July 6, 1781: The Battle of Green Spring

“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.

Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis by Thomas Gainsborough

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.

Marquis de Lafayette by Charles Willson Peale

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.

Anthony Wayne by James Sharples, Sr.

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.

“Map of the left bank of the James River, and the Battle of Green Spring, the campaign in Virginia, prior to Yorktown.” by Jean Nicholas Desandroüins

Photos from 225th Reenactment

Photos on Flickr

Video from 225th Reenactment of the Battle of Green Spring

Primary Sources

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.

Continental Officer Artwork by Don Troiani

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 Doyle Finney Montgomery Stake McClellan Lieutenants Peircy Feltman White 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.

Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton by Sir Joshua Reynolds

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.

British 33rd Regiment of Foot as they appeared during the Southern campaign of 1780-81. Artwork by Don Troiani, http://www.historicalartprints.com

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. Officers Names 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

External Articles

The Decline of the Virginia Line, 1778-81

Following the hard campaigning and brutal winter of the Philadelphia Campaign in 1777-78 in which the Virginia Continental regiments were heavily engaged, the state struggled to maintain its quota of fifteen regiments and began a series of consolidations starting in September 1778. Officers would be deemed supernumerary and either furloughed, sent back to Virginia to recruit, or given alternative assignments with hopes they would return to duty when their regiments regained full strength.

By early 1780, all of Virginia’s forces would be reduced to three ill-fated “detachments” of roughly 700 men. The 1st and 2d Virginia Detachments would be captured at Charleston and the 3rd Virginia Detachment was smashed at the Waxhaws in May 1780.

In July 1780, Washington wrote Generals Gates and Muhlenberg of a plan to reconstitute the Virginia Line, by “…raising Five Thousand Men to serve Eighteen months, for supplying their Battalions…” as “The Whole of the Virginia line, except the 9th Regiment and the Officers mentioned below, being prisoners at Charles Town…” As an additional stopgap measure, Virginia sent its State Regiment to join the Southern Army, but that too was decimated at the Battle of Camden and instead of several regiments totaling 5,000 men.

Chesterfield Courthouse, 1780

One of the officers who had been deemed supernumerary was Danish-born Colonel Christian Febiger of the 2d Virginia Regiment. By May 1779, the regiment had fallen to only 180 rank-and-file; operational command had fallen to Major Thomas Massie and there was such a need for company officers that an inspection return recommended the promotion of serjeants to ensigns to fill the gap.

In July 1779, while still retaining command of the 2d Virginia Regiment on paper, Febiger was given command of the Corps of Light Infantry’s 1st Battalion and participated in General Wayne’s capture of Stony Point. Having been a merchant in Boston prior to the war, he was then sent to Philadelphia to help procure supplies for the Southern Army before eventually going to Virginia to head up recruitment efforts for his regiment and the Virginia Line at Chesterfield Courthouse.

In his memoirs, Lieutenant Francis Brooke of the 1st Continental Artillery talks of the recruiting depot and Febiger, saying: “Col. Febiger was an excellent camp officer, well acquainted with the tactics of the drill, and though I belonged to the artillery, I was called into rotation with other subalterns to train and drill the infantry, and I acquired perfect knowledge of the Prussian tactics, written by Baron Steuben, who had been an aid to the Great Frederick.”

To aid in his efforts, he also petitioned to form a band of music at his own expense, writing that he had “…twice tried it and have been often disappointed, as no musicians were to be had in this country except prisoners and deserters from the British army, who as soon as I had two or three of them engaged, one would desert me before I could get another in his place, I soon discovered that no faith must be put in these people and the assistant till last Fall, when the time of service of three of our best fifers expired, I proposed for them to reenlist and I would make a Band of them…”

He then hired a “…Mr. Schultz a German musician to teach them…” and made an offer to any of his fifers that if they would reenlist, that as a bounty he would have them taught, “four to learn clarinets and violins, 2 bassoons and bass viol, 2 French horn and that many should be entitled to all other embellishments such as clothing etc. as was allowed other non-commissioned officers in the army.” Febiger attempted to follow through on this effort when he wrote the Board of War “…as the Uniform of my Regt. is blue fac’d with red and it is customary to have the Drums and Fifes in Reverse Uniform to the Regt. to grant me the Order for red Coats fac’d with blue…”

Little did Febiger know that soon the remnants of his regiment and the rest of the Virginia Line would be effectively erased, making Chesterfield Courthouse the focal point for reestablishing it.

The 1st and 2d Virginia Regiments Take Form

The other two battalions of new levies and reenlisted veterans would eventually be formed into the Virginia Brigade under Brigadier General Isaac Huger with Major General Greene. These battalions are often erroneously referred to as the 4th and 5th Virginia Regiments, probably due to a misunderstanding of the 1st, 2d, and 3rd Virginia Detachments of 1780.

