We left off last week with the British army in Virginia under General Charles Cornwallis. After linking up with the army under William Phillips and Benedict Arnold, Cornwallis had an army of about 7000 men under his command.
He began a series of raids across Virginia, including the raid on Governor Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello. Then, near the end of June, Cornwallis received orders from General Henry Clinton to withdraw back to the coast, to send half his army back to New York, and to cease all offensive operations in Virginia.
With the appearance that the British army was on the verge of taking control of Virginia, this may sound like a bizarre change of plans. Certainly to General Cornwallis, it was frustrating and confusing. So we need to take a step back and look at this from the perspective of General Clinton in New York.
Clinton War Plans
General Clinton had taken command of the British forces in America following General Howe’s recall in 1778. This coincided with France’s entry into the war, resulting in London recalling much of the army in America to other parts of the empire. British Secretary of State, George Germain, ordered Clinton to evacuate Philadelphia and to consolidate the army at New York. This was done to free up the army and navy for actions elsewhere in the world.
Clinton spent the next few years trying to get more soldiers to go back on the offensive, but with little luck. He mostly focused on the South, taking Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina. After the British capture of Charleston in the spring of 1780, Clinton returned to New York, leaving General Cornwallis in charge of the south. Clinton told Cornwallis that his primary mission was to secure South Carolina and Georgia, leaving open the possibility of moving the war into North Carolina only once he had secured those southern colonies.
|Gen. Henry Clinton|
Clinton expected Cornwallis to focus on the pacification of South Carolina. This would ensure British control of South Carolina, Georgia, and East Florida. A strong British presence in South Carolina would encourage loyalists to turn out and support the king, ending the war there. Then, and only then, did Cornwallis have the option to move north into North Carolina.
Of course, Cornwallis moved into North Carolina while South Carolina was still very much in play. By taking British attention away from South Carolina, Cornwallis had allowed the local patriot militia to continue their contest there, and prevent many loyalists from turning out. Loyalists were reluctant to join with the British army if they were not certain the British army was there to stay. The knew that once the British army left, they and their property was subject to the wrath of the patriots.
So by leaving South Carolina for North Carolina and eventually Virginia, Cornwallis had undermined Clinton’s plans to secure South Carolina for Britain. Cornwallis had not bothered to keep his commander in New York apprised of his actions. Clinton did not receive any reports from Cornwallis for months in 1781. Instead, Cornwallis was sending reports directly to Germain in London.
Clinton had considered Cornwallis a backstabber, ever since the time in 1776 that Cornwallis reported to then-General Howe some things that Clinton had said about Howe in a fit of pique. With Cornwallis communicating directly with Germain, he was once again undermining Clinton.
Clinton certainly had an interest in Virginia. He had first deployed General Alexander Leslie there in 1780, then General Arnold, and then General Phillips. But Clinton had never planned to secure Virginia under British rule. The point of these deployments was to disrupt Virginia from sending soldiers and supplies to support the war effort in the Carolinas. These efforts were supposed to relieve the pressure on Cornwallis as he focused on the destruction of Nathanael Greene’s Continentals and the local militia.
When General Phillips had some success in Virginia, he and Clinton discussed the idea of defeating the small army under Lafayette, then moving into Maryland, and possibly launching some new raids on Philadelphia. Much of this, however, was simply to distract the enemy so that Cornwallis could continue his work to pacify the Carolinas.
After learning that Cornwallis had abandoned the Carolinas and moved into Virginia, none of this made much sense. What was the point of raids in Maryland and Pennsylvania to distract the enemy in the south, if the British were no longer fighting in the South?
At this point, Clinton seemed not to know what to do next. For a time, he considered going forward with the raids into Maryland and Pennsylvania with Cornwallis. But Cornwallis opposed that and wanted to focus on Virginia. Some of the news coming out of the south indicated that things there were not as chaotic as feared. Lord Rawdon’s victory at Hobkirk Hill gave the British leadership hope that the south could remain secure even in Cornwallis’ absence.
