ebenezer Denny, 7th Pennsylvania Regiment
Our advance drove in the enemy’s pickets marching at this time by companies, in open order… When perhaps within one hundred and fifty yards of the enemy, we closed column and displayed; advanced in battalion until the firing commenced, and ran along the whole line. A regiment or more of the light infantry and three pieces of artillery were in the line. Saw the British light infantry, distinctly, advancing at arms‑length distance, and their second line in close order, with shouldered musket, just in front of their camp ‑ their infantry only engaged. The main body were discovered filing off to the right and left, when orders were given us to retreat… The company were almost all old soldiers. Kept compact and close to our leading company, and continued running until out of reach of the fire. The enemy advanced no farther than to the ground we left. We could not have been engaged longer than about three or four minutes, but at the distance of sixty yards only… About a fortnight after the action, visited the field; could trace plainly the ground occupied by both, from the tops of the cartridges which lay in a line; the distance about sixty paces.
“The Military Journal of Ebenezer Denny.” Memoirs of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Vol. VII, 1860
Lt. Francis Brooke, 1st Continental Artillery
I was attached to Gen Lawson’s brigade, with one six-pounder, and had some opportunity to know the whole force of the American army. It consisted of eight thousand militia, Stephen’s and Lawson’s brigades; of one thousands light infantry, New England troops, brought on by the Marquis (fine troops they were;) the Pennsylvania line, as it was called, between six and seven hundred men, commanded by Gen. Wayne, with a good train of artillery; one thousand Riflemen under Gen. Campbell, of King’s Mountain, and part of the regiment of Virginia Continental troops, under Colonel Febiger, a Dane; a vidette corps of dragoons, under Captain Larkin Smith; and a single company of Harrison’s regiment of artillery to which I belonged; there were some additional militia, under Major Willis. The British army was more efficient; seven thousand infantry, who had fought the battles of the South; Tarleton’s and Simcoe’s full regiments of cavalry, and a fine train of artillery. These were all troops that could not be easily driven out of a field of battle. The Marquis, in a few days, marched to the Cross‑roads and the Burnt Ordinary, sixteen miles from Williamsburg. (The skirmish at Hot Water, by Col. Butler, of the Pennsylvania line and Major John Willis, with some Virginia militia, had occurred a few days before.)
While the army lay on this ground, Lord Cornwallis marched from Williamsburg to Green Spring, or Jamestown. The morning of that battle, Major Geo. Washington, an old schoolmate, the second aid to the Marquis, was at our quarters, and was asked if the Marquis knew where Lord Cornwallis was, and whether he had crossed the river. His reply was, that Gen. Wayne had been sent on that morning to find out where he was. Tarleton, in his journal, says, that one or two days before, he had bribed a white man and a Negro to go out, and, if they met with any American detachments, to inform them that the British army, except a small portion of it, had crossed the river. It was this Negro who fell in with Gen. Wayne, who, on his report, marched down and attacked the whole British army. Tarleton is wrong in supposing that the Marquis intended to bring on a general engagement; on the contrary, at 12 o’clock, when he learned that Wayne was in some danger, he ordered Col. Galvan, who belonged to the light infantry, to run down with only one hundred men to his relief, while he, with Capt. John F. Mercer’s troop of horse, who had lately joined, and some militia riflemen, followed to support him. The Marquis certainly had no idea of a general battle, as the rest of the army remained quietly in their encampment the whole of the day. General Wayne brought on the battle; relying on the intelligence the Negro gave him, whom Tarleton had bribed; for which his troops suffered very much. He, as Tarleton says, attacked the whole British army, and got off only by the Lord Cornwallis supposing that a general action was intended by the Marquis, and taking time to prepare for it. Wayne not only lost his artillery, but had, I think, eleven officers badly wounded, whom I saw the next morning under the hands of the Surgeon, at the church, in the rear of our encampment. I think it is very certain that the Marquis, at this time, intended no general battle; nor Lord Cornwallis either. His object was to cross the river and fall down to Portsmouth, that he might send the reinforcement required of him by Gen. Clinton, who apprehended an attack by Gen. Washington, and the Count Rochambeau, who was hourly expected to arrive with French troops from the West Indies.