Initially, the battalions were referred to by their colonel’s name, Greene wrote to William Davies of the Virginia Board of War: “The disagreeable situation of the detachments serving with this army from the State of Virginia, and the complaints of all ranks of officers from their not being Regimented induces me to wish that the first and second Virginia regiments should be immediately formed, and the Officers sent forward without loss of time. While the troops act by detachment and the officers uncertain whether they will command the same men, they will not pay attention to the discipline of the troops which the service requires.”

The 1st Virginia Regiment would be formed in December 1780 under Colonel John Green. Green had started the war as a captain of the original 1st Virginia Regiment in 1775 and would go on to serve in the 10th and 6th Virginia Regiments, but like Febiger would become a supernumerary officer until this new battalion was formed.  When they marched off for North Carolina, Steuben wrote Greene: “Yesterday I had the Satisfaction of marching Col [John] Green with 400 Rank and file, on his way to the Southward… For those men I have procured a jacket with sleeves, one shirt, a pair of linen overhalls, a knapsack, Blanket, and a pair shoes each. This Detachment is completely furnishd with Camp Equipage. In order to complete them I was obliged to take Eight Horse Men’s tents out of those Stores sent on. The men are all Armed with Gun, Bayonet, and 40 Rounds.”

The second battalion also formed, as recalled by Private Lewis Griffin, “…at Steuben’s, or Chesterfield Courthouse…” during the winter …”where they drew their clothing and arms.” They marched to join Greene under Lt. Colonel Richard Campbell, who had previously served in the 8th Virginia Regiment and then commanded the 13th Virginia Regiment, which became the 9th Virginia Regiment and served at Fort Pitt. When they arrived, Campbell was named second in command of the 1st Virginia Regiment and the Lt. Colonel Samuel Hawes assumed command of the 2d Virginia Regiment. Hawes began the war as a captain in the original 2d Virginia Regiment in 1775 before transferring to the 6th Virginia Regiment.

Excerpt from “…the soldier is soon made fit for battle by experienced commanders.”: The Collapse, Reformation, and Battle History of the Virginia Brigade of the Southern Army, 1780-81 by Todd Post 

December 9, 1775: The Battle of Great Bridge

“This was a second Bunker’s Hill affair, in miniature; with this difference, that we kept our post, and had only one man wounded in the hand.”

– Colonel William Woodford
Virginia Gazette, 15 December 1775

Prelude to Great Bridge

Part of the Province of Virginia. Library of Congress

While Colonel Patrick Henry of the 1st Virginia Regiment was technically the commander-in-chief of Virginia’s forces, correspondence between the President of Virginia’s Committee of Safety Edmund Pendleton and Colonel William Woodford of the 2d Virginia Regiment indicates that this was a political decision in recognition of Henry’s efforts prior to the outbreak of hostilities.  Woodford on the other hand had served in the French and Indian War and had real military experience. For this reason, the Pendleton decided to keep Henry in Williamsburg, Virginia while dispatching the 2d Virginia Regiment to meet Governor Dunmore’s small “army” comprised of detachments of the 14th Regiment of Foot, Marines, runaway slaves who had been formed into the Ethiopian Regiment that had taken up post near Great Bridge, near of Norfolk in modern day Chesapeake VA.

Edmund Pendleton to William Woodford, 24 December 1775

The Field Officers to each Regiment will be named here and recommended to Congress in case our Army is taken into Continental pay, they will send Commissions — a General Officer will be chosen there I doubt not and sent Us; with that matter I hope we shall not intermeddle, lest it should be thought propriety requires our calling or rather recommending our present First Officer [Colonel Henry] to that station. Believe me Sir The unlucky step of calling that Gentleman from our Councils where he was useful, into the Field in an Important Station, the duties of which he must in the nature of things, be an entire stranger to, has give me many anxious and uneasy moment. In consequence of this mistaken step which can’t not be retracted or remedied, For he has done nothing worthy of degradation and must keep his Rank, we must be deprived of the Service of some able officers, whose Honor and former Ranks will not suffer them to Act under him, in this juncture when we so much need their Services, however I am told that [Hugh] Mercer, [William] Buckner, [William] Dangerfield and [George] Weedon will serve and are well thought of. I am also that Mr. [Charles Mynn] Thruston and Mr. Millikin ar Candidates for Regiments. The latter I believe will raise and have a German one. In the course of these reflections my greatest concern is on your Account, The pleasure I have enjoyed in Finding your Army conducted with wisdom and success, and your Conduct meet the General Approbation of the Convention and Countrey, make me more uneasy at a thought that the Countrey should be deprived of your Services or you made uneasy in it, by any untoward circumstances. I had seen your Letter to our friend Mr. [Joseph] Jones (now a member of the Committee of Safety) and besides that Colonel Henry had laid before the Committee your Letter to him and desired Our Opinion whether he was to command you or not. We never determined this ‘til Fryday evening, a Copy of the Resolution I inclose you. If this will not be agreable and prevent future disputes, I hope some happy medium will be suggested to effect the purpose and make you easy, for the Colony cannot part with you, while Troops are necessary to be continued.