Clinton was also concerned about his own position in New York. He still had a French Army at Newport Rhode Island under General Rochambeau, along with the main Continental Army under General Washington, in Northern New Jersey. If Clinton sent too much of his army to assist Cornwallis, he risked being attacked and losing New York, especially if the navy did not provide backing. In July, 1781, Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot had resigned his command and returned to Britain. The new commander, Admiral Thomas Graves, did not get along particularly well with General Clinton. Further, Clinton had intelligence that a new French fleet under Admiral DeGrasse was sailing for America, destination unknown. Clinton feared that it could be part of an effort to capture New York.
The potential threat to New York is what caused Clinton to recall about half of Cornwallis’ army in Virginia. Clinton believed Cornwallis would still have enough men to deal with the small Continental army in Virginia under Lafayette, and would give the British in New York more reinforcements if the French and Americans attacked there. Clinton’s spies had reported to him that Washington and Rochambeau had met and conferred on just such a plan a few weeks earlier.
In mid-June, Clinton wrote out orders for Cornwallis to take a more defensive posture in Virginia, and to send half of his army to New York. Cornwallis received these letters a few weeks later, near the end of June.
Anthony Wayne to Virginia
Meanwhile the Continentals had been caught off guard by how weak Virginia’s defenses really were. General Washington had initially deployed Lafayette to Virginia to take on Benedict Arnold’s small army. The enemy army grew to over 7000 with the arrival of armies under General Phillips and Cornwallis. Lafayette knew he would have no chance in a battle and withdrew his men north and west to avoid a confrontation.
Washington provided some additional support by sending General Anthony Wayne with about 800 soldiers for the Pennsylvania line to join Lafayette in Virginia. Wayne had been fighting under Washington for several years, and had a reputation as an aggressive warrior who would go after the enemy.
Wayne commanded the Pennsylvania line. These were the same soldiers who had mutinied in January. Although a political compromise had brought the men back into service without punishment, Wayne knew he might still have problems.
The Pennsylvania soldiers grumbled about having to bail out Virginia when it was well known that Virginia had never come close to meeting its enlistment obligations for the Continental Army and didn’t seem to want to turn out to defend itself. Pennsylvanians, who had seen years of war, considered it appropriate that the Virginians dig themselves out of the current British attack.
More significantly, the soldiers had not been paid for months. Despite promises made after the January mutiny the men remained without basics. This led to a refusal to march to Virginia until their demands were met. The Army stopped at York, Pennsylvania and would not move south.
Wayne was in no mood to compromise again with the Pennsylvania line. He took pretty decisive action. He determined twelve of the leaders of the current delay. He held immediate court martials of all twelve men. Seven of the men were shot by firing squad. One was not killed in the volley and was ordered bayoneted to death. General Wayne literally had to put a pistol to the executioner’s head before he would finish the job of bayonetting this man to death. Wayne ordered the remaining five ringleaders hanged. All of them were buried and Wayne ordered the army to continue its march to Virginia.
This got the army on the move again, but the men marched slowly, only eight or nine miles per day. Wayne also had to keep his men under guard, lest they try to desert, and he even confiscate all ammunition from his soldiers, lest they fire on their own officers.
Wayne’s army crossed into Virginia in early June, and linked up with Lafayette about a week later. By that time, the British raid on Charlottesville was over, and Cornwallis was slowly withdrawing his forces back towards Williamsburg.
Cobbling Together an Army
Even after Lafayette and Wayne came together, the combined Continental Army consisted of less than 2000 soldiers. Lafayette was also taking heavy criticism from the Virginia legislature for failing to engage with the British before Wayne’s arrival, allowing them to take Richmond and raid Charlottesville, among other places throughout the state.
Nevermind that the British under Cornwallis had an army of between 7000 and 8000 soldiers and that the Virginia militia had refused to turn out in numbers that were anything close to challenge the invaders.