A Family Narrative Being the Reminiscences of a Revolutionary Officer Afterwards Judge of the Court of Appeals Written for the Information of his Children by Francis J. Brooke Sometime Captain in Harrison’s Regiment of Artillery. Richmond: Macfarland & Ferguson, 1849.
Lt. William Feltman, Pennsylvania Continentals
At sunrise we took up the line of march for Jamestown at which place the enemy lay encamped.
The first battalion of our Line (the Pennsylvanians) was detached with a small party of riflemen, which brought on a scattering fire in the front and on the flanks of our battalion (the first) that continued two or three hours, between our riflemen and their Yeagers. Our battalion (the first) was then ordered to close column and advance, when we had information the 2nd and 3rd battalions with one of [light] infantry were in sight of us. We then formed again, displayed to the right and left, the 3rd battalion on our right, and the 2nd on our left; 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, their Light Infantry being in front of our battalion. We advanced under a heavy fire of grape‑shot, at which distance we opened our musketry. Then I received a wound with a canister shot in my left breast, but did not retreat until the whole of us retreated, which was very rapidly.
Journal of Lieut. William Feltman, of the First Pennsylvania Regiment, 1781‑82. Including the March into Virginia and the Siege of Yorktown. Philadelphia: 1853.
Lt. Ebenezer Wild, Vose’s Light Infantry Battalion
Marched at 7 o’clock, and passing through hot warter, halted in a field about three miles from the British encampment at James Town. Our men being much tired and fatigued, and having had nothing to eat for more than 24 hours, the L[ight]. Infantry moved back 3 miles for the purpose of cooking. By this manoeuvre we left the Pennsylvania troops in our front to watch the motions of the enemy. General Wayne being anxious to perform wonders! (about 5 o’clk) with his 3 Regiments & some small detachments, the whole consisting of about 1,000 men, attacked the whole British army in their own encampment. We immediately marched to reinforce him; but before we could reach the field of action, met the Pennsylvania line retreating in the greatest disorder (having been overpowered by numbers, and left their artillery). We marched past the disordered troops, and formed a line of battle in a field near the green Springs. The day being spent, the enemy stopped their pursuit. About 9 o’clk we began our march again, & retired to the Church we left in the morning, where we arrived about midnight, much tired and fatigued.
“Journal of Ebenezer Wild,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 2d ser., 6 (1891).
Captain Benjamin Bartholomew, 5th Pennsylvania Regiment
March’d at 8 Oclock A.M. 5 miles, there halted half an hour, were order’d to retire a miles to Mr. Lee’s farm, there lay untill 4 Oclock P.M. (some detach’d parts of the army with Col. Stuarts [Colonel Walter Stewart, 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment] Battation had movd down to the green Springs in the morning and drove in the enemies picquets [pickets] when we were ordered to advan[ce] to where the light parties were skirmishing with the enemy near Green spring seat we arrived about one hour before sun set with our two Battalions and one of Infantry commanded by Lt Col Jimot, [Lt. Colonel Gimat, of the light infantry] the line was formed and ordered to advance, in a few minutes a Smart firing commenc’d from from both parties, ours kept their post untill the[y] had fired four round. the enemies whole army being drawn up to oppose our four Battalions, there line being so very extensive & nearly surrounding us, we retreated across the morass, where the other two Battalion of Infantry were form’d to cover our retreat, our artilery horses being nearly all kill’d or wounded, we were Obliged to abandon our two pieces of artilery which fell into the enemies hands, we had ten officers wounded one of which was left on the field we had 5 Sergs. 64 men wounded our loss kill’d was 3 Sergs. 19 R[and & File] & Nine missing we retired to Chickeyhomeny Church, arrived at 11 Oclock at night, this day & Night march 16 miles.