The Committee of Safety was hard put to it to work our a formula that would give Henry the face-saving semblance of over-all command while leaving Woodford the actual commander.  In the end the following resolution was adopted, a copy of which accompanied Pendleton’s letter to Woodford:  “Resolved unanimously, that Colonel Woodford, although acting under a separate and detached command, ought to correspond with Colonel Henry, and make returns to him at proper times, of the state and conditions of the forces under his command; and also that he is subject to his orders, when the convention, or the committee of safety, is not sitting, but that while either of these bodies are sitting, he is to receive his orders from one of them.”

Because either the Convention or the Committee of Safety would always be sitting, Henry was effectively shelved.

"A view of the Great Bridge near Norfolk in Virginia where the action happened between a detachment of the 14th Regt: & a body of the rebels." by Francis Rawdon-Hastings, 1st Marquess of Hastings

When Woodford arrived at the Great Bridge on December 4, 1775, he “found the area for a considerable distance from each end of the bridge a swamp, except for two bits of land that might not improperly be called islands, being surrounded entirely by water and marsh, and joined to the mainland by causeways”. On the northern “island” stood the stockaded wooden fort (prejoratively called “the Hog Pen”) that Dunmore had caused to be erected, with two four-pound cannon so placed as to command the bridge and both causeways. The southern causeway, that nearer Woodford’s position, ran the 150 yard length of the second “island” and contained seven houses; and from that point the road extended 400 yards past a dozen houses to where it forked in front of a church, where the 2d Virginia Regiment pitched its camp and began entrenchments consisting of a breastwork in the form of a “sagging M” seven feet high, with mounting platforms and loopholes, and in length 150 feet. And on a firm, penninsula-like projection of land west of the town, they erected two earthworks for batteries when cannon should be made available. (Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence, Volume 5)

Captain Matthew Squire, HM Sloop Otter to Vice Admiral Samuel Graves, 2 December, 1775

We have now a small fort at the great Bridge, which the Rebels must pass to come to Norfolk, we have destroyed the Bridge, and for these ten days past, have kept a body of near nine hundred Rebels from passing. We have likewise entrenched the town of Norfolk, and I have great reason to suppose, & hope from their being such Cowards, and Cold weather coming on, that they will return to their respective homes, & we shall be quiet the remainder of the Winter.

Colonel William Woodford to the Virginia Convention, 4 December 1775

I arrived at this place the Day before Yesterday, & found the Enemy Posted on the Opposite side of the Bridge in a Stockade Fort, with two four pounders, some swivells & Wall Pieces, with which they keep up a constant Fire, have done no other damage than Kill’d Corporal Davis with a cannon Ball, the Man that was Killed on Lt. Colo. Scotts first arrival here, & Yesterday Wounded one of the Minute Men in the Wrist, from all Accts from the other side we have killed many of them…their Numbers in the Fort are said to be 250, Chiefly Blacks; commanded by Serjts. of the Regulars, that act as Officers, & the Scotch Tories of Norfolk.

We keep a Capt. and 42 Men as a Guard upon some Boats we have secured down the River about 6 Miles, the Enemy keep a Guard of about the same Number on the Opposite side to secure three other Boats they have. Between these parties there is a constant Fire, we have been lucky enough to recieve no damage, our Officers & Men say they can discover Many fall from the Fire of our Riffles, who I have directed only to Fire when they have a good chance.

My Intelligence inform’d me this Boat Guard of the Enemy might be Attacked to advantage by a Party crossing A Mile below (where a sufficient Boat lay concealed in a cove). I Yesterday detach’d Capt Taliaferro with 60 Men to lay concealed in that Neighbourhood, & cross in the Night with proper guides to conduct him to the back of the Enemy Post, if they find a ready passage, & are well conducted, I have the greatest expectations that they will cutt them off between two Fires. The Officers have discretionary Orders, as to returning, or maintaining this post on the other side. If they find the situation & other circumstances favourable, I shall immediately reinforce them.

We have raised a strong Breast work upon the lower part of the Streat joining the Causway, from which Centrys are Posted at some Old Rubbish not far from the Bridge (which is mostly destoy’d) some blacks got over last Night & set fire to the House nighest the Bridge, five Houses (some of them Valuable) were consumed, one of the Centinals Shott one of them down. The great light this Occasion’d would have exposed our Men too much, to attempt saving any of the Houses, they have likewise destroy’d all the Buildings on the other side, & I am inform’d have done the same to many of our Friends in the Country.

The last Accts from Norfolk say their Fortifications were not then Finished. They were busily Imploy’d & preparing a Number of Cannon, which it’s supposed are Mounted by this time. I am happy to find that steps I have ventured to take are agreeable to the Wishes of your Honorable Body. The Enemy’s Fort, I think, might have been taken, but not without the loss of many of our Men, their Situation is very advantageous, & no way to Attack them, but by exposing most of the Troops to their Fire upon a large open Marsh….