That finally began to change. When the legislature met in June, they chose militia General Thomas Nelson to serve as the new governor. They gave Nelson near dictatorial powers. They also passed laws that allowed for the confiscation of property for men opposing the turnout of the militia, and the death penalty for deserters. They also guaranteed militia the same pay as Continental soldiers, and reduced militia terms from three months to two months. These moves finally encouraged many locals to turn out for militia duty.
Also, the 450 Virginia Continentals under General Von Steuben also returned. Their commander remained in North Carolina, on a sick bed. Steuben had been following his orders to link up with General Greene in South Carolina, before receiving counter-orders to return to Virginia. Steuben sent his army back to Virginia, while he personally remained in North Carolina to recuperate.
The result was that Lafayette was able to gather a combined army that was much larger. Estimates differ on the actual size. I’ve seen estimates ranging from 4000 to 5500 men. It was still smaller than the enemy army under Cornwallis, but respectable enough to put up a fight. Lafayette gave Wayne command of the advance force of the army to dog the rear of the British withdrawal.
While it was clear that Cornwallis was already pulling back at a leisurely pace, Lafayette at least wanted to make it appear that the Continentals were forcing the withdrawal.
Battle of Green Spring
By the end of June, Cornwallis had reached Williamsburg and had received Clinton’s requests to send 3000 soldiers back to New York. The British leadership was still debating whether to use Portsmouth or Yorktown as its base of operations. Because Yorktown did not have defenses yet, and because Cornwallis was about to lose half of his army to a deployment in New York, he chose to move to Portsmouth.
|Lafayette's Map of Green Spring|
General Wayne marched his advance force of about 900 Continentals toward the British rearguard. Lafayette personally joined Wayne’s advance force to scout out the enemy, even though the main Continental Army and militia were still miles back from the advance force.
Cornwallis had begun moving his army across the James River, using the Jamestown Ferry, just southwest of Williamsburg. On the morning of July 6, Wayne marched his advance force toward the Ferry, hoping to attack the British rearguard before the entire army could cross the river.
The American advance encountered British pickets early that afternoon at the Green Spring Plantation, about five miles west of Williamsburg and about two miles north of the Jamestown Ferry.
Wayne deployed his men, consisting of about 500 men of the Pennsylvania line, about 200 riflemen, and a few light artillery pieces to attack the British rearguard. He held a couple of hundred men in reserve, with the main army still several hours’ march behind them. Meanwhile Lafayette rode down to the James River to get a better view of the battle.
Wayne’s advance pushed back the British pickets and pushed forward to harass the enemy rear. Meanwhile, Lafayette got into position to observe the enemy. He saw lines of redcoats in the swamps near where Wayne was approaching. He realized immediately it’s-a-trap! Cornwallis had only sent his baggage across the river. He still had his entire army of over 7000 men hidden in position to take on Wayne’s advance force of about 700.
Lafayette, however, was too far away from Wayne to give him any warning. Around 5PM, Wayne’s line seized an abandoned British cannon on the road. That was the signal for the British attack. British artillery opened up on Wayne’s line with canister and grapeshot, followed by a bayonet charge by infantry.
Wayne feared that a withdrawal would turn into a route much like the Paoli Massacre, where his men would be run down and slaughtered. Rather than retreat, Wayne ordered his own artillery to fire, then ordered his own men to charge into the superior British lines. This act of bravado caught the British by surprise, and halted the British advance. General Cornwallis then personally led a new British charge into the American lines, finally forcing the American withdrawal.
By this time Lafayette had caught up to Wayne’s forces, only to have his horse shot out from under him. The Americans withdrew, losing two of their field cannons. British reports indicate the loss of 5 officers and 70 men, while Lafayette reported losing about 140.
The following morning, Cornwallis began really ferrying his army across the river. Banastre Tarleton scouted the enemy camp about six miles away, and recommended an attack. But Cornwallis had already been to this party. He knew that the Americans would likely just withdraw further upriver and avoid a battle. Cornwallis had already sent his baggage to Portsmouth, and had no desire to start chasing the Continentals back across Virginia.