Marching to Victory: Capt. Benjamin Bartholomew’s Diary of the Yorktown Campaign, May 1781 to March 1782. E. Lee Shepard, ed. Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 2002.
Colonel John Mercer, Virginia Militia
At the distance of about 300 yards in the rear of where we had been engaged, I found Gen’l. Wayne’s Brigade drawn up across the road & thro’ the wood to the right. I staid with them until they were defeated. We had just begun to assume the stiff German tactics, as the British acquir’d the good sense, from experience in our woody country, to lay it aside. Gen’l. Wayne’s Brigade were drawn up in such close order as to render it utterly impracticable to advance in line & preserve their order ‑ the line was necessarily broke by the trees as they pass’d the wood. The British advanc’d in open order at arm’s length & aiming very low kept up a deadly fire. In this situation Gen’l. Wayne gave repeated orders for the line to charge, but this operation was really impossible from the manner in which they were form’d & they cou’d not be pushed forward; notwithstanding his own bravery & the ardor of an admirable corps of field officers, who gave them the best examples, the destruction amongst them was very great, whilst the effect of their own fire, from the causes already explain’d, was I believe very trifling…
Gaillard Hunt, Fragments of Revolutionary History. Being hitherto unpublished writings of the men of the American Revolution … Brooklyn, NY, 1892, p. 50-51, letter of Colonel John Francis Mercer, probably written between 1809 and 1817.
Doctor Robert Wharry
I was brought to bed with a disappointment. Another [Bull's Ferry] blockhouse affair. Madness! Mad Anthony, by God, I never knew such a piece of work heard of – about eight hundred troops opposed to five or six thousand veterans upon their own ground.
General George Washington, Commander-in-Chief, Continental Army
My dear Marquis: I have had the pleasure of receiving your favours of the 8th. and 20th. instants. The first relieved me from much anxiety, as I had seen Mr. Rivingtons account of the action at Green Spring, which you may suppose was highly coloured in their favor.
I find by your last that neither my letter of the 29th. of June, or that of the 13th. instant had reached you. I cannot tell the dates of those previous as I have but few papers with me. I will confess to you that I have written much seldomer than I wished to do, but it has been owing to the very great danger to which dispatches were exposed while Lord Cornwallis was in possession of the Country.
You ask my opinion of the Virginia Campaign? Be assured, my dear Marquis, your Conduct meets my warmest approbation, as it must that of every body. Should it ever be said that my attachment to you betrayed me into partiality, you have only to appeal to facts to refute any such charge: but I trust there will be no occasion.
I very much approve of your intention of reinforcing General Greene as soon as circumstances will admit and as strongly as possible. If he can only maintain the advantages he has already gained in the Carolinas and Georgia the British Ministry will make a very different figure in the political scene, to what it is plain they expected from Lord George Germaine’s letters of March last.
I refer you to my private letter, which accompanies this, and am, with the tenderest Regard, etc.
P.S. The Maps you mention have not come to hand. Your servant may perhaps have them. He did not come himself to Head Quarters. The Letters were received from an Express.
Washington to Lafayette, 30 July 1781. George Washington Papers, Presidential Papers Microfilm (Washington, DC, 1961), series 4.
Extract of a letter from an officer of rank in the American army, dated July 11th, 1781
The British officers, we were 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 considerable body of infantry, mounted.
We could not possibly have extricated ourselves from the difficulties we were in, but by the manoeuvre we adopted, which, though it may have the appearance of temerity to those unacquainted with circumstances, yet was founded on the truest of military principles, and was one of those necessary, though daring, measures, which seldom fail of producing the desired effect, that is, confusing the enemy, and opening a way to retreat in sight of a much superior army.
Banastre Tarleton. A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America. London, 1787, p. 401-402.