Colo. Robert Howe [of North Carolina]…informs me [by express] that I might expect 400 to 500 Men with some Cannon & Ammunition at this place tonight, & that they had 900 men at different places in Motion to Join us…. We are now making the Necessary preparations to raise Batterys for these Cannon upon the most Advantageous ground to play upon their Fort, & sent a large detachment at the same time to intercept their Retreat….

Our small Stock of Ammunition will be soon expended, & I must request another Supply, an Additional Blanket to each Soldier would be very Necessary, if to be had. The Men are tolerably well at present, but the dampness of the Ground, without straw (which is not to be had) must soon lay many of them up, & Houses that are tolerable safe from the Enemy Cannon, can only be procurred for a few.

Colonel William Woodford to Edmund Pendleton, 5 December 1775

Soldier of the 2d Virginia Regiment, 1775

After my letter of Yesterday, I received an Acct. from Capt. Taliaferro that the Boat intended for him to cross in could not be got off ’till day light, & he desired my further Instructions. I had sent Capt. Nicholas with 42 Men to reinforce Taliaferro & on Receipt of his letter, order’d Lt. Colo. Stevens to take the Command of the Whole. They crossed about Midd Night, & got to the Enemys Centinals without being discover’d. One of them Challenged & not being Answer’d, Fired at our party, the fire was returned by our Men, & an over Eagerness at first, & rather a backwardness afterwards, occation’d some confusion, & prevented the Colonel’s. plan from being so well executed as he intended, however, he Fired their Fortification & House, in which one Negro perished, Killed one dead upon the Spott, & took two others Prisoners. This party (consisting of 26 Blacks & 9 Whites) escaped under cover of the Night.

This Country between this & Suffolk is so exposed to several Water Courses, that there will be an Absolute Necessity to Establish two or three posts upon the Road, as the Inhabitants are all Tories & when the Fort over the Bridge is reduced, a strong party must guard this Important pass. All these reasons induce me to advice what I recommended Yesterday, some 4 lb Shott with 3 or 4 of the best Mounted Cannon of that size.

The want of…Shoes begins to be severly felt by some, & will shortly be so by the Whole, unless a Speedy supply arrives…. The bearer brings you one of the Balls taken out of the Cartridges found upon the Negro Prisoners. As they are extreemly well made & no doubt by some of the Non comd. Officers of the Regulars…. This Horrid preparation was made for the Flesh of our Countrymen, the others are prepared in the same Manner…. I have never suff’d a Soldier of mine to do a thing of this kind.

Colonel William Woodford to the Virginia Convention, 6 December 1775

The Fort over the Bridge was reinforced last Night with about 90 Men, & they seem very Busy at Work. No news of the Carolina Cannon yet. By the Firing at our Boat guard I expect the Enemy have taken post there again, when well inform’d of their Situation & Numbers, I shall endeavour to surprise them again.

Colonel William Woodford to Colonel Patrick Henry, 7 December 1775

The enemy are strongly fortified on the other side of the bridge, and a great number of negroes and tories with them; my prisoners disagree as to the numbers. We are situated here in mud and mire, exposed to every hardship that can be conceived, but the want of provisions, of which our stock is but small, the men suffering for shoes, and if ever soldiers deserved a second blanket in any service, they do in this; our stock of ammunition much reduced, no bullet moulds that were good for any thing sent to run up our lead, till those sent the other day by Mr. Page. If these necessaries and better arms had been furnished in time for this detachment, they might have prevented much trouble and great expense to this colony. Most of those arms I received the other day from Williamsburg, are rather to be considered as lumber, than fit to be put in men’s hands, in the face of any enemy. With much repair, some of them will do; with those, and what I have taken from the enemy, I hope to be better armed in a few days.

Colonel Woodford to the Virginia Convention, 7 December 1775

I have the pleasure to inform you that my detachment last Night under the Command of Lieut. Colo. Scott beat up the Quarters of the Enemys other party, who I inform’d you had again taken post opposite our Boat Guard. They Killed one White Man & three Negros, took three of the Latter Prisoners, two of Which are Wounded (one Mortally) with six muskets & 3 Bayonetts. The Colo. unluckily fell in with a Cart coming from Norfolk, guarded by four Men, some distance from the Enemy’s post, who Fired upon our party & Alarm’d them, otherways there is no doubt most of their Men would have fallen into our Hands. Their Number 70. Col. Scott’s party 150, who all escaped unhurt, one Man only was grazed by a Ball in the Thumb.

