“Madness!” The Battle of Green Spring, 1781

Last week marked the 235th anniversary of the Battle of Green Spring, which occurred near historic Jamestown in Virginia.  A couple months ago, historians form many different Civil War battlefield parks went to Jamestown, Virginia to get a tour of the Green Spring battlefield.  For many of these public historians, it was their first visit to the battlefield.  The battlefield is very sparsely marked, has no interpretative trail, no formal or regular tours and not usually given much thought.  However, with new initiatives like the Civil War Trust’s “Campaign 1776,” there has been a surge of Civil War historians looking to learn more about the War for Independence and the efforts to preserve its history and battlefields.

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NPS historians Kirby Smith and Chris Bryce along with representatives of James City County lead a tour at the Battle of Green Spring battlefield in May 2016.

The Battle of Green Spring, while it is a little known footnote in the history of the Revolutionary War, was the largest open field battle of that war in the state of Virginia.  The battle was fierce and bloody, and part of a chain of events that ultimately resulted in the George Washington’s victory at Yorktown.

On July 6, 1781, General Marquis de Lafayette was looking for an opportunity to catch General Charles Cornwallis’ army unaware.  Cornwallis and his army of nearly 7,000 troops was near Jamestown Island and was looking to cross the James River.  Lafayette with his much smaller army of only about 4,000 men was looking to attack and raise morale in the invaded state.  He wanted to wait until Cornwallis’ army was in the middle of crossing the river, with half his force on the opposite side, and then launch an attack on the much smaller and cut off force.

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This map shows where the battle occurred near the James River and you can see marked the battle lines of the British and American troops.  Historic Jamestown Island is at the bottom of the map.

Cornwallis, though was no fool and went about setting up a trap to deal with this annoying force of American troops that had been trailing him now for months.  He planned to lure Lafayette’s army into bringing on an engagement with his entire British force.  Lafayette took the bait.

On July 6, 1781, Lafayette sent forward his army in a column formation with General “Mad” Anthony Wayne’s Pennsylvania regiments and Virginia militia (about 900 men) in the van.  They began to engage British pickets on the road to Jamestown and pursued them towards the James River for a few miles, crossing over the 17th century Green Spring plantation.  Wayne’s men made it to the Harris farm at about 5:00 in the afternoon.  The 900 Pennsylvanians and Virginians were far in the advance of the rest of the American column when the British finally launched a withering counterattack on the heavily outnumbered American troops.

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General “Mad” Anthony Wayne led the vanguard of the American force.

At this point, rather than fall back, General Wayne, in a very unconventional and bold decision ordered his outnumbered force to fix bayonets and advance on the British line.  This advance momentarily stunned the British officers.  Did Wayne know something they did not?

For the next few minutes the British line and the American line stood about 50 yards apart  and fired volley after volley of musket fire into each other.  With an effective range of 80 yards, this part of the battle became the most intense and most bloody.  The skilled British regulars aimed low at the legs of the American.  This way, when the musket fired and kicked back, the musket ball would go slightly higher and hit the enemy in the body.  To have stood and fought in an open field at that range would have been an absolutely terrifying ordeal.  But there they stood and fought.  One contemporary later called it “Madness!”  Troops after the battle could actually tell how close the lines stood based on bodies of the men killed and the torn cartridge tops that littered the field.

After a few minutes of this close fighting, the American troops were forced to fall back quickly, leaving two cannon on the field.  The impromptu advance Wayne ordered though succeeded in stalling the British advance and allowing American reinforcements to cover their retreat.  Lafayette successfully disengaged and fell back that night.  Cornwallis chose not to give chase, and crossed successfully over the James River.

The battle was technically a British victory, but once again, as on many fields in the Revolution, the young American army had gone toe to toe and proved it was on par with British regulars.  Lafayette and the American press heralded the bravery of the American troops and viewed Cornwallis’ movement as a retreat.  Cornwallis would ultimately be forced to surrender that October at nearby Yorktown.

On July 6, 1781, the British suffered about 75 men killed and wounded and the American army suffered about 150 men killed and wounded.  The battle and the land it was fought on soon became forgotten.  Today, though, through the efforts of James City County, easements have been placed on much of the historic land and they and other organizations have bought and preserved much of the land where the fighting occurred.  Work continues to ensure the hallowed ground is preserved for the future.

However, the site contains very little interpretation, with really only a state historic marker.  Hopefully the site will get more attention in the coming years as an important historic site in a very historic area of Virginia.  Just this year there have been a few events to mark that bloody battle.

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New tombstone for an unknown Revolutionary War soldier that was recently buried at the Church on the Main in May 2016. (Photo by Drew Gruber)

A couple months ago, archaeologist Dr. Alan Outlaw led a re-internment ceremony for one of the Pennsylvania continentals that was killed in action at Green Spring.  His bones had been recovered over thirty years ago in the Harris farm.  After being studied by the Smithsonian Institution and being properly identified as one of the Pennsylvania continentals, he was re-interred with a proper Christian burial near the battlefield in the graveyard of the Church on the Main.

Also this past Saturday, the National Park Service and the Friends of Green Spring held a Revolutionary War living history program at the Green Spring Plantation about the retreat of the American troops and the aftermath of the battle.

Next time you find yourself in historic area of Williamsburg, Yorktown or Jamestown, make a trip out to the Green Spring battlefield or the Church on the Main and reflect on the sacrifices that occurred there to secure our independence.

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One Response to “Madness!” The Battle of Green Spring, 1781

  1. Eric Sterner says:

    Thanks for this piece. Very interesting. I’ve got a new place to go next time we’re in the region.

    Like

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