Return of the killed wounded and missing of the detachment commanded by General Wayne in a skirmish with the British army near the Greene springs, in Virginia, July 6th 1781
Major Galvans advanced guard: 4 rank and file killed; 1 sergeant, 7 R & F wounded.
Col. Stewarts Detacht. Pennsylvania: 11 rank and file killed; 2 captains, 3 lieutenants, 4 sergeants, 30 R&F wounded.
Col. Butler’s Pennsylvania detachment: 2 sergeants, 4 rank and file killed; 15 R&F wounded; 9 R&F missing.
Col. Humpton’s Pennsylvania detachment: 1 sergeant, 4 rank and file killed; 3 captains, 1 lieutenant, 1 sergeants, 19 R&F wounded.
Majr. Willis’s light infantry detachment: 1 sergeant, 1 rank and file killed; 7 R & F wounded.
Capn. Ogdens Co. or Macphersons Legion: 2 rank and file wounded
Capn. Savage & Duffys artillery: 1 captainlieutenant, 1 sergeant, 2 rank and file wounded; 3 R&F missing.
Total casualties: 4 sergeants, 24 rank and file killed;
5 captains, 1 captain‑lieutenant, 4 lieutenants, 7 sergeants, 82 rank and file wounded; 12 rank and file missing.
N.B. A few rifle men were wounded, the number not ascertained
Names of the officers wounded
Captains McLean Division Inspector
Herbert “taken prisoner”
Capt.‑lieutenant Crosly of artillery
Wm. Barber Major and D A Genl.
The Papers of the Continental Congress 1774-1789, National Archives Microfilm Publications M247 (Washington, DC, 1958), reel 176, p. 173.
Colonel Bannistre Tarleton
Earl Cornwallis, judging the call for troops positive and pressing, and that his command, after such a diminution, would not be adequate to maintain his present position, determined instantly to leave Williamsburgh, and retire to Portsmouth; whence he might send the troops specified in the requisition of New York: For the execution of this project, it was necessary to cross James river; and James island presented the most convenient situation to secure an unmolested passage to Cobham. The navy, under the direction of Captain Aplin, being prepared for such an undertaking, on the 4th of July the royal army marched by the left, and arrived the same day in the neighbourhood of James island, which is separated from the main land by a small gut of water, not two feet deep at the reflux of the tide. The advanced guard, under Lieutenant‑colonel Simcoe, passed to the island, and from thence to Cobham in the evening. The legion cavalry and two companies of mounted infantry were directed to cover the right flank and rear of the British column during the march: Lieutenant‑colonel Tarleton moved to a church, eighteen miles from Williamsburgh, which he understood was fortified and garrisoned by the riflemen who lay in front of the American army: By surprise he got within the abbatis, the church yard, and the church, and dislodged the enemy with some loss: He afterwards proceeded towards Tyre’s plantation, when, under the advantage of a heavy rain, he drove in the pickets, and communicated a general alarm to the Marquis de la Fayette’s corps. In the mean while, the British army reached their encampment near James island, to which place the cavalry slowly retired.