The Battle of Great Bridge

Colonel William Woodford to the Virginia Convention Great Bridge, 9 December 1775

The Enemy were reinforced about three Oclock this Morning with (as they tell me) every Soldier of the 14th Regt. at Norfolk, amounting to 200 Commanded by Capt. Leslie, & this Morning after Revelle Beating crossed the Bridge by laying down some plank, & made an Attempt to Force our breast Work, the prisoners say the Whole Numbers amounted to 500 with Volunteers & Blacks, with two pieces of Cannon but none Marched up but his Majestys Soldiers, who behaved like English Men. We have found their Dead, Capt. Fordice & 12 privates, and have Lieut. Batut Wounded in the Leg & 17 privates prisoners all Wounded. They carried their Cannon back under Cover of the Guns of the Fort, & a Number of their Dead. I should Suppose…their Loss must be upwards of 50. Some powder & Catridges were taken…. There has been no Firing since [a flag of truce allowed the British to collect their dead and wounded]. We are now under Arms expecting another Attack.

Letter from a Midshipman on Board HM Sloop Otter, 9 December, 1775

Our troops, with about sixty Townsmen from Norfolk, and a detachment of Sailors from the ships, among whom I had the honour to march, set out from Norfolk to attack once more the Rebels at the great bridge, who had been lodged there some time, and had erected a breast-work opposite to our fort on their side of the river. We arrived at the Fort half an hour after three in the morning, and, after refreshing ourselves, prepared to attack the Rebels in their entrenchment.

We marched up to their works with the intrepidity of lions. But, alas! We retreated with much fewer brave fellows than we took out. Their fire was so heavy, that, had we not retreated as we did, we should every one have been cut off. Figure to yourself a strong breast-work built across a causeway, on which six men only could advance a-breast; a large swamp almost surrounding them, at the back of which were two small breast-works to flank us in our attack on their intrenchments. Under these disadvantages it was impossible to succeed; yet our men were so enraged, that all the intreaties, and…threats of their Officers could [not convince] them to retreat; which at last they did…We had sixty killed, wounded, and taken prisoner.

Major Alexander Spotswood, Purdie’s Virginia Gazette, 15 December 1775

We were alarmed this morning by the firing of some guns just after reveille beating, which as the enemy had paid us this compliment several times before, we at first concluded to be nothing but a morning salute; but, in a short time after, I heard adjutant Blackburn call out, “Boys, stand to your arms.” Col. Woodford and myself immediately got equipped, and ran out. The colonel pressed down to the breastwork, in our front; and my alarm post being 250 yards in another quarter, I ran to it as fast as I could, and by the time I had made all ready for engaging, a very heavy fire ensued at the breastwork, in which were not more than 60 men. It continued for about half an hour, when the king’s troops gave way, after sustaining considerable loss, and behaving like true-born Englishmen. They marched up to our intrenchments with fixed bayonets; our young troops received them with firmness, and behaved as well as it was possible for soldiers to do. Capt. Fordyce, of the grenadiers, led the van with his company, and lieutenant Batut commanded the advance party. The former got killed within a few yards of the breastwork, with 12 privates. The lieutenant, with 16 soldiers, were taken prisoner, all wounded. Several others were carried into the fort, under cover of their cannon; and from the blood on the bridge, they must have lost one half of their detachment. It would appear that providence was on our side, for, during the whole engagement, we lost not a man, and only one was slightly wounded, in the hand….

Colonel William Woodford to the Virginia Convention, 10 December 1775

John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore

John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore

I must apologize for the hurry in which I wrote you Yesterday; since which nothing of moment has happened, but the abandoning of the Fort by the Enemy; We have taken Possession of it this morning.

From the vast effusion of blood on the bridge & in the Fort, from the Accounts of the Centries who saw many bodies carried out of the Fort to be interd, & other circumstances I conceive their loss to be much greater than I thought it yesterday, & the victory to be complete…. I have dispatched scouting Parties, & from their intelligence I shall regulate my future operations.

I am just informed by Lieut Batut that a Servant of Majr. Marshall who was in the party with Colo. Scott & deserted informed Lord Dunmore that not more than 300 Shirtmen were here; that imprudent Man caught at the bait & dispatched Capt. Leslie with all the Regulars who arrived at the Fort about 4 in the morng.

Colonel William Woodford to Edmund Pendleton, 10 December 1775

A servant belonging to major [Thomas] Marshal, who deserted the other night from col. Charles Scott’s party, has completely taken his lordship in. Lieutenant Batut, [of Britain’s 14th Regiment], who is wounded, and at present my prisoner, informs, that this fellow told them not more than 300 shirtmen were here; and that [Dunmore took] the bait, dispatching capt. Leslie with all the regulars (about 200) who arrived at the bridge about 3 o’clock in the morning, joined [by] about 300 black and white slaves, laid planks upon the bridge, and crossed just after our reveille had beat…capt. Fordyce of the grenadiers led the [attack] with his company, who, for coolness and bravery, deserved a better fate, as well as the brave fellows who fell with him, who behaved like heroes. They marched up to our breastwork with fixed bayonets, and perhaps a hotter fire never happened, or a greater carnage, for the number of troops. None of the blacks etc. in the rear, with capt. Leslie, advanced farther than the bridge. This was a second Bunker’s Hill affair, in miniature; with this difference, that we kept our post, and had only one man wounded in the hand.