Cornwallis was correct that Lafayette was in no mood for another battle. He withdrew most of his army back to Richmond. Wayne’s forces established themselves at Westover.
Lafayette was critical of Wayne’s charge into a superior enemy. Other generals, inducing General Muhlenberg who had been with the main army in Virginia also called Wayne’s charge impetuous. The public, however, seemed enthralled by the bravado. The New Jersey Gazette referred to him as “Mad Anthony” for his action.
Lafayette also received praise from Virginians for forcing the British back to the coast. He had to release most of his militia to return home, thus shrinking his available army back to under 2000 Continentals and only a handful of militia.
Cornwallis unleashed Tarleton for a few raids in August, but no more major offensives came from the British side. Meanwhile, Lafayette began writing to Washington about the lack of men, food, and equipment, and his desire to rejoin Washington in New Jersey.
Washington, however, ordered Lafayette to remain in Virginia, and keep the British bottled up if possible, until a larger force could come to Virginia and deal with them.
On July 8, with most of his army across the river and on their way to Portsmouth, Cornwallis received new orders from General Clinton. Clinton called off his early request to take 3000 soldiers back to New York, and instead suggested that Cornwallis use them to raid Philadelphia. They would join up with another force sent by Clinton from New York.
When Cornwallis arrived in Portsmouth a few days later, he received several more letters from Clinton, including one that Clinton had written in May disapproving of Cornwallis’ decision to leave the Carolinas and go to Virginia.
With the flurry of letters from Clinton, each of which seemed to describe a contradictory strategy, Cornwallis was unsure what to do. Part of the problem was that Secretary Germain had written to Clinton, telling him not to hamstring Cornwallis in Virginia. Germain thought Clinton was behaving too timidly and saw Cornwallis as an active general who was actually accomplishing things.
Cornwallis had opposed a suggested raid on Philadelphia in May, and still opposed it now. But since those were the most recent orders that he had received, he began making plans to put part of his army on transports, to move up the Chesapeake Bay, presumably landing near where General Howe had landed at Head of Elk years earlier on his advance on Philadelphia. On July 20, the first transport, carrying Colonel Simcoe’s Queen’s Rangers had boarded a transport. Then, another letter arrived from Clinton calling off the entire plan to raid Philadelphia. The following day, Cornwallis received another letter from Clinton telling him to secure a Chesapeake port for the British Navy. He told Cornwallis to use his discretion on whether he should keep his entire army for that purpose, or send half of them back to New York. In some ways, this seemed like a trap. If Cornwallis kept his entire army, and the Americans attacked New York, Clinton could blame Cornwallis for failing to send the requested reinforcements.
Cornwallis opted to keep his entire army, and chose to build his naval port at Yorktown rather than Portsmouth. The location was more defensible, and would give his army more opportunities to forage for food in the area around Williamsburg. Having his entire army would give him the workforce necessary to build the necessary defenses.
Cornwallis spent a hot August destroying and evacuating the British base at Portsmouth and digging new defenses at Yorktown.
Next Week, we head up to New York to take a closer look at Washington’s plans to attack the British in Manhattan.
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Next Episode 290 (Available November 29, 2023)
Previous Episode 288 Raid on Monticello
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(from archive.org unless noted)
Eckenrode, H.J. The Revolution in Virginia, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1916.
Harrell, Isaac Samuel Loyalism in Virginia; chapters in the economic history of the Revolution, New York, AMS Press, 1965.
Johnston, Henry P. The Yorktown Campaign and the surrender of Cornwallis, 1781, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1881.
Kapp Friedrich The Life of Frederick William Von Steuben, New York: Mason Bros. 1859.
Tarleton, Banastre A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America, London: T. Cadell 1787.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Cecere, Michael The Invasion of Virginia, 1781, Westholme Publishing, 2017.
Kranish, Michael Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War, Oxford Univ. Press, 2010.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.