The position occupied by the King’s troops was equally strong and convenient; the right was covered by ponds, the center and left by morasses, over which a few narrow causeways connected it with the country, and James island lay in rear. On the 5th, the stores and wheel carriages began to pass, which employment would continue till the 7th, when it was imagined the boats would be ready for the troops. On the morning of the 6th, the foragers from the cavalry were ordered to the front, who reported that the enemy were advancing. Lieutenant‑colonel Tarleton, after the party returned, gave money and encouraging promises to a negroe and a dragoon, to communicate false intelligence, under the appearance of deserters. These emissaries were directed to inform the Americans, that the British legion, with a detachment of infantry, composed the rear guard, the body of the King’s troops having passed James river. In the afternoon, a patrole of cavalry was beat back over one of the causeways on the left, and Lieutenant Grier, who commanded it, was wounded. Soon after, the American riflemen insulted the outposts, whilst a body of continentals advanced towards the morass: The British cavalry supported the pickets on the left, in order to contain the enemy within the woods, and prevent their viewing the main army: Earl Cornwallis directed Lieutenant‑colonel Tarleton to continue this manoeuvre, and he ordered the battalions and regiments to remain quiet in their camp, where they were concealed from observation. Before sunset, the Marquis de la Fayette had passed the morass on the left, with about six hundred militia, nine hundred continentals, and some cannon; bodies of riflemen attacked other pickets; and the remainder of the American force tool post at a brick house, beyond the wood and the causeway. Upon the first cannon shot from the enemy, the British army formed and advanced, when the dragoons fell back through the intervals made for them by the infantry
Lieutentant‑Colonel Dundas’s brigade composed of the 43d, 76th and 80th regiments, with two six‑pounders, under Captain Fage, sustained the weight of the enemy’s attack. The conflict in this quarter was severe and well contested. The artillery and infantry of each army, the presence of their respective generals, were for some minutes warmly engaged not fifty yards asunder. The other part of the line, consisting of the two battalions of light infantry, Lieutenant‑colonel Yorke’s brigade, (Late Webster’s) the brigade of guards, and the Hessians, met with little or no resistance, being opposed by only by small parties of militia, who made a precipitate retreat: But on the left of the British, the action was for some time gallantly maintained by the continental infantry, under General Wayne, against the 76th, 80th, and 43d. The legion cavalry formed a second line behind the 80th, and the light companies, under Captain Champagne, dismounted to reinforce the 76th . The affair was not ended before dark, when the enemy abandoned their cannon, and repassed the swamp in confusion. The woods, the morasses, and the obscurity of night, prevented the pursuit of the cavalry. The Marquis de la Fayette rallied part of the Americans to the troops posted beyond the swamp, and halted some hours at the Green Springs, to collect the fugitives. Earl Cornwallis returned to his encampment. The King’s troops had five officers wounded, and about seventy men killed and wounded. The steadiness of the new regiments, who bore the brunt of the action, did honour to those corps; and the conduct of Lieutenant‑colonel Dundas, who commanded them, was highly animated and meritorious. On the part of the Americans, near three hundred continentals and militia were killed, wounded, and taken.
The events of this day were particularly important, and claimed more attention than they obtained. The Marquis de la Fayette had made a long march, in very sultry weather, with about fifteen hundred continentals and one thousand militia, to strike at the rear of the British before they passed to James island: Too great ardour, or false intelligence, which is most probably, for it is the only instance of this officer committing himself during a very difficult campaign, prompted him to cross a morass to attack Earl Cornwallis, who routed him, took his cannon, and must inevitably have destroyed his army, if night had not intervened. His lordship might certainly have derived more advantage from his victory. If the two battalions of light infantry, the guards, and Colonel Yorke’s brigade, who had all been slightly engaged, or any other corps, and the cavalry, had been detached, without knapsacks, before dawn of day, to pursue the Americans, and push them to the utmost, the army of the Marquis de la Fayette must have been annihilated. Such an exploit would have been easy, fortunate, and glorious, and would have prevented the combination which produced the fall of York town and Gloucester.
Banastre Tarleton. op. cit., p. 352-356.