Following the Battle of Great Bridge, Woodford’s letters were reprinted in Purdie’s Virginia Gazette on 15 December 1775 stating that they had captured: “35 stands of arms and accoutrements, 3 officers [fusils], powder, ball and cartridges, with sundry other things, have likewise fallen into our hands.”, as well as Dixon and Hunter’s Virginia Gazette on 16 December 1775:  “I must apologize for the hurry in which I wrote you yesterday, since which nothing of a moment has happened but the abandoning of the fort by the enemy. We have taken possession of it this morning, and found therein the stores mentioned in the enclosed list, to wit, 7 guns 4 of them sorry, 1 bayonet…Enclosed is an inventory of the arms, &c. taken yesterday, to wit, 2 silver mounted [fusils] with bayonets, 1 steel do. without bayonet, 24 well fixed muskets with bayonets, 6 muskets without bayonets, 28 cartridge boxes with pouches; 3 silver mounted cartridge boxes…26 bayonet belts…The arms I shall retain for the use of the army.”

Third Virginia Convention: July 17, 1775

On July 17, 1775 the Third Virginia Convention met in St. John’s Church in Richmond after Lord Dunmore had fled the capital.

There the representatives denounced the actions that the royal governor had taken against Virginia, including disbanding the assembly and mobilizing troops. When the governor fled to the sanctuary of an English ship, the convention became the governing force of Virginia. The delegates enacted legislation and established a Committee of Safety to direct military activities, dividing Virginia into 16 military districts and resolved to raise regular regiments.

The 2d Virginia Regiment was authorized by the Virginia Convention for the Commonwealth’s defense. It consisted of seven companies, 476 privates and the usual regimental officers. William Woodford of Caroline County was named colonel, along with Lieutenant Colonel Charles Scott and Major Alexander Spotswood were the regiment’s initial field officers. Virginia had been divided into sixteen military districts which took their name from the predominant county in the grouping.  These initial seven companies (six armed with muskets and one with rifles) would be raised from Prince William, Hanover, Westmoreland, Caroline, Amelia, Southhampton and Frederick Districts, and:

That the soldiers to be enlisted shall, at the expense of the publick, be furnished each with one good musket and bayonet, cartouch box, or pouch, and canteen; and, until such musket can be provided, that they bring with each of them the best gun, of any other sort, that can be procured; and that such as are to act as rifle-men bring with them each one good rifle, to be approved by their captain, for the use of which he shall be allowed at the rate of twenty shillings a year; that each common soldier, not already sufficiently provided, in the opinion of his commanding-officer, shall be furnished with sufficient clothing, at the expense of the publick, to be deducted out of his pay.

An ordinance for raising and embodying a sufficient force, for the defense and protection of this colony.

WHEREAS it is found necessary, in the present time of danger, that a number of forces should be immediately raised, and that the militia should be settled under proper arrangements, and be thoroughly disciplined, for the better protection and defence of the country against invasions and insurrections:

Be it therefore ordained, by the delegates and representatives of the several counties and corporations within the colony and dominion of Virginia, now assembled in general convention, and it is hereby ordained by the authority of the same, That there shall be forthwith raised, and taken into the pay of this colony, from the time of their enlistment, two regiments complete, to consist of one thousand and twenty privates, rank and file: Five hundred and forty four of whom to be the first regiment, under the command of a colonel, lieutenant-colonel, and a major, eight captains, sixteen lieutenants, eight ensigns, twenty four serjeants, eight drummers, and eight fifers; and the second regiment to consist of four hundred and seventy six, under the command of a colonel, lieutenant-colonel, major, seven captains, fourteen lieutenants, seven ensigns, twenty one serjeants, seven drummers, and seven fifers; to each of which regiments there shall be allowed a chaplain, a paymaster (who is also to act as muster-master) an adjutant, quarter-master, one surgeon, two surgeons mates, and a serjeant-major.

And for the better and more orderly appointment of the officers, Be it farther ordained, That the several field-officers shall from time to time be appointed, or approved, by the general convention of delegates; that the deputies of each district herein after described, excepting the counties of Accomack and Northampton, shall appoint one captain, two lieutenants, and one ensign, to command the company of men to be raised in each district; that the chaplain to each regiment be appointed by the field-offices and captains of such regiment; that the adjutant, quarter-master, and serjeant-major, be appointed by the commanding-officer of the regiment, the surgeon by the field-officers and captains, and the surgeons mates by the surgeon himself, with the approbation of the commanding officer of the regiment.

And be it farther ordained, That the commanding officer of the first regiment shall be allowed a secretary, to be appointed by him, who shall be allowed four shillings a day for his services.

And that the levy of the soldiers may be made general throughout the colony, and the better to avoid irregularity and confusion, Be it farther ordained, That the deputies of each district, except the counties of Accomack and Northampton, having appointed one captain, two lieutenants, and one ensign, as aforesaid,the said officers shall proceed, with the utmost expedition, to enlist within their respective districts their several companies, which are to consist of sixty eight men each; but the said officers shall not go into any other district to complete their company, until the officers in such other district have made up their company, nor, in that case, without the permission, in writing, of the committee of the county first had and obtained.

And as well to prevent the enlistment of such men as are unfit for service, as to fix the rank of such officers, Be it farther ordained, That the deputies of each district shall appoint one certain place of rendezvous within their district, whither the captain of each company, as soon as it is complete, shall resort with his men, and shall give immediate notice thereof to the chairman of the committee of deputies, who is required forthwith to summon all the members of the said committee, who, or a majority of them, being present, shall either proceed themselves to review the said company, or appoint any number of their members, not under three, for that purpose: And if it shall appear to such committee of deputies that the company is complete, of able and proper men, and that they have been regularly enlisted, according to the terms and regulations prescribed by this ordinance, the said deputies shall order and direct the captain immediately to march with his company to the place of general rendezvous, hereafter to be appointed, and, moreover, shall grant to the said captain a certificate of the day when the said company first appeared complete, at the particular place of rendezvous in the district; which certificate being produced to the general committee of safety, the said committee shall cause the same to be entered in a book to be kept for that purpose, and shall cause the like certificates, from all the other district committees, to be entered in the same manner: And when all such certificates shall be returned, the same committee of safety, or the majority of those present, shall, and they are hereby required, to grant commissions, under their hands, to the officers of the several companies, according to their several appointments, fixing their ranks of seniority and precedence according to the priority of the completion of their several companies, certified as aforesaid; and if it shall appear, upon the examination of such certificates, that two or more of the companies appeared at the district rendezvous on the same day, the said committee of safety shall, in such case, determine the right of seniority and precedence amongst the several officers, by a fair and impartial ballot.

And be it farther ordained, That in case any vacancies shall happen, by deaths or otherwise, amongst the commissioned officers, the same shall be supplied, from time to time, by regular succession, in course of seniority, in the respective regiments and companies; and in case of a defect of officers to supply such succession, the commanding-officer of the regiment shall appoint the most proper person, in his opinion, to supply such vacancy, to be approved by the committee of safety.

And that the companies may be kept complete from time to time, Be it farther ordained, That if vacancies should happen among the private men, the commanding-officer of the regiment shall supply the same by new recruits, in the best and most expeditious manner he may be able.

And be it farther ordained, That the soldiers to be raised shall be enlisted on the terms following, to wit: That they shall continue in the service of the publick so long as may be judged necessary by the general convention, but not be compelled to continue more than one year, provided any soldier, or soldiers, do give the commanding-officer three months previous notice, in writing, of his or their desire to be discharged at the end of such period; and if it shall be judged necessary to disband the army before the expiration of twelve months, that each soldier discharged within that time shall be entitled to, and shall receive, six weeks pay in advance. That the pay of each captain, lieutenant, and ensign, shall commence the days of their appointment by the district committees; of the chaplain, and all the subaltern officers, on the days of their repective appointments; of the common soldiers, on the days of their enlisting; and that the pay of the several field and staff officers shall commence on the day of their being called into duty by the general committee of safety; and that the several recruiting officers may advance to each soldier, upon his enlisting, any sum he may think necessary, not exceeding one month’s pay.

Provided always, That no recruiting officer shall be allowed to enlist into the service any servant whatsoever, unless he be an apprentice, bound under the laws of this colony, nor any such apprentice, unless the consent of his master be first had in writing.

And be it farther ordained, That the soldiers to be enlisted shall, at the expense of the publick, be furnished each with one good musket and bayonet, cartouch box, or pouch, and canteen; and, until such musket can be provided, that they bring with each of them the best gun, of any other sort, that can be procured; and that such as are to act as rifle-men bring with them each one good rifle, to be approved by their captain, for the use of which he shall be allowed at the rate of twenty shillings a year; that each common soldier, not already sufficiently provided, in the opinion of his commanding-officer, shall be furnished with sufficient clothing, at the expense of the publick, to be deducted out of his pay.

And be it farther ordained, That the companies to be raised in the districts of Pittsylvania, Fincastle, Bedford, and Botetourt, and of Berkeley, Frederick, Dunmore, and Hampshire, Augusta, Albemarle, Buckingham, and Amherst, Culpeper, Fauquier, and Orange, shall consist of expert rifle-men; and shall be, by the committee to safety, allotted two to each regiment, to be employed as light infantry.

And be it farther ordained, That proper medicine chests, and necessary surgeons instruments, be provided at the expense of the publick.