Captain Samuel Graham, 76th Regiment of Foot
A few days afterwards his lordship, wishing to approach the shipping at Portsmouth, had occasion to cross the James river to Cobham, and having made choice of James City Point as a proper place for crossing, he apprised the naval authorities of his intention, and our baggage, bat horses, and the Queen’s Rangers, crossed over on the 5th July. The rest of the army still remained at James City. La Fayette, with Wayne’s brigade, was completely deceived respecting the movement, and supposing that all the army had crossed over except the rear guard, came down to James City on the 6th, moving by a narrow road across the Green Springs, leading to a spot of cleared ground on the bank of the river which was immediately in front of Col. Dundas’s brigade. The British army was drawn up in two lines, the brigade of Col. Dundas forming the left of the front line, the light infantry the right; the Guards, 23d, 33d, and Hessians formed the second line. The picquet guard of Col. Dundas’s brigade, consisting of men of the 76th regiment, commanded by Lieut. Balneaves, an officer of the 80th regiment, was ordered to resist as long as possible, which they did for a length of time. The lieutenant was killed, and Lt. Alston of th esame regiment, having taken the command, was severely wounded, and after him Ensign Wemyss of the 76th was also wounded, when the picquet received orders to retire; and the enemy, advancing with great boldness, having a six-pounder on each flank, fronted when the head of the column reached the bank, and advancing in line on the open ground, fired their field pieces. The troops were then ordered to their arms, and the 76th, under the orders of the Hon. Major Needham, the 80th under Maj. Gordon, and two companies of the 43d under Capt. Cameron (the rest of that regiment being in the wood), advanced under their gallant brigadier, Lieut.-Col. Dundas. The enemy kept a good countenance for a short time, returning our fire from their field-pieces and muskets, but the noble Earl coming in the rear of the 76th, called out to charge, which order not being heard on account of the noise, he made a motion with his cane, touching a Highlander on the shoulder, which being repeated, they rushed on most rapidly. The 80th in the centre still continuing to fire, Major Gordon, mounted on a very tall horse, dashed out in front and stopped them, when several Edinburgh men of this regiment were heard to cry out, “Brigadier! Will you no luk at the Major, we canna get shooting for him; he’s aye runnin’ in the gate.” A general charge took place, which soon put an end to the combat. The enemy disappeared in an instant, as if removed by magic, abandoning their field-pieces and their wounded. Opposite to our left, where my post was, the enemy left a six-pounder loaded with grapeshot. The noble lord in his dispatch is pleased to make use of these words – “but the 76th and 80th, on whom the brunt of the action fell, had an opportunity of distinguishing themselves particularly, and Lt. Col. Dundas’s gallantry and good conduct deserve the highest praise.” Thus fortune in her folics seemed to render these two corps somewhat worthy of their companions in arms, but all were soon destined to taste of her frowns. The enemy’s loss was considerable, particularly in wounded, many of whom, I afterwards ascertained from their officers, were wounded in the lower extremities, a proof that the young soldiers had taken good aim. The army crossed the river unmolested, next day proceeding towards Portsmouth.
“An English Officer’s Account of his Services in America ‑ 1779‑1781. Memoirs of Lt.‑General Samuel Graham.” Historical Magazine, September 1865, p. 70.
Earl Cornwallis to Sir Henry Clinton, K. B. dated Cobham, July 8, 1781
I was this morning honoured with your dispatch of the 28th ult. The troops are perfectly ready, and will proceed to Portsmouth to wait the arrival of the transports. I will give immediate orders about the artillery, stores, &c.
The transports now at Portsmouth are sufficient to carry the light infantry; I had prepared them to receive that corps, and should have sent them to you in a few days, if your last order had not arrived. In your cyphered dispatch, the 2d battalion of light infantry only is mentioned; but I conclude that to be a mistake, and shall keep both ready to embark. I take for granted that General Robinson will come with the transports to take command of the expedition. General Leslie is still here; but as it was not my intention to have send him with the troops to New York, and as he will be the properest person to command here, in case you should approve of my returning to Charles town, I shall not send him on the expedition, unless it shall then appear to be your excellency’s desire that he should accompany General Robinson.
I must again take the liberty of calling your excellency’s serious attention to the question of the utility of a defensive post in this country, which cannot have the smallest influence on the war in Carolina, and which only gives us some acres of an unhealthy swamp, and is for ever liable to become a prey to a foreign enemy, with a temporary superiority at sea. Desultory expeditions in the Chesepeak may be undertaken from New York with as much ease and more safety, whenever there is a reason to suppose that our naval force is likely to superior for two or three months.
The boats and naval assistance having been sent to me by Captain Hudson, I marched on the 4th from Williamsburgh to a camp which covered a ford into the island of James town. The Queen’s rangers passed the river that evening. On the 5th, I sent over all the wheel carriages, and on the 6th, the bat horses, and baggage of every kind, intending to pass with the army on the 7th. About noon, on the 6th, information was brought me of the approach of the enemy, and about four in the afternoon a large body attacked our out posts. Concluding that the enemy would not bring a considerable force within our reach, unless they supposed that nothing was left but a rear guard, I took every means to convince them of my weakness, and suffered my pickets to be insulted and driven back; nothing, however appeared to us but riflemen and militia till near sunset, when a body of continentals, with artillery, began to form in the front of our camp. I then put the troops under arms, and ordered the army to advance in two lines. The attack was began by the first line with great spirit. There being nothing but militia opposed to the light infantry, the action was soon over on the right: But Lieutenant‑colonel Dundas’ brigade, consisting of the 43d, 76th, and 80th regiments, which formed the left wing, meeting the Pennsylvania line, and a detachment of the Marquis de la Fayette’s continentals, with two six‑pounders, a smart action ensued for some minutes, when the enemy gave way and abandoned their cannon. The cavalry were perfectly ready to pursue; but the darkness of the evening prevented my being able to make use of them. I cannot sufficiently commend the spirit and good behaviour of the officers and soldiers of the whole army; but the 76th and 80th regiments, on whom the brunt of the action fell, had an opportunity of distinguishing themselves particularly, and Lieutenant colonel Dundas’ conduct and gallantry deserve the highest praise. The force of the enemy in the field was about two thousand, and their loss, I believe, between two and three hundred. Half an hour more of daylight would have probably given us the greatest part of the corps.
I have enclosed a list of our killed and wounded. We finished our passage yesterday, which has been an operation of great labour and difficulty, as the river is three miles wide a this place. I have great obligations to Captain Aplin and the officers of the navy and seamen for their great exertions and attentions on this occasion.
Banastre Tarleton. op. cit., p. 399-401.
Letter from An Officer in the 76th regiment
From the 14th April to the 15th instant, we have travelled about 250 miles by water, and about 500 by land, in this province, going backwards and forwards, in order to bring the rebels to action, but to no purpose, except destroying 6000 hogsheads of tobacco, a vast quantity of military and other stores, a loss which cannot be retrieved for some years. Lord Cornwallis having orders to send a great part of the army to New York, marched from Williamsburg to James’s City Island, and on the 4th and 5th instant, crossed over the whole baggage of the army to Cobham, the opposite side of James’s River. The Queen’s Rangers went over as a guard. The rest of the army waited at Jame’s City Island, ready to cross the next day, but the rebels imagining the whole had crossed except three or four hundred and a few cavalry, marched down their whole force under the command of the Marquis de la Fayette and General Wayne, to attack this supposed handful of men.
They first began by attacking a small piquet consisting of 20 Highlanders of the 76th, commanded by Lieutenant Balvaird of the 80th, who being early wounded, Lieutenant Alston of the same regiment, who was accidentally there, took the command of the piquet, he was also wounded. Lieut. Wemys, who was acting as adjutant to the 76th, being sent on a message to the piquet, seeing Alston wounded, dismounted and gave him his horse, drew his sword, and took the command of the piquet. He had hardly had it two minutes when he was wounded; and though the half of the men were by this time killed or wounded, the rest of the brave Highlanders kept their ground, (though opposed by ten times their number), till ordered in by Lord Cornwallis, but not before they had expended about 50 rounds each man.
The piquet was engaged nearly two hours, Lord Cornwallis would have reinforced it, but did not chuse to show his strength, wishing to bring the rebels out of the woods: his calling in the piquet had the desired effect; for the rebels, who were still undeceived as to our numbers, advanced into a plain field, and proceeded some way. Mean time Lord Conwallis had his whole army drawn up into two different lines. On seeing the rebels advance, he ordered Col. Dundas’s brigade, consisting of about 250 men of the 76th, as many of the 80th, and 100 of the 43rd to attack, which they did briskly; and after reciprocal vollies passed, we charged them with bayonets and put them instantly to flight. After pusuing them above a mile and a half, night becoming dark, and a thick brush wood, favoured their escape.
We took two field pieces, (one of them taken from Gen. Burgoyne at Saratoga.) About 60 of the rebels were found killed, and a number wounded; besides several prisoners taken. A number of deserters came in, by whom we are informed that above 2500 of the continentals, chiefly consisting of the rifle‑men and light infantry, were opposed to us in the action; besides 3000 militia as a corps de reserve, which were not engaged. None of the British were engaged except Col. Dundas’s brigade, as above, and latterly a few of the light infantry and Hessians. The 76th had killed Mr. Lewis Macdonald, a volunteer of my company, who fell by my side, and six privates; and wounded, three officers, and 23 rank and file. The officers are, Lieut. Wemys, Lieut. Donald Macdonald, and Ensign C. Macdonald. The 80th had three officers wounded, two of whom since died, and 27 rank and file:42nd one killed. The light infantry and Hessians a few wounded.
Except the action at Petersburgh, this was the first day the 76th and 80th were tried. It would not become me to pass any encomium upon them, the compliment paid them by Lord Cornwallis, in next day’s orders, far surpass any thing that I can say.
Extract of a letter from an officer in the 76th regiment, dated on board the Lord Mulgrave transport, Hampton Road, Virginia, July 23. Caledonian Mercury, Oct 10th, 1781.
Return of the Killed, Wounded, & Missing, of the Troops under the Command of Lieutenant General Earl Cornwallis in the Action of the 6th July 81
Brigade of Lt. Infantry: 2 Rank & File Killed; 7 Rank & File Wounded; 9 Total.
43d Regt.: 2 Rank & File Killed; 1 Rank & File Wounded; 3 Total.
76th Regt.: 6 Rank & File Killed; 2 Lieutenants, 1 Ensign, 2 Drummers, 22 Rank & File Wounded; 1 Rank & File Missing; 34 Total.
80th Regt.: 1 Rank & File Killed; I Captain, 2 Lieutenants, 26 Rank & File Wounded; 30 Total.
B. Legion Cavalry: I Lieutenant, I Serjeant Wounded; 2 Total. Horses‑ 2 Killed, 5 Wounded.
Total: 11 Rank & File Killed; 1 Captain, 5 Lieutenants, 1 Ensign, 1 Serjeant, 2 Drummers, 56 Rank & File Wounded; I Rank & File Missing; 78 Total. Horses‑ 2 Killed, 5 Wounded.
76th Lieut. Donald McDonald Wounded
Lieut. Willm. Wemyss Do
Ensn. Colin McDonald Do
80th Capt. Cumming Do
Lieut. Alston Do
Lieut. Belvavid Do Since dead
B. Legion Lieut. Grier do
Volunteer Fitzgerald Lt. Infantry do
N:B: Regt. of Bose 2 Serjts., 3 Rank & file wounded, omitted in the former Return.
J. Despard Dep. Adj. Gen.
University of Michigan, William L. Clements Library, Sir Henry Clinton Papers, Volume 162, item 39
- “Their presence Here … Has Saved this State …” Continental Provisional Battalions with Lafayette in Virginia, 1781 by John U. Rees
- Part I: ”This Detachement is Extremely Good …” The Light Battalions Move South
- Part IV: “Almost all old soldiers, and well disciplined …” Brigadier General Anthony Wayne’s 1781 Pennsylvania Battalions
- “A Smart firing commenc’d from from both parties …” Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne’s Pennsylvania Battalions in Virginia June to November 1781 by John U. Rees