And for the better protection and defence of the inhabitants on the frontiers of this colony, Be it farther ordained, by the authority aforesaid, That there shall be appointed and raised, exclusive of the regiments before-mentioned, two companies, consisting each of one captain, three lieutenants, one ensign, four serjeants, two drummers, and two fifers, and one hundred men rank and file, to be stationed at Pittsburg; of which the company ordered by this convention to garrison fort Pitt, under the command of captain John Neavill, shall be one; also one other company, consisting of a lieutenant, and twenty five privates, to be stationed at fort Fincastle, at the mouth of Weeling; the other company of one hundred men, and the twenty five men to be raised in West Augusta, also one other company, consisting of one captain, three lieutenants, one ensign, four serjeants, two drummers, and two fifers, and one hundred privates, to be raised in the county of Botetourt, and stationed at Point Pleasant, at the mouth of the great Kanawah; and one other company, consisting of the same number of officers and men as the last, to be raised in the county of Fincastle, and stationed at such posts as may, from time to time, be ordered and directed by the committee of that county.

And be it farther ordained, That the committees of the district of West Augusta, and of the counties of Botetourt and Fincastle, shall appoint the officers to the men in each to be raised; and the several companies last mentioned shall be enlisted in the same manner, and under the same regulations, as are before prescribed for the regiments, except that such companies are not to march to the general rendezvous which may be appointed for the said regiments.

And be it farther ordained, That the commanding-officers to be stationed at Point Pleasant, and Fort Fincastle, shall be under the direction of, and subject to, such orders as they may from time to time receive from the commanding officer at Fort Pitt.

And for settling the pay of the officers and soldiers to be appointed and levied as before directed, the same is declared to be as followeth, to wit: To a colonel, twenty five shillings per day; lieutenant-colonels, twelve shillings and sixpence; to a major, ten shillings; a captain, six shillings; a lieutenant, four shillings; an ensign, three shillings; chaplain, ten shillings, and adjutant, holding no other office, six shillings; if in other office, three shillings; to a quarter-master, holding, or not holding, any other office, the same as to an adjutant; to a serjeant-major, to be appointed from amongst the most expert serjeants, by the commanding-officer of the regiment, two shillings and sixpence; to a serjeant, two shillings; a corporal, drummer, and fifer, each one shilling and eightpence; to each private soldier, one shilling and four pence; to a surgeon, ten shillings; and to a surgeon’s mate, five shillings per day.

And be it farther ordained, That every commissioned and staff officer shall be allowed a tent, and every two serjeants shall have the same allowance, and every two corporals the same; and that for every six private men there shall be provided a proper and sufficient tent; and that one bell tent for each company shall also be provided, at the public expense.

And for the greater encouragement and farther promotion of the service, Be it ordained, That if any person enlisted by virtue of this ordinance shall be so maimed or disabled at to be rendered incapable of maintaining himself, he shall, upon his discharge, be supported at the expense of the publick.

And to the end that the forces to be raised may be well and speedily supplied with waggons, tents, bedding, arms, accoutrements, clothes, provisions, and all other necessaries, Be it farther ordained, That the committee of safety shall, and they are hereby required, to appoint some fit person, or persons, to provide arms and accoutrements, clothes, waggons, tents, and bedding, upon the best and cheapest terms, and also to appoint one or more commissaries or contractors; who are hereby required to use all possible despatch in purchasing such provisions as shall be necessary for the army, and in laying of the same in such convenient place, or places, as may best suit their different stations and marches.

And for the more regular pay of the army, the said committee of safety shall appoint one or more paymasters; and it shall and may be lawful for the said committee, from time to time, to issue their warrants to the treasurer, appointed by or pursuant to an ordinance of this convention, for the paying the several recruiting officers, commissioners, commissaries, or contractors, and paymasters, by them appointed; and to all expresses, and other persons by them employed in lesser services, so much money as the said committee shall judge necessary for their several purposes, taking proper security for the due disbursement and application thereof, and making a proper and reasonable allowance to the several persons so to be appointed for their trouble and expenses in conducting either branch of business to him or them assigned. And the said committee shall have full power and authority to displace and remove from his office any person so by them appointed, either for misconduct or neglect of duty. And the said treasurer is hereby required to pay all such sums as he may be directed by such warrant, out of the publick money in his hands.

And be it farther ordained, That the said committee of safety shall have full power and authority, at such times and places as they may think convenient and necessary, to call all persons, who may receive any publick money for carrying into execution the purposes of this ordinance, to a strict account; and upon examining their accounts, and finding them justly stated, to certify the same, and, if necessary, to give proper acquittals and discharges.

And whereas it may be necessary, for the public security, that the forces to be raised by virtue of this ordinance should, as occasion may require, be marched to different parts of the colony, and that the officers should be subject to a proper controul, Be it ordained, by the authority aforesaid, That the offices and soldiers under such command, shall in all things, not otherwise particularly provided for by this ordinance, and the articles established for their regulation, be under the control, and subject to the order, of the general committee of safety.

And be it farther ordained, That the exercise to be performed throughout the several battalions and companies shall be that recommended by his majesty in the Year 1764.

The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia From the First Session of the Legislature in the Year 1619 by William Waller Hening

Recommended Reading: Battle History of the 2d Virginia Regiment

Battle of Great Bridge

Philadelphia Campaign

Paulus Hook


Guilford Courthouse (Hawes’ 2d Virginia Regiment of 